Looks like we need another disclaimer before entering the thick of things. What shall we go with? How about “4-1 road trip”? And How!
A lot of things went well, a lot of things didn’t. Unfortunately, the former applied mostly to the first half, the latter to the second half and overtime. The most obvious reason for that separation is that Portland was on the last-game of a five-game trip, their fifth game in a week. That’s also the likely reason Nate McMillan went to the zone defense for so much of the game, to save the legs a little bit. Unfortunately that led to plenty of box-out confusion and Atlanta’s 47-37 advantage on the glass, 15-8 on the offensive boards. The Blazers are, and remain, one of the best rebounding teams in the league, so it’s a bit of a fluke problem and not one to worry about, but it’s also a main reason for the loss. Lots of credit due Josh Smith and Al Horford for their work inside.
I’ve always felt that Josh Smith, big contract and all, was the primary factor holding the Atlanta Hawks back, and he is now the driving force behind their fast start. Joe Johnson hit a lot of big — well defended — shots and had 35 points, but he also did it on 31 shots, and it was Smith doing work in the paint, providing help-side defense, rebounding, drawing fouls, basically doing everything other than taking awful jumpers. He also benefited from the Blazers going away from Aldridge during some key stretches, yet that doesn’t change the fact that the Hawks almost definitely lose without him. Good for basketball that such a huge talent is piecing things together, let’s just hope he’s doing it in February.
Back to the Blazers. The first half, especially the first six minutes, were as good an offensive show as they’ve put on all season. The Hawks were blitzing the offensive boards — which also aided their comeback — and the Blazers were taking advantage of the recovering defense. Everyone was running, Steve Blake through some nice lobs and Portland had great success working through Oden and Aldridge in the post. They look like a championship-caliber team when things are going as well as they did. When the Hawks clamped down on their rotations, however, they looked like a team just trying to hold on to a lead rather than one trying to extend the lead.
Again, my concerns came from the painted area. Just as during the Charlotte game, the Blazers drifted to the perimeter. From 4:14 in the 3rd to 9:44 in the 4th, eight of Portland’s nine shots were jumpers — although one was more of an awkward spiraling pigtail from Webster — with one trip to the line from Bayless, and the lead went from 11-5.
Then after Juwan Howard’s unexpected-yet-awesome dunk in traffic at 8:22 in the 4th — when Portland was again up 10 — nine of their next 13 shots were jumpers, with just two trips to the line sprinkled in. Much of that is due to tired legs and very good Atlanta defense, but you aren’t going to put away many good teams on the road with those kinds of ratios. At the very least, you must get to the free-throw line.
Atlanta won points in the paint, 56-36. Nuff said.
At times, McMillan did seem to be trying to re-establish the post with Oden and Aldridge, but the Blazers kept getting away from it. Coupled with Atlanta getting itself extra possessions — 91 shots taken to 80 — and some big shots from JJ, they weren’t able to hang on. This was the first truly competitive game in over a week for Portland, so it’s easy to be overly critical, but it just so happens that it became the type of physical contest that tests the Blazers better than any other. The next big step for them for them is to control those games more often than they are controlled by them. But, they’ll have plenty more chances to do so, and they will not always come at the end of long road trips.
I asked some folks on Twitter whether I’ve been too hard on Rudy Fernandez, and most of them said I am. I’ll give him a week without Travis or so before really digging in to analysis, but this is what I’m seeing from him. I’m seeing a guy who is inefficient with the plays run for him, moving and dribbling horizontally when he should be attacking and creating. I also see an incredible shotmaker, a guy who can hit anything off the catch and is reliable at the end of games for big hits. I saw him play rock solid defense in the first half, and then I saw him disappear in the second half when plays weren’t run directly for him. I never imagined Rudy as someone who would need plays run for him to be effective, just someone who could create with touches in an offense. Maybe he does need more plays, maybe he needs to be involved in more pick-and-rolls, but considering the things we’ve seen with Portland giving up leads by giving up the paint, he’s probably not inspiring Nate to change things up. We will definitely be revisiting this topic soon.
Brandon Roy paced himself for the finish, and when it came time to take over he didn’t quite have enough. By the time he started going one-on-one, you could tell that either he was taking the lead or Portland was probably losing. Chances are good Roy will come through in those situations, so you can’t have a problem with it, and had it not been the end of a trip he probably would have been more assertive during ATL’s two main runs. That said, with Travis out, Roy needs another perimeter player to help create shots, not just take them. Blake did it early on. Nobody did when things got tough.
I have a feeling I’m going to be combining Blake and Miller for as long as this lineup lasts. Together, they were one well-rounded, poor shooting point guard that did pretty much nothing to contribute on defense once the zone was chipped away and then busted. Against the Hawks, the two-point lineup doesn’t make much sense, although…
It’s hard to change things up when Martell Webster is playing like it’s 2007. Webster looks likes he’s really pressing right now, running the floor with abandon but unsure of where exactly he’s going. He’s still attacking, but once he gets by his man he doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. I’m sure Nate would love to have a big, athletic small forward to play against guys like Joe Johnson, which says a ton about how little Martell is playing (11 minutes).
Greg Oden didn’t dominate the paint tonight, having as much trouble as anyone keeping track of Josh Smith on the glass. He was more rushed in the post than we’ve seen lately, but still scored on many of his touches. Either fatigue or intelligence kept him out of foul trouble, which was good, but part of his rebounding problem is that he kept going for big blocks when Smith and Horford would just step behind him for good rebounding position. As the game changed, Oden didn’t.
LaMarcus Aldridge began the game rebounding with authority, but got pushed around a little as the game wore on. He probably deserved more touches than he received, but like Rudy, you couldn’t always tell he was on the court. Not his best night.
Juwan Howard dunked and got fouled on a fast break. Read that sentence twice and then try to think of the last time you saw or heard of him doing that.
When Jerryd Bayless came in at the end of the third, I thought he would give Portland a needed shot in the arm. He didn’t, and only played two minutes.
Detroit might be tough on Wednesday, but the Blazers don’t have many physical tests like this one coming up. Chicago or Utah might provide that, but games like tonight’s are the ones you should scrutinize the most because they will tell you just how far the Blazers have come and just how far they have to go. Since the cards were stacked against Portland tonight, it’s not the best example, but when mid-season comes and we are all comparing the Blazers to the rest of the league, it will be important to remember how much they got pushed around on the road and how much they pushed back. Rather, how much of close road games they control, regardless of wins or losses. Because had they won tonight, they would have escaped rather than conquered.