Of all the improbable wins this season, this one came close to being the unlikeliest of successes. And boy, was it great to cover in person. A treat. The Blazers had Boston’s crowd sounding as nervous and frustrated as I’ve heard them in two years, aided by the Celtics’ three prior losses in their own building. Believe me, as bad as you probably wanted this win, Boston fans were on their game as well. When things came to a boil in the final minutes and in overtime, it all became a fantastic basketball experience. The stretch may not have been pretty, but it was full of all the small twisting moments that elevate all the great action scenes on film. No shame in this.
We’re beginning to run out of proper ways to applaud the Blazers for pushing through the myriad of injuries, but all the adjectives deserve to be recycled after Portland lost Brandon Roy the day before and effectively lost Jerryd Bayless to a sprained ankle by halftime. The Blazers were left with three bench players, including two second-round rookies, against the Boston Celtics, and with Rudy Fernandez in some post-injury mucky muck, Andre Miller was really Portland’s only offensive playmaker or creator.
Because of that, the idea of offensive sets flew out the window. The Blazers still ran their stuff, but the Celtics swarmed them knowing nobody else was going to take them off the dribble. The result was the highest volume of broken plays in a half we may have seen all season. Somehow Andre Miller jerked and janked and faked his way around Rajon Rondo and played the hero so many times that the writer’s of his comic strip decided his YMCA success was becoming boring for readers and stripped Miller of all his powers as overtime rolled along.
I wrote about this in my NBA.com recap, but the game began with both teams finely executing plans infused with the knowledge of advanced scouting. The Celtics have been as vulnerable to offensive rebounders as the Colossus of Rhodes was to people named Jason poking them in the ankle with a spear. Even with Kevin Garnett in the lineup, Boston’s bigs just get lazy on the boards and forget to find people to box out, so Portland just sent people darting around inside 10 feet and came away with 16 offensive boards. Other than Miller, there’s no better reason to give for how Portland only lost by three points in overtime despite shooting 5-for-25 from three and 38 percent overall.
The Celtics, for their part, took advantage of Portland taking advantage of their mistakes, looking for the long outlet passes all night en route to 25 fast-break points. You could tell the Celtics were going to score sometimes as early as the defensive rebound, because there was Rondo sitting at mid-court, ready to race. The Blazers were decimated in the paint, 56-32, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone.
Actually, to heck with it. Numbers cannot explain this game. It was a fan’s night, with bounces going every which way and plenty of calls for supporters of each side to lament. With Garnett back, the Celtics were in all their aggressive glory and Portland’s mish-mash lineups gave as good as they were given. The smallest of miscues cost — Aldridge tipping that loose ball leading to the Tony Allen dunk and Rudy’s poor clock awareness on the final shot — Portland a game that they were only in because of the smallest of details. On a personal note, I wasn’t upset at all about the Blazers losing just because it was so fun watching the two teams I cover battling it out like this. It was better than Christmas Day.
Drape hyperbole over Andre Miller for his 28-8-8 all you want. For long streches in the second half, he was Portland’s offense. Pull up jumpers, leaners, fallers, layups all fell despite Miller being watched by all five Celtics and also working the shot clock to death. At the risk of sounding too lyrical, watching Miller you could feel him exhausting all of the tricks he’s learned over the years, so it was only fitting that near the end of overtime, he said he was so tired he shot a three for no visible reason. However the cliche goes about leaving it all on the court, it makes sense in describing this performance.
LaMarcus Aldridge had an interesting night. He didn’t take any mess from Garnett in the first half and paced the Blazers with 16 points before the break. I was applauding him at halftime for showing grit on defense and for taking control on offense. But in the second half he faded, perhaps because he became consumed by his battles with Boston’s big men though that’s not an assumption we can make. What we can be sure of is that with Portland’s options, three points from Aldridge in a half is not going to cut it. He was a physical presence throughout yet came up short on most fronts despite such a fantastic start. The Blazers did try to get him the ball in the post, but as time wore on he couldn’t get very good position, nor gain much space when he did get his touches. Had to be a very meta moment when he posted up Sheed and then had to retreat to the other end and basically guard himself.
Martell Webster hit some very clutch shots but probably missed just as many (5-for-16). Having Bayless go down probably hurt him more than anyone, as he was getting the ball in positions where he needed to make something out of nothing. That’s when Webster starts getting in trouble. Still, getting to watch him warm up from courtside before the game was a highlight of the night. Webster did a great job when asked to chase Ray Allen around screens, other than on that final three, and also had some fine defensive possessions on Paul Pierce. Pierce’s go-to shot in the final seconds is always the right elbow jumper and Martell wisely just sat waiting for that exact shot, interrupting Pierce’s rhythm and forcing him into an awkward shot on the left side of the lane. On those few possessions I remember thinking that only Luol Deng has guarded Pierce so well this season.
Bayless was having one of those “ON” games before he sprained his ankle. Shame, because with Ray Allen guarding him and the refs calling things tight, this game was tailor made for him to repeatedly launch himself at the rim. I was also hoping to see him get Garnett back somehow for that ridiculous dog crawl last year, but we’ll have to wait for that.
It helped that Kendrick Perkins was in foul trouble all night — due to some silly moves on his part — but Juwan Howard’s four offensive boards (12 total) were as big a part of this almost win as anything else. The Celtics didn’t let him camp around the free-throw line on offense, but he at least made himself a threat.
If Steve Blake hits one more of his threes then the outcome might have been very different. The Celtics are a horrible matchup for him but at least he didn’t commit any egregious turnovers. Should be mentioned that Blake made a number of plays that cannot be qualified and he was fighting as much as anyone else.
Man, the Blazers needed Rudy to be a playmaker and he couldn’t even put together a ham sandwich. One assist and 2-for-11 shooting must have had Andre Miller looking at Rudy thinking, “Come on, bro, really?” As much as Kevin Garnett looked as grounded as he did earlier in the season, Rudy looked as funky as he did in November. He’s dribbling to nowhere, the pullups were predictable, took too long to get his shots off and just wasn’t a threat to do much of anything. And yet, like Ray, he still only needed to make one three to have a huge impact on the night. To his credit, Rudy was flying around the court trying to make things happen.
I’m going to do a little write up of Jeff Pendergraph tomorrow after getting the chance to chat before the game, but he and Dante Cunningham combined for 20 minutes and both looked a little like the Blazers did when they came to Boston in December of last season.
-Rasheed Wallace came into Portland’s locker room about an hour before tip off looking for trainer Jay Jensen, who was absent. Instead, the room was full of young players that never played with him but have probably heard plenty of “Sheed Stories” about his time in Portland. All conversations stopped and everyone just sort of stared awkwardly at Wallace until he left a couple of seconds later.
-In Boston, the Blazers are definitely “That team from the Northwest”. Without Brandon Roy around, there was very little interest in Portland before the game from other writers. Nate McMillan’s press conference was for four or five writers where Doc Rivers spoke to about 20. I only counted two or three Boston scribes that entered Portland’s turf and in general most people seemed unfamiliar with the Blazers. To be fair, I got that same sense when covering Boston in Portland last year. If I remember correctly, there was only two other writers who spoke to Doc Rivers before that game, and they were Boston writers.
-Couple other notes about the Blazers locker room: Martell Webster got the big side locker that Joel Przybilla got last season, but Andre Miller got the Kobe/LeBron double locker. Portland’s was the quietest visitors locker room pregame that I’ve been in all year.
-During one timeout, Kendrick Perkins spent about a minute apart from Boston’s huddle jawing at the refs. Eventually, from the other side of the court, Juwan Howard saw this, turned to one of the other officials, pointed at Perk and made a “Really??” face.
-After the game, there were no signs of crushing defeat among Portland’s guys. I only had a couple of moments, but they just seemed like a bunch of guys going about their business getting fresh and trying to catch a flight.
-One of Kevin Garnett’s favorite moves is to block any shot an opposing player takes after a whistle has been blown. Messes with that whole visualization thing. Anyways, Perkins and KG both went up to do that late in the game, and Garnett was so filled with whatever emotion he had at the moment, he wound up and full on smacked Perk in the cheek making a loud enough sound for people in the luxury suites to hear.
-It was a pleasure to see Casey Holdahl of Blazers.com and chat with him a little. He is both a scholar and a gentleman, and he is also the first media member I’ve seen try to imitate the “Peanut Butter Jelly” dance from the jumbotron on press row.
-Jason Quick and Joe Freeman are as embedded with this team as any media member with their respective beat that I’ve come across. Sometimes visiting writers come into town and have strangely little in the way of a relationship with the team. Not so with these two.
-On that same note, Holdahl, Freeman and Quick all sat directly in front of me and there was a definite sense of them being strangers to most other writers. I only mention that because the Celtics are so over-saturated with media that there are usually existing relationships whenever writers from eastern cities roll through town.