The Portland Trail Blazers have played in, and ultimately won, numerous harrowing games during the course of their current win streak. And while that wouldn’t necessarily be the case Monday night against the Knicks, the final result was probably closer than the Trail Blazers would have liked.
Not that they weren’t satisfied with a 102-91 victory, their eleventh straight, against a struggling New York team that has lost five straight and eight of their last ten, but after leading by as many as 22 in the first half, head coach Terry Stotts probably would have liked like a nice, relaxing fourth quarter for his 55th birthday. Unfortunately, that would not be the case.
“I was really pleased with the way we set the tone in the first quarter, particularly at the defensive end, and we maintained that throughout the first half,” said Stotts. “I thought that was a great effort. We’re a little dissapointed we let them get back in it, but New York has a lot of talented scorers and three-point shooters and we made a few mistakes.”
The Knicks, lead by 34 points from Carmelo Anthony, stayed just close enough, cutting the lead to seven with 1:47 to play in the fourth quarter, to keep Portland’s starters in the game to preserve the win streak.
“I thought the first half was exceptional in what we did at both ends,” said Stotts. “We gave up 52 in the second half and didn’t win a quarter. They were 0 for 6 from three in the first half and 6 for 9 in the second half. We didn’t win the second half. So the first half no question was better. Learning to play with the lead, it’s difficult in this league. You see teams give up leads a lot.”
Which the Trail Blazers know all too well, inasmuch as they’ve been the team coming back from leads this season, most recently in victories against the Bulls and Warriors. Luckily they’ve been on the good side of those comebacks, but a time while come when those leads are insurmountable, which makes games like Monday’s against weaker competition the perfect chance to practice staving off a beatable opponent.
“We’ve got to get better playing with a lead,” said Wesley Matthews. “We’ve already proven that we can play down, we’ve proved we can play in close games, now we’ve got to get better at playing with a lead, because that’s what San Antonio does, that’s what the Heat do and that’s what OKC does. We’re not comparing ourselves to those teams, but those are the upper-echelon teams and if we want to be in that group, when we get you down, we’ve got to keep you down.”
But it was a wire-to-wire win nonetheless, made even more impressive considering Mo Williams’ absence due to suspension. And the fact that the Trail Blazers are in a position where their biggest complaint is their inability to take a double digit lead and keep it throughout a game is proof of how far they’ve come since finishing last season on a 13-game losing streak.
And really, how upset could they be? After all, their 11-game winning streak is now tied for fourth longest in a single season in franchise history and their 13 victories this month is tied for the most wins in November by a Blazers team. But for a team that has talked a lot recently about being “greedy” during this streak, it’s not entirely surprising to hear the coaches and players push themselves closer to perfect.
“I thought we did a great job controlling the game,” said Damian Lillard. “First half we came out and hit ’em hard, jumped on ’em. That third quarter we kind of had a rough patch where they got some good looks and we had some turnovers and didn’t execute as well as we would have liked to and they kind of made it a game. I felt like, for the most part, we had full control of the game.”
It was Nicolas Batum’s turn to come out on fire Monday night, scoring 23 points while adding seven rebounds, six assists, a block and a steam in 39 minutes. Batum, who joked that he had to be aggressive because Matthews, sitting just a few feet away, missed his first three shots, became just the third player in NBA history to log 200 points, 90 rebounds, 70 assists and 30 three-pointers through a team’s first 15 games.
Lillard picked up the slack in the second half, finishing the night with 23 points, six assists and four rebounds in 36 minutes. After a few rough nights from the field, Lillard finished a very respectable nine of 20.
LaMarcus Aldridge turned in a double double with 18 points and 14 rebounds to go with three assists and two blocks. Aldridge moved into ninth on the franchise all-time list in rebounds with 4,092.
Matthews rounded out the the double digit scoring starters with 17 points and six rebounds, though he shot “just” three of nine from the three, well below his season average of 53 percent. He did, however, get an all-time “shooters bounce,” befitting for a player on a hot streak as Matthews is, by banking in a three-pointer from the corner.
“That’s my first in my life,” said Matthews of the shot. “I thought that was so off. I thought that was going to skid and hit (team owner) Paul Allen.”
Next up, the Trail Blazers head to Phoenix to face the Suns on Wednesday. Tipoff is schedule for 6 PM.
“I think Phoenix is the team that gives us the most trouble right now, regular season and preseason, too. We know it won’t be easy against them but we need this game. We’re going to get this game.”