at Portland 97, Dallas 92 (Dallas leads 2-1)
Offensive Ratings: Portland 115.8, Dallas 110.0
PORTLAND - Back within the friendly confines of the Rose Garden, the Portland Trail Blazers finally played the kind of game those of us who picked them to win the series (and that seemed to be a heavy majority of the media) expected. Taking advantage of their size in the backcourt and versatility, the Blazers seized control of the game midway through the third quarter and withstood a late push by the Dallas Mavericks to win 97-92 and move within a win of evening the series.
The biggest difference from the first two games in Dallas was the lift Portland got off the bench from Brandon Roy. Two days after complaining about his limited role in Game Two, Roy gave Nate McMillan no choice but to keep him on the floor with his aggressive, efficient play. Roy punished the Mavericks for putting smaller defenders (especially Jose Barea) on him and delivered vintage drives to the basket and midrange finishes. Roy scored 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting and also handed out four assists, finding teammates beyond the arc when he drew the help defense.
During the first three quarters, the Blazers rode the scoring of Roy, go-to guy LaMarcus Aldridge and Wesley Matthews. It was Matthews who came out on fire, knocking down three early three-pointers to incite the crowd and get himself going. Matthews expanded his game to include pull-up jumpers and drives that helped him score 22 of his 25 points (a playoff career high) in the first half.
Forwards Nicolas Batum and Gerald Wallace were conspicuous by their absence from the Portland offense during that span. The two players, who averaged a combined 28.2 points during the regular season, were scoreless through the first three quarters before coming alive thanks to the defensive attention drawn by Roy. They scored all 12 points during a 12-2 Blazer run to open the fourth period that pushed their lead to 13, the largest it would get.
With eight minutes left in the game, the Mavericks were able to walk down Portland's lead and get back within two possessions, but their comeback ran out of time. Dallas sacrificed urgency for good shot selection down the stretch, patiently working the clock for scores inside the final minute. As a result, when the Mavericks finally cut the lead to just three with 12.9 seconds left, they needed either a steal or two missed free throws to get a chance to tie on their final possession. Things might have played out differently had Jason Kidd's long jumper correctly been ruled a three, but as it was Dallas trailed by an insurmountable five points after two Andre Miller free throws.
Despite the win, McMillan cannot be satisfied with his team's defensive effort. Dallas shot 51.5 percent in defeat, including an even 60 percent during the first half. The Blazers still don't have a good answer for the Mavericks' pick-and-roll game, especially when it involves Dirk Nowitzki and Dallas has no choice but to hug Nowitzki defensively to keep him from getting an open look on the perimeter.
Portland relied on the Mavericks' outside shooters returning to earth after their hot shooting in Texas. Jason Kidd was 2-of-8 from beyond the arc, while Peja Stojakovic went 1-of-4. Neither was a major factor in the game offensively. Jason Terry picked up some of the slack with his red-hot shooting. Terry, who started the second half and played more than 40 minutes off the bench in total, made 10 of his 13 shot attempts en route to 30 points.
The Blazers did do a better job of mixing up the looks they threw at Nowitzki defensively. Aldridge, Batum and Wallace all spent time defending Nowitzki, with Aldridge as the primary defensive cover. Batum in particular was more effective by bodying up Nowitzki. All three players were able to contest his shots without sending him to the free throw line nearly as frequently as in the first two games. Ultimately, Nowitzki scored 25 points on 24 possessions, the kind of outing Portland can live with defensively.
Rick Carlisle's rotation changed dramatically in Game Three for a variety of reasons. Carlisle had no choice but to play Brendan Haywood for extended minutes because starting center Tyson Chandler spent most of the night in foul trouble before picking up his sixth personal after just 15:24. Haywood did a fine job marking Aldridge, but his poor free throw shooting (2-of-6) is a major issue when he gets the ball in the paint. In need of offense, Carlisle benched DeShawn Stevenson (who played only the first 4:20 of the game) and rode a three-guard attack of Barea, Kidd and Terry down the stretch. Barea was less effective getting in the paint off the dribble and the officiating crew would have nothing of his attempt to draw charges against the bigger Blazers guards.
With Roy getting more run, Patty Mills did not get off the Portland bench and Rudy Fernandez played just 11:02. (At this point, it's looking like a third consecutive quiet postseason for Fernandez.) Yet McMillan was able to get production even deeper off his bench from rookie Chris Johnson. Johnson gave Aldridge a blow in the last minute of the third quarter and early in the fourth before briefly playing alongside him. His length and activity caused trouble for the Mavericks and Johnson finished with three rebounds and a pair of blocks in his five and a half minutes of action.
McMillan also changed his finishing lineup. While Roy got back on the court when the Blazers needed more shooters and ballhandlers to close out the game, Portland played with its starting lineup most of the stretch run, putting more size and rebounding on the floor. I'm not sure there was a verdict on that decision, as the teams played even during the stretch the Blazers used their starters. Over the course of the season, however, Portland has been much more effective with Aldridge at center and Wallace at power forward in a smaller, quicker unit.
Looking ahead to Saturday's Game Four, the Mavericks can feel good that they had a chance to steal a game in which the Blazers rode their crowd to an early lead. Dallas can also point to missed opportunities at the line, where they shot just 56.5 percent (13 of 23), including an atypical 4-of-7 effort from Nowitzki. Nonetheless, if Roy has found a way to contribute for Portland in this favorable matchup, that might prove the most crucial takeaway of all.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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