I guess we can take trap game off the list of possibilities for Saturday’s outcome. You can be forgiven for thinking that there was a chance the Blazers would fall off two days removed from a cake-walk of a win; we’ve seen the way this team has played at times this year, and inconsistency is just the beginning. However, if you guessed that Portland would follow up an efficient, wall-to-wall beat down, with an even handed, wire-to-wire, full team win against a streaking Eastern Conference Playoff team, then congratulations. Not only are you better at predicting the future than I am, you have much more confidence in this Blazer squad too.
And confidence is just what we should have. In three games this week, Tuesday against Dallas, Thursday against Cleveland, and Saturday, Portland has shown that they can play as a team, they can share the load on offense, and are just about as deep as you can get playing only eight guys. Saturday’s wasn’t as remarkable a win as Tuesday’s, let’s be honest if Portland had lost we would all be shaking our heads and blaming this team for getting distracted by the Lakers on the horizon, but in a lot of ways it was important because of its un-remarkableness. Like I said, Philly is a strong team with a lot of guys that can come to play. Saturday, the Sixers had their fair share of runs, keeping Portland within a few buckets all the way into the night’s final quarter. In the past, the Blazers have been better than probably any team at turning a mid-sized lead into a deficit with cold shooting and poor execution. Saturday that didn’t happen, and a game that was really a grind turned into a coast to the finish line.
Here’s the best example of what I’m talking about. With 9:11 remaining in the fourth quarter, Elton Brand, one of those guys that can come to play, hit a 10-footer to cut Portland’s lead to 92-89. Through three quarters Brand had managed only four points, and his lead-cutting jumper was his third straight bucket of the fourth quarter. I’m sure more than a few Blazer fans started to get a knot in their gut thinking that the combination of hot shooting from Brand and cold shooting from the home team was going to undo the work Portland had done to get the lead they had. In fact, the very opposite happened. The Blazers promptly went on a 9-0 run. When Jodie Meeks broke Philly’s dry spell with a three at the 5:04 mark, Portland’s lead was equal to the largest it had been all night. The game certainly wasn’t over, with just over five minutes to play, but the Blazers’ run had made the Sixers’ task that much more difficult, resigning the visiting team to hurried threes, and bad possessions. Answering a late run with a back breaking run is something Portland didn’t do consistently in the beginning of the season. There is no better time than now for the Blazers to start finding an offensive groove.
Along with a solid offensive game, Portland turned in a better than average effort on the defensive end too. Although Philly shot an even 50% from the floor, and matched the Blazers percentage wise from deep, Portland was able to make enough adjustments, and boost the energy of play enough, that the last quarter of the night was Philly’s worst offensively. The Sixers’ scoring by quarter looked like this: 27,27,29,18. The Blazers’ scoring declined every period, with the fourth being their worst scoring quarter too, but holding the hot shooting 76ers under 20 in the last 12 minutes ended up being the difference.
Looking at the Blazers individually, there are plenty of accolades to go around. Every member of the starting five played big. Gerald Wallace was all over the floor on both ends, showing his versatility by blocking shots, crashing the boards, and dishing the ball like a point guard. LaMarcus Aldridge consistently battled with Philly’s physical bigs around the rim, and knocked down the shots when they came. And Wesley Matthews was a stone cold assassin. Matthews has been basically on fire all week. In the last three games, Wesley has gone 4-of-4, 4-of-7, and 6-of-9 from behind the three-point line. His shooting percentage from deep over this three-game home stand: an astounding 70%. Again Matthews got the damage done early. Thursday against the Cavs, Wesley buried both of his first quarter three-point attempts. Saturday, he went one better. Matthews hit five straight threes in the first period. Wesley was one shy of tying a franchise record for most threes in the opening quarter of a game.
When asked, post game, why he pulled Wesley when his touch was going the way it was, coach Nate McMillan said that Wesley looked winded, and that they were sticking to their rotation. Translation: there is no one guy bigger than the rest of the team. As frustrating as it was to see Wesley fall short of a club record, it’s good to know where the head coach’s head is at this point in the season. And that the Blazers are about bigger things than a JaVale McGee style triple-double.
The only real downside to Saturday’s win was that Portland’s bench completely failed to show up. Minus Marcus Camby, who can’t be expected to score, and put in a sold 14 minute run, the Blazer’s second unit was very simply just ineffective. Luckily, the starters had gotten some rest, and they were able to carry the load. An interesting little detail here is that Tuesday Nate left Brandon Roy and Rudy Fernandez in the game to close the fourth period against Dallas, leaving Nicolas Batum and Andre Miller on the bench. That lineup worked. Saturday, Rudy and Brandon were on the bench as Portland made their final push. That lineup worked too. Having two closing lineups is never a bad thing.
For the third night in a row the Blazers topped 100 points, and for the second straight game racked up 29 assists as a team. In Portland’s last loss, a really disappointing outing in Atlanta on all accounts, the Blazers had a total of seven assists and scored only 82 points. Portland’s ball movement and activity on offense have greatly improved since that loss. Thursday and Saturday the Blazers scored a combined 73 points in the first quarter, collecting 19 assists in the process. Fast starts are just the thing Portland needs to set the tone of games from now until the end of the season.
The Blazers avoided both so called trap games, and now have to see if they can find a way to win in Los Angeles against the Lakers. With the Denver Nuggets going 0-of-2 in Florida, Portland has pulled within a half game of the fifth spot, and has a two and a half game lead on Memphis for the eight spot. Now would be a great time for yet another statement win, and to build on the momentum gained from an important 3-0 home stand.
Just one quick thing:
- Portland collected win number 40 Saturday night. With 13 games remaining, the Blazers are still mathematically capable of achieving a third straight 50-win season. That’s pretty remarkable given what this team has faced this season. Also, 11 games over .500 is a season high. Portland seems to be peaking at the right time.