It seems like it’s been a long time since Blazer fans have had something to feel genuinely positive about. In fact, just this morning I was listening to Ryen Russillo on ESPN’s NBA Today Podcast talk about how after two-plus weeks the Blazers were the popular pick to come out of the West, and now here we are, not quite at the end of January, and they aren’t even in the Playoff picture.
Of course it’s too early to say a team is either a contender or a bust (unless you’re talking about the Thunder, contender, or the Wizards, bust), but it does seem like since that early hot start the attitude towards this Portland team has been a combination of negativity and qualified optimism. Negativity when they drop winnable road games and get a shooting clinic from the Orlando Magic; qualified optimism when they beat the Sacramento Kings but have to leave their starters on the floor up until the final minutes of the game’s final quarter.
Rejoice, Portland fans. Tuesday’s win is just about as close to a total positive as you are going to get. Memphis comes in as one of the hottest teams in the league, can match up pretty well with Portland, and plays the kind of turnover producing defense and up-tempo offense that can be a killer for a Blazer team that hasn’t taken good care of the ball as of late, and relies very heavily on long and mid-range jumpers. Tuesday’s game could have very easily gone the other way.
It didn’t. And it didn’t not by luck, or because Memphis took the night off. Tuesday, Portland won because they delivered a balanced scoring attack that started out working the ball inside and getting good looks from in close, because they played defense, at least matching the defensive intensity–if not the execution–of one of the best defensive teams in the league, and because they rebounded.
The Blazers won the battle of the boards 50-to-39. Marcus Camby led the way with an astounding 22, but everybody pitched in. Gerald Wallace snagged 11, LaMarcus Aldridge had six, and six other Blazers had at least one. The extra effort to crash the glass helped negate some of the damage done by turning the ball over, something Portland did 20 times.
Offense wins games, though. And Tuesday Portland looked nearly as fluid on offense as they have all season. They worked the ball inside to Aldridge, who was on fire in the first quarter hitting 5-of-6 from the floor and 4-of-4 from the line for 14 points, and they also attacked with their wings.
There aren’t a ton of teams that have one guy that can defend Aldridge one on one for a full 48 minutes (or the 31:22 which he played for the purpose of accuracy). Memphis tried a bunch of different looks throughout the night. Rudy Gay was the most successful, although his tactic was to play behind LA then foul if LaMarcus got a spin on him towards the hoop. The least successful was Marreese Speights. Aldridge primarily beat up on Speights with his outside shot, but also took him down low a couple of times. Gay’s defense worked because with his length he could challenge the outside shot both when LA faced-up or spun away from the hoop. Marc Gasol had a couple of sequences on LaMarcus too. At least once, LA took the ball outside, isolated Gasol, and just drove by him. You know it’s a good night for the Blazers when LA has a different tactic to deal with each defender he sees.
As for the wing play. Wesley Matthews, Jamal Crawford, and Gerald Wallace were looking to put the ball on the floor and get to the hoop more Tuesday than they had in awhile. Gerald attacks by default, but Crawford and Matthews sometimes play like they need to be convinced. Wesley especially can benefit from driving on nights when his shot isn’t falling. Tuesday, Wesley was 3-of-9 from the field and 1-of-6 from deep, but he did hit six free throws. He needs to keep getting in the lane and keep getting to the line, and maybe that way he can shoot himself out of this extended slump.
Crash didn’t score too much Tuesday, but he had at least one lay-up. At some point it might be nice to look at HoopData and see if Gerald’s best games are when he scores two lay-ups for every jump shot. I know there are nights when he can knock down threes and long twos, but in my opinion, Wallace should be trying to score at the rim every time he touches the ball.
Crawford is a bit of a tricky call when it comes to attacking. He isn’t as big as Wesley Matthews–bulk-wise–and he isn’t as bulky or as tall as Gerald Wallace, so his shot is the most likely out of those three to be blocked at the rim. In fact, Tuesday night, Crawford had a possession when he shook his defender with a crossover (I think it was O.J. Mayo but I can’t be sure, whoever it was ended up on their backside), only to have his lay-up attempt sent away. I still like the idea of Jamal attacking the rim though, primarily because he is such a great free throw shooter. If Crawford is going to be as helpful to this team as he needs to be, helpful enough for Portland to live up to some of that early hype, his efficiency needs to improve. The best way for him to do that is by getting more free throw attempts. Crawford, though, loves his jump shot, and he very rarely looks to drive to the rim as his first recourse. Tuesday, Jamal scored 15 points to lead a productive Portland bench, but he took 13 shots. By comparison, LaMarcus Aldridge took 13 shots and led all scorers with 23 points.
The Blazers have now completed stage two of the three stage gauntlet that is their first back-to-back-to-back–or as Matt Moore of Hardwood Paroxysm so aptly dubbed it a b3b–with easily the most difficult stage yet to come. Portland travels to Oakland tonight to take on Golden State tomorrow, a team they almost never beat in a place they almost always lose. The Warriors have a lot in common with the Grizzlies. They like to get out and run, they’re driven by strong guard play, and they have a tendency to make costly mistakes or play themselves out of a game.
If the Blazers can play Wednesday the way they played Tuesday, they’ll be in pretty good shape. I think going 3-0 on their first b3b might begin to make up for their 2-4 roadie.
Couple of quick things:
- Gerald Wallace took a beating Tuesday night. He got hit in his bad hand, and at one point got leveled by Marc Gasol. I have no doubt that Wallace will go in Wednesday’s game, but I expect he will be pretty sore.
- Coach Nate McMillan once again hesitated to clear his bench, waiting until Memphis skipper Lionel Hollins rotated in his garbage time guys. Nate’s choice to sub, or not sub, has become a point of contention on Twitter, and a bit of a running joke in Nate’s post game media debriefing. I tend to agree that Nate could pull his starters a little earlier every now and then. But I see the point of keeping them out there too. A game is 48 minutes long, and it’s never over until it’s over. Nate isn’t intentionally trying to wear his guys down, but he also isn’t about to give up a comeback in the final stages of a game. One thing he might think about, though, is that his end of the bench guys–at this point that’s Elliot Williams, Luke Babbitt, and Chris Johnson–aren’t getting a chance to run that much because there aren’t that many practice days with this schedule. When those guys did get in Tuesday night, they did not look great. Chris Johnson had a nice dunk, but other than that it was pretty disorganized. There might come a time this season when one or more of those guys has to play, it might help them to get just the smallest bit of meaningful game time action prior to that point.
- One more note on the young guys coming in at the end. If you look closely at the box score you’ll notice that Portland finished with 97 points, three shy of the good stuff. Nolan Smith had a look at three for the chalupa, passing up the chance to give Luke Babbitt the almost unheard of back-to-back chalupa bucket, but it clanked off the rim. The Blazers did get the last possession, but with no shot clock on and no defense, Elliot Williams made the grown-up decision and didn’t put up a shot. Another sad day in Blazer-land.
- Craig Smith had another nice night. 3-of-8 from the field 2-of-2 from the line, eight points in 13 minutes, punctuated by a throw down on a run-out feed from Jamal Crawford. If Portland can get eight points for every 12 to 13 minutes of court time for Rhino they should be very happy. I know that it won’t take too much more for Craig Smith to be a fan favorite, greeted by a standing ovation every time he checks in. Get to the fan shop now, because in a week I bet they’ll be out of Smith #83 jerseys.
- Minutes watch: 2:42 for Luke Babbitt. The only Blazer not to score, and the only Blazer not to attempt a field goal. I know it’s mean to pick on Luke, but, Nate has shown he’s a lot more likely to play Luke in regular game time than Elliot Williams. Luke looks lost when playing with the starters and regular bench players. With the last guys on the roster, I expect him to play with a little more confidence. Let’s be honest, he is the leader of Portland’s garage time unit, seniority rules. Next time Portland is at the end of a blowout, and Babbitt is on the floor, I would like to see him demanding the ball.
- New thing here, not sure if I’ll do it every night, but I thought about it since even this early in the season every game changes Playoff positioning. Standings watch: Portland came into the game in 9th place in the West, Memphis in 4th. With the win, Portland jumps to 6th, Memphis falls to 8th, Dallas bumps up to 7th, and Houston falls out of the race.
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