Saturday’s game will be memorable, at least for awhile, and it will have nothing to do with the basketball that was actually played. That was as forgettable as any blowout in recent history. The memories from Portland’s dusting of the Charlotte Bobcats will come, of course, because it was the return of Joel Przybilla and Dante Cunningham. And to be honest, it felt like Joel and Dante’s return may have spooked Portland more than it did Charlotte.
The Blazers didn’t play a great first half, minus a little stretch to close the second quarter that gave Portland the lead at halftime, but they did play an absolutely horrible first 12 minutes. I’m not sure if maybe they were waiting for Joel and Dante to get their much deserved ovations, which each of them got upon checking in during the first quarter, before getting down to business, or what, but in the first quarter the Blazers couldn’t buy a hoop. Portland shot a paltry 37% on their way to 15 first quarter points. The first quarter looked bad from every angle, and it was a sign of what was to come. Fortunately, it was a sign of what was to come for the Bobcats. Charlotte barely outpaced Portland in the first quarter, shooting worse from the field, 36%, and leading after the first quarter by a single point.
The Blazers would eventually start hitting shots, and the Bobcats simply wouldn’t. Portland held their opponents to fewer than 20 points in all four quarters, and picked up their scoring in the second quarter, and really never looked back. What was a bit odd about Saturday, was that the Blazers built out their lead almost instantly, and without much fanfare. With 6:55 remaining in the third quarter, Marcus Camby knocked down a nine-footer, and Portland took a 46-45 lead. Two minutes later the Blazers were up ten, and Charlotte wouldn’t get closer than seven the rest of the night. Portland pushed their lead to 26 before it was over.
The Bobcats are not a great team, that’s for sure, but Portland should give themselves the credit for turning a slog of a game in to an out and out runaway. Portland won this game, Charlotte didn’t lose it. Defense was the main key for Portland. The Blazers stepped up their on the ball defense, and did an excellent job of getting into passing lanes. Rudy Fernandez is excellent at slipping into a passing lane unnoticed and swiping a lazy pass or two. Gerald Wallace excels at that too, and his track-down defense is top notch. Portland still needs to work on finishing defensive plays, meaning limiting offensive rebounds, but when you hold a team to 29 field goals made, 1 made three, and 10 made free throws that’s an indication that defense is being emphasized.
Along with defense, credit the shot making, specifically threes. Portland’s final shooting percentage from three wasn’t great, 8-of-21 for 38%, but six of those eight made threes came in the second half. The Blazers were 2-of-11 from three in the first half, and 6-of-10 in the second; an improvement to say the least. It’s not the best idea to become a team that relies solely on the deep ball, but this team needs to hit shots in order to clear the paint for LaMarcus Aldridge. LA was the best player on either team, as he is most nights, finishing with 26 points to lead all scorers, but it was the play of Patty Mills once again that seemed to give Portland the push they needed to get over the top. Patty is most likely back in the rotation for good, coach Nate McMillan made a point in his post game remarks that running Rudy or Brandon Roy as the point guard in the second unit hasn’t worked very well, and for the second game in a row he came in and pushed the pace. Patty’s getting more and more fearless with his jumper every night out, which is good. You don’t want a guy like Patty to take a lot of bad shots, but you also don’t want him on the court afraid to shoot the ball a la Luke Babbitt. Personally, I would like to see Patty have a big scoring night and a big assist night, Saturday he finished with 12 points knocking down four threes but managed only a single assist, but that might be too much to ask in only 18 minutes.
For the time being, it looks like Portland will run a nine man rotation, keeping the starting lineup as is, and using Roy, Wallace, Rudy, and Patty as the second unit. A big is needed to round out that second five. It will be LA for most nights with Camby used to spell him. A Joel Przybilla or a Dante Cunningham would fit nicely in that unit, but alas it won’t be so. The Blazers’ second unit was credited by McMillan for turning Saturday into a blowout, and I don’t disagree. There is a lot of scoring power in that group, and as Gerald Wallace gets more and more comfortable, that second five, or four plus one, will be up there with some of the better bench mobs in the Western Conference. Wallace seems to still be a work in progress as far as finding his niche in the offense. Hopefully Portland’s upcoming road trip will give him and the team a chance to really sort it out.
Portland starts their road trip Monday in Orlando. The Blazers beat Orlando at home way back in December. Dwight Howard, whose name has come up in some MVP related conversations lately, went absolutely nuts in that game, scoring 39 points and making 13 free throws. This is a different Magic team now, without Rashard Lewis and Vince Carter, and they will be without Howard also, who will be sitting due to a one-game suspension for receiving his 16th technical foul of the season. This road trip includes stops in South Beach, Atlanta, and Charlotte. A win in Orlando would be a fantastic start to this final four-game swing. A split of these four games would be very nice.
Just a couple quick thoughts:
- Joel Przybilla and Dante Cunningham got fantastic ovations from the home crowd, as was to be expected. Both former Blazers played in the neighborhood of 20 minutes, Joel fouled out after 17 minutes played, and seem to fit in with their new team. Dante matched up most of the evening with Brandon Roy. It seemed to me like playing against Dante gave Brandon an extra little pop to his step, and he attacked him hard every time he had the ball. Brandon said running against DC felt familiar because he’d done it so much in practice. Cunningham agreed when I talked to him after the game. He also said being back in Portland was bittersweet. Dante got a great reception from the fans waiting for autographs by the player cars and visiting team buses, and I’m sure he enjoyed playing in front of the Portland crowd one more time this season. However, both Joel and Dante seem to have moved on, at least somewhat. There is always the potential for one or both of them to return to Portland following this season, but right now they are on a new team that is struggling for wins, and they want to contribute as much as they can.
- Brandon’s minute restriction has been lifted a little. Saturday he played 21 minutes, and looked pretty good yet again. His jumper is coming along, and his movement is well on the way from decent to almost good. He is now going to be allowed to play in the second night of back-to-back games. That means he will play against LeBron James and Dwayne Wade on this trip.