I admit it—I was wrong. I figured the Portland Trail Blazers would win this game against the Atlanta Hawks easily by 10+ points. This one should be a blowout, a laugher. And it almost was...just in the other direction.
Portland started out all right with LaMarcus "LA" Aldridge scoring four quick points and Joel Przybilla adding a pair of awkward-looking free throws for a 6-2 lead. But after scoring six points in three minutes they could manage just nine for the next 13.
It was a team effort with turnovers, missed shots—most of them open looks from favorite positions—and missed free throws. Meanwhile, the defense was porous, allowing lay-ins, alley-oops, uncontested drives, and dunks by the Hawks.
When most of your shots are layups or dunks you are going to make a lot of them. Success breeds success. Suddenly an easy game looked even easier and the Hawks built a substantial 29-19 lead after one quarter.
Of course, the Blazer faithful were not worried. We were watching our guys take the shots we know they make high percentages on and our vaunted bench was going to make everything all right. It certainly looked that way early as the first four Portland possessions resulted in two dunks by Travis Outlaw, a short jumper by Channing Frye, and a wide open three from James Jones to make it just 34-28 with 9:36 left in the quarter. Coldness, thy name is the Blazers offense. More than four minutes later when Brandon "The Natural" Roy dropped in free throws Atlanta was up a dozen at 42-28.
As a casual Hawks fan who wishes them well when they are playing any team not named the Blazers, I wish I could report that their phenomenally talented young players were making spectacular shots against tough defense, holding out promise for their future. In reality they were making lay-in after lay-in.
Well, lay-ins when they were not throwing down thunderous dunks.
On the bright side, no Blazers were "posterized." On the dark side, that is because the Hawks shots were so open there was no Blazer in the picture frame. It was pretty brutal.
At the other end, the Blazers shots WERE being contested. The Hawks were extending their defense and shot after shot taken by the Blazers was against the shot clock or with a hand in their face. The combination of outstanding Hawks defense and pathetic Portland defense was becoming lethal. They built an 18 point lead before Roy closed the half with a spectacular drive and free throw after the foul. The half time score was 52-37 and it looked ugly.
Going back to the Houston game, the Blazers had now gone four consecutive quarters where 19 points was their BEST score for a quarter. Not good. Furthermore, Aldridge had a total of five shots. He had shown early on he could score almost at will as Atlanta had nobody who was even troubling his shot. Yet after his first couple scores he got just three shots for the half.
Roy was a game-time decision to play due to the flu, the Hawks were playing great defense, and Portland was not finding ways to score. It looked bad. Despite that, I commented to my wife, "They can still win this."
It did not look like it at the start of the third. Aldridge turned the ball over and missed his first shot, though his second was good and Roy hit a lay-in, but Atlanta was expanding their lead. They also were doing a great job. When Roy started his pick and roll Atlanta was doubling Roy and forcing him out 30 feet from the basket. Portland was not rotating the ball and their stagnant offense was not making the Hawks pay for having two defenders so far from the basket.
As late as 1:02 of the third quarter Atlanta had a 15 point lead at 73-58. On the bright side, that meant Portland had finally broken the 20 point barrier for a quarter. But they still could not stop Atlanta.
Then Outlaw drained a three, they picked off a Joe Johnson pass, and Frye hit a tough shot with just a couple seconds left on the clock for a quick 5-0 run to get them within 10 after three. It was the first quarter they have won in a while and a marked turnaround from their normal third quarter woes.
The start of the fourth quarter saw something that drew a lot of distaste from the Portland crowd. Williams—I believe it was Marvin, though it might have been Shelden—got behind the Blazers defense and was on his way for the break-away dunk. No big deal, by this point it felt like Portland had given up 10 or 15 dunks.
But for whatever reason James Jones made a dirty play. He grabbed his shoulders from behind and essentially horse-collared him to the ground. It was properly called a Flagrant 2 (I believe that is the more serious one), but it also did a couple things.
First, it completely killed the crowd. That is the sort of play we might have expected in the Rasheed Wallace-Damon Stoudemire-Darius Miles type of days. It is not the sort of thing we expect from this team—a young team that plays the game hard but clean. No need for the Detroit Pistons type play of the late 90s, none of the Rick Mahorn/Dennis Rodman/Shaquille O Neal type nonsense.
Blazers fans simply do not like dirty play or cheap shots and this was exactly that. And Jones knew it instantly.
A couple other season ticket holders sitting behind me even had a short discussion about how much of a rally killer it was. Prior to that play the Blazers fans were into the game. That 10 point deficit felt like a lead. The fourth quarter is ours, we knew the game was in hand. After that play people were shifting in their seats and one family even left.
I suspect we will not see anything like that from Jones again. Fortunately, Williams was not hurt and though Atlanta did not score on the possession after the free throws it felt like far more than a two-point swing. It felt like they were down 15 or 16 points again. The crowd was completely taken out of the game.
And so it went. After 2.5 minutes of the quarter Atlanta held a 14 point lead. It was at this point that McMillan made a great coaching move. Instead of setting picks for Roy, which Atlanta clearly had the number of, he started running clear-outs for Roy. The double teams disappeared and the offense exploded.
Outlaw then changed the game when he hit back to back threes with a hand in his face from the left side foul line extended. The second one pulled Portland within eight.
As late as the five minute mark Atlanta was maintaining an 11 point lead. Sure, Portland was scoring but Atlanta was too...when they could hold on to the ball. Outlaw hit a jumper. Atlanta turned it over. Aldridge scored. Atlanta got an alley-oop throw down. Jones hit a jumper and, wonder of wonders, Johnson missed a shot. Roy got a three point play and after the timeout hit the free throw to pull Portland within four. Atlanta got another alley-oop dunk.
See a pattern here? Where was the Blazer interior defense?
After an Aldridge bucket to pull Portland within four again Roy somehow, someway blocked a shot. It was an impossible block and when he scored after a clear out it was a two point game. He then forced Johnson into an air ball after Johnson spent almost the entire shot clock trying to break him down. Roy drove and scored again and for the first time since 0-0 the game was tied.
For the first time this season, I saw Portland force a team to take a timeout when they could not get the ball inbounds. After the reset, they got it in to Johnson.
He then forced Johnson into an air ball with nine seconds left. Once more Portland went to the Roy isolation at the top of the key. Once more he broke down his defender. This time he drew the foul and with two seconds went to the line.
He missed the first one—amazing! Here is one of the most clutch guys the Blazers have ever had, certainly the most clutch guy since Terry Porter, and he missed. But the second was good and all the Hawks could manage was a wild buzzer-beating three attempt that never had a chance.
The Blazers pulled out the improbable one-point win.
Some amazing things happened in this game. To start with, after shooting 1-10 on threes in the first half Portland went 4-6 from downtown in the second half. With just about 38 percent shooting for about 2.5 quarters they ended up shooting 50 percent for the game.
Atlanta shot 52.6 percent for the game, but just 2-11 from the three point line. Yet despite the ease with which they got inside most of the game, crunch time became a heave fest from the extra distance, which combined with a bevy of turnovers allowed Portland to make up 11 points in five minutes.
When Portland was struggling to score, McMillan made an interesting substitution. Aldridge sat from the 2:27 mark of the third quarter while Frye played until the 5:01 mark of the fourth. Frye was playing very well (14 points on 6-8, 6 rebounds), but so was Aldridge (16 points on 7-11, 8 boards...and 3 of his misses were first period). Of the two, Aldridge is the better interior defender, an area where Portland was struggling. Aldridge ended up playing only a shade under 30 minutes for the game, which I found curious. Obviously, however, McMillan pulled the right strings.
Overall it was an entertaining game that speaks well of this Portland team. Behind by double digits for the better part of all four quarters they somehow found a way to get key stops, adapt their offense, and find ways to score just enough points to pull out a game they easily could have lost.
Atlanta played great for 43 minutes. Both teams left it all on the floor and at the end of the day the better team won...but just barely.
This should be an exciting rivalry for the next few years as bot teams have numerous young, promising players who can develop into something special. Unfortunately for Hawks fans, this collapse has the feeling of having the same impact the Philadelphia game did on Portland where it might send them into a tailspin.
Meanwhile, Portland should be fired up for the upcoming Cavaliers game and that can only be a good thing.