The Portland fans were on pins and needles. The fading Sacramento Kings had given the Blazers everything they could handle just two nights before. Now Dwayne Wade and the much better Miami Heat were in town.
Sure, Portland pulled off the win in Miami, but it was a close game. Just a break or two going the Heat's way and it would have been a different result. That was easily a game the Blazers could have lost.
They were having none of that on this night. They started out with a quick 8-0 run. Moments later Heat coach Erik Spoelstra had to call a second time-out with the score 19-4.
In past years the Blazers would allow the other team back into games like this. In this one, it started to look that way.
After building a lead in the low 20's, Portland saw the Heat creep back to within 13 at 46-33. It was at that point that coach Nate McMillan made an interesting choice. He inserted Nicolas Batum to defend Dwayne Wade.
Typically Batum has played the Ervin Johnson role. That would be the Ervin who played for the Seattle Supersonics, not the more famous Earvin "Magic" Johnson.
Ervin would come in, soak up five to 10 minutes at the start of each half, and then work on polishing the bench. Batum is similar.
He plays the first six minutes or so of each half. He is in there specifically to defend the best opposing wing player. Any offense or rebounding he provides is purely a bonus.
Once he comes out, he is generally done for the half as McMillan fills the other 18 minutes of small forward with Travis Outlaw or Rudy Fernandez. That is a hard decision to argue with. Both Outlaw and Fernandez are dynamic scorers, and each helps in other ways.
On this night, however, McMillan quickly identified the problem. The Heat wings were driving to the hole at will and bringing the Heat back within striking distance. He reinserted Batum with 4:16 remaining in the second quarter. Portland proceeded to rebuild the lead to 19.
The shift was immediately felt. The Heat still scored a little bit, but the nature of their shots changed. It was no longer easy drives and uncontested shots. Now every shot was contested and the lane was closed down. The moment Batum came back in the game, the entire flow of the game turned back in the Blazers' favor.
That was not the only time Batum was instrumental in turning the tide. In the second half the Heat pulled within 14 after a quick 5-0 run. Batum snatched the ball out of a big scramble, retreated to the three-point line, and put the Blazers back on track. Miami would never seriously threaten again.
The rest of the game was simply seeing how many Blazers would score in double figures (six, but two more had eight points apiece), how many blocked shots Joel "Jolezilla" Przybilla would end up with (four), and whether Ike Diogu would ring up a trillion (no, but he did manage a suck differential of +2).
The game was very out of hand. But there were still some great moments. Joelzilla was called for goaltending after blocking yet another Michael Beasley shot. It was a bad call, but when you are ahead 90-61, does it matter?
To Joelzilla it did. On the ensuing Heat possession he put a Beasley jumper about 20 rows into the stands. The entire Blazer bench was standing and laughing because he did it so emphatically, obviously sending a message and challenging the referees to call another goaltend.
I have seen a lot of NBA games, but that was the first time I have seen a shot block in a 30-point game with 6:47 remaining receive a standing ovation. The Garden was rocking as if he had just saved the game instead of made what was ultimately a pretty meaningless block in a game that had long been decided.
Interestingly enough, it was also his last moment of playing time as McMillan sent Greg Oden back into the game.
Oden showed some nice signs. He hit a pretty jump hook, was moving better than we normally see, had a nice block, and recorded a double-double in just 25 minutes.
It was good to see him flowing with the offense instead of trying to dunk everything. He looked much better and looked like he was having fun.
The rest of the bench looked good, too. Sergio Rodriguez had a great game. Oh, sure, he scored all of zero points. He did, however, ring up 11 assists to only one turnover. Several of the assists were spectacular.
Twice he hooked up with Fernandez for alley-oops. He also found Outlaw for an alley-oop. He set people up for so many dunks that Blazer fans almost forgot what a missed shot looked like.
Channing Frye also had a great game, breaking out of a recent slump. He scored inside and outside, he played some nice defense, and generally brought it all night long.
Speaking of breaking out of slumps, the LaMarcus Aldridge slump was non-existent, at least for one night, with 16 points on 7-10 shooting, seven rebounds, and three spectacular blocks. He had the Garden rocking, too. Portland fans were well aware he has been struggling. They are also well aware that a struggling Aldridge means a struggling team. He is a key player.
Best of all, though, was the offensive performance of defensive maven Batum. He dropped 10 points in the first half and 15 overall on 6-9 shooting. He played excellent defense on Dwayne Wade and Mario Chalmers, and grabbed six rebounds.
In what turns out to be a 38-point difference, it is seldom you can point to one player who more or less determines the outcome. In this case, it was not so difficult. Batum scored early and more or less rendered Wade ineffective until the score was out of hand. By the time Wade got going, the game was out of reach.
This is the first time Portland has had two 38+ wins in a season since 1997-98. They have had them in the last week. They are red hot and rolling going into the big game against the Hornets.
Don't expect any 30-point blow-outs, but if they get these types of contributions from their "role players," they will be tough to beat.
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