January 21, 2018, 1:15 am
The game should have been called when Shabazz Napier dunked.
Not actually, of course. There was still 37 minutes and 20 seconds of game time when the Portland Trail Blazers’ dynamo guard swiped J.J. Barea’s dribble, sauntered down the floor by his lonesome, peppered his steps for liftoff and rose for the first dunk of his four-year NBA career. The highlight isn’t especially impressive, safe for the fact it’s emblematic of how the Blazers are feeling after ending their three-game homestand undefeated.
suPortland beat the Dallas Mavericks 117-108 on Saturday night, moving to 25-21 on the season and alone at sixth place in the Western Conference. Damian Lillard was absolutely brilliant for Portland, hitting his first nine shots from the field – including seven(!) 3-pointers – to finish with 31 points, five rebounds and nine assists. The Blazers tied a season-high by making 18 3-pointers; six players drained at least two shots from deep, including Evan Turner, the third time he’s accomplished that feat this month.
It seemed like the game was essentially over on multiple occasions in the first half, when Portland consistently held a double-digit lead. But hot shooting from Wesley Matthews and overall aggressiveness from Dennis Smith, Jr. got the Mavericks back in the game after intermission, to the point that Dallas trailed just 74-69 in the third quarter, and again trailed by five following a layup by Smith with 38 seconds remaining.
But the Blazers’ lead and their penchant for timely shot-making from the perimeter kept the Mavericks at bay, even when tensions began flaring in the fourth quarter. Jusuf Nurkic was assessed a technical for shoving Salah Mejri, who clearly flopped, after a foul by Turner, and Matthews picked up a technical shortly thereafter for complaining to officials after a wild scrum for a loose ball.
It speaks volumes of Dallas’ effort and commitment that it was able to withstand Portland’s early onslaught to make the game not just competitive, but downright contentious in its final minutes. The Mavericks aren’t the most talented team in the world, obviously, but never stop fighting for Rick Carlisle, an attribute sure to pay dividends as this roster continues to grow around an upper-echelon talent like Smith.
Dallas might have even stolen a victory on the road if Harrison Barnes, one of few players on this roster considered a potential keeper, had found his range. Instead, the Mavericks’ leading scorer went just 3-of-13 from the field and 0-of-4 from beyond the arc, scoring eight points despite a bevy of open looks from the outside.
Turner, after a stinker against the Indiana Pacers, played one of his best games of the season on Saturday night. Terry Stotts got him going early with a pair of successfully designed post-ups, a look the Blazers went back to with equal effect as the game suddenly hung in the balance late. Ed Davis had a huge offensive rebound that led directly to a Napier triple midway through the fourth quarter, putting their team back up by 10 and briefly stemming the Dallas tide. This was a true team effort for the Blazers, basically. The only player who appeared in the game and didn’t perform objectively well was Zach Collins, who went scoreless and grabbed four rebounds in 13 minutes.
No game is a guarantee in the NBA, and the Mavericks are better than their record suggests. That Portland, then, was able to hold off Dallas without momentum in its favor is just as encouraging as the Blazers’ ability to build a lead that proved too much to overcome in the first place. Some wins are just wins, but this is one of which Portland can be proud – especially given the context of a 3-0 stretch at home that gives this team an early leg up on its competition in the Western Conference playoff race.
- Nowitzki has lost the suddenness needed to abuse defenders in the post like he did in his heyday. When matched up with a player against whom he has a sizable height advantage, though, he occasionally turns back the clock to a time that reminds of that surreal championship run in 2011. Case in point: On a classic isolation at the nail after a switch in the first quarter, Nowitzki nudged McCollum off and rose up over him for a swish. It wouldn’t have necessary been notable for other scorers, but the opportunities we have to watch Dirk make his brand of magic – which he created, remember – are fewer and further between every night. But not on Saturday, as he scored 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting.
- Lillard and Matthews had a noticeable dialogue going from the opening tip to the final buzzer. It was never outwardly contentious between them, but rarely outwardly friendly, either – exactly what you’d expect from former teammates turned competitors who have scratched and clawed their way to meaningful, long-lasting NBA careers. What a treat for Blazers fans, who still hold a special place in their heart for Matthews, to watch them play on the Moda Center floor once again.
- Stotts is clearly making an effort to get Turner going early these days, and it paid off against Dallas. Turner was active and engaged on both ends from the opening tip, scoring 17 points on 7-of-13 from the field. The Blazers might want to re-think calling his number on the block in crunch time when the games really start to matter, though. As good as Turner can be with his back to the basket, he’s not so good that teams send an extra defender his way. Finding a shot within flow of the offense or spreading the floor and running ball-screen action with Lillard or McCollum is surely a more prudent offensive option in times of need than a right-shoulder fadeaway from Turner.
- It’s rare that a team gets outscored by 13 points at freeree throw line and nearly comes away with a double-digit victory, but that’s what Portland did on Saturday. How? The Blazers made up for the free throw disparity by outscoring the Mavericks by 24 points from 3-point range.