TRAIL BLAZERS 113 – NUGGETS 98: THE WINGS THAT FLY US HOME

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After former Trail Blazer J.J. Hickson spent much of the lead up to Friday’s game blustering about how he would exact revenge on his former team and spew choice words at his former teammates and Robin Lopez who replaced him, the ball found Hickson on the first play of the game because of course, the ball always recognizes the #narrative. Hickson took the pass at the right elbow, squared to the basket, and fired the first shot of his personal war. It came up about a foot short, an airball, and so ended the Great Hickson Vendetta. Hatred lost out, and love, once again can reign supreme.

Before the Blazers’ 113-98 win over the Nuggets in the Pepsi Center on Friday, the last Portland win in Denver came all the way back in December of 2007. Need a good cry? Take a look at the box score from that contest. Allen Iverson led all scorers with 38 points while Brandon Roy paced the Blazers with 26 points and 11 assists. What a depressingly different time that sentence lives in.

6 years later, the leading scorers in this game were LaMarcus Aldridge for the Blazers with 25 points and 9 rebounds, and the Nuggets’ 5’9”, 180 lbs sparkplug, Nate Robinson, who finished with 24 points, including 4-6 from three point range, to go with his 7 rebounds. But those two only tell the story of the end of the contest. The beginning of the game was all Nicolas Batum, who scored the entirety of his 21 points in the first half.

The Nuggets lack of a viable small forward looked like a giant festering wound, and nobody noticed it more than Batum. In the early going, he went right after Denver starter Anthony Randolph, quickly eviscerating Randolph and forcing Denver coach to substitute fellow Frenchman Evan Fournier into the game. But neither player did much to stop Batum, who had 15 points by the end of the first quarter. In the second half, Batum mainly saw Randy Foye and a little bit of Andre Miller, and while Nico’s lack of scoring in that half would suggest that the two smaller players did a better job defensively, it looked more as though the game had just moved elsewhere.

With 10 minutes remaining, the Blazers led by a score of 95-74. Perhaps sensing viewers starting to leak away to watch Big Freedia’s new show on the Fuse channel, The Human #LeaguePassAlert Nate Robinson put the game on his miniature wrecking ball shoulders. After hitting a deep pull-up three and striking fear into any Blazer fan who has seen the devastating effects when Robinson bursts into flames, the former Rainier Beach Viking hit another pull-up jumper. Then he hit some kind of ridiculous double-clutch fadeaway three-pointer that made Larry Brown roll over in his grave and the comeback was on. With a little over four and a half minutes to go, the lead had been cut to 101-94.

Yet the most quintessentially Nate moment of the run came when a Nugget guard – possibly Ty Lawson – chucked a kind of emergency evacuation of a pass from the paint out towards Nate, who was hovering a good distance away from the rim, not far from the scorer’s table on the left wing, with his back to the basket. As the ball slowly arced towards Robinson, the thought watching the play was not “What will he do here?” but “How will he get this shot off?” because of course this would be an instant shot – it’s Nate Robinson, after all. Sure enough, he caught the ball with his back still to the basket, wheeled around without even taking a second to spot the location of the defender and hoisted an off-balance 25-footer that still somehow found the back iron. He’s the best.

But thanks to the ongoing effort from the Blazers frontcourt, especially in the closing minutes, Robinson’s best would not be enough. Starter Robin Lopez looked much better than he did in the first game, but the most surprising performance by far was that of backup center Joel Freeland. After looking like a scrub for most of last year and even into the preseason this year, Freeland played like a bona fide NBA player on Friday. Though he only finished with 5 points and 7 rebounds, Freeland brought intensity to all 22 of his minutes on the floor, battling the likes of Kenneth Faried for rebounds, protecting the rim without fouling, using his body well, and even making a few plays in both pick-and-roll sets and when posted. While Aldridge closed out the game with an infomercial’s worth of moves from the left block over the last four minutes – mainly against Hickson, but the way Aldridge was playing, it wouldn’t matter who was defending – the fact that coach Terry Stotts felt confident enough in Joel Freeland to leave him out there for much of the fourth quarter is the loudest indicator of his marked improvement.

The other star in Portland, Damian Lillard, finished with 18 points including 3-4 from beyond the arc, but again struggled defensively to contain another quick guard in Ty Lawson. As in the first game, Lillard ceded that assignment for most of the second half to either Batum or Wes Matthews. It’s been a tough test for Lillard’s defensive work to open the season with two of the more athletic point guards in the entire league in the Suns’ Eric Bledsoe and Lawson last night, but even so, there were some signs of encouragement. On at least a couple of plays, Lillard looked better maintaining his defensive position despite multiple changes of direction and even was seen bodying up on drives that last year might have put him off balance and knocked him out of the play for an easy layup. Lillard and the Blazers will hope these signs lead to something quickly though, as the ultra-quick Tony Parker and his San Antonio Spurs come to Portland for the season opener at the Moda Center on Saturday night.

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