Blazers Drop Lakers in Opener
It wasn't the same Blazer team. It wasn't the same Laker team. But, the result was very familiar. Not only did the Trail Blazers make it 12 of the last 14 over the Lakers in Portland, but they also won their 11th-consecutive home-opening game. Portland led just about wire to wire, built a 19-point second-half margin, and won it 116-106.
The Blazers started with a steady dose of LaMarcus Aldridge, got aggressive play from Nicolas Batum, tough defense from J.J. Hickson, great shooting from Wesley Matthews, and... oh yeah, Damian Lillard put on quite a show in his first NBA regular-season game.
Lillard became the first player since LeBron James to put up 23 points and 11 assists in his first NBA game. Not only that, but Lillard joins Oscar Robertson and Isiah Thomas as the only players with at least 20 points and 10 assists in an NBA debut. Pretty impressive stuff for a guy who deferred all the praise, instead heaping it on his teammates for helping the Blazers get a big first win.
What you just saw was the formula that's going to have to be there every night for the Blazers to overachieve this season, something they admit they're going to have to do to meet their own expectations. They got 103 points from their starting five, dictated the tempo, and used a swarming defense to keep the opposition off balance.
The fearless play started with Batum, and that was very nice to see. With the weight of a brand-new, very large contract hanging over his head, Batum was ultra-aggressive early in the game. This is the Batum Portland wanted to see. He looked for his shot, hit the offensive boards, and got out in transition. Batum ended with 26 points, 6 rebounds, and shot 9 for 16 from the field.
Aldridge was in charge of getting Portland off to a good start offensively, something he's going to have to do. He had 12 points in the opening quarter, as the Blazers led by four points after the first 12 minutes.
Matthews, who walked into the locker room on Halloween night wearing an Iron Man mask (after all, he's never missed an NBA game), was sharp from the field, going 7 for 11, and ended with 22.
And, then there's Hickson. He's being asked to do things that he was not previously known for- defend and rebound. We've always known he can score. Hickson posted a double-double, scoring 13 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. Not bad, considering he was tossed into a cage match with Dwight Howard most of the night. He played bigger than his size, and he's going to have to do that consistently for Portland to have success.
There are, of course, concerns about Portland's depth. As I said, the starters are going to have to do the heavy lifting on this team. But, rookie Meyers Leonard got tossed into the deep end of the pool in his first night, playing 23 minutes. He looked like he belonged, and was effective setting screens and defending.
If Sasha Pavlovic has been an afterthought for you, think again. He's a vet, and he showed in this first game why he's on this roster and why he'll be leaned on to provide relief off the bench. Pavlovic had seven big points, and was brilliant late in the third quarter when the Lakers were attempting a charge.
Clearly, this was a different Laker team than the one that showed up on Tuesday night in their home opener against Dallas. Howard is just a beast, and in this game, unlike on Tuesday, he made his free throws. As simple as it sounds, that will likely be the difference for the Lakers on many nights this season. Against Dallas on Tuesday, Howard was a dreadful 3 for 14 from the line. In this game, he was 15 for 19. If you had simply given me that stat before the game, I would have said the Lakers win going away. The fact that Portland absorbed that kind of performance at the line, and still won, is another feather in their cap.
Kobe Bryant, very frustrated after Tuesday's loss, was very good in this game as well. Kobe ended with 30 points, but had to work for every bit of that. He was harassed into committing seven turnovers, and they were big.
Leading by 19 in the second half, the Blazers did have some trouble slamming the door shut. It was a late rally, but the Lakers didn't go quietly. In the end, their rally didn't start with enough time left on the clock, and their chances ran out late in this game. They are now 0-2 on the season. They'll get it together, to be sure, but they shot 50 percent in this game, outrebounded their opponent by 15, got 30+ from Kobe and Howard, and still lost. The Blazers, not the Lakers, were the reason why. You probably couldn't say that about their loss on Tuesday.
Portland's early-season schedule is brutal. Their first seven opponents all ended last season with records better than .500. And, 12 of the first 19 are on the road. So, enjoy this, because it doesn't get any easier.
On Thursday we'll hit the road for a three-game trip starting in Oklahoma City. After that, it's Houston and Dallas, before returning home to take on the Clippers.
The Blazers were very good on Wednesday night, and that's how they're going to have to play to win games this season, especially early. There will be a lot of pressure on the starters every single night. They're not going to win ugly very often this season.
But, we'll worry about all of that later. Enjoy yet another home win over the Lakers, and get set for a very difficult trip.
I'd love to get your thoughts on this win, and perhaps how it changed your outlook for this year's team.