I don’t know about you, but I’m OK with this. In the bigger picture, that is. We don’t know what the consequences of a win or a loss were going to be two weeks from now in the playoff scene, so it’s hard to be overly concerned with one loss now that the playoff spot is locked up. Heck, if losing tonight meant avoiding Utah in the first round, then lose away.
After four-straight wins and 10 of the last 11, it seemed as though many people had their postseason hopes riding high. On paper, this was a little silly, as even when we were talking about Dallas being a preferred matchup, that still meant the Blazers having a 35 percent chance to advance versus below 4-1 odds. The single largest confirmation of these heightened hopes, however, was the swarming defensive effort against Dallas last week. If the Blazers could play defense like that, we could seriously talk about making a decent run.
Problem was, we’ve seen so little of that caliber defense that nobody could predict it would carryover through the final games of the year. It sure didn’t tonight.
While that Mavericks victory showcased not only all five guys on the floor covering for one another, the Blazers displayed a defensive confidence that each guy would be there when they needed to be. They took risks in the passing lanes, and if those didn’t work out, they recognized and sprinted to the open man. It was beautiful to watch. None of that happened in Denver. Other than some occasionally splendid help rotations from LaMarcus Aldridge and the usual (but less frequent than usual) Marcus Camby awareness, most players were left out at sea, treading water before they were dragged under by the Melo-Billups-Nene Kraken.
(As a sidenote, very little drives me up a wall like TNT continually referring to Portland as a good defensive group, one whose offense is slowly catching up. Please, write letters begging for pace-adjusted statistics and for networks to actually assume we all have semi-functional brains for once. I can’t honestly believe Doug Collins believes what he says half the time unless he’s completely thrown in the towel.)
Watching Portland allow 52 points in the paint felt like a game in early January when the team had no idea how to stop anyone without a big body in the middle to catch them whenever they fell and scraped a knee. The Blazers allowed a number of Nene dunks early on due to the lack of secondary help when Camby slid over, and then they overcompensated for a while in the second half by clogging the lane and conceding a step or two when closing out on shooters. It was as if they came into the game knowing they were going to get somewhere. That’s not a winning philosophy. It’s impossible to shut down every area of the floor for 48 minutes, but even if you’re playing the 1996 Bulls, you prepare to force your opponent into the absolute worse possible shots and shot locations, and then to contest that shot and finish the possession.
Still, the Blazers were in this until about midway through the third period, at which point a five-point deficit slowly became the rope in gym class for the growth-spurt kid that hasn’t had time to develop any upper-body strength.
They could have stolen the game, too, and left us all writing “Hey, we’ll take it” had the offense not joined the defensive philosophy in Davy Jones’ Locker. Eleven turnovers to go with 18 assists on 33 field goals aren’t criminal numbers, but they only managed about a point per possession — that’s New Jersey Nets territory — against a team missing it’s best defender. Too much isolation offense left Brandon Roy (3-of-13) with the attention of three defenders and nowhere to go. Andre Miller and Marcus Camby — 23 combined points in the first half — made up for it for a time, with Miller especially taking the load on his shoulders, but once he predictably tailed off Roy was left in the same position as before.
Portland did a reasonable job keeping Aldridge involved on offense, and LaMarcus was quite good defensively even without the four blocks, but where again were the peripheral players? You can excuse Nic Batum for shooting 0-of-4 because of the rather strenuous Carmelo Anthony duties he held, but Rudy Fernandez and Jerryd Bayless were again non-entities. Martell Webster shot the ball OK, going 6-of-9 for 17 points with a display that was less impressive than it looks, but he continues to be an awkward wreck when asked (or he just does) to do anything other than shoot. Answer me this: right now, is there really that much of a difference between Webster and Rudy?
Again, in the playoff picture, this game wasn’t a big deal, but it remains a strong indicator of issues that should keep you tempering your postseason expectations. And we can talk about the bench or the ball movement all we want, but everything comes back to how this team plays defense. They play like they did against Dallas and you’re talking about a solid series and a chance to move on. They play like they did tonight and we’re all writing “Well done to at least make the playoffs, fellas” really soon.