After winning 10 of their last 13 games, the Portland Trail Blazers ran in to a bit of adversity this past week. With three out of their four games at home during the week, Portland was hoping to build on its already impressive season record.
The week started out strong with a gutsy overtime victory over the pesky Orlando Magic, a team who played a lot better than their 9 game losing streak would suggest.
After a couple days off in the middle of the week, Portland was set to square off against LeBron James and the defending champion Miami Heat on primetime TV. James, in particular, had always shined bright while playing at the Rose Garden so it seemed Portland was set to be on the wrong side of the highlight reel.
However, after an abysmal first half, the Blazers, led by Nic Batum and Wesley Matthews, sparked a furious comeback that saw Portland escaping the contest with a 92-90 victory. Some timely three point shooting, and stifling defense, allowed Portland to stay competitive in the second half, sending Miami packing with a loss and leaving the Rose Garden in a frenzy.
The high would not last all week as Portland dropped its final two games, a tough road matchup against the surprising Western Conference contending Golden State Warriors, and they also dropped a closely fought battle against the Oklahoma City Thunder at home Sunday night.
Still, Portland sits at 20-17 on the year, 8th in the West, and are starting to come together as a team. Aldridge’s play is improving (Portland badly needs this to remain) and as Lillard continues to build on his impressive rookie campaign, the other pieces of the puzzle (Batum, Matthews and JJ Hickson) are showing no signs of slowing down, even with the high amount of minutes each are logging.
Question is, how long can they keep it up? A question we’ll surely revisit over the last 4 months of the season.
Now, onto the awards.
First Star: Nicolas Batum (1/10: W vs. Miami)
Two straight weeks taking in the top honors, and Nic Batum has made Neil Olshey’s decision to match Minnesota’s offer seem like a no-brainer.
In Thursday’s matchup against Miami, Batum paced Portland in the first half to avoid a blowout at the hands of the defending champs. It was his solid play that allowed Portland to trail by just 13 going in to the locker room at half time.
Logging 42 minutes on the night, Batum put up 28 points-on 8-15 from the floor, including 3-9 from long range and 9-11 from the charity stripe-while adding 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals and a block. Talk about stuffing the stat sheet, the frenchman made an impact in any way he could Thursday night.
Because of Nic’s solid play thus far, Portland is proving to be a more competitive bunch than many critics were willing to give them credit for coming in to the season. If this high level of play continues, Portland could see a playoff berth come mid-April.
Second Star: LaMarcus Aldridge (1/7: W vs. Orlando)
As noted above, Aldridge’s play over the past few weeks has been more reminiscent of his All-Star campaign from a year ago. His scoring efficiency is starting to rise, and his rebounding totals, something he’d struggled with early on, are starting to increase as well.
You’d think he was just splitting more of the rebounding totals with glass monster JJ Hickson, but Hickson’s numbers have remained relatively the same in that category.
In last Monday’s game against Orlando, Aldridge once again displayed his knack for recording a double-double, and tormented the Magic all night. While playing in 42 minutes, LA put up 27 points-on 12-22 from the floor and 3-3 from the free throw line-while adding 10 rebounds and 5 assists in Portland’s 125-119 overtime victory.
While he does still lack a truly dominant post game, Aldridge’s ability to hit the mid and long range jumpers is the key to his increased level of play.
Third Star: Wesley Matthews (1/10: W vs. Miami)
It certainly is nice to have a healthy Wes back in the starting lineup, and his performance, specifically late in the game, against Miami went above and beyond to prove this point.
The box score doesn’t do Matthews justice to how much of an impact he had against the defending champs. In 40 minutes Matthews had 18 points-on 7-18 from the floor, 3-8 from long range and 1-1 from the line-while adding 4 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals.
While that is a solid line, it might not scream MVP worthy for the week; however, it was Matthews’ late game heroics that give him the nod here this week.
With just under a minute to play Matthews buried a 3 point field goal to tie the game at 88 a piece, finishing a furious 2nd half rally led by the Blazers. Then after an easy Chris Bosh bucket at the other end, Matthews executed a timely step back, breaking Ray Allen’s ankles, and dropped another 3 point shot that gave Portland a 91-90 lead. A lead they would not relinquish in the final seconds, as they topped the Heat 92-90.
Dunk of the Week: Nicolas Batum vs. Miami
Batum soars the middle of the key in this high flying dunk last Thursday against the Heat. Enjoy.