Damian Lillard challenges Anthony Davis at the rim. Lillard and Davis will battle all season for Rookie of the Year. Post game, Lillard downplayed their head-to-head match-up and his quest for ROY as a whole. Credit: Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Game 23 Recap: Blazers 95, Hornets 94

If you had 23 as the number of games it would take for Damian Lillard to hit his first game-winner in the NBA, pat yourself on the pack. You win. I’m pretty sure Brandon Roy had a game-winner or two in his rookie year, they were his specialty after all. But Nicolas Batum didn’t get one until 2010-11 (his third season as a pro). And wasn’t LaMarcus Aldridge’s buzzer beater in overtime in Dallas at the end of last season his first after playing in the NBA for six full seasons?

Thursday’s win on national television against one of the best teams in the NBA could very well have introduced Damian Lillard to NBA fans across the country, but Sunday’s buzzer-beater to hold off a hard-charging New Orleans Hornets team might just have been the type of play Lillard needed to raise his status from superstar rookie to just plan old superstar (or at least superstar in the making team leader in the present).

It’s hard to know where to start with Sunday. In my preview, I called it a trap game. I turned out to be wrong (which is known to happen every once and awhile, I mean we’re all human). The Blazers didn’t get trapped by the Hornets. Instead, Portland on Sunday played like Portland on Thursday. Moving the ball better than they had all season. Knocking down open looks. Playing defense. Getting up and down the floor.

Head coach Terry Stotts kicked off his post game presser by calling Sunday “a hell of a game.” He certainly meant the finish, but he could very easily have been talking about his team’s play through three quarters. Combining 75% of Sunday’s game with all four of Thursday’s great quarters, the Blazers played seven straight excellent quarters.

And then there was Sunday’s fourth quarter. Usually when a team blows a double-digit lead in a single quarter, they do it by falling flat on their faces at the exact moment their opponent finally shows up. The team blowing the game misses shots, they turn the ball over, and the completely fail at getting stops. As this is happening, their opponent, the team on the comeback, hits everything, gets every call, and doesn’t make a single costly mistake. The best example of this phenomenon is Portland’s fourth quarter comeback against Dallas in game four of their first round playoff series in 2010-11.

Sunday’s fourth quarter featured no grand collapse from the Blazers. And though NOLA hit a lot of threes to get and then stay close, the Hornets chipped away at the lead instead of taking it away in one extended run. Maybe New Orleans couldn’t come all the way back because theirs wasn’t a traditional fourth quarter comeback. Maybe Portland just got lucky. Either way, when the Blazers watch the game tape of Sunday, they should key in on perimeter defense and offensive efficiency in the closing quarter.

In Sunday’s closing minutes, Portland couldn’t find NOLA’s shooters (to be fair Ryan Anderson couldn’t have missed a three if he had wanted to), and then on offense they couldn’t get the kind of easy looks they had relied on to build their lead in the first place. Because the pace and flow of the game was so heavily in Portland’s favor all night, it’s understandable that when the tide shifted the Blazers tightened up. Thursday was a close game from start to finish. To beat the Spurs, Portland had to play their best 48 minutes of the season. To beat the Hornets, that wasn’t the case. Figuring out a way to play 48 minutes of high level basketball should be the Blazers’ goal going forward. Watching Sunday’s game for the fourth quarter should show them plenty of examples of what not to do.

During coach Stotts’s post game presser, the fact that this was now Portland’s second three-game winning streak of the season was brought up. The question was also asked that if maybe he thought his team would be better able to sustain this streak than they were the first three-game winning streak that game prior to Portland’s four-game road losing streak. Stotts didn’t have a direct answer for that question, but what might be a positive indicator of this current streaks longevity is that all three wins have come without Wesley Matthews.

Wesley suited up and started Sunday night, but was pulled early in the first quarter. Other than those few minutes, he’s been MIA since going down in Portland’s loss against the Sacramento Kings. Matthews’ offensive and defensive presence have been key in many of Portland’s wins this season, and losing him could have been a serious blow. The Blazers’ bench though has stepped up in his absence.

No bench player has had the same level of impact as Luke Babbitt. Portland winning without one of it’s essential pieces; Babbitt gaining confidence and possibly resurrecting his season and career? That’s the definition of a win-win for me.

Hopefully a healthy Matthews combined with a confident bench will mean an extension of this winning streak.

Portland has the next few days off before they face the Denver Nuggets on Thursday December 20th.

Couple quick things:

  • J.J. Hickson has very quietly turned himself into a double-double machine, and over the last few games has emerged as something of an X-Factor for Portland. Thursday night, coach Stotts said J.J.’s work on the boards was basically what won the game for the Blazers. Sunday night, Damian Lillard said that most of the night Hickson was the best player on the floor. J.J. had his jump shot going Sunday. He also had his rebound game going. Hickson finished with 24 points and 16 rebounds. Eight of those rebounds came on the offensive end. If he can sustain this level of play, not only is there a good chance a team will come calling with something useful to offer in a trade, there’s a very good chance the Blazers will want to keep him around for awhile. Right now I prefer J.J. as trade bait. I love what he’s brought to this team, and I love a good “great basketball player finds perfect system and grows and flourishes” story, but I’m not ready to admit that J.J. in a contract year will translate to J.J. in a non-contract year. Here’s hoping he proves me wrong.
  • California Berkley star Ryan Anderson was absolutely on fire Sunday night. Anderson was 7-of-10 from deep, and led all scorers with 26 points. Sadly for Mr. Anderson, whenever I think of shooters from Cal, the first guy who comes to mind is Amit Tamir. Standing 6’10” and haling from Jerusalem, Tamir played at Cal from 2001 t0 2004. He was a Playboy All-American in his final year as a Bear, and knocked down an impressive 61 threes in 02-03. Die hard Pac-10 fans will probably remember him. Ducks fans might recall that he dropped 39 points in a double OT game against Oregon as a frosh, and was later named Pac-10 and ESPN.com National Player of the Week. I remember watching him beat up on the Beavers back when I was in high school. I Googled “Amit Tamir Highlights,” and this was the top video. He’s not the skinny kid in the Cal sweatshirt. Thanks for letting me share.
  • I asked both Damian Lillard and Terry Stotts if they were glad to finish a close game without going into overtime. They both said yes.

Box Score


Swarm and Sting

@mikeacker | @ripcityproject | [email protected]

Dec 16, 2012; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard (0) celebrates after hitting the game winning jumper as New Orleans Hornets power forward Ryan Anderson (33) looks on in disbelief during the fourth quarter of the game at the Rose Garden. The Blazers won the game 95-94. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

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