I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, this is the time of the season that we have all been waiting for. April 13th will be Portland’s final game, after that point we’ll know where the Blazers stand in the West, and who they will be taking on in the first round of the Playoffs. After that day we will officially be watching Playoff basketball. Tuesday was not a Playoff game, so it can’t officially be called Playoff basketball, but if you would like to call it that, I’m not going to stop you.
The Blazers needed, with a capital N, a statement game following their last two hum-hum losses to two good, but not great, Eastern Conference teams. A statement game didn’t need to include a win, I was prepared for that. Dallas is a strong team, rolling into Portland with one of the best records in the league. Lately it seems that even when Portland plays well against the Mavericks they just don’t have enough to come away victorious. So I would have taken a statement game that would have included hard play, tough defense, and a loss. It wouldn’t have been what I wanted, but I was ready for it.
Instead, what we got was maybe one of the best all around team efforts of the season, and the kind of win that this Blazer team needed to begin the final push towards the Playoffs. And they did it all after giving up 11 straight field goals to open the game. Dallas is a team of shooters, playing with arguably the best distributor of all time. Tuesday night, Dallas didn’t miss until an apparently ageless Brian Cardinal clanked a corner three with 3:25 remaining in the opening quarter. Up until that point, the Blazers had given up jumpers to Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, and Rodrique Beaubois, and it looked like we were in for a long night. Sure, after the early barrage of shots Portland only trailed by three, but if you are completely unable to keep a team from scoring it’s hard to win.
The Mavericks closed the first quarter up 32-29, on the strength of 74% shooting from the field and 10, 10, and 8 from Dirk, Marion, and Beaubois. Portland managed to stay close by crashing the offensive boards, and getting six more shots than Dallas. That theme would run throughout the contest, and following the opening period, the Blazers would step up their defense. The combination of those things would be the difference maker.
That, and guys by the names of Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge. Remember back to December 15th of 2010. LA put up 35 in a loss to Dallas, a game that showcased both his offensive abilities and the new found limits to Roy’s game. Fast forward to Tuesday night, and those stats that LA put up have maintained, more or less, and now Brandon may actually be back. With Roy playing as well as anybody has seen him play lately, and LA finally playing to his level, Portland was just too difficult for Dallas to defend. LaMarcus got the majority of his points in the first half, and Brandon provided the scoring down the stretch. More importantly, they got their points in different ways. LA scored primarily on back down moves and open floor dunks, of which he had some of his very best, and Brandon scored on dribble-drive penetration and step back jumpers. When Brandon’s jumper is going, and LA’s back down moves are working, it’s basically impossible to guard both of them.
One play stuck out in my mind Tuesday night. On Portland’s final offensive possession, Brandon stayed out near half court, and let some seconds tick off the clock. His goal was to get LA and Dirk Nowitzki in a pick and pop situation, and it worked to the point that Dirk hedged on the screen and went to double Brandon. The double on Brandon was the right move, 17 of his 21 points came in the second half with 10 in the fourth quarter alone, but this left LA wide open at the top of the key. Brandon dished, and LA missed the jumper, but had that shot, LaMarcus’s old bread and butter, it would have been the game.
This has been the big question since Brandon has come back, can he and LaMarcus play well together? Tuesday they combined for 51 points, 30 in the second half. More importantly, Brandon and LaMarcus got their numbers efficiently, and in the flow of Portland’s offense. Between the two of them, Roy and Aldridge shot 12-of-22 in the second half. That’s not bad at all.
Along with Brandon and LaMarcus, all of Portland’s rotation players pitched in Tuesday night. Wesley Matthews lit it up from deep, hitting all three of his three-point attempts in the first quarter, Rudy Fernandez provided some much needed energy, scoring, and defense off the bench, and Marcus Camby did the most out of his new role of sixth man.
Speaking of the new lineup, Gerald Wallace had the kind of night that just won’t show up at all in the stats column. Wallace, in his first night as a starter, shot a respectable 4-of-8 from the field, finishing with eight points and five rebounds, but there simply aren’t stats for the kinds of things Crash did to help Portland win Tuesday night. He hustled, hit the boards on both ends, and most importantly played defense. Dirk Nowitzki is one of the best pure shooters in the league, and at legit seven feet his shot is basically impossible to guard. The best way to stop Dirk, in my opinion, is to not let him catch the ball at all, or focus on making him play defense, tire him out or get him into foul trouble. The Blazers were letting him catch the ball wherever he wanted, and only drove at him two or three times all night. That being said, Gerald Wallace put down a great defensive stand on the final Dallas possession of the night that specifically involved Dirk. From a set play on a side out, Dallas got the ball to Dirk with the clock expiring and a good look at a corner three to tie. Wallace closed out hard, and made Dirk pump-fake and take an off-balance three that caromed off the rim. A slower closeout, in order to avoid the foul and a dreaded four-point play for the win, might have sent the game into overtime, which very well could have gone to Dallas. It wasn’t a gamble on the part of Wallace, not really, it was just solid defense. And that solid defense saved a marquee win for the Blazers.
Post game, to a man, the Blazers talked about the importance of playing at a high level regardless of the opponent. Thursday the Blazers play the Cleveland Cavaliers, and still have home games against a few sub .500 teams. Beating a contender like Dallas is huge, but losing to a basement team like the Washington Wizards would be just as huge in the opposite direction. The good thing is, these Blazers know they are in a fight for Playoff seeding. They also know that they will be in the fight once the Playoffs actually do start.
Just a few quick thoughts:
- Tuesday night Jason Kidd had one of the most bizarre stat lines you’ll probably ever see. 0-for-1 from the field, 0-for-1 from three, five rebounds, three turnovers, one point, 14 assists. That’s right FOURTEEN assists, and only a single point. After 85 years in the league, he can still play.
- Pregame, I got a chance to sit court side and watch Dirk warm up. He shot for about 30 minutes, and I think he might have missed only a half a dozen times. Some of his misses in the warm-up happened because he looked like he was going through an exaggerated shooting motion, possibly in an attempt to get his timing down. I will say this, though, one of the spots on the floor where Dirk struggled was from three. I guess it’s true, you practice how you play.
- For those watching the standings, according to Yahoo and as of this writing, Portland has jumped from seventh to sixth, and is three and a half games ahead of Utah for the final spot in the West. If Portland were to finish in the sixth spot, and all the rest of the places were to stay the same, they would match up in the first round against Dallas. Post game, I asked LaMarcus if he’s thinking about this as a potential first round match-up. Of course he said the Playoffs are too far away to think about. I’m sure Dallas doesn’t want to see Portland in the first round.
- The Blazers get one more shot at the Mavs this regular season. Dirk and Dallas will be back in the RG Sunday, April 3rd. Mark your calendars. That should be a good one too.