The Portland Trail Blazers beat the Indiana Pacers, 106-102, on Monday night in what might have been the best single game of the 2013-14 NBA season to date. Here are five reasons why this particular matchup of conference-leading beasts was so awesome, and so worth reliving:
1. High-quality play is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.
If you'll forgive a momentary lapse into Keats/"White Men Can't Jump," that's something I felt pretty strongly while watching on Monday night, and it was encapsulated well by Dave Deckard over at Blazersedge after the game:
I say [this] less as a Blazers partisan (though the Blazers did indeed win it) and more as somebody who has watched his share of mediocre basketball games. This is why following the NBA is worthwhile. You can get excitement and scoring in almost any league around the world, but seeing two really good professional teams play at a high level, making adjustment after adjustment to counter each other ... that's a rare treat. If you're any kind of a basketball purist, this game is must-see.
Blazers/Pacers was clearly the best game of a night that also featured a game-winner with 0.4 seconds remaining and a triple-overtime thriller, which is no small feat. It was a styles-make-fights clash between Portland's No. 3 offense and Indiana's historically good league-leading defense. It featured tough, physical play on both ends, instances of good coverage being beaten by even better offensive execution, excellent shot-making by elite players on both teams, and a pair of Coach-of-the-Month-winning bench bosses very much at the top of their respective games right now pushing the right buttons at the right times.
Strategies were declared (the Pacers cutting off the 3-point line on defense, the Blazers looking to push pace against an Indy team on the second game of a road back-to-back) and countered (Portland began working more through LaMarcus Aldridge out of the post and trying to get the foul line, Indy slowed things down when possible and allowed elbow snipers like David West and Luis Scola to knock in the midrange looks the Blazers conceded). Brief runs (like Indy's 8-2 spurt coming out of half) were answered (by the Blazers' 10-2 burst late in the third). The entire game was played inside a nine-point range, and mostly within two possessions, with neither team being able to run away and hide.
As the clock ticked on and the two teams patiently countered one another, it started to feel like a prize fight in which neither combatant wanted to leave it up to the judges and would eventually start throwing haymakers. Hence, the 34-30 fourth quarter and those frantic final few minutes in which ...
2. Paul George went nuts.
No, George wasn't bending the Blazers' defense to his will — as Heat.com's Couper Moorhead notes, a lot of the Pacers star's attempts on Monday came from the comparatively low-value areas to which Portland likes to limit opponents, with two-thirds of his 30 field-goal attempts coming either from midrange or on above-the-break 3-pointers, and most of them being fairly well contested.
That didn't really seem to matter, though.
George scored a career-high 43 points on 16 for 30 shooting on Monday, making all sorts of shots from all sorts of places despite having the likes of (for a bit) Nicolas Batum and (for the most part) Wesley Matthews draped all over him. He scored 17 points in the fourth quarter to keep the Pacer offense afloat, including 15 in the final 2:56 on 5 for 7 shooting from beyond the arc.
"I was just trying to keep us in there," George said after the game, according to Ben Golliver of The Point Forward. "My number was called upon. In the fourth quarter I was just trying to be there for my teammates. They did a great job getting me open to get some good looks and I was fortunate to knock some shots down."
George came about a half-inch away from a sixth triple after George Hill stole a Portland inbounds pass and gave his wing partner a clean look at a right-corner 3 that would have cut the Blazers lead to 103-102 with just under 20 seconds remaining. While visions of Reggie at the Garden danced in all our heads, though, it came up just short, and Portland made three of four free throws down the stretch to keep the Pacers at bay.
What continues to stand out about George's early-season play — not merely the 7 for 15 mark from long range nor the elite defensive work he continues to put in despite taking on an increased offensive role — is how simple it all seems for him right now, as Batum told Joe Freeman of The Oregonian:
Before the game, as he lounged on the bench waiting for the court to open so he could go through his pregame warmup regimen, Nicolas Batum marveled at the ability of last season's breakout star. Batum praised George’s poise, the way he makes scoring look so easy, so effortless.
“It’s like he’s playing pick-up,” Batum said of George's game. [...]
“One of those nights in the NBA,” Batum said [later], smirking, about George’s play. “When one guy (is hot) you can be on him, you can make him work, you can do whatever you want, and he’s going to make his shot. He’s one of the best players in the league right now.”
But that wasn't enough on Monday, because ...
3. LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard had answers.
With Indiana determined to keep the Blazers from bombing away — Portland was averaging 23.6 3-point attempts per game, seventh-most in the NBA, heading into Monday, but managed just 13 triple tries against the Pacers — Terry Stotts started working more through the post, betting that Aldridge could beat the top-notch defense of West and Hibbert more often than the Pacers' elite stoppers could cover his All-Star power forward, whether bulling to the basket or pivoting back to fire from midrange. He won that gamble.
There was a certain amount of "anything you can do, I can do better" to Aldridge's play, especially during his 17-point second half, as captured by Golliver at Blazersedge:
Aldridge, needing a hoop, went directly at Roy Hibbert, the early favorite for 2014 Defensive Player of the Year, to draw two free throws. Aldridge, needing a hoop, went directly at Hibbert again, drawing more free throws. Aldridge, needing a hoop, went to his ever-reliable jumper. He finished with 28 points (on 11-for-19 shooting), 10 rebounds and three assists, and those six points in four possessions kept Portland clear of a collapse.
"I've been with this guy for six years now," Blazers forward Nicolas Batum told Blazersedge, after calling Aldridge "almost unstoppable" down the stretch. "This is my sixth year with him. I've seen him growing every game and every day. He's playing the best basketball of his life. He's the best power forward in the league. He grew up."
On the season, Aldridge is now shooting 57.9 percent on long twos from his favorite spot, the left wing, an astounding figure that's 17 percent above the league average and almost exactly the same as his shooting percentage inside the restricted area. In other words, his 18-foot turnaround has become, for all intents and purposes, a lay-up.
"They mixed [their defense] up," Aldridge said. "They fronted, they tried to come big to big. I felt good tonight, I was trying to go to the basket, they were crowding me more tonight. It was one of those nights, where I had to make reads. If the big fella [Hibbert] was on me, I was taking my jump shot. If David West was on me, I was trying to go to the basket more."
That basket-attacking mindset was a critical part of the Blazers' second-half offensive explosion. While shooting 50 percent from the floor in the half against the league's No. 1 defense was impressive enough, Portland also got to the charity stripe staggeringly often against a Pacers' D that entered Monday with the NBA's third-lowest opponent free-throw rate, racking up 25 freebie tries in the third and fourth quarters alone, and making 22 of them. That included a 15 for 16 mark in the fourth quarter, with Aldridge and Lillard going a perfect 10 for 10.
"I knew going in that their bigs like to sag off and protect the paint [on pick-and-rolls]," Lillard told Golliver. "We ended up getting into the penalty early a lot. I just wanted to force it in there, get contact with the bigs, kind of force the issue at the rim. I was able to get some calls."
And speaking of Lillard ...
Twenty-six points on 17 shots, six rebounds (including a big carom off that late George miss) and a pair of assists (on Aldridge jumpers, natch) for the reigning Rookie of the Year, who's still scuffling a bit when it comes to finishing at the rim — just 2 for 6 inside the restricted area against the 7-foot-2 Hibbert on Monday, and just 40.7 percent within that half-circle this year, down more than 11 percent from his rookie season — but who was nails when it mattered most.
With George heating up en route to 17 fourth-quarter points, Lillard matched him nearly step for step. He scored 14 points of his own on 3 for 5 shooting — including 2 for 3 from 3-point land, with a massive deep left-wing triple at the 1:17 mark to put Portland up five — and went a perfect 6 for 6 from the stripe, with two huge ones giving the Blazers a two-possession lead with 15 seconds remaining.
4. That groin-dinking led to good-natured social media chatter.
Late in the fourth quarter, the hard-nosed low-post war between Aldridge and Hibbert resulted in a couple of hard hits nowhere near anybody's nose:
Even Roy Hibbert, who defends so honestly that he even has a play named in his honor, did not get the favorable calls as he tried to jump vertically to contest. For his trouble, Hibbert absorbed a couple knees to a very sensitive area.
"It was the groin — twice," said Hibbert, who crumpled to the court after both collisions in which he was called for the blocking foul.
After the game, Hibbert took his frustrations to Twitter, tongue planted firmly in cheek:
— Roy Hibbert (@Hoya2aPacer) December 3, 2013
And since Hibbert tagged Aldridge in the tweet — clearly, he subscribes to the "@ 'em or dap 'em" philosophy — LaMarcus saw it and fired off a quick reply:
@Hoya2aPacer lol bro I don't do it on purpose I'm just a one leg jumper so that's how I jump. I don't play dirty. Real talk
— Lamarcus Aldridge (@aldridge_12) December 3, 2013
... which Hibbert appreciated:
@aldridge_12 I believe u bro. We both competing hard. Tough post moves. Good luck in the West. We will see each other in the finals.
— Roy Hibbert (@Hoya2aPacer) December 3, 2013
... which Aldridge liked, too:
Yes. Let us all keep doing our thangs, and endeavoring to clear the air while doing so. (Also, there might be some folks in Miami and San Antonio, among other locales, who have something to say about the big dudes' late-night finals projections.)
5. That we get to do it all again in a couple of months.
Circle Friday, Feb. 7, on your calendars, boys and girls — that's when the Blazers will travel to Bankers Life Fieldhouse to give George, Hibbert, Frank Vogel and company an opportunity to return the hospitality that Portland extended at the
Rose Garden Moda Center on Monday. We ought to know a lot more about both teams by that meeting just a week before the All-Star break, including whether Vogel's hopes about the 16-2 Pacers' defense bear out:
"They're a great offensive team and they made big shots all game long," Indiana coach Frank Vogel said of Portland. "Hopefully that's what it's going to take to beat this team — making impossible shot after impossible shot."
... and whether Matthews' assessment of the 15-3 Blazers holds up:
“We’re a pretty damn good team,” Wesley Matthews said, when asked what Monday night’s win showed. “And we can beat anybody.”
... and whether both things might be true, which could result in another 48 minutes as entertaining as the ones we watched Monday night. That'd be just fine by me; I suspect you wouldn't mind much, either.
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