INDIANAPOLIS -- There was a return-to-form performance from Nicolas Batum, a milestone for Wesley Matthews and a familiar businesslike demeanor by the Trail Blazers Saturday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
But lurking behind the temporary positives that helped the Blazer stiff-arm a two-game losing streak was something bigger, something more important, for the long-term success of this team.
As the Blazers defeated the undermanned Indiana Pacers 95-85 to finish their five-game East Coast trip 3-2, they racked up 21 assists, continuing an encouraging and irregular trend that speaks to the character and camaraderie of the team.
The Blazers (18-6) have recorded at least 20 assists in each of the first 24 games of the season. They are the only NBA team to reach 20 in every game this season and the only team to do so in the first 20 games of a season since the Utah Jazz did so in 2007-08. The 24-game, 20-assist run is the longest streak for the Blazers since they opened the 1993-94 season by doing so in the first 27 games.
"I think it's a great thing," backup point guard Steve Blake said. "I've lived by the assist my whole life, so I kind of have to agree with it. But that's one of the things I knew coming to the team, that it had good chemistry, that guys played well together and enjoyed playing together, and that's just carried over into the season. That's kind of part of our identity."
Through wins and losses, through nail-biters and blowouts, through defensive slugfests and offensive explosions, one thing has been constant this season for the Blazers: They share the ball, they move on offense, they play unselfish and they rack up assists.
The Blazers rank seventh in the NBA in assists, averaging 23.4 per game, and are the only team in the NBA to feature three players averaging at least 4.3 per game: Damian Lillard (6.1), Batum (5.1) and Blake (4.3). It's a reflection, they say, of the trait that most defines this team.
"It speaks to the trust we have in each other," Matthews said. "We have fun with it. I don't think many teams nowadays -- not just in the NBA -- just have fun with moving the ball. That's when we're at our best, when the ball is flying around and everybody is passing it to each other and playing unselfish."
The Blazers were sharing from the get-go Saturday night, recording assists on seven of their first nine field goals. Four different players (LaMarcus Aldridge, Lillard, Mathews and Blake) logged at least one, offering an illustration of the team-wide team-first culture that permeates the roster. It helps that the Blazers feature an abundance of playmakers, multiple All-Stars and a surplus of prolific scorers. But, even more, it's a byproduct of coach Terry Stotts and his brand of basketball, which is predicated on ball movement, player movement and unselfishness.
"I think it's a great stat and I'm very proud of it," Stotts said. "You'd like to think it's a reflection of team play and unselfishness and good basketball. And a trust factor that guys are going to make plays, make shots. It's the way the game is played best and I think it's when we're playing best."
For stretches of the Saturday night's victory, the Blazers were at their best. After losing two in a row for just the second time this season, the Blazers entered the game with a "serious" and "businesslike" demeanor from the opening tip, Matthews said, and that eventually spiraled into a decisive edge. The Blazers opened both the second and third quarters with separate 11-2 runs and led by as many as 29 points in the third quarter against the injury-ravaged Pacers (7-17), who suffered their eighth consecutive defeat.
The Blazers, who allowed the lead to dwindle down to single digits in the fourth quarter but never really lost control of the game, attacked the Pacers from all angles, as four of five starters reached double figures in scoring, the bench combined to score 24 points and Robin Lopez contributed eight points, eight rebounds and three blocks while playing exceptional defense. Aldridge finished with 19 points and 14 rebounds, Lillard had 18 points and four assists and Blake (eight points, seven assists) and Chris Kaman (10 points, six rebounds) continued to pace the second unit.
All the while, there were two notable achievements. First, Matthews scored 12 points and made 2 of 6 three-pointers, leapfrogging Damon Stoudamire into second place on the Blazers' all-time three-point shooting list. Matthews has 718 in five seasons with the Blazers, one more than Stoudamire. Secondly -- and more important to the here and now -- Batum had a solid shooting night.
The Blazers' starting small forward, who entered the game in the worst slump of his career, made 6 of 11 shots en route to a balanced all-around performance that featured 14 points, five assists, four rebounds and three steals. His first two makes were aggressive driving layups, which was done, he says, to get him in "attack" mode and help take his mind of his slumping jumper.
"I'm just thinking way too much about my jump shot ... shooting way too much from outside," he said. "So tonight, I just tried to attack more. That gave me a little bit of a rhythm back. So that's what I've got to do. I've got to stop settling for my jump shot too much."
Which leads back to those prolific assist numbers. What's perhaps most impressive about it all is that the Blazers, who rank 20th in the league in shooting percentage (45.2), haven't shot particularly well all season. Imagine what the assist totals would be with a higher shooting percentage.
"It's scary to think about," Matthews said.
Eventually, Batum will snap out of his funk. Eventually, Lillard will be allowed to play without protective splints wrapped around two sprained fingers on his right shooting hand. Eventually, the Blazers will regain their shooting stroke.
But, regardless, they will continue to share the ball. And continue to accumulate assists.
"Everybody's making the right plays," Lillard said. "We've got guys passing up good shots for great shots, even guys passing up great shots. Just the fact that we're trusting each other, we're moving the ball and nobody's worried about themselves. I think when you play that way and you trust your teammates and you like your teammates, that's how it happens.
"The way the ball's moving is really helping us."
By Joe Freeman | oregonlive.com | December 14, 2014