Blazers Fight Off Angry Bulls
The Chicago Bulls are a very well-coached team. They are also tough and physical, and are prideful. So, you knew after getting hammered by the Clippers in L.A. on Saturday night, they would come out fighting at the Rose Garden on Sunday, a place where they've had very little success in recent years.
We're also continuing to learn more and more about the Trail Blazers. They, too, have shown a gritty side as of late, and the defense is perhaps starting to follow the same learning curve as the offense.
On Sunday, not only did the Blazers score 102 points on a defense that normally allows 93 points per game, but they held Chicago below its average on offense (just barely). Best of all, for Blazer fans, they saw some toughness, some more balance, and saw their team win its third-straight game, 102-94.
It was another night where we saw all five Blazer starters score in double figures, led by Wesley Matthews and Nic Batum, who each put up 21. LaMarcus Aldridge, who was challenged all night by Joakim Noah, scored 18 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. And, Damian Lillard, who is becoming more of a focal point for opposing defenses, ended with 16 points and shot better than 50 percent from the field.
Portland's bench is also showing improvement. Friday night against Houston, Meyers Leonard was the hero of the second unit. Tonight, it was Jared Jefferies and Ronnie Price who stood out. Price ended with 10 points and five assists, and Jefferies, who's effectiveness can never truly be shown on the stat sheet, had four points and four rebounds.
The Blazers, on several occasions in the second half, seemed poised to take total control and knock the Bulls completely out of the game. They led by as many as 15 points, but had to sweat out the final two minutes of the contest, as Chicago never rolled over.
With the game tied at 73 early in the fourth, the Blazers ripped off another of those offensive spurts we're becoming accustomed to seeing. This one was a 14-2 run. With just over five minutes to go the Blazers enjoyed a 12-point lead. But, the Bulls took advantage of some sloppy play by the Blazers to draw to within four with 14 seconds left. But, it never became a one-possession game (which is truly nervous time), and the Blazers ended up winning it by 8.
The only slight blemish at the end came when Lillard scored a meaningless basket in the final seconds that infuriated a couple of the Chicago players. The unwritten rule in the NBA is, you don't take a shot, let alone a dunk, in the closing seconds when a game has been decided. Lillard, perhaps not knowing better in this particular moment, drove to the hoop and dunked as the final seconds ticked off.
Two Chicago players in particular, Taj Gibson and Noah, took immediate exception to Lillard's basket and aggressively approached him near mid court as the final horn sounded. Teammates from both sides stepped in and nothing came of the confrontation.
Instead of spending his time in the locker room talking about a solid win, Lillard ended up explaining himself for quite a long period to writers and reporters. He even sent out a tweet after the game that said "made a rookie mistake at the end. Didn't mean any disrespect to the Bulls. Much respect for that team."
Lillard explained to reporters that he found himself with the ball in the final seconds, and as he saw a couple of Chicago players running at him decided to just finish the play at the rim. He implied that it was just instinct that led him to put the ball in the basket to end things. Lillard is well-respected in the league, and no one denies that he's a very quality and classy guy, so I don't expect this to carry over. Lesson learned. Turn the page. The only time it'll perhaps be a story again is when the Blazers play in Chicago on March 21st. NBA players don't forget stuff like that, and are always looking for ways to motivate themselves with stuff like this. But, again, Lillard is not the showy type, and rookies have gotten free passes for much worse.
I hated to take so much time after such a great win explaining something that didn't factor into the ultimate outcome, but people were asking exactly what happened, and that's why it needed to be included.
The Blazers came into these last two games badly needing to build some confidence at home, and they've successfully done that. The Houston win was much more about offense, and who would be hot at the end. This win over Chicago, as we knew it would have to be, was more about scrap and hustle, and doing the dirty work to get the job done. Nice to see the Blazers win at both styles.
We're now off until Wednesday, when the Blazers have a quick down-and-back trip to Phoenix to take on the Suns. That will be followed by a home game against Minnesota on Friday. After that, it's buh-bye Portland for a while. We'll head out on a seven-game, 13-day trip that'll take us to Brooklyn, Detroit, Washington, Boston, Cleveland, Charlotte, and Indiana. That'll put a little hair on a young team's chest.