A few hours before game time, we got the news—Greg Oden would make his first home start.
Personally, I was a little disappointed. I believe he will be a monster and a key cog in the Blazers' title runs over the next few years. However, at this moment in time, Joel Przybilla just fits better with the starting lineup.
As an aside, a fan at the stadium had a new nickname for Jole that I like even better than "The Vanilla Gorilla" or "The Thrilla"—Joelzilla. Simply awesome. I hereby demand all references to Joelzilla retroactively be changed to reflect this new name, which just might have people going deaf from overexposure to awesomeness.
When Joel starts, the Blazers like to begin the game by pounding it inside to LaMarcus Aldridge. LA has really developed a strong post game over the past couple of seasons, and this establishes it. It also gets Portland rolling with an inside-out game that leads to open perimeter looks for Steve Blake, Nicolas Batum, and Brandon Roy.
Joelzilla does a tremendous job in this line-up of setting picks, and—almost as important—not clogging up the lane for LA or for Roy's drives. Oden, by contrast, too often plants himself down low and simply tries to overpower people. The offense bogs down, he picks up offensive fouls, and low scoring becomes the norm.
On this night, the low scoring did not happen. In the first six-minute stretch, with Oden and Batum on the floor, the Blazers shot out to 14 points and a small lead. However, Oden did not look comfortable at all.
That is okay, because this is a move for the long term. Joelzilla is a very good team guy, but may not be the right starting center for a team planning to do damage in the playoffs. It will take time to get the new starting lineup acclimated together—and what better time to do it than against a lower-echelon team with a marginal inside game?
Early on, it looked like Oden or not, the Blazers were going to blow the Kings off the court. Then something strange happened. The Blazers forgot that Stephen Hawes and Brad Miller are atypical big men who can shoot from distance. And shoot from distance they did.
Over and over, we yelled at Blazer defenders stuff like, "This just in. Miller hasn't missed a three this half!" as he bombed in another wide open trey. It was so bad that at one point the Blazers' free-throw percentage was 64 percent, and the Kings' three-point percentage was 71 percent.
That is not a typo. The Kings, well into the fourth quarter, were shooting over 70 percent from deep range.
That is one way to stay in a game when you are out-rebounded 48-32, commit 22 turnovers, and give up 24 free throws. Credit the Kings for hanging tough.
And even more, the Kings deserve major credit for the defensive job they did in the last minute. Everyone in the building knew Roy was going to get the ball. But the Kings decided he wasn't. John Salmons played tremendous denial defense, forcing the Blazers to go to Travis Outlaw, who mustered only an awkward-looking drive that never really had a chance of going in and left the Kings with the last shot in a one-point game.
Twice already this season, Portland has had to score on their last possession—three times if you count the Houston game as two. The Spurs got a last shot, but that was in transition with no time to run a play.
This was the first time this year Portland had to play defense against a set play with the game on the line. We know they can score to win games. Can they defend to win games?
Somehow, some way, they completely disrupted the Sacramento play and Salmons heaved up a wild, tough shot against some pretty-intense defense. There is a reason Portland is 9-6 and the Kings are 5-11—the Blazers finished the game stronger at both ends.
Along the way, we had a few awesome moments. Roy added yet another spectacular highlight-reel drive. This one started left of the key with a behind-the back dribble to leave one King in his wake, a spin, a shift around a Sacramento big man and a lay-in over the late rotation of a third King. Simply gorgeous.
For the night, we learned a lot of things. We learned that one reason Portland will continue to be successful is because guys accept their roles without complaint, continue to do their job, and pull for each other. We learned that even on an off night offensively, Aldridge can contribute on the boards. We learned that even on nights when the bench struggles (14-34 from the field), Portland is going to win.
I guess you could say we learned Brandon Roy is spectacular—but I suspect most of us already knew that.
I expected Portland to win by double digits. They won by one. In a way, that is disappointing. They should beat even an inspired Kings team running without Francisco Garcia and Kevin Martin by more than one.
Then again, in a way it is inspiring. As numerous players said in the post-game interviews, a couple years ago Portland would have lost this game. This time they showed poise, they showed maturity, and did what it took to walk away with the W.
Ultimately, that is what it is all about.