Remember putting together Tug-o-war teams in elementary school? Once the teams were assembled and everyone took their spot on the rope, it was always considered wise to put the heaviest, strongest, and preferably shortest person on the very end. It was typically a stout jock, or the poor chunky kid who was incessantly bullied until it was time to put his girth to work and be the hero. It was a good strategy, but it never guaranteed a win. Your anchor could be a tree stump, but you couldn’t pull the other team over the line if every one wasn’t digging in.
Currently, the Trail Blazers are a Tug-o-war team that is putting all their faith in an anchor to win games. It varies from game to game who that anchor is. Sometimes it’s Damian Lillaird, Jusuf Nurkic, or like Wednesday night against the Memphis Grizzlies, it was CJ McCollum. CJ went wild and scored 40 points to the rest of the team’s 43. That’s right, three fewer than half the points for the whole team. That’s a solid anchor, but again, everyone needs to pull on the rope to win. It’s almost as if the Blazers draw straws in the locker room before games to see who gets to go off when they all are capable of doing so.
Last night the Blazers gripped the other end of the ol’ Tug-o-war rope looking at the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors have the best record in the NBA right now at 23-7. The Blazers have gone up against some fierce teams this season, but not the best. Considering the Blazers play of late, the natural inclination was to assume that the Blazers would get ripped into ribbons by the Raptors. Last night, more than any night, the Blazers needed to forgo their Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe ritual and just pull together.
Per usual, the Blazers were wholly unpredictable. Instead of leaning on one single player’s performance, or collapsing in the fourth quarter, the whole Blazer team planted their heels and wrenched the best team in the league off their feet for the win, 128-122.
Both the Blazers and the Raptors were off their game to start: poor shooting, sloppy passes, ugly turnovers, and just a general imbalance on both ends of the court. The score was in the teens up until Dame popped two confident threes and boosted the Blazers up past 20 with under four minutes to go in the first.
Zach Collins had some meaty plays in the first half. He muscled his way through the paint for some strong dunks and put-backs. Zach may look a little lanky, but he can muster some serious strength when he needs to.
Along with Collins, the story of the first half was the entire Blazers’ bench. They poured in 25 points collectively before Stotts pulled them all at the same time and put the starters back in with five minutes left in the half. They received a nice ovation from the crowd for their help in building the Blazers’ double digit lead. The starters wobbled for second, but were able to take an eight point lead into the locker room. The Blazers’ individual point column was a thing of beauty at the half. Everyone had points, and zero players had more than ten. Collins was the high scorer with nine. Everyone was pulling.
There was more of the same from the Blazers in the third - quality, unselfish team play. Unfortunately the Raptors started tying up their own loose ends. After being held to only three points in the first half, Kawhi Leonard started waking up a bit, quickly pumping his point total up to 13. The Blazers lead started slipping. What else was there for Stotts to do except tip the bench over again? The back-up squad charged onto the court and just careened through the Raptors. Within a blink of an eye they had the Blazers lead up to 15. They outscored the Raptors’ bench 58-26. It was goddamn magical, and ultimately the main reason the Blazers walked with the victory.
Last night’s performance by the Blazers is why all the chatter on the streets and the internet about blowing up the team, or firing Stotts is a bunch of malarkey. Eight of the Blazers logged double figures in the points column, and their defense was locked in from wire to wire. The Blazers have all the elements to contend. They just have to put them together every quarter of every game.