Monday night at the Rose Garden the Blazers showed a lot of things, but more than anything they showed that they probably shouldn’t be counted out, at least not yet. Yes they played pretty awful on their 1-2 road trip, the one win coming against what is now the worst team in NBA history, and who knows how they will fare when they head out on the road for the rest of this week and the beginning of the next week. But Monday night, they looked good. They looked almost great. Will it carry over? Who can say. Really, though, does it matter? I would say that at this point it probably doesn’t. This team has been up and down all year, and if we’re looking to ride the highs, there may not be one quite as high as Monday.
As fans we have a lot of people to thank for Monday night. Let’s start by thanking the NBA, commissioner David Stern, and everybody else that said LaMarcus Aldridge didn’t deserve to be an All-Star. For four and a half seasons Portland fans have been waiting for something to light a fire under LA and get him to play up to his potential. Maybe it was Brandon Roy going down, maybe it was some of the problems this team had early in the year, maybe it’s been all the injuries. Whatever it is LaMarcus has come to play over the last two and a half months. But it wasn’t enough for the league, and thank you for that. LA might have gotten comfortable scoring 25 a night if he had been selected to the All-Star game. With the snub, he now wants to go out and get 40 a night. We’ll take it.
We should also thank Andre Miller. Dre, who according to Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeu is one of the best point guards in the league, has not had the easiest of rides as a Blazer. Through it all he has come to play every night, except the one night he missed due to suspension. Never has Andre’s value been more evident than it was Monday night. Matched up against arguably the best young point guard in the league in Derrick Rose, Dre played one of his best games of the season. Andre dished 11 assists, scored 27 points, and grabbed 6 rebounds, hitting all 13 of his free throw attempts. Dre was cool and collected the whole night, and kept Portland’s offense humming. Every time the Bulls were slow to recover on defense Andre made them pay. Every time a Chicago big turned their head in the low block to watch the ball Andre made them pay. One of my favorite moments in the game came late in the fourth quarter. Portland was trying to get the ball up the floor, and Derrick Rose, All-Star starter, was face guarding Andre Miller, denying him the ball. NBA players pride themselves on ball defending, ball denial is reserved for only the best scorers in the league, Kobe Bryant, Brandon Roy, Ray Allen, even Derrick Rose. I’m not saying Andre Miller is in the category, but late Monday night, Chicago felt they needed to treat him that way.
We can also thank Rudy Fernandez and Nicolas Batum. Monday they both pitched in their fair share of the offense. It’s becoming incredibly clear that Nicolas Batum can be a knock down shooter, he just needs to not think about it. Every time he catches and doesn’t immediately shoot the ball he misses. Not every time, of course, but he is way better when he just lets it fly. Also, Nic coming off the high screen at the shoulder for a jumper is one of the best looking plays in the Blazers’ book. Rudy Fernandez has never met a shot he didn’t like, and Monday that was ok. What a guy like Rudy does is come in and hit a big three. Even if he’s missed four in a row, Rudy is going to take that fifth shot. He stretched Chicago’s defense, and he’ll do that even if he isn’t hitting.
And of course, we should all thank LaMarcus Aldridge. If you didn’t watch Monday’s game, you missed something special. LaMarcus has always played effortless basketball. He is gifted beyond belief, and sometimes when his shots weren’t going down it looked like he just didn’t care. One thing we don’t see from LA is joy, a visual demonstration of his passion for the game. Late in the fourth quarter Monday night, LaMarcus drew a big offensive foul, when he was lifted off the court by his teammates, the look on his face was that of a young man who was extremely happy to be playing basketball. When LA was fouled with less than 10 seconds remaining in the evening, and went to the line to set his career-high for the fourth time this season his teammates were almost as excited as the Rose Garden fans.
Two plays late in the game stood out in my mind. First was a top of the key jumper with 48 seconds to play, and the second was on Portland’s next offensive possession and it was a back down turnaround against Taj Gibson. The combination of shots showed just how far LA has come in the last few months. The top of the key jumper used to be his standby, and as he’s gone inside more and more, the jumper has started to leave him. Monday he drilled the jumper, then came down the court on the next possession and showed a truly excellent low post move. Also, LA knew that he hit both shots as soon as they left his hands. When he’s playing with that kind of confidence he’s scary.
Monday night reminded me a lot of Portland’s last home game, last week against the Spurs. The Blazers were able to match the offensive ability of San Antonio, and they were also able to do the same with Chicago. The game turned in Portland’s favor when they stepped up the defensive intensity. Going forward, they should look to defense as a way to win against the bad teams that, so far, they have been unable to beat on the road. They know they can score, they know they can overcome a 3-of-12 night from Wesley Matthews. It’s going to be consistent defense on the road that is going to make the difference going down the stretch.
Portland takes off for Toronto to play the Raptors on Friday.
Some thoughts and notes:
- Oregonian beat writer Jason Quick caused a minor commotion when he reported via twitter that Brandon Roy might return to game action as soon as this coming road trip. Roy worked out before the game Monday night, and the news sent shock waves through the NBA twitter obsessed, spawning immediate, international responses. (here, and here)
- Speaking of twitter. LaMarcus Aldridge is officially twittering as of today.
- Dante Cunningham was in uniform Monday night, but did not play. His face looked a little swollen, and he was outfitted with a nice mask, a la Rip Hamilton and Iron Man.
- There has been some renewed effort in the Carmelo Anthony trade rumor mill. This time there’s a little bit of a new wrinkle. If Carmelo does get traded to the New York Knicks before the trade deadline, his All-Star roster spot might be up for grabs. It’s a long shot, but it’s still a shot. No way LaMarcus can get tripled snubbed. On the bright side, if he does get passed over, in this super hypothetical situation, he’ll probably go off for 50.
- Monday night the Memphis Grizzlies lost to the Los Angeles Lakers, meaning that the Blazers are now a game and a half ahead in the race for the last Western Conference playoff spot. If you haven’t been keeping a close eye on the daily fluctuations in the standings, now is a good time to start.