1. Trail Blazers Learning To Play With A Lead
PORTLAND, Ore. -- Throughout the Portland Trail Blazers' 11-game win streak, there has been drama. There have been double-digit deficits, and after their hard-fought comeback against Golden State, shoving matches, ejections and suspensions. But Monday night's visit from the ailing and unstable New York Knicks was mostly absent of that drama, even if it was yet another reflection of how successful the Blazers' rapid rebuild has been since the start of last season.
Not two full seasons have passed since the Blazers were the team buckling under their own dysfunction; as most Portland fans have committed to memory, the 2011-2012 squad started 7-2 before the team succumbed to injuries, rumors of locker-room insurrection and general despair. That Portland has wiped that season from recent memory would be feat enough; that they are holding steady with the league's third-best record makes it doubly impressive.
Against New York, Portland got off to a fast start that never quite slowed. The Blazers feasted on the Knicks' lackadaisical defense in the early going, as the typically fluid Nicolas Batum bullied defenders for postups and Damian Lillard at one point waltzed down the wide-open lane for a rare dunk. The Knicks briefly closed the gap to nine points in the fourth quarter as Portland eased off the gas, but that was as much comeback as they could muster.
The engine of the Portland attack has been, and remains, its torrid 3-point shooting. The Blazers are shooting a head-turning 41.8 percent from deep on the season, and cooled down only slightly to 36 percent on Monday night. The Blazers' offense right now is a hydra: shooting guard Wesley Matthews entered Monday night's game leading NBA guards in effective field goal percentage, Western Conference Player of the Week LaMarcus Aldridge followed a 30-point, 20-rebound effort in Golden State with 18 and 14 against the Knicks, Batum is third among forwards with five assists a game, and Lillard averages just a shade more than 20 points a game.
Portland combines that offensive production with a defense that currently ranks 12th in the league in terms of defensive rating, thanks in large part to the stellar play of new starting center Robin Lopez. The pairing of elite offense with rapidly improving defense means that the Blazers may be primed to exceed expectations of merely snaring a playoff seed.
Meanwhile, the Knicks are doing their part to keep New York City's spirits dismal. Both the Knicks and Nets now sit at 3-10, and while the Nets can hope that their (slightly) longer list of injuries improves, their Manhattan counterparts seem relatively trapped.
Carmelo Anthony led all scorers with an engaged and exceedingly professional 34 points and 15 rebounds, but even his efforts seem mostly wasted. Each time he spun into the help to finish another tough and-1 or pivoted a fourth time on a post-up, Anthony seemed the very embodiment of frustration for a team so laden with salaries and aging veterans that they have little recourse but to double down on their present direction.
The Blazers have, over the past season and change, cultivated a reputation for comebacks and close games. Even last year, as the team won a paltry 33 games, the Blazers often seemed to find themselves storming back from big leads; in their two wins preceding Monday night, the Trail Blazers racked up deficits of 21 and 14 points. But with new success comes new challenges, and the Blazers are now trying to exchange a bit of the excitement for more balanced efforts.
"One of the things that we've been concerned about was how we started games. I was really pleased with the way we set the tone in the first quarter," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. "We're a little disappointed we let them get back in it. It's learning to play with a lead. It's difficult in this league. You see teams give up leads a lot, and they made their runs but were never really in a position of striking distance."
It was a sentiment that echoed throughout the locker room, as almost every Blazer offered some variation on the theme. Said Wesley Matthews: "We've already proven we can play when we're down, that we can play in close games, now we got to get better playing when we're up. That's what San Antonio does, that's what the Heat do, that's what OKC does. Those are the upper echelon teams. If we want to be in that group, when we get you down, we've got to keep you down."
This current Blazers squad may be in the early stages of coalescing, but they're showing that the ceiling may be higher than most would have projected. And as the Knicks demonstrated, having to adapt to playing from ahead is an enviable position to be in. As Aldridge summed up the Blazers' learning efforts: "It's definitely a real good problem to have right now."
Danny Nowell writes for the TrueHoop Network. Follow him on Twitter dmnowell
Around The Association
MVP: Terry Stotts. The Blazers were the first team to truly take advantage of the Knicks' major defensive holes, primarily due to Stotts' game plan Monday night. Eighty-two percent of Portland's points were on 3-pointers, free throws or at-the-rim finishes, just as Stotts anticipated.
LVP: A surprise for Knicks fans, as Iman Shumpert has been the team's most consistent two-way player. Iman was a team-worst minus-22 and didn't make a single field goal. His usual brand of stingy defense wasn't apparent either, making for a terrible night for the young wing.
That was ... dragged on: The Knicks never seemed to ever be in the game despite the margin between both teams being in the 12- to 16-point range most of the night. Every time New York stepped up, Portland stomped down on them.
MVP: This was a total team effort by the Spurs, but it was the spark that Manu Ginobli provided early that changed the course of this game. Manu was instrumental in an 11-0 run that put the Spurs ahead, and he stayed efficient throughout, scoring 16 points on just seven shots while also dishing out six assists.
LVP: Eric Gordon shot 2-for-9 from the field, scoring just four points in 19 minutes. He also had more turnovers (four) than assists, rebounds, and steals combined (two). To go one step further, the San Antonio Spurs had six guards who outscored him in this game.
That was an ... offensive clinic: Through three quarters, all but four of the Spurs' field-goal attempts came from inside the paint or behind the arc. They know what the most efficient shots in basketball are, and they work hard to create them, never settling for the dreaded long 2-point jumper.
MVP: For three quarters (until Paul George took over), George Hill carried the Pacers' offense. Hill's smart, slashing drives provided dependable offense, and his seven assists (against just two turnovers) anchored an often-chaotic game.
LVP: Corey Brewer posted 3-for-12 shooting, six turnovers and not much else in 40 minutes. Credit Indiana mostly for limiting the highlight-reel outlet plays from Kevin Love, but some of Brewer's mistakes were unforced errors.
Defining moment: For all its shooting woes (32.6 percent), the Wolves took the lead midway through the third on a 9-3 run. Indiana answered with an 8-2 run of its own to end the quarter, and never looked back.
MVP: After being reinserted in the starting lineup Saturday night, Brandon Bass has come alive within Boston's offense. The veteran power forward carried the Celtics' scoring load late, scoring eight of his 16 points in the fourth quarter, enabling the Celtics to pull away for the victory.
LVP: Ramon Sessions, Charlotte's reserve point guard, labored through one of his worst performances of the season. Sessions misfired on six of his seven shots, and turned the ball over a game-high four times in just 19 minutes of action.
X factor: Boston's bench. Gerald Wallace delivered a season-high 17 points, and rookie point guard Phil Pressey dished out a career-high eight assists, leading a dominating effort by Boston's second unit as they outscored the Bobcats' bench 39-15 overall.
MVP: LeBron James scored a ho-hum 35 points on just 14 field goal attempts. And the scary thing is how nonchalant his whole game seemed Monday night. He got to the basket at will and knocked down turnaround jumpers with smaller defenders on him.
X factor: It's unfair when one of the best players in NBA history is your X factor, but Dwyane Wade paced the Heat in the early going and kept the Suns off-balance with a bounty of beautiful passes (he had 12 assists) and takes to the rim.
Defining moment: The Suns played the Heat tough for three quarters, but right around the 10-minute mark in the fourth, Ray Allen hit back-to-back 3-pointers to give Miami a 14-point advantage. The Heat never looked back on their way to a double-digit victory.
MVP: Brandon Jennings exacted his vengeance early and often, but mostly early. He hit four 3-pointers in the first 12 minutes on his way to full-game totals of 15 points and 13 assists.
It was over when ... each of the Pistons' starters swiped at least one first-quarter steal: Brandon Knight, newly reinserted into the starting lineup for Milwaukee, had four turnovers in the same frame as the Bucks fell behind 38-18.
X factor: Jennings made 4-of-5 field goals in the first quarter. Another ex-Buck, Charlie Villanueva, duplicated the feat in the second quarter, including a coast-to-coast dunk, as Detroit pushed the lead to 31.
MVP: Chandler Parsons closed the game out with nine points in the final quarter (including a corner 3-pointer and driving layup in the last 90 seconds), nearly finishing perfect from the floor with an 8-for-9 outing.
Defining moment: How about Kevin McHale's lineup choice for the whole fourth quarter, when Houston outscored Memphis by 15 points? Omer Asik played all 12 minutes, and Dwight Howard didn't log a single second.
X factor: Houston finished 6-for-24 from behind the 3-point line on the night, but went 4-for-8 in the fourth quarter. A lot of their looks were wide open in those first 36 minutes, but they weren't falling. Once they did, Memphis had no way to respond.
3. Monday's Best
LeBron James, Heat:
James scored 35 points on only 14 shots as the Heat won their seventh straight game, beating the Phoenix Suns 107-92 on Monday night. He made 11 of 14 shots from the field, shot 11 for 11 from the foul line for the second time in a week.
4. Monday's Worst
The Chicago Bulls: What other indignities must the Bulls endure? First, they lose Derrick Rose for the season -- again. Then, playing their fourth game in five nights, the Bulls lost to the one-win Jazz in overtime 89-83. Making 1 of 14 3-point attempts did not help matters.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"I think this team is jelling together better than any other team I've been on."
-- LaMarcus Aldridge, whose Portland team earned its 11th straight win on Monday.
8. Exchange Of Views
9. Stat Check
Seven San Antonio Spurs scored in double-figures, led by Manu Ginobilis 16 points, in a victory over the New Orleans Pelicans. San Antonio is now 131, having won each of its last 11 games. This is the Spurs' fifth single-season streak of at least 11 consecutive wins since the start of the 2010-11 campaign -- San Antonio had a 12-win streak in 2010-11, two 11-win streaks in 2011-12, and an 11-win streak last season. The Spurs are the only team in NBA history with a winning streak of more than 10 games in four straight seasons.
10. TrueHoop TV
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MVP: Ty Lawson had a shockingly quiet 19 points and 11 assists. In an 11-man rotation, Lawson is the stabilizing force. Dallas could not contain his penetration or contest his shooting, and it opened the floor for his teammates.
X factor: Undersized center J.J. Hickson punished Dallas' defense to the tune of 22 points and eight rebounds. Hickson made a living getting into the teeth of the Mavs' defense, hitting seven of his eight shots in the paint.
Defining moment: With nine minues left in the fourth quarter, Denver called a timeout, having seen a 15-point lead slowly shrink to four. Nate Robinson responded with an 11-2 run to effectively put the game out of reach.
MVP: Gordon Hayward had a forgettable shooting night but compiled 15 points, six rebounds and 12 of Utah's 22 assists while leading the game floor time with a stifling 47 minutes.
LVP: Chicago's point guard rotation. The Kirk Hinrich-Marquis Teague-Mike James trio scored a collective three points to their four turnovers, gutting the Bulls' offense before it could get started.
X factor: The Jazz are the NBA's least accurate squad from beyond the arc with a 29.3 percent conversion rate. Monday night, they shot 41.2 percent from 3-point territory while the Bulls missed on 12 of their 13 attempts.