Blazing Babbles: Storming the Garden for a big road win

On Tuesday night, the Trail Blazers defeated the New Knickerbockers 105-100 and improved to 16-14 because four things happened:

  1. J.J. Hickson outplayed every big in a white Knick jersey, doing this damage mostly through the first half. He picked up foul trouble but inexplicably did not return to the game until late, late, late in the fourth quarter.

  2. Portland’s team defense played well all night. Strange saying that since Carmelo Anthony scored 45 points – a season high for a Blazer opponent – but whether they threw a zone look or just kept Tyson Chandler off his game, whatever scheme the Blazers went with worked and New York only shot 42 percent for the game.

  3. Nicolas Batum got aggressive through the third quarter, each time answering a Knicks’ field goal with a big shot of his own. Batum’s shooting couldn’t have been timelier, keeping New York at bay for the Blazers to maintain its slippery lead. Batum led all Blazers with 26 points.

  4. Pablo Prigioni learned how lonely it could be on that island. Even more, he didn’t read the scouting report on Damian Lillard.

Only the bench could hold Hickson

Blazers coach Terry Stotts did a fine job with mixing up the shorthanded rotation. Wesley Matthews was making his return to the starting lineup, while reserve center Meyers Leonard (ankle) was watching from home. Stotts offset this by giving big minutes to backup point guard Ronnie Price (18:49) to run at the one-spot and moved Lillard over to play the two when Matthews needed a break. Stotts also went with veteran Jared Jeffries to backup his bigs, but early on Hickson was playing so well that the guy didn’t need a substitute.

Through the first half, no other Blazer was more efficient than Hickson … 9-of-10 shooting for 18 points and eight rebounds. At that point, Hickson only had two fouls but picked up a pair in the third quarter. With 5:06 remaining in the third, the Blazers up 65-59, Hickson picked up his fourth foul and took a seat. And he stayed there.

Stotts turned to Luke Babbitt to play the hybrid-four role with LaMarcus Aldridge at the five. Stotts will run with a rotation that shows rhythm as long as it takes – but this time, he stuck with it too long. Babbitt popped a 3-pointer at the 4:33 mark of the fourth quarter, and the Blazers led 96-81. However, Babbitt’s three stood up as the Blazers’ only field goal for more than three minutes. During that stretch, the Blazers tried their best to let the Knicks back in it, belching away on the offensive end and hacking on defense to stop the clock and allow New York to chip away at the lead.

Hickson sat nearly the entire fourth quarter, only returning with 35 seconds remaining in the game and he committed an egregious foul on Anthony to give him a three-point play. Hickson was hot early and proved he could play with the tall, tough guy Tyson Chandler. Blazers could have used him during the fourth quarter.

Blazers’ defense shows up in the Garden

Now, back to the positives and the many examples of standout Blazer D. Let’s look at one particular sequence in the second quarter. Blazers led 34-25 coming out of a timeout and the Knicks had the ball. The Blazers dropped into a zone look and I was impressed with their mental approach during the play as three players pointed to spaces on the floor and communicated exactly where they should be and where the inbounds ball was heading.

The zone forced Chris Copeland to take a contested three near the end of the shot clock, Babbitt on the defense, and the Blazers secured the rebound. The Knicks missed 27 threes, even Steve Novak, who was put on this earth to shoot from 23-feet and beyond, went 0 for 4 from 3-point land. Only Melo and gunner J.R. Smith made any sort of an offensive impact on the game – in other words, good team defense by the Blazers.

How do you say “clutch” in French?

Twice in the third quarter, the Knicks get to within three points and both times, Batum responded with big 3-point shots to double the Blazers’ lead. Just in that quarter alone, Batum made three of six from beyond the arc and scored 13 of the team’s 20 points. If Batum doesn’t step up in the third quarter, then the Blazers might not have become only the third team to win inside Madison Square Garden this season.

Legend of Lillard grows

With the final 40 seconds ticking down, the Blazers only up 100-97, Lillard dribbled up near the top of the arc. His four mates spread the floor and that left Lillard staring down the clock and all alone with Prigioni, who was backing away. This setup has played out several times before (see also: Houston, New Orleans) and Lillard did it again.

Lillard stepped back, lost Prigioni and drained the 3-pointer that slammed the door on the Knicks’ comeback. It wasn’t a game-winner or a go-ahead bucket, but it was a huge shot. There was no way he was passing that ball up, so you have to wonder why the Knicks deserted Prigioni on that play. Lillard finished with 21 points, six assists, five rebounds and one more highlight to add to his Rookie of the Year campaign.

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