Friday’s game in Toronto, Sunday’s game in Detroit, and Monday’s game in Minneapolis could very well be the defining three-game stretch of 2010-11. These are three games, on the road, against bad teams that each have their fair share of talented players. In those situations, games in which the Blazers should win and should be disappointed if and when they lose, the key to Portland victories is and has been weathering the storm.
Like Toronto on Friday, Detroit on Sunday was bent on not going quietly. The key to the Blazer’s victory Sunday was tight defense in the last two minutes, getting the ball to LaMarcus Aldridge, and finishing it all off from the free throw line. Portland didn’t do everything right Sunday, but they did enough right to win a game they should. Early in the season, when the Blazers were getting pasted by bad teams up and down the East Coast, it was the opposite. They weren’t playing terribly, albeit they were playing pretty close to terrible, but they were doing just enough wrong to lose. This season could turn on this Mid-West swing because if Portland can seal a perfect road trip in Minny, they might just have the confidence needed to keep beating good teams at home.
For good measure, let’s take a look at what the Blazers did right on Sunday. For starters, they moved the ball. On a number of possessions, especially late in the game, all five Blazers touched the ball before a shot went up. It didn’t always end in a hoop, more than once the ball swung around to Nicolas Batum in the corner for a bricked three, but it showed that Portland was set on not playing one-on-one ball. Will that change when Brandon Roy comes back? As we all know, Roy’s MO is to take it all on himself in the fourth quarter. It’s unlikely that that will be an issue right away, seeing as he’ll probably be on the bench at the end of games to begin his comeback, but it’s something that will have to watched. Along with decent ball movement, Portland was able to step up their defensive intensity going down the stretch, and then in turn take advantage of some of Detroit’s more egregious mistakes. The Blazers have hung their hat on defense in this recent stretch, and although Detroit isn’t a top flight team, slacking on D Sunday could have easily sent this game in the other direction.
Then, of course, there was the one thing that most obviously put the Portland over the top Sunday night. That was the play of LaMarcus Aldridge. It’s an interesting development that at this point in the season we should be more shocked when LA doesn’t go for 30, and basically kill teams in the final period of games. At first he proved he could play, then he showed that he could dominate, now he’s showing that he can be the go-to guy every night. In the fourth quarter LA had his jumper going, and proved, once again, to be the difference. LaMarcus finished with 36 points, hitting 12-0f-17 from the floor, and missing only one of his 13 free throw attempts. In each of the last three nights LA has eclipsed 30 points, with the Blazers winning each time. In fact, in the last 13 games, LaMarcus has scored less than 20 points only four times. Those are also the only four times the Blazers have lost since the 15th of January. Not to belabor the point, but getting LA going is a pretty important part of Portland winning games.
Wesley Matthews also turned in a nice game, as did Andre Miller. Once again, though, Portland showed that they couldn’t have more than three guys put up big scoring numbers on the same night. With only three guys coming off the bench, it would be nice to have a fourth and fifth insurance scorer. Against Detroit and Toronto, and likely Minnesota, it has been less about who scores than when that scoring gets done, but it won’t be that way against New Orleans to finish off the run-up to the All-Star game, and it definitely won’t be the case against the Lakers and the Nuggets to finish the month of February.
Which brings me back to my main point. In two straight games Portland has been able to overcome their own struggles and miscues, and they’ve been able to finish off winnable games on the road. In November they weren’t able to do that. With two more games before the All-Star break, and less than 30 games left overall, now is the time for the Blazers to try and make a push for a higher playoff seed. As fans, we get anxious watching a nine-point lead turn in to a two point deficit in the fourth quarter. What matters though, is the final result. This team has now started to show that they can fight and earn their wins. When the bench gets bolstered by the return of Marcus Camby and Brandon Roy, it’s likely that Portland should be better equipped for a long run of wins. To put it simply; this team may be right where they want to be.
Just a few final thoughts:
- Mike Barrett mentioned at the end of the game Sunday that through 54 games last season the Blazers were 30-24. After winning on Sunday, Portland is now 30-24. Not too bad considering that last season the Blazers were the sixth seed in the playoffs and not the eighth. With Utah going through a major change, and Denver likely to follow, second place in the Northwest Division is easily within the Blazers reach.
- Sunday night, the Memphis Grizzlies defeated the Denver Nuggets, keeping the Grizz within a single game of the Blazers. Denver’s loss moves Portland to within a half a game of the Nuggets. Portland is also only a half of a game behind the Utah Jazz. The stretch run is going to be intense, to say the least.