I have to admit that on my way over to the Rose Garden tonight I started to feel a bit apprehensive about this one. Not because I didn’t have faith that the top team in the Western Conference wouldn’t be able to follow up on what was their most impressive and most important win of the season. And not because I don’t think that this Blazer team has the kind of tools and attitudes to make this an amazing season. I was starting to have doubts because of the circumstances of this game.
Yes, Portland always plays well, and usually wins, against the Lakers at home regardless of what’s happening at the time with either team, but Thursday it felt a little different. Never before, or at least not for a long time, have the Blazers been the favored team in this match-up. And not for a very long time has Portland been the number one team in the Western Conference when they faced the Lakers in the RG. Those factors–not to mention the fact that this is the kind of team that Kobe Bryant always wanted, one that doesn’t mind hanging out on the perimeter and watching him attack the hoop all by his lonesome–combined made me think that there was a chance we as Blazer fans had taken the first step towards expecting too much from our team. And you know what happens when you expect too much? You get that much more angry when you’re proven wrong.
So I came in guarded. Hoping for the best, but expecting that things could go wrong at any second. At first it looked like I might be right. Kobe drilled his first three shot attempts, Portland’s first field goal was an own goal, and Andrew Bynum could not be stopped by anybody. The home crowd was delirious with Blazer pride and Laker hate, but Kobe is still Kobe. If he gets hot early it can be a long night.
But there was something going on with the home side too. To start, Wesley Matthews was matching Kobe shot-for-shot. Gerald Wallace was attacking the rim. LaMarcus Aldridge was hitting his jumper and putting on a show of spins and fade-aways. The end result: Despite allowing the Lakers to shot 62% in the first 24 minutes, and giving up a combined 31 points on 15 made field goals to Bryant and Bynum, Portland trailed by only four points at halftime. That’s the definition of taking a team’s best punch and not caving.
Thursday’s second half was the story of the game, and could very well be the story of this season for the Blazers given the way their last two contests have gone. Basically the Lakers stopped scoring and Portland didn’t. Say they ran out of steam, say they stopped giving the ball to Bynum in the post, say they started missing shots they were making. Whichever reason you choose is fine. They’re all right. Here’s the facts. With 6:27 remaining in the third quarter, Pau Gasol tied the game at 66 with a pair of free throws. With 2:43 left in the same quarter, Wesley Matthews drained a three giving Portland the lead 76-66. The Lakers wouldn’t get much closer than that the rest of the way.
A similar thing happened in Oklahoma City, only a little later in the game. In that game, Portland took their first double-digit lead of the night late in the fourth quarter. Getting your biggest lead of the night, or taking a two possession game to a five possession game, in the second half shows a commitment to game plan. It shows a drive to keep scoring even when you’re getting stops on the defensive end. And most of all it shows that killer instinct that everybody is always talking about the best teams and players having and that from time to time in the recent past has seemed to stay just a touch out of Portland’s grasp.
One stat is going to stand out when you take a look at the final box score, as it should, and if you aren’t already over the moon on this team it might be just the thing to put you there. Thursday night, Portland turned the ball over four times, and no Blazer had more than a single turnover to their credit. Remember all the way back to a week ago? When the win against Denver was tempered by an unsustainable amount of turnovers, and it looked like there might be some major flaw in what was starting to look like a very solid team? Well if back-to-back games with less than 10 turnovers doesn’t mean progress–and progress in a very short amount of time with little to no practice–than I just don’t know what to say.
“Tonight we did a good job taking care of the ball,” coach Nate McMillan said during his post game remarks. “That gives you opportunities at that basket. We’re starting to get a feel for each other, and I expect the execution to continue to get better.” That’s the thing, this team can get better, and they’ve shown that they are willing to make the adjustments needed to keep getting wins.
A lot of people have jumped on the Portland bandwagon in the last 24 hours. Even though the Lakers aren’t the same team they were a couple of years ago, they are still the biggest draw in the league, so expect there to be more people interested in Portland tomorrow. My question is, when is this team going to lose again? Phoenix should be a win. Cleveland should be an easy win. That means that next week the Blazers get another shot at the other team from LA. I find it hard to believe these Blazers think there’s a team out there that can beat them two times in less than a month.
Portland is back in action tomorrow night on the road against the Suns, even if they lose the worst they can be is tied for first in the Western Conference.
Just a couple of quick things:
- Jamal Crawford and Wesley Matthews are becoming a nice combo. Wesley getting it done on offense early, and then Jamal coming in in the fourth quarter and hitting big shots. Wesley knocked down four of his first five shots, including both of his three-point attempts, in the first quarter, scoring 10 of Portland’s 27 points in an up-and-down 12 minutes. Jamal closed the game with eight points in the final quarter and 13 points in the second half. At this point minutes are pretty close to equal between these guys, with Wesley getting a few more each night. As long they both stay content with their roles, these guys should be reliable offense the whole season.
- Gerald Wallace was the star of this game, finishing with a game-high 31 points. It’s a tough task guarding Kevin Durant one night and Kobe Bryant the next. Gerald made it look relatively easy. Wallace is on the All-Star ballot, as is LaMarcus Aldridge, and if he continues to have nights like the one he had Thursday, there’s no reason Portland can’t send two guys to Orlando.
- Speaking of LA. He turned in another impressive game, finishing with 28 points and 10 rebounds. In his post game remarks, Nate McMillan mentioned that he thinks LaMarcus should try to get his average up to a double-double each night. LA is going to be an All-Star this year (he should have been an All-Star last year) but if he gets his rebounding numbers up it is going to be hard to keep him out of the discussion for best power forwards in the league. Thursday he showed an array of moves in the post, both spinning away from the hoop for jumpers and attacking the hoop for lay-ups, and at the end of the game his top of the key J looked so effortless that you knew as soon as it left his hand it was going in.
- Minutes watch: 11:01 Craig Smith. Rhino has appeared in four of Portland’s six games, getting mop up minutes against Sacramento and 2:35 against the Clippers. In the last two nights, Smith has played in the neighborhood of 11 minutes, and they’ve been productive minutes. Thursday with his time, Craig grabbed five rebounds, had an assist, and scored. That might not seem like much, but it helps. Portland has suddenly become deep at the four and five, yet another feature that makes this team different than those that came before.
Ron ArtestMetta World Peace had one of the worst games I’ve ever seen from a professional basketball player. At one point he traveled while trying to pump fake Gerald Wallace, got away with it, and missed a point blank lay-up at the rim. He really didn’t look like he knew what was happening on the court. Although, I have to say it is fun to read a final stat book that says SUB: BARNES FOR WORLD PEACE. Who knew Matt Barnes was such a humanitarian. Also, how long until making jokes about World Peace gets you banned from the Internet?
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