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Fourth-quarter swoon gives pause to Blazers' romp in Dallas

by: COURTESY OF JOHN LARIVIERE - Nicolas Batum had one of his top scoring games for the Trail Blazers on Saturday, helping them build a huge lead in a win at Dallas.DALLAS — The Trail Blazers' starting five matches up with any in the NBA. With Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez, Wesley Matthews and Damian Lillard, Portland has all the bases covered.

The Blazers' bench, however, is another story.

It's stronger than that of a year ago, with the addition of veteran guard Mo Williams, the development of big man Joel Freeland and the potential of rookie guard C.J. McCollum.

But that's damning with faint praise. The backup contingent with which Terry Stotts worked in his first season as Portland's head coach was D-League-caliber, no better.

There was nothing comforting about the Blazers' bench play in a 127-111 victory over Dallas Saturday night at American Airlines Center. Or, at least, the end-of-the-bench play.

Portland took a 104-70 lead into the fourth quarter. To that point, the shellacking the Blazers (31-9) had put on the Mavericks (24-18) was merciless.

Through three quarters, Portland had hammered Dallas 45-23 on the boards, 54-22 in points in the paint and 30-5 in fast-break points. You don't often see that kind of disparity in an NBA game. You almost never see it happen to a playoff-worthy team at home.

Dallas coach Rick Carlisle's arms were getting tired from signaling for so many timeouts. Nothing was working. Nothing wasn't working for the Blazers.

"Beyond embarrassing," is the way Carlisle termed his team's play through three quarters.

Both coaches went to their reserves to start the fourth quarter. Stotts inserted players eight through 12 on his roster -- guards McCollum and Will Barton, forwards Thomas Robinson and center Meyers Leonard. Carlisle countered with Wayne Ellington, Shaen Larkin, Jae Crowder, Brandan Wright and DeJuan Blair.

In the first two minutes, Portland expanded its advantage to 111-73. On the Blazers' bench, the starters sat back, enjoying the opportunity for a short night and a little extra rest heading into the final two stops on this difficult four-game road trip -- Houston and Oklahoma City.

Then the worm turned. Ellington hit a 3-pointer. Leonard missed a jump shot. Blair converted a rebound basket. Barton clanked a reverse dunk attempt.

Suddenly, the Blazers were on their heels. In one two-minute stretch, they turned over the ball on four consecutive possessions. Stotts, growing exasperated, used a pair of timeouts to try to stem the tide. Didn't work.

After Leonard missed a high-flying dunk attempt and Ellington scored on a driving layup, Dallas had completed an incomprehensible 25-2 run to draw within 113-98 with 4:38 yet to play.

Stotts recalled his starters at that point, and they restored order, scoring on six straight possessions to put the game in the victory column.

Still, Dallas' 41-point fourth quarter provided for an unnerving finish to what should have been a banner victory, though the coach wasn't giving away any of his emotions afterward.

He praised the defensive resolve of his starters, complimented them for extending a 71-52 halftime lead with a terrific third quarter, and lauded the ball movement that led to 26 assists and .511 shooting. All well and good.

Asked about the fourth quarter, Stotts hemmed and hawed.

"It was … I don't know … it was … (the Mavericks) were doing a lot of trapping and, uh … young guys … we didn't handle it well," he said. "I'm reluctant to talk too much about it … I don't want that to detract from what was a really good win."

Stotts laid the blame on Dallas' desperation-mode pressure defense and his reserves' inability to handle it.

"Not a lot of teams are out there trapping and double-teaming," he said. "It wasn't a matter of executing our offense. (The Mavericks) got hot making shots. They had some momentum. Their defense was able to spark some offense for them. It wasn't a true evaluation (of the Blazer reserves). You really don't see that throughout the course of a season very much."

It's true it was a young group, with four first- or second-year players and the veteran Wright. Still, it's not unreasonable to ask them to protect a 30-plus-point lead in better fashion than they did.

For Stotts to have to go back to his starters after such a collapse is really inexcusable, though Wright didn't seem to feel that way.

"You're asking me about something when we were up 30?" Wright said, with an annoyed chuckle. "I don't know. What did it look like?"

Looked like they kind of fell apart.

"I wouldn't say that," said Wright, who was scoreless on 0-for-3 shooting with two turnovers in his eight minutes. The Mavericks "just made a run. We had a good game today, and they made a run. Basketball is a game of runs."

Was the fourth quarter discouraging to him?

"All our goal is to win," he said. "That's the goal."

That's the main goal, for sure. The Blazers accomplished that in the second of back-to-back games and after a superb performance in a victory at San Antonio to open this monumental four-game trip.

Aldridge had another in a string of lights-out performances with 30 points and 12 rebounds, making 11 of 18 shots from the field and 8 of 9 at the foul line.

Batum was sensational early, blitzing the Mavs with a 15-point first quarter that featured three soaring dunks. He finished with 21 points on 8-for-11 shooting to go with seven rebounds.

Lopez (16 points, 12 rebounds) and Lillard (14 points, 10 assists) had double-doubles, the latter turning facilitator on a night when the second-year point guard took a season-low eight shots.

"It was basically me and Nico switching roles," Lillard said. "We had a few guys making shots. I just played the game. I didn't try to force anything."

The Blazer starters all helped their plus-minus ratios considerably. They should have had an early night off to go into Sunday and, in the words of Lopez, "a day to marinate our two wins a little bit before we get back to it."

Those starters covered for their teammates when asked by the media, offering that the reserves were "caught off guard," that it's a learning experience and there is little to worry about.

Maybe what happened in the fourth quarter Saturday night will prove an anomaly. McCollum could quickly prove quickly to be a dependable contributor. Maybe Robinson -- who had eight points on 4-for-5 shooting (including two powerful dunks) and three rebounds, but also four turnovers -- will become more consistent.

But there was something ominous about what happened out there the final 12 minutes.

Sure, the starters returned to put out the fire and increase Portland's gaudy road record to 15-5.

But what if one of them goes down to injury for any significant time the second half of the season?

Williams can step in as a starter, but who replaces him as THE guy off the bench?

OK, it's a little rain to the parade after two big wins on the most important road trip of the season for a Portland team that has met every challenge it has faced thus far.

Stotts is stressing that his players take the games as they come, one at a time. That strategy is working.

But there is a big picture. At some point, the reserves may be called on to play key roles. They'll have to respond better than they did during that unsightly eight-minute span in Saturday's fourth quarter.

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