PORTLAND — It took five extra minutes, but the Portland Trail Blazers moved to 44-24 on the season and 25-9 at home with a 120-115 overtime victory versus the Milwaukee Bucks Tuesday night at the Moda Center.
“I’m glad I’m standing here after a win instead of a loss,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “Give Milwaukee a lot of credit. They’ve had a long seasons, Larry (Drew) has done a great job of keeping them competing and playing hard. They played a great game and certainly don’t want to take anything away from what they did, they played hard the whole game. That being said, we didn’t come out with the urgency that we needed … We understand that we were very fortunate to win the game tonight.”
The Trail Blazers improve to 8-1 this season against the Eastern Conference Central Division, including a 5-0 sweep at home and now have a 20-4 record against the Eastern Conference, the best mark of any West team against the East this season.
Tuesday night’s contest had all the excitement you would expect from a midweek game versus the team with the NBA’s worst record, which is to say it was a low-energy affair from the start. The Trail Blazers committed four turnovers in the first three minutes and missed seven of their first 12 shots against a team ranked 23rd in the league in points allowed per game.
The lone bright spot in the first quarter came courtesy of Nicolas Batum, who scored 11 of Portland’s first 13 points and ended the quarter with 16 points on 6 of 8 shooting from the field and 2 of 3 shooting from three. His teammates combined to go 5 of 15 from the field while the Bucks shot 52 percent from the field to take a 29-26 lead into the second quarter.
“Nic kept us afloat in the first half,” said Stotts. “We didn’t have a lot of offense really going in the first half. He was making his jump shots, he was looking to be aggressive. I hope that makes everybody happy since everybody wants Nic to be aggressive. We needed his offense in the first half. He continues to fill in the gaps.”
The Bucks cooled down in the second quarter, though it was hard to tell if that was due to Portland’s improved defense or their own regression. Milwaukee shot just 6 of 20 on the way to scoring just 18 points in the second quarter. The Trail Blazers were still playing sloppy, as evidenced by five more turnovers in the quarter, but Mo Williams hit all four of his shots, including two three-pointers to score 10 in the second and help Portland take a 52-47 lead into the halftime intermission.
“(Williams) kind of steadied the ship in the first half when the bench guys, the reserves were out there,” said Stotts. “We need Mo. For him to be able to come in and play the minutes he’s playing and be as effective, that’s why we got him here.”
In the second half and overtime it was Wesley Matthews who would save the Trail Blazers from what would have been their worst loss of the season. After scoring just five points on 2 of 6 shooting in the first half, Matthews came alive in the second. The 6-5 guard out of Marquette snapped out of a mini shooting slump to go 4 of 6 from the field and 3 of 3 from three to finish regulation with 20 points. He would add six in the overtime to finish with a game-high 26 while also adding two assists, two rebounds and two steals in 41 minutes.
“I’m taking the same shots I’ve been shooting, they just happened to fall tonight,” said Matthews. “Just continue to attack, get to the free throw line and put pressure on the defense that way. I’m not going to change anything I’m doing. I still feel like every shot that I shoot is supposed to go in and I’m going to continue to play that way.”
Even with Matthews picking up where Williams and Batum left off, Portland trailed the Bucks, a team with just 13 victories this season, 98-96 with nine seconds to play in regulation. That was actually a lucky position for the Trail Blazers to be in considering Milwaukee guard Ramon Sessions, a career 80 percent free throw shooter, went 2 of 4 from the line in the final 18 seconds of the fourth quarter.
With the game on the line, the Trail Blazers looked to Damian Lillard, despite having shot 3 of 14 from the field at the time, to take the final shot. Despite having a layup attempt thwarted in his last drive, Lillard went right back to the rim and was able to get the roll to tie the game at 98-98 with four seconds to play.
“We were down two and we spaced the floor out and let me go isolation,” said Lillard. “It didn’t really make sense for me to settle for a jumper when we were only down two and I felt like I could get to the rim.”
Sessions would take and miss a three as time expired to send the game to overtime.
From there, it was all Lillard, Matthews and Williams. The guard trio combined for all of Portland’s 22 points in the overtime period led by 10 points on 3 of
6 shooting from the field and 4 of 4 shooting from the free throw line from Lillard.
“I got some good looks,” said Lillard. “I missed one when they went in the zone. They had a blown coverage and I had a good look. I had another kickout that was a really good look. Wes hit me in the corner, that was a good look. Nic swung me one in the corner earlier and I had a good look. It was just, the ball wasn’t going in. They felt good coming off my hands. I just wanted to stay with it. I knew it would come a point in the game where I knew I would need to make a shot or I was going to need to do something. I didn’t have my greatest shooting night but we won the game and when the game was on the line, I was able to find a way to get it done.”
The Bucks would get 10 points in the overtime period from forward Khris Middleton, but his teammates could also muster seven points, allowing the Trail Blazers to escape with a five-point victory.
“Tonight we were happy with the win – we’re always going to take a win, ugly, pretty, it doesn’t matter,” said Matthews. “But we’re not happy with the way that we played. Credit them, they played hard. We knew they were going to do that. Since the trade deadline, they’ve been a pretty good offensive team but that doesn’t excuse our performance. We’ve got to come out with urgency because every game matters for us and that’s how we’ve got to play going into the post season.”
Batum did almost all of his scoring in the first half and focused on distributing in the second to finish with a near triple-double of 21 points, nine rebounds and nine assists in 44 minutes. Williams ended the night with 23 points on 7 of 12 shooting and three assists. Lillard, though he shot just 1 of 11 from the three point line, managed to score 20 points while handing out four assists.
Robin Lopez rounded out the starters with yet another double-double of 15 points and 14 rebounds in 37 minutes.
Next up, the Trail Blazers host the Wizards Thursday at the Moda Center before heading out on yet another five-game road trip. Tipoff is scheduled for 7 PM.
ESPN’s Zach Lowe, one of the best journalists covering the NBA, if not the best, posted a story today laying out almost the entirety of the Trail Blazers’ offseason moves. Lowe seems somewhat optimistic about the deals Portland made this summer (though he notes they also have the potential to be “disastrous”), while stating the cold fact that a franchise which has shown no ability to draw big name free agents doesn’t have a whole lot of options when trying to build a winner. It’s easily the best retelling of the plan Neil Olshey executed this summer that you’re going to find, so I recommend reading it from start to finish.
But let’s pull look at some of the more interesting tidbits, of which there are many. First, the true target…
They wanted Hassan Whiteside, a sneering rim-runner just a year older than Damian Lillard with the potential to plug every hole in a squishy defense that ranked 21st in points allowed per possession last season.
When Whiteside spurned them, the Blazers faced a choice: hoard cap room, pursue a lesser center (Bismack Biyombo, Ian Mahinmi), or go whole hog in a fit of irrational exuberance with a team that barely cracked .500.
They chose the latter. Lowe points out that in order to keep any real cap space for next season, the Blazers would have had to part ways with many of the players from last year’s team and delayed CJ McCollum’s extension. And even then, it wouldn’t be enough space to sign a max player, assuming one could be lured to Portland anyway, which has never been the case.
On the much-discussed topic of who plays what position, Lowe reports that Al-Farouq Aminu will start at power forward, a move that both Olshey and Terry Stotts have signaled this offseason, though he takes it one step further…
Young teams grow with watering, and the Blazers, expert nurturers, aimed their win-now splurge mostly at young-ish wing players well-suited to a league trending smaller and faster; there is no Tyson Chandler mid-30s appendage here. Portland will start Al-Farouq Aminu at power forward, carrying over a late-season adjustment that jump-started them, and play Aminu there almost exclusively, Stotts said. (Uh oh, Noah Vonleh.)
It’s one thing to use Aminu at power forward for spurts, something the Trail Blazers did often last year, particularly late in the season, but another for him to play there “almost exclusively.” According SportVU player tracking, as provided by Nylon Calculus, Aminu played 56 percent of his minutes at small forward last season while playing power forward 44 percent of the time. Granted, these numbers are imperfect, and positions in the NBA have never been more fluid, but going from roughly splitting time between small and power forward to playing almost entirely at the four is a fairly drastic change.
Then there’s the topic of Dwight Howard, who the Trail Blazers were rumored to be pursuing during the July moratorium. According to Lowe, those rumors might have been a bit overblown…
Pivoting from Whiteside to a Hawks-level offer for Dwight Howard would have been interesting; there’s some chance Howard rediscovers his All-Star form, and a connected chance that a rejuvenated Howard catapults Portland into a 55-win team. But Howard is 30, and the Blazers — like most teams — wanted no part of a long-term commitment to him.
This is just a guess, but this might be what Olshey was referring to when he mentioned “unfounded” speculation and that “a lot of names on lists that were never viable that we never had any interest in” during the press conference to introduce Festus Ezeli. Of course, there’s no lack of speculation during free agency, so it could very well be in reference to someone else.
There’s a whole lot more in there, particularly if you’re interested in how Stotts might utilize Evan Turner, which is very much worth your time.
Greetings podcast enthusiasts. Between CJ McCollum getting an extension and Moe Harkless signing a new deal, Portland’s roster for the start of the 2016-17 regular season is all but finalized. So it seemed like a good time to hit the studio with Joe Freeman of The Oregonian/OregonLive.com to record yet another edition of the Rip City Report podcast, which you can listen to below…
On this edition, we discuss the near-max extension for McCollum and the four-year, roughly $40 million contract for Harkless, which directions Terry Stotts might go in terms of starting lineups and minutes allocations, the news that both Al-Farouq Aminu and Festus Ezeli will forego playing for Nigeria at the 2016 Summer Olympics, give a quick rundown of the preseason schedule and answer your Twitter-submitted questions.
Last weekend, Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum and his older brother, Errick, were guests on ESPN’s SportsCenter to discuss, amongst other things, The Basketball Tournament, which is billed as a “open application, 5-on-5, single-elimination, winner-take-all basketball tournament” in which the winning team takes home $2 million in prize money. Errick’s team, Overseas Elite, won the tournament last year and are in the finals, which airs Tuesday at 4 PM Pacific on ESPN, again this year.
But the tournament wasn’t the only topic of conversation, as any time you get two brothers together, you’re contractually obligated to ask them which is mom’s favorite. One one had, CJ still lives with his mom, so you might assume he’s the got the No. 1 son ranking sewn up, but it sounds like Errick was the much better behaved child and mom’s tend to have long memories, so it sounds like it’s a bit of a tossup.
“CJ, he was a good kid,” said Errick, “he just liked to get into things. He was really physical. She couldn’t take him around any other kids or he would, like, get into little altercations with them because he just played too rough.”
Sounds about right.