So we’ve reached the All-Star break, and it’s pretty safe to say that up to this point NBA season version 2010-11 has given us Blazer fans just about everything we can handle. In November, if you had said to me that Portland would cruise into the All-Star break winners of six in a row and in sixth fifth place in the Western Conference, I would have said you were more of an optimist than I am. The Blazers have gone through stretches of good basketball, stretches of horrendous basketball, and are currently playing their absolute best basketball of the season right now.
Here’s how I know this. Wednesday night Portland started out hot, then went cold, then got hot, then won. But it wasn’t like earlier this year, when every good few minutes felt like a prelude to an unwatchable ten or fifteen minutes. Wednesday night when Portland struggled it felt like they were just bidding their time, waiting for the opportunity to get hot again and deliver the knockout punch. The Blazers led or were tied with the Hornets for all but five possessions in the first half, one possession being the final possession of the first half for New Orleans that ended with a running hook shot from David West and sent Portland into the halftime locker room trailing by a point. Portland then trailed for all of the third quarter, by as much as six at a few points, and up until the 4:13 mark of the fourth quarter. At this point, an and-one from LaMarcus Aldridge put Portland up 88-86, and they would never relinquish the lead. Although the Blazers shot poorly in the second quarter and were outplayed much of the third quarter, the start and finish were dominate enough to give Portland a win against a strong, and remarkably deep, New Orleans team. The Blazers have struggled at times this season holding leads, that was not the case Wednesday night, and that’s why I believe that this is the best Portland has looked all season.
There were more than a few standout performers, Wednesday night. LaMarcus turned in yet another great game, finishing with 34 points. LA provided much of the Blazers’ spark down the stretch, and battled hard all night long with David West. West is one of the best power forwards in the game, and has a methodical style that can simply wear people down. He’s not the prettiest player, but he gets the job done. LA stepped up his defense on West in the final period, paying special attention to denying the easy entry pass, and was able to match or better West every time down the floor on offense.
Wesley Matthews and Andre Miller put together some fantastic plays late in the game. Wesley has trouble with his own dribble, he plays much better off the ball and getting his own shot but is not much a facilitator, but was making sharp, perfectly timed cuts off the ball that ended in easy buckets at the rim. Regardless of which coach is running the show, New Orleans has for the past few seasons been known as a hard nosed defensive team. Their bigs use their hands and bodies to get position, and their guards are fast and physical. The off the ball movement was key to getting Portland easy looks, and those easy looks were key to getting and then holding the lead late in the game. Wesley finished with 24 points. Andre added 18 points and led all players with seven assists.
Over this stretch of big home victories, San Antonio, Chicago, and now New Orleans, the difference for Portland has really been the defensive intensity. Late in games this team has been able to switch their defense into a higher gear, pressuring shooters, forcing bad passes, getting into passing lanes, and that leads me to the line of the night. That line belongs to Chris Paul. CP3, who may or may not want to be a Hornet in the near future, will be the starting point guard for the Western Conference in Sunday’s All-Star game, and is a no-brainer first team All-NBA. Wednesday, Paul shot 2-of-6 for eight points, got only two rebounds, had only five assists, and turned the ball over a game-high four times. CP3 gets out of bed and gets five assists, and although he can’t beat a team all by himself, New Orleans doesn’t win a lot of games when their best player has a line like that. Give a ton of credit to the defense of Nicolas Batum, and also give a ton of credit to coach Nate McMillan. His plan all night was to keep the ball out of Paul’s hands as much as possible. The beneficiary of this method of defense was Willie Green, 24 points on 11-of-19 from the field, and to a lesser extent Jarret Jack, 12 points off the bench, but neither of those guys are going to kill you. In fact, both Green and Jack missed open shots late in the game with New Orleans down by only a bucket or two.
Post game, Nate talked about how important the play and development of Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews has been over the course of this season. Again, we have yet to see a night when all three wing players go off at the same time, Rudy Fernandez was the odd man out Wednesday, scoring only eight points shooting 2-of-8 from the field, but what Matthews and Batum do on defense practically doubles what they do on offense. Especially given that a bad offensive night for these guys usually translates into a good defensive night.
Portland has a full week off, returning to the Rose Garden after the All-Star break to face the Los Angeles Lakers. In case you missed it, the Lakers lost on Wednesday to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Do with that information what you will.
Just a few quick thoughts:
- Wednesday I got a chance to see something that I’ve always wanted to see. In the third quarter, after a stretch of bad plays, Nate McMillan rose from the bench to signal Andre Miller to call a timeout. Everybody that watches the NBA knows how the usual timeout scenario works. The point guard dribbles across half court towards the sideline, picks up their dribble and calls timeout. Every team does it the same way. Every player on the court knows when its going to happen. Many, many fans can basically tell when their is going to be a timeout. Of course in this situation I’m talking about timeouts called by coaches, not the regularly scheduled official’s timeouts for television. On this particular timeout, Andre dribbled up court, and as his teammates and opponents turned to their respective benches, Dre streaked to the hoop for a practically uncontested layup. Post game Nate was asked about the play, and praised Andre’s wily veteran-ness. He did qualify that praise, though, saying that it was a smart move because he finished the play. If Dre had blown the layup, and Portland has lost by two, it would have been a different situation I’m sure.
- LaMarcus Aldridge has clearly been the leader of this Portland team, and over the course of the last few games, when LA has scored more than 20 points the Blazers have won. Wednesday was yet another 30-point performance, and yet another opportunity for LA to prove that he might be just as for real as we all hoped he would be. Post game LA was asked if he planned on watching the All-Star Game. LaMarcus laughed, and said he hasn’t watched the All-Star Game in he can’t remember how long. Personally I think the snub has given LA some fuel, and he always seems to play better when he has something to prove. Having said that, a few more games like the one he played Wednesday, and there will not be any reason other than talent to explain LA’s play.
- Brandon Roy did not play Wednesday night. He was in uniform, but there was never any question that he would be on the bench all night. Roy is clearly itching to get back on the court, and hopefully his return will add some much needed length to Portland’s bench. Wednesday, Nate played a six-man rotation, with Patty Mills and Joel Przybilla playing a combined 11 minutes. A six-man rotation is the shortest rotation a coach can use and still expect his players to produce. It’s like taking a three-man rotation into the World Series. You feel good because you’ve got your best three guys, but you know they’re only your best three guys when they get the rest they need. It’s not sustainable for any part of the regular season.
- If the Playoffs started tomorrow, the Blazers would be matched up in the first round with the Los Angeles Lakers Oklahoma City Thunder. Get ready for an early taste of playoff basketball come a week from today Friday, April 1st at the Rose Garden.
**CORRECTIONS** made by the author.