The Portland Trail Blazers won yet another Northwest Division contest at the Moda Center with a 115-104 victory against the Minnesota Timberwolves Saturday night. With the victory, the Trail Blazers matched their win total from last season with three months to go in the regular season.
While the matchup was billed as a showdown between the NBA’s two best power forwards, LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Love, it was Trail Blazers small forward Nicolas Batum who provided the highlights early.
Batum, who the Timberwolves tried to acquire via restricted free agency two summers ago, scored Portland’s first five points and finished the first quarter with 11 points, five rebounds and three assists. He would finish the night with 13 points, eight rebounds and five assists in 35 minutes.
“I liked the way Nic came out,” said Stotts. “He was aggressive in transition, took the ball to the basket. But whoever it is, I think that kind of sparks confidence with our team.”
The Timberwolves would counter with Kevin Martin, who almost matched Batum with 10 points in the first quarter. He would stay hot for the duration of the contest, finishing the game as Minnesota’s leading scorer with 30 points on 11 of 22 shooting.
Wesley Matthews would pick up where Batum left off, scoring 10 points in the second quarter to help the Trail Blazers take a 65-57 going into halftime
That lead would evaporate quickly after the intermission with the Timberwolves starting the second half on a 14-5 run to tie the game at 71-71 with 7:23 to play in the quarter. But Portland would answer back, outscoring Minnesota 16-10 from that point to take a six-point lead into the fourth quarter.
Portland would start the fourth quarter with another run by outscoring Minnesota 18-7 to open up a 105-88 lead with 5:31 to play in regulation. And the Timberwolves would once again respond with a 9-2 run to cut the lead to 10 with three minutes to play. But the Timberwolves were unable to string together baskets consistently late in the game and the Trail Blazers would hit just enough free throws to come away with a 11-point victory.
Aldridge would finish as Portland’s high scorer with 21 points and six rebounds in 34 minutes the game after putting up a career-high 44 points against the Nuggets on Thursday. His counterpart, who was voted in as a starter for the 2014 Western Conference All-Star roster, finished with 15 points on just four of 12 shooting.
“I thought we were very attentive to how (Love) gets his baskets, as far as they run screens for him,” said Stotts. “LaMarcus did a very good job on him in the post, kept him from getting easy baskets. For him to only have one offensive rebound takes a lot of work because he’s always around. If you do a good job on his post-ups and take away offensive rebounds, that leaves perimeter shooting and I thought we did a good job of not giving him necessarily clean looks.”
While Aldridge described the matchup between himself and Love as a “let down,” the performance from Portland’s bench was anything but, scoring 32 points combined while extending Portland’s lead in the second quarter.
“Our reserves were very good in both halves and made a difference in both halves, the energy, just a little bit of everything,” said Stotts. “Mo (Williams) did a nice job of running the team, C.J. (McCollum) took advantage of his opportunities, Thomas (Robinson) brought energy, Joel (Freeland) battled like he always does, so those guys really made a difference for us.”
Mo Williams led the second unit with 16 points and a team-high six assists in 25 minutes. The Trail Blazers are now 16-2 when Williams scores in double figures.
Thomas Robinson and Joel Freeland did the grunt work for the bench unit, combining for 12 rebounds.
“We’ve got to be consistent with it and come in every game and try to give these guys a lift when they need it or be somewhat neutral when those guys have it going,” said Williams. “Tonight was a night where I thought we won the battle of the bench. We want to be consistent and try to win the battle more nights than some.”
While all but one of the starters finished with a negative +/-, ever player in the bench ended on the positive side, led by Williams (+20), Robinson (+19) and C.J. McCollum (+19), who finished with six points, two rebounds, two assists and two steals in 15 minutes.
“He’s going to have some really, really good nights,” said Williams of his rookie backcourt partner. “Like tonight, he got it going. We went to him and he’s going to have those situations where he’s going to have to knock down the open shot. I thought he did a real good job. Defensively, he had a couple good deflections on his man. He’s doing what he’s supposed to do. He’s going to be a really good player in this league. He’s only going to get better.”
Robin Lopez would finish with his 17th double-double of the season with 15 points, 10 rebounds while also handing out three assists. He scored most of his points in the paint, where Portland outscored Minnesota 60-46, which is their second-highest paint total this season.
Matthews would turn in an 18-point, six-rebound, two-assist performance in 34 minutes and Damian Lillard would struggle shooting the field but still managed to net 14 points and five assists in 33 minutes.
Next up, the Trail Blazers fly to the Bay Area to take on the Golden State Warriors tomorrow at Oracle Arena. Tipoff is scheduled for 6 PM.
Of all the adjectives one could use to describe the 2015-16 Portland Trail Blazers, “resilient” might be the most applicable. Despite being the third-youngest team in the NBA this season, the Trail Blazers have been remarkably adept at bouncing back. Whether it was replacing four of five starters from the season before, enduring two losing streaks of at least five games or finishing the season by going 33-18 after starting the year 11-20 to make the postseason and finish fifth in the Western Conference, the Trail Blazers, under Terry Stotts’ steady hand, have shown a level of maturity with regard to the way they’ve dealt with disappointment that belies their relative youth and inexperience.
Which is good, because they’re going to need every last bit of fortitude they can muster to get over their fourth-quarter performance at Oracle Arena in their 110-99 loss to the Warriors in Game Two of the Western Conference semifinals. Despite leading by as much as 17 in the game and 11 in the fourth quarter, the Trail Blazers were outscored 34-12 in the final 12 minutes, resulting in an 11-point loss and a 2-0 series deficit.
“They’re not a young team, they’ve got a lot of guys that have been around, they’re very smart,” said Damian Lillard of the Warriors. “They see slippage and they go after it. If they see something that they can take advantage of, they take advantage of it. In that last five minutes (of Game Two), we just let our foot off the gas a little bit. I don’t know if it was fatigue mentally but we had some mental mistakes. One or two plays got them going, they got into it and the better they played offensively, they just got sharper defensively. That hurt us.”
While every loss stings, Portland’s loss in Game Two seemed to be more painful than most, for multiple reasons. First, the Warriors have lost at Oracle Arena just twice during the regular season, setting the NBA record for most consecutive home victories in the process, making the unfulfilled opportunity of beating the defending champs on their home court, and in a playoff game no less, a rather bitter pill to swallow, especially after leading for all but the last five minutes of the game. The Trail Blazers will have to beat the Warriors at least once at Oracle to move on to the Western Conference Finals, and one could argue that they won’t get a better chance to do so than they had Tuesday night.
“After that game, I was pretty hot about that one,” said Lillard. “Just because not only was it a great opportunity, but we had it. It was right there, all we had to do was four and a half, five minutes where we just got to be as sharp as possible. That was the challenge for us, just lock in even more, take it to a new level. Instead of that, we went a little bit downhill and they picked it up the way we needed to pick it up. We just wasn’t able to finish it. It sucked man. I was pretty hot about that one.”
And then there’s the matter of soon-to-be two-time MVP Stephen Curry, who has sat out the last two games with a sprained MCL in his right knee. While the Trail Blazers are in no way rooting for Curry to remain sidelined, the simple fact is they have a much better chance of beating the Warriors when the best player in the NBA is in street clothes. Golden State head coach Steve Kerr said the Curry would probably sit out Game Three as well, though it seems very unlikely he misses another game this series at Oracle, which, once again, makes the loss in Game Two that much more disappointing.
“I can’t speak on behalf of (the rest of the team), I don’t know how they feel personally, but it’s a game we should have won,” said CJ McCollum. “It’s unfortunate that we let it slip away. That’s what good teams do, they hang around and they finish off games at home. We’ve got to be better than that and I think we will be better. Got to move forward now and take advantage of Game Three.”
Luckily, the Trail Blazers have a bit of extra time to put Game Two behind them. While they have shown an ability to learn from their mistakes and move on this season, some players admitted that Game Two going down the way it did was lingering a bit. And in those situations, sometimes the best solution is playing another game as soon as possible, though that might not be the case this time around.
“Yesterday, I didn’t even want to see a basketball,” said Lillard. “I wasn’t even going to watch the playoff game yesterday until I heard Cleveland was hitting a bunch of threes, so I wanted to see for myself. But I didn’t even want to have nothing to do with basketball yesterday after that game.”
But after a day away from the game, Lillard and the rest of the Trail Blazers returned to their facility in Tualatin to prepare for Game Three at the Moda Center. If they’re able to make the improvements and adjustments necessary to get their first victory of the series Saturday night in Portland, they might truly be able to move on from what happened Tuesday night in Oakland.
“Ain’t nothing I can do about it now. In my mind, it’s over,” said McCollum. “It’s unfortunate that it had to happen but we can learn from it. We can’t sulk and moan and act like it’s the end of the world. We’re down 0-2 against a very good team. Now we’re at home, now we have a very good opportunity to take advantage of two home games and learn from mistakes in the first two games.”
Now back in Portland for games Three and Four of the second round series versus the Golden State Warriors, Joe Freeman, he of The Oregonian/OregonLive.com, and I, Casey Holdahl of ForwardCenter.net/TrailBlazers.com, hit the Moda Center studio to record a Game Two recap edition of the Rip City Report podcast, which you can listen to below…
On this latest edition we discuss Portland’s collapse in the fourth quarter of Game Two that turned what looked like a rare road win at Oracle Arena into an 11-point loss, how the Trail Blazers go about putting that game behind them before Game Three at the Moda Center, the reports of Stephen Curry sitting out Game Three, Maurice Harkless’ defense on Klay Thompson, the overall quality of the defending champs and answer a few questions about Game Three adjustments, Portland’s locker room, Draymond Green, how far we can run at this point in our lives and a few more random things that I’ve already since forgotten.
OAKLAND — For the first three quarters, it looked as though the Portland Trail Blazers might actually beat the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena, something that only two teams have managed to do in the last seven months.
But unfortunately for the Trail Blazers, NBA games last four quarters. And Tuesday night in Oakland, the Warriors outscored the Trail Blazers 34-12 in the final 12 minutes to come away with a 110-99 victory in front of a sellout crowd of 19,596 in Game Two of the Western Conference semifinals.
“We played three really good quarters, and we showed that we can compete with them, and it got away from us in the fourth quarter, obviously,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “It was disappointing to lose a game that you’re competitive and you’re in a position to be in the fourth quarter. But we’ve got to close it out… It was an opportunity to get a win on the road, and we’ve got to learn from it and be ready to go get one in Game Three.”
The Warriors now lead the series 2-0.
“I think nights like tonight, they suck,” said Damian Lillard. “It hurts to go back in the locker room after you play so well for so long and you come back in there with the L. But it is a part of growth. The entire season has been growth for us. But nights like tonight, we have to close that out. We have to get that done. It was just a missed opportunity.”
The first half of Tuesday night’s game went about as well as the Trail Blazers could possible expect, with Portland taking a 17-point lead in the second quarter thanks to shooting 51 percent from the field and 50 percent from three. Though the Warriors would cut into the Trail Blazers lead thanks to an 18-3 run, Portland, as was the case for most of the night, always seemed to counter at just the right time to quiet the Oracle Arena crowd. That counter in at the end of the second quarter came courtesy of back-to-back threes from Al-Farouq Aminu and Damian Lillard to push the lead back to eight by the intermission.
Portland, thanks mostly to Lillard going 6-of-11 from the field and 4-of-5 from three in the third, extended their lead to 11 going into the fourth quarter before Golden State got white hot to finish out the game. The Warriors took their first lead of the night early in the fourth quarter and would go on to win by 11 after finishing out the game by shooting 11-of-18 in the final 12 minutes of regulation. The Trail Blazers also play right into the Warriors’ hands by turning the ball over five times while going 5-of-19 from the field.
“I think the last run, they were desperate,” said Lillard. “It got to the point where it was win or lose. There wasn’t another quarter after that. It wasn’t just stay with it. It was, ‘We’ve got to do it now.’ And they played desperate, and we just didn’t respond to it well enough to finish the game.”
The Trail Blazers were led by Lillard, who scored 17 in the third quarter before finishing with 25 points on 8-of-20 shooting from the field and 6-of-11 shooting from three, six assists and four rebounds in 40 minutes. CJ McCollum went 9-of-19 for 22 points, two rebounds and two assists in 41 minutes.
Aminu got off to a fast start, scoring 10 points in the first quarter before finishing with 14 to go along with six rebounds and two assists. Maurice Harkless would add 11 points and seven rebounds in 27 minutes with Gerald Henderson coming off the bench to add 12.
As was the case in Game One, Klay Thompson would lead the Warriors with 27 points on 7-of-20 shooting from the field and 5-of-14 shooting from three. Draymond Green, who was the driving force along with Festus Ezeli in Golden State’s pivotal fourth quarter, was just shy of another triple-double with 17 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in 41 minutes while also blocking four shots.
“I think there came a point where me and Klay were trying to do too much,” said Green. “When we settled down and trusted everybody else, that’s when everything started to click for us. So as far as the way I’ve been playing with the exception of that one game, it’s playoff basketball. This is what we live for. You play the whole season to get to this point.”
Shaun Livingston and Harrison Barnes scored 14 and 13 points, respectively, with Andre Igoudala putting up 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting off the bench.
Next up, the series takes a three-day break before shifting to Portland for Game Three on Saturday at the Moda Center.
“We’ve been in bad positions time and time again, and we’ve never shied away,” said Lillard. “We’ve never not answered the call. I don’t see why this time it would be any different. In our last series against the Clippers, we were down 0-2. We went home, and the next two games they were pretty much full strength. They had their guys and we got it done those two games. Obviously, Golden State is a different monster, but we know the same thing can happen, and that’s what we’re going in there thinking and believing, and we’re back on our home floor. We’ve got to go out there and play a game like tonight and go finish it.”
Tipoff is scheduled for 5:30 pm on ABC and 620 AM.