Portland 115, Chicago 109, double OT

Oh ye of little faith, why do you doubt? When I wrote my review, I referenced a conversation I had the night before in which I said Portland would win, admitting, "My first thought was this was a should-win game for Portland."

But the more I studied the game, the more I convinced myself these were 2 very even teams and that the home court was going to make the difference. Ultimately, I made the craven "Portland loss" prediction, saying, "In Chicago, I actually think the teams are pretty close to even, no huge advantages either way. If the game is in Portland, I think Portland wins it. But since it is in Chicago I suspect the Bulls will pull it out, probably in the 4 - 8 point range. So my official prediction is a Bulls win...but I will not be shocked if Portland pulls out the minor upset.

Allow me to address myself for a unbelieving coward! Get behind this team, will you?

And now, back to our regularly scheduled program. The game started out ragged, going back and forth. Aldridge was struggling mightily from the looked like he wanted to follow up on his monster night against Utah rather than the struggles he had against Minnesota , but he was forcing things...shooting from unusual places, battling into the teeth of the defense instead of going with the normal flow...but he was still indispensable to Portland in the early going as he was controlling the boards, racking up 5 in the first quarter.

Meanwhile, Webster and Blake picked up the scoring load with 8 and 5 respectively. Webster was playing very well, doing some of the things Jones does...moving without the ball, just subtle things to get free for open shots, that sort of thing. Webster was doing that in this game. He was moving without the ball, he was posting up smaller players, and scoring well.

Chicago was also getting good balance as Hinrich, Gordon and Smith combined for 20 of their 22 points in the quarter and a 22-20 Chicago lead. About this point I was kicking myself for not going outright with a Portland win.

Then came the second quarter. The first few minutes were a disaster. If Portland was a whale and the basket was the water, they could not hit the water even with an effort from their blow-hole. A low-flying blimp would have intercepted it before it could hit or something. And that was when they bothered to throw the ball in the general direction of the basket...they had 3 turnovers before they scored. They were on the verge of being blown out if Chicago could score. Fortunately, the lead only grew to 7, 28-21, as Chicago also started cold. Then Outlaw and Roy took over, scoring 13 combined points in the remainder of the quarter. Outlaw had more, 9, but Roy's were the type that set up his late-game heroics.

Portland had to feel pretty good at the half. Aldridge was scoreless, they were struggling to score as a team (they followed up a 21 point first quarter by decreasing their scoring by 1), could stop neither Gordon nor Smith...and were only down 7.

Whatever McMillan said to them at the did not work. They gave up a 7-0 run as Aldridge twice turned the ball over, Webster missed a couple of shots, and it was on the verge of being a once-winnable game they then lost. About this point I was feeling better about my Chicago win prediction. That 55-41 lead looked huge, especially with as much trouble as Portland was having scoring. I think it was about this point that TNT showed a statistic that Portland had 10 turnovers and 9 assists.

But Outlaw and Roy would not be denied. If they were not scoring (6 and 7) then they were passing to the open guy who then scored. By the time they closed the quarter on a 7-2 run the game was just 1 point, 70-69, the entire 14 point deficit had been erased and the 4th quarter is Blazer time.

Some guy named Aldridge stepped up, hitting key shot after key shot. This was the Aldridge I am such a huge fan of...working the pick and roll with Roy to hit that foul line extended jumper, grabbing the offensive board and scoring on the put-back, playing in the flow of the offense. He got little help, however...he scored 8, the rest of the Blazers just 11. They had their chances...3 times in the last minute Roy had shots, but Wallace blocked one and the other two he missed. This game was going to overtime.

Chicago built a quick 4 point lead. This was gut-check time round 2. They were up to the task. Outlaw hit one of those drive/step back jumpers he loves, Jack stole the ball and laid it in, Roy scored and was fouled...and suddenly Portland had the 3 point lead.

Neither team would quit, though...Chicago fought back as Gordon and Smith continued to score at will. When Portland got anyone else to shoot they would miss...but Portland could not grab the board. Again and again they got the stop, only to have their heart ripped out as Chicago got the offensive rebound and then Gordon or Smith, Smith or Gordon...oh, they were awesome.

Finally, with 18 seconds Outlaw hit a shot to give Portland the lead yet again. Then they got the stop, inducing a tough Gordon shot and miss...only to see Smith get a rebound over 3 Blazers and get fouled. He hit both free throws, the only shot Portland could get was a hotly contested trey by Jack and we were heading to a second overtime.

Chicago got the first three cracks at it as Wallace and Smith rebounded missed triples by Gordon and Nocioni. You would think Chicago would look at Gordon again or maybe the unstoppable Smith. Nope. Hinrich for, and now Portland finally had the ball.

They traded baskets until a mini 5-0 run gave Portland a 3 point lead with just 19 seconds remaining. Smith missed a free throw, Jones hit 2 free throws to make it a 4 point lead, then he blocked a Nocioni 3. When he hit 2 free throws Portland finally had an insurmountable 6 point lead.

It was an excellent game and a great time to have it, on national television. Aldridge came back from his 0-7 start to finish 6-16 with 14 points and 13 vital boards. His 4th quarter and overtime play were huge.

Roy had another standout game with 25 points and 11 assists...and some key defensive plays. Outlaw was huge...every time Portland was struggling to score it seemed like it was Outlaw with that drive left, step back jumper. Portland finished with 6 guys in double figures, and despite the 18 offensive rebounds they allowed Chicago, they won the battle on the boards 51-49. That is huge against a Chicago team that is top 5 in the league in rebounds.

Oh, and remember that 10 turnover, 9 assist stat? Portland ended with 10 turnovers and 23 assists.

They took care of the ball, despite the way it felt watching during the key moments of the game, they actually did a really nice job on the boards, they did not get flustered when Chicago built a significant lead, they trusted the role players to help them...and those players came through in spades.

This was a game this Portland team can be proud of and build on. It makes a difference for more than just one game in the standings...this will give them confidence. Chicago was hot coming in, playing at home, and had a sizable lead. Portland kept their poise, worked their way back, and came away with an impressive win.

19-13 Portland at 12-18 Chicago

Will the real Chicago please stand up? Are they the team that went 49-33 with half of a Ben Wallace? Or are they the team that started this season 8-17, struggled against everyone and quit on Scott Skiles? Recently, they have looked more like the team from last year.

One suspects this recent turnaround in which the Bulls have gone from hapless to dangerous has a lot to do with the change in coaching. Ironically, Bulls (interim) coach Boylan made a comment that dove-tails nicely with my own philosophy: "Sometimes you go the way the game is going,'' Boylan said."

That quote was in reference to the extended playing time he gave to Noah who responded with a career high 17 points in just 18 minutes. I take it to mean when he sees a line-up that is working, he is going to let them run for a while. That kind of coaching can lead to win streaks.

Chicago has made some changes that are working for them. Ben Gordon is able to dominate most benches as he has shown since being moved to Chicago's bench. Hinrich and Deng are starting to look like the players they were last year and even Wallace seems to have come out of his funk. Suddenly, this is a dangerous Chicago team that thinks they can play with anyone.

And they probably can. They have a deep, talented team that can play a variety of styles. And I am having second thoughts. My first thought was this was a should-win game for Portland. However, I did not realize how much they had improved since Skiles was released. This is the team Chicago thought they had.

Unlike Minnesota, in Chicago you really do have a team that is better than its record. They certainly have the talent to beat Portland in Chicago...the question is which team will want it more. Portland is wanting to prove their long winning streak was A) no fluke and B) not strictly fueled by being at home. They are coming off a road win, they have seen what a good team looks like when that team is struggling but at home (Utah), and they know what to expect.

This game is going to come down to execution. If former Bull LaMarcus Aldridge (okay, so for about 10 minutes on draft day...but it still amuses me to say that) and Brandon Roy can continue their strong play, a couple of the second tier guys...say, Outlaw and Jones...have solid games, this is a winnable game for Portland. On the other hand, if they come out shooting 39% again, this could be a loss by 10+ points.

Here is where I say something that hurts. In the Utah game, despite the records, I believed Portland was going into a building where they were playing a better team in an away game and should probably lose. I hate Utah and hate admitting they have a better team. But they do.

In Chicago, I actually think the teams are pretty close to even, no huge advantages either way. If the game is in Portland, I think Portland wins it. But since it is in Chicago I suspect the Bulls will pull it out, probably in the 4 - 8 point range. So my official prediction is a Bulls win...but I will not be shocked if Portland pulls out the minor upset.

Blazers 90, Timberwolves 79

Early on, this was the Jefferson-Aldridge show. Jefferson got off to a fast start with 6 points in the first 4 minutes and 9 in the first quarter. He also pulled down a couple rebounds. Meanwhile, Aldridge missed numerous shots early but finished the quarter 3-7 for 10 points and he also reined in 4 rebounds. He was on a mission tonight.

On a night when both teams had a star clicking, it would be the better TEAM that would win. The remaining players for Minnesota could only match the 9 points Jefferson put up in the quarter but Portland added 13 to the 10 Aldridge dropped in. It was a theme that would continue.

In the second quarter we got a vision of brilliance: Sergio Rodriguez was on fire. Oh, not from the field...just running the offense. On the first Blazer position he found Jones open and picked up an assist. After Outlaw hit a jumper, Sergio hooked up with Jones again. Then, just to keep things interesting he found Frye open. Then it was back to Jones twice more, this time for 3s. Przybilla looked lonely, so Rodriguez hooked him up for the dunk. Then he got it to Aldridge for a lay-in and closed out his run with a dish to Jones for another 3.

In other words, in the 6 minutes and 8 seconds of the second quarter that he played, he ran the offense so well, identified the hot shooters and got them the ball in places they like to shoot from so well, that Portland missed only 2 shots and scored 21 points. It is not often that you will hear me say Roy replacing Rodriguez is a downgrade...but this was one of those times. Portland scored but 8 points the remainder of the quarter.Jones had 13 points on 5-5 shooting at that point and 13 points on 5-5 shooting when the quarter ended.

Nothing against Roy who is a great, great player...but there are times when it seems you should go with the flow. Rodriguez had tremendous court vision. Without scoring, he was the spark plug that was making the Blazer offense go. Now, certainly you don't want Roy or Aldridge to lose their own rhythm for the game, but you might consider letting the Jones/Rodriguez combo have a couple more minutes here to see if they can keep the explosion going.

What is particularly disturbing here is that for the night, Portland shot 39%. In that one stretch they were 8-10...take away that hot streak and they shot 22-67, or .328% from the field. Against a bad Minnesota team that gives up some nice shooting nights...that is just horrible. 3 Blazers shot 50% or better...James Jones was 5 - 7, the other two were J-Jack and Joel Przybilla...who each attempted 2 shots.

Fortunately, Minnesota was even worse. Only Rashard McCants (3-6) managed to shoot 50% and only Jefferson (29 points, 16 rebounds) and Ryan Gomes (10 and 10) came to play so Portland still won.

Nor should this be taken as a complaint...Portland did what they had to do, controlled the game more or less beginning to end...they just made it harder on themselves than they need to. One thing great teams do is learn from every scenario, win or lose. I think there are a couple of lessons to learn from this game.

First, don't kill the goose that is laying the golden egg. Portland was on the verge of blowing Minnesota out of the building. All year Minnesota has shown they will cave when the other team throws a hay maker. By pulling the effective point guard too early, McMillan made this into a body blow. Now, lest anyone get the wrong idea...I think McMillan is an excellent coach and the right guy for this team. However, from time to time he makes some...let's say interesting substitutions. Of course, who in their right mind would question the inserting of Roy into the line-up? And maybe Rodriguez was gassed, I do not know, I did not see it. What I do know is several times this year Portland has had an effective combination on the floor that has been broken up by substitution while still effective.

It would be interesting to compare substitution patterns of a team like Phoenix or Dallas, just to see how their flow goes when they are on a hot streak.

Be that as it may, Portland is riding high heading into Chicago and they are fun to watch.