A Complete Win at the Rose Garden
In a win that was satisfying as it was needed, the Trail Blazers played one of their more complete games of the season on Saturday night at the Rose Garden. They stopped their home losing streak at four, and their losing streak to Atlanta at six, blowing out the Hawks 97-77.
The Trail Blazers outshot the Hawks 47% to 41%, but much more importantly destroyed Atlanta in the rebounding column 50 to 27. That's what Nate McMillan has been wanting to see, and it's always an indicator of effort. It's also a solid sign that his message is getting through. No, the team has not tuned him out, despite what you read elsewhere. I've seen teams tune coaches out, and that's never been a serious concern with this group.
It was also a very nice step in the right direction for Raymond Felton, who has taken a ton of heat, as you know. He's also put a lot of pressure on himself and isn't a player who has ever seemed to step his game up due to big-time criticism. I spoke to Ray during pregame warmups, and he told me he felt more relaxed than he has been in a couple of weeks. Then, he went out and played like it.
Felton wasn't dazzling, and didn't post massive numbers. But, that's not what this team needs from him. It needs steady play, with an effort to push the tempo while staying under control, and it also needs him to shoot a decent percentage. He did all three in this one. Felton had 14 points, eight assists, and only 2 turnovers. He was also 6 for 11 from the field and hit 2 of his 5 three point attempts. What a difference that made for the Blazers.
Of course, also making a big difference was the return of LaMarcus Aldridge, who didn't look to be bothered by his sore ankle. He scored 19 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, and needed to play only 35 minutes.
This was really the first chance we got to see this new starting lineup, that debuted in the Washington game, but was quickly undone when Aldridge rolled his ankle less than two minutes into that game. With Nic Batum starting at the off-guard spot, and Wallace at the small-forward position, the Trail Blazers can really cause matchup trouble for opponents. Tonight we got a look at that with LaMarcus healthy again.
Batum was very good, and wasn't just good for a half, or a quarter, like he was Thursday against the Clippers. He had 22 points, on 9 of 15 shooting. He also had 8 rebounds, including 4 offensive boards. That's huge for Nic, and something he's got to continue to work on. He could be a dominant offensive rebounder with his long arms, slippery frame, and nose for the ball.
Being taken out of the starting lineup hasn't seemed to bother Wesley Matthews, and that would bother other players. Matthews has taken it as a challenge, and against the Hawks had 13 points, and was very active defensively. That's what this team needs from him, in that role.
It was a bit of an odd game, as both teams shot the heck out of the ball in the first quarter. Atlanta shot 67% in the opening frame, and the Blazers were at 65%. The second quarter was a complete reversal. Portland was just 7 for 24, and the Hawks were a very uncharacteristic 3 for 17. The Hawks improved, only slightly, in the third quarter shooting 7 for 19.
Being Atlanta is 13-0 on the season when shooting just 45% for the game, it was vital Portland's defense not let them get hot. It didn't. And, this time the Blazers were able to put them away. They lost that 18-point lead to the Clippers on Thursday, but tonight dropped the hammer and increased their lead to 22 before winning it by 20.
Considering the Blazers were just 16-16 through 32 games last season, and are now 17-15, despite having the 2-10 record in games decided by five points or fewer, and despite battling through some injuries, this is actually encouraging. I spent some time with ESPN's John Hollinger before the game and he said what so many around the league have said about the Blazers- they are better than their record. Potentially, a lot better. But, that doesn't mean thing automatically get better from here.
Saturday night was a big step in the right direction. The effort and execution will have to be even better in the next couple of games, as the Blazers take on the Lakers in L.A. on Monday, and then host the red-hot San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday. Then, it's the All-Star break, already.