Dec 20, 2012; Portland, OR, USA; Denver Nuggets small forward Danilo Gallinari (8) drives around Portland Trail Blazers center J.J. Hickson (21) at the Rose Garden. Mandatory Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Game 24 Recap: Blazers 101, Nuggets 93

I think when you compete and you play hard you make things happen…Stats don’t matter most of the time. It’s not how well we play, it’s how we play.

The above quote was delivered by Portland’s head coach Terry Stotts following the Blazers’ 101-93 victory over the Denver Nuggets, their fourth victory in a row and a win that brings them back to .500 on the this young season, in response to a question about Portland’s continually “wacky” box scores.

Thursday’s box score is about was “wacky” as anybody is likely to see. The Blazers were outscored in the paint 74 to 28, they shot 36% from the field and 39% from three, they gave up an astonishing 31 fast break points will scoring only seven, and they led wire-to-wire in what never got closer than a one-possession game after Portland’s second bucket.

How is this possible, you might ask. Well, look no further than Denver’s 0-for-22 from three, or their overall shooting of 38-for-98, or the fact that until Ty Lawson hit a 20-footer with 38 seconds left in the game they hadn’t managed a single basket, not one, from outside the painted area. There’s futility, and then there’s the type of shooting night the Nuggets had Thursday.

But a bad shooting night in and of itself isn’t enough to doom a team. I point you to last Monday night. On that night, the Blazers shot a then NBA-record 0-of-20 from three (a record that lasted all of a week and a half), and still managed to walk off their home court victors by nearly 20 points. So what’s the difference between Portland’s performance last Monday (miss 20 threes in a row and win) and Denver’s on Thursday (miss 22 threes in a row and lose)? Well as the Nuggets were putting on a clinic in how not to shoot jump shots, the Blazers were stringing together what Damian Lillard described as probably his team’s most complete 48-minute game.

I tend to disagree with that assessment, the San Antonio win is still my high-water mark, but it is pretty safe to say Thursday was Portland’s best front-to-back team win. A team win that shows that this group is starting to coalesce, and regardless of the expectations, or the last game, or the next game, they’re going to make it a game almost every night of the week.

Quite possibly what’s most important about Thursday’s win, is that it came without LaMarcus Aldridge on the floor. Portland has so far overcome the absence of Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews. As valuable as Batum and Matthews are to the success of this team, the things they bring can be replaced. Lillard is as good or better at getting to the rack as both Nic and Wesley, their deep ball can be replaced by both Luke Babbitt and Damian, their defense can be compensated for (if not fully replaced) by a combination of Sasha Pavlovic, Ronnie Price, and Meyers Leonard.

But what LaMarcus brings to the table, nobody on the bench can replace. J.J. Hickson has been invaluable in the paint and on the glass but doesn’t have anywhere near the shooting ability of LA, Joel Freeland hasn’t proven to be much more than a long-term project, same with Meyers Leonard. Luke Babbitt has emerged as maybe the most reliable scorer off the bench, but he’s a stretch four, he’s inside game is totally non-existent. Thursday, LA’s loss was felt, there’s no doubt about it, but not having on the court didn’t sink the Blazers.

“It’s tough when you don’t have your best player out there,” Damian Lillard said after the game. “For us to come out, and for guys to step up, I think it says a lot about our team.”

I feel like that about sums it up. Portland needed guys to step up to take the place of their number-one option. It didn’t have to be one guy, but the missed scoring and the missed minutes that came with LaMarcus being out had to be accounted for.

Thursday only Victor Claver and Will Barton didn’t score of the Blazers who saw time, and Jared Jeffries collected the only DNP-CD. Four of five starters reached double digits in scoring, and no single guy turned the ball over more than twice. Those are the type of positive numbers that tend to lead to wins.

For how strange a box score Thursday had, there wasn’t really a sense of shock or anything like that in Portland’s locker room post game. The win itself might have been out of the ordinary, but winning, as a thing is starting to become commonplace for these Blazers. You know the old saying, “act like you’ve been there before?” That’s how Portland was acting following Thursday’s win, partially because when you win four in a row, you have been there before, but also because as important as one win is, the goals are things like finishing with a winning record and making the Playoffs.

There’s a long way to go, and I don’t think the Blazers are a Playoff team, but some projections had Portland in and around the neighbor hood of 20 wins. Right now they’ve got 12 wins. Something very serious would have to happen for this team to fall far enough to not completely obliterate that number.

Also, this happened Thursday night:

Portland looks to stretch their winning streak to five (should the Mayans be wrong about the end of the world and stuff) Saturday night against the Phoenix Suns at the Rose Garden.

Couple of quick things:

  • With his 14 points Thursday, Luke Babbitt has now scored 10 or more points in three-straight games. Fourteen is now a season-high for Luke. Babbitt got probably his first non-ironic standing ovation after picking up his sixth foul with 2:15 left in the fourth quarter. As much as I love to see Babbitt playing well, he still needs to figure out that he’s is absolutely the most valuable on the catch and shoot. Luke has been trying to work off the dribble, which is not playing to his strength. Hopefully going 3-for-3 from deep in the second quarter is the kind of thing that opens his eyes to what he should be doing.
  • Damian Lillard’s dunk was certainly his highlight of the night. He downplayed it some, mentioning that he’s capable of dunking the ball, so it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. Thursday started with Lillard receiving his trophy for winning November’s Rookie of the Month. He downplayed that too, saying he’d be giving the trophy to his mother since she knows what to do with it and he tends to not get too caught up in that kind of stuff. I’ve had the opportunity to talk to Dame after almost every home game now, and I firmly believe his humility is sincere and not just an affectation. Whether Dame is humble for real or he’s putting it on, he believes in his own ability. There may come a time in Lillard’s career where his confidence in his ability eclipses his natural inclination to deflect positive accolades. There may come a time when Damian cares about winning awards and collecting trophies. Right now, he could care less about all those things. Thursday, Lillard was once again off on his shot. He didn’t make a field goal until the third quarter, he missed all but one of his six three-point shots, and his 3-for-14 from the field was far from good. However, he collected 10 assists, four rebounds, and a steal, and coughed the ball up only two times in 35 minutes.
  • J.J. Hickson picked up another double-double: 18 points and 18 rebounds. Pencil him in for that double-double most of the rest of the way.

Box Score

Standings

@mikeacker | @ripcityproject | [email protected]

Dec 20, 2012; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers center J.J. Hickson (21) runs off the court after a game against the Denver Nuggets at the Rose Garden. Hickson scored 18 points and had 18 rebounds in the 101-93 win. Mandatory Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

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