Matthews Lifts Portland in Atlanta
By mikebarrett Posted in: Hawks
The most difficult scenario for an NBA team is supposed to be the end of the dreaded four-games-in-five-nights set. If that set happens to come on the road, as they're bouncing from time zone to time zone, it becomes more of a challenge. If the final back-to-back set during that stretch comes against two quality, playoff teams... you get where I'm going.
The final stage the gauntlet should normally be in the fourth quarter of the fourth game of this set. That's when we announcers all start saying things like "how much gas could they possibly have left in the tank," and other cute stuff like that (yes, I said that during this game).
We got the answer, not only to the question about the gas tank, but also to the one about the will of this young Portland team. Again, we should have known better than to question it in the first place.
The other thing we should have learned long ago about this Portland Trail Blazer team, it's that the perceived unconventional is actually conventional. The unexpected should be expected. Lose to Philadelphia and Milwaukee? Okay, then just bounce back and win in Chicago, against a hungry and bitter Bulls team, and then go to Atlanta and take down a team that was coming off recent wins over the Lakers, Nets, and most recently off a blowout win over the team that just beat Portland on Tuesday night.
It is unfortunate that Portland has only 15 wins against losing teams this season. But, rather than get stuck lamenting that, I'm excited and encouraged by the fact that they now have 18 wins over teams above .500.
Friday night, with every reason and excuse to go through the motions against the Hawks inside Phillips Arena, the Blazers dug deep and put together one of their most impressive fourth quarters of the season, winning the game 104-93.
The legs were certainly heavy, as a result of not only this road trip, but the due to the cumulative effect of this being the last of a series of long trips. When the Hawks suddenly caught fire in the third quarter, and built an 11-point lead, you probably started thinking things like "well, it sure was a nice win in Chicago," and "at least they didn't get completely shut out on this trip." It's okay to admit that. It's also important to realize that the Blazers simply don't let themselves go there. Wesley Matthews told me as much during our post-game interview.
As Matthews stood there, dripping with sweat, he explained how this team still believes and doesn't entertain for a second the thought of mailing in the rest of the season, despite the long odds of reaching the postseason. We've called the Wesley the emotional leader of this team, and on this night he was also the physical leader.
Atlanta's defensive game plan (not that it was unique), was to smother Damian Lillard, and to make life as difficult as possible on LaMarcus Aldridge. Al Horford, who lately has been just as hot as Aldridge, has always been a tough matchup for L.A. We led off our broadcast talking about that.
So, Portland needed someone to be the x-factor. Matthews, who's quietly had a very solid road trip, put his team on his back for stretches of this ballgame. He ended with 28 points, scored in a variety of ways, and provided the energy needed on defense to keep the Hawks in check.
Aldridge's shot seemed to be just off the mark on this night. Lillard was struggling through much of the game, and Nic Batum couldn't hit anything, and soon gave up trying. But, once Matthews helped them survive Atlanta's hot stretch in the third, everyone else came rushing back to help him finish the deal.
LaMarcus battled, and finally found his range in the latter half of the fourth quarter. He ended with 20 points and 13 rebounds. Lillard seemed to get a second wind during Portland's late run, as he hit two huge three pointers in the fourth, and Batum, who also hit a big three, ended up with 4 steals, 7 assists, and 7 rebounds. JJ Hickson recorded his 38th double-double of the season, posting 15 and 10, including two big free throws late to help Portland put the game away.
The bench also did its part in this one, especially after Hickson picked up two early fouls forcing Coach Stotts to break his normal rotation. Meyers Leonard, who put together his most productive game of the season in Chicago on Thursday, backed up that performance against the Hawks. He played 29 minutes, scored 4 points, and grabbed 9 rebounds. He played good, solid defense against Atlanta's punishing frontline. Eric Maynor, who finished with 8 points, hit several key baskets to keep the Hawks at arm's length midway through the fourth quarter.
So, suddenly, this road trip has turned from a foregone conclusion to opportunity time. We probably all would have considered 2-3 an acceptable record for this trip when it began. And, while what's left is a trip to Oklahoma City to face one of the NBA's most dangerous teams on Sunday evening, don't think that the Blazers are paying attention to what we're all likely thinking.
Meaningful March basketball. I'm satisfied with that. That's how you learn and grow. But, these Blazer players have their own set of standards. They were on display in Atlanta on Friday night.
Talk to you from OKC.