Throughout the first 24 games of the 2013-14 NBA season, the Portland Trail Blazers have taken the NBA world by storm with a dominant offense, All-Star-caliber play at multiple positions and a knack for big runs and timely shot-making when they're needed most. It seemed like the go-go Blazers had run out of gas on Sunday, though, as Terry Stotts' team had shot just 43.8 percent from the field through three quarters and watched Josh Smith (28 points on 12 for 16 shooting) run wild en route to his Detroit Pistons building up an 11-point lead heading into the fourth quarter.
It would've made all the sense in the world for Portland to let one slip — they were playing their third game in four nights and the second game of a back-to-back, having hit the road after a late Saturday win over the Philadelphia 76ers and gotten into Michigan late as well. The combination of heavy legs, a beastly Detroit frontcourt, game-long misfiring and a double-digit deficit could've been enough to get Portland to power down ... but that just doesn't seem to fit the remarkable-thus-far story of this year's Trail Blazers.
Portland doubled down on the offensive glass (six rebounds leading to 14 second-chance points) and the defensive end (holding Detroit to 15 points on 7 for 21 shooting) in the fourth quarter and got just enough of a spark from reserve guard Mo Williams (eight points including two big 3-pointers) to allow Wesley Matthews to tie the game at 99 with a pair of final-minute free throws, and when Rodney Stuckey's last-chance floater went awry, the two teams were headed for overtime.
You don't want to see Damian Lillard in overtime.
With 13.3 seconds left in the extra frame and the score knotted at 109 after a pretty awesome through-the-legs step-back elbow jumper by Stuckey, the Blazers put the ball in their sophomore point guard's hands and let him go to work. That was a good decision:
Despite less-than-perfect offensive execution (as BBallBreakdown's Coach Nick notes, Nicolas Batum brought defender Smith right to the Blazers' pick-and-pop action, which could have kiboshed the whole deal) and white-on-rice defense from Stuckey, Lillard shook, spun, faded and splashed a 14-footer as time expired to steal victory from the jaws of defeat, giving the Blazers a 111-109 road win and improving their Western Conference-best record to 21-4.
You'd think the double-figure comeback and thrilling finale would've been cause for celebration, but Lillard and his teammates felt otherwise, according to Joe Freeman of The Oregonian:
“We were like, ‘It’s over, now let’s get the hell out of here,’” Lillard said, explaining the muted celebration. “Because we just stole one.” [...]
“Even when we were down and they were playing well at the start of the fourth quarter, I never felt like we were worried,” Lillard said. “It wasn’t ‘All right, we’re just going to lose this game and it’s a tough one.’ Everybody was … more concerned with what we needed to do to turn it around then separate and (get) mad. So that’s a huge difference from last year’s team. With that confidence, you can see things like this change.”
At one point in overtime, [LaMarcus] Aldridge gathered his teammates in a huddle along the sideline and said: ‘If we’re going to be this good team this year, let’s figure out how to win this game.”
While Aldridge (a team-high 27 points to go with 12 rebounds, three blocks and two assists) carried the load in regulation for the Blazers' scuffling shooters (Lillard, Matthews and Williams combined to miss 30 shots), it was Lillard who took over in the extra session, scoring eight of Portland's 12 points on 2 for 3 shooting and a 4 for 4 mark from the line, and knocking down the double-tough jumper over Stuckey's outstretched arms after throwing a double move at the Detroit defender. From Noah Trister of The Associated Press:
"Stuckey did a great job, but they told me that I was going to have to make a double move to get anything off," Lillard said. "He blocked my first move, and I knew he wouldn't let me get to the basket, so I just spun off my other shoulder and put up a fadeaway. It felt good when I let it go, but a lot of shots felt good tonight and didn't go in." [...]
"It was the same play we had run three or four times in a row," Stotts said. "We spread the floor with shooters, gave Damian a ball screen and let him make a play."
It's a play-call that's worked well for the Blazers before — the Phoenix Suns can attest to that — and one that looks especially enticing when games extend past the customary 48 minutes, according to @nbastats:
— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) December 16, 2013
Stotts and company would obviously prefer not to have to mount 13-point comebacks to force overtime to be able to make a stat like that relevant, but when the outcome hinges on which team's got a bit more in the tank and someone who seems to thrive on the pressure of must-convert possessions late in games, it's awful nice to be able to rely on an ascendant playmaker like Lillard to improve your chances of things going your way. And at this point, just about everything seems to be going the Blazers' way ... even on the second night of a back-to-back on the road. You're living a charmed life right now, Rip City. Enjoy it.
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