At the end of December, when Portland was closing out a nice home stand with a couple of wins, you could have looked at this current road trip and said to yourself, two wins would be nice. Toronto’s not a great team, and the Blazers usually play them very well. There’s a win. The Timberwolves are still a few players short of being the hottest team in the West some forward thinking pundits predicted they might be in 2012-13. There’s another win too. But the Knicks and the Grizzlies, better hope those games stay close so Portland’s spirit doesn’t get totally decimated.
The way Portland performed during their last round trip, you could have been excused for thinking that wins in Toronto and the Twin Cities where far from a sure thing. But here we sit, on a frigid Friday evening with the Blazers looking at a split at worst on a tough four-game trip, having pulled off their two best road wins of the season in the space of less than a week.
Beating the Grizzlies 86-84 on their home turf wasn’t the win of the season, like beating the Knicks ontheir home turf very well might have been, but it was the kind of win that makes Wednesday seem like less of a fluke while at the same time reinvigorating all talks of potential that may have stalled out after the Raptors ran the Blazers up, down, and then out of the Air Canada Centre.
I’m not personally ready to admit that wins and losses are what’s important for Portland this season. Let’s make it through January first. If, come February, the Blazers are at or near .500 and in the neighborhood of the Western Conference’s top eight, then we can start looking at how many wins Portland needs to extend their season.
That doesn’t mean that certain thing coming from individual games aren’t important, and shouldn’t be discussed. Two things from Friday leap to mind. First, Portland’s ability to play timely defense. And second, the Blazers’ ability to stay connected and then win close games.
The Grizzlies on Friday weren’t exactly on fire, but they shot well enough to counter any run Portland made with a run of their own. That is, until the fourth quarter. The Blazers grabbed their first fourth quarter lead with six and half minutes left in the game on a driving lay-up from J.J. Hickson. Memphis would score only two more field goals the rest of the night. In a one-possession game down the stretch, getting stops was the difference between winning and losing.
Not all of the credit for these stops can be given to Portland’s defense, take for instance a string of possessions that started at the two-minute mark of the game’s final period.
The possessions begin with Mike Conley missing a lay-up, then over the course of two seconds, Marresese Speights misses two lay-ups and gets two offensive rebounds. Following the second missed put-back by Speights, Mike Conley secures what is now the third offensive rebound of the trip for Memphis, but then he too misses a lay-up. The ball falls again to Speights, who grabs it and puts up yet another shot that misses. Finally the ball ends up in the hands of Nicolas Batum, and the possessions are over.
If you’re keeping track, that’s three offensive rebounds for Speights and one for Conley, and two missed lay-ups each for both, all with under two minutes to play and their team down by three. It may not have been the best defensive stand by Portland, but defending isn’t about keeping your opponent from shooting, it’s about keeping your opponent from scoring.
Even if the Blazers couldn’t keep the Grizzlies from getting looks late in the fourth, they were able to force Memphis into very difficult and contested looks. On both of the Grizzlies’ final two possessions, Portland in the form of Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum, forced Rudy Gay into tough jumpers off the dribble. Gay is one of the best off the dribble shooters in the league, but with a hand in his face, even he isn’t always automatic.
Two tight possessions, one of which would have given Memphis the lead and the other would have given the Grizzlies the win if they’d have taken a better shot, on the final two defensive stands of the evening is very clearly the definition of timely defense.
Timely defense, of course, ties directly into the other major takeaway from Friday night’s game, which is winning close games. Getting a close win wasn’t unique to Friday, Portland has been doing it all season. How they’ve been doing it, though, has changed basically game to game. At Madison Square Garden, it was Damian Lillard hitting a step-back three. Friday, it wasn’t one shot by one guy, not exactly. Nicolas Batum hit a go-ahead three with 3:27 left in the game, but after that, the Blazers iced the game from the free throw line. J.J. Hickson knocked in two big ones and LaMarcus Aldridge split a pair just to make everything a little more interesting. It wasn’t pretty, but not all wins have to be pretty to count.
Portland will have nights where their offense is flowing and they get their last couple, game-winning, buckets on well designed plays that either open up Nic or Wesley for a long jumper, get J.J. going to the hoop for a dunk or LaMarcus to the elbow for a J, or Dame for yet another step-back. Those will be the nights that light up the highlight reels and get replayed on the JumboTron at the Rose Garden over and over. Those nights are great.
There will also be nights when the Blazers shoot a hair above 40%, every possession goes into the final ticks of the shot clock, and it seems like every single point comes after working really really hard. On those nights, Portland will have to do the little things, make at least one free throw to ensure they can’t be beat by a two-pointer, hustle after loose balls, and fight for offensive rebounds even if it’s the third or fourth time they’ve had to do it on a single possession if they want to get a close win. They did all those things Friday, and although very little of what went down in Memphis will make the highlights, it’s equally important to the development of this team.
Portland closes out this road-trip on Saturday in Minnesota against the Timberwolves.
Couple of quick things:
- Zach Randolph did not play Friday due to the flu.
- Portland’s bench continues to take two steps forward and one step back. Friday Luke Babbitt and Will Barton were the only bench players to score, combining for nine points, and none of Portland’s reserves reached the 11-minute mark in playing time. Joel Freeland had a rough night, missing all four of his field goal attempts in eight minutes on the court. Ronnie Price and Sasha Pavolvic played but didn’t do much. Will Barton had nice couple of hoops but contributed very little. And Luke Babbitt shot 1-of-5 from three. I’m really starting to get behind Babbitt’s play, but he’s next big step is building some consistency.
- Speaking of consistency. LA is becoming one of the most consistently bad free throw shooters in the fourth quarter with the game on the line. Just putting it out there.
- Damian Lillard’s line was nice, even if his shot was a bit off. He finished with 11 points, eight assists, and five rebounds. That triple-double is in sight.
- LA and J.J. both collected double-doubles. 15 points and 12 rebounds for Aldridge; 19 points and 11 rebounds for Hickson.