That was fun, wasn’t it? And people say it’s crazy to want to play the Lakers in the first round. You’re telling me you wouldn’t want possibly seven more games like that?
As with the Dallas game, we still don’t really know what this one meant — other than that Portland continues to deserve all those adjectives like “resilient” — as the Blazers now sit in a tie with the Spurs, with the tie-breaker pushing them to the No. 7 spot, and a half-game back of the Thunder. Still no clarity on that front. But it is a somewhat bittersweet win with Brandon Roy leaving the game for good in the first half with a sore right knee (MRI pending tonight). Not that “The Season” means serious playoff contention, but Roy is the season. If he’s gone, kiss those 30 percent hopes of winning a first-round series goodbye. And long term, just hope it’s nothing too serious.
The Blazers played just fine without Roy — don’t ready too much into that past today — thanks to a resurgent performance from the Fernandez-Bayless-Webster group (33 combined points). And despite some shaky moments in the early going, the defense was effective, with the individual efforts making up for a slow and “Play it safe” help side of things. At this point, you aren’t going to see too many new wrinkles, but Nic Batum played a seriously hobbled Kobe Bryant as well as could be expected while LaMarcus Aldridge was both the best help defender and dependable during the many switch situations after screens.
This game, really, belonged to Aldridge. No, you can’t forget Marcus Camby’s 17 rebounds, Andre Miller’s timely offense or any of the individual defensive efforts, but everything flowed to and through LaMarcus. While Roy usually dominates the nationally-televised contests, this is the first time I can remember Aldridge outshining most everyone on the floor, for either team (it wasn’t his fault Gasol shot 9-of-13).
So, with Aldridge in mind, let’s take a look at a furious last five minutes and see how the Blazers executed, beginning at the 5:28 mark of the fourth coming out of a timeout with Portland up, 77-73:
- Defensive Possession One: Artest inbounds from the right baseline. Fisher catches, uses a Gasol screen and hits a pullup jumper near the right elbow. Miller was picked off by screen and it was Camby’s job to move out on Fisher, but Camby chose to stay home, as he was likely more worried about Gasol.
- Offensive Possession One: Miller brings it up. Webster tries to get open off split screens in the paint, receives ball up top and passes back left to Miller when Kobe closes out. Miller looks off Aldridge in the post and drives left, spinning off Fisher into a helping Gasol to miss an awkward lefty layup.
- Defensive Possession Two: Lakers try to get the ball to Gasol in the post but can’t, swinging around to Lamar Odom who has Webster on him. Webster hampers Odom’s dribble just enough to cause discomfort and poor position away from the bucket, so ball swings back around to Fisher, who enters into Gasol this time. Gasol faces up on Aldridge and misses a well contested jumper.
- Offensive Possession Two: Miller passes out of a left-wing pick-and-roll with Aldridge. Ball reaches Rudy on the right wing, who gets a pick from Aldridge jogging across the court. Artest fights over the top of the pick, Gasol stays in paint, Rudy passes back to Aldridge for the jumper. Good.
- Defensive Possession Three: Webster gets beat off dribble by Artest, who drives the paint and has kickout pass deflected by Camby. After inbounds, Odom holds up top as Kobe (guarded by Rudy) runs off Gasol pick left of the paint. Nothing there. Odom uses a Gasol pick, gets the switch from Aldridge to Camby and drives paint past Camby. Aldridge contests the finger roll, which misses.
- Offensive Possession Three: Millers brings it up, looking for Aldridge in the post. Rudy is clogging the area. With Martell and Camby standing around on the right wing, Martell simply steps closer to Miller, receives the pass and shoots the three. Martell is fouled by a closing-out Odom, of the “The shooter came down on the defender so it’s a foul” variety. This is where Martell seemingly hurt his shooting hand, but he hits all three freebies.
- Defensive Possession Four: Fisher passes left wing to Artest, who enters into Gasol, posting on Aldridge far from the hoop. Artest runs by and Gasol hands off. Rudy goes underneath the Gasol pick, giving Artest the open long two, which drops.
- Offensive Possession Four: With Miller holding up top, Rudy tries to cut backdoor on Artest, but upon receiving the pass, Artest and a helping Gasol are in position, so he backs out to the left wing. Rudy passes to Aldridge, gets it back and curls into the paint as Artest fights over the top of Aldridge. Gasol helps on Rudy, Rudy throws a lob as he’s falling across the middle of the paint and Aldridge throws it down after rolling to the hoop. Aldridge does some rare posturing and yelling after the dunk. That’s gold, Jerry.
- Defensive Possession Five: Fisher brings up and goes left wing with his back to Miller. Fisher simply spins baseline and waltzes in for the layup with both Camby and Aldridge late helping.
- Offensive Possession Five: After timeout, Miller enters into Aldridge on the left side. Gasol stumbles on the pass but Odom comes to help, so Gasol recovers to the paint. Aldridge puts the ball on the floor moving right, causing Fisher to back off Miller and help. Aldridge picks up his dribble and throws and awkward pass to Miller, which is tipped into the backcourt. With four seconds on the shot clock, Miller uses a Camby pick on the right wing and shoots a pullup 21-footer that hits back iron.
- Defensive Possession Six: Kobe splits defenders off a Gasol left-side pick, drawing three help defenders. Kobe kicks out to Fisher in the right corner, who swings to Vujacic, who misses. Gasol is fouled on the rebound, so the Lakers get the ball back. After inbounds, Kobe gets the ball up top. Kobe uses a pick from Gasol, getting Camby to switch and giving Kobe ample space to shoot a three (still contested) that goes in and out.
- Offensive Possession Six: Miller enters into Aldridge on the left block. Aldridge backs in, takes two dribbles and shoots a fading turnaround jumper over a heavily-contesting Gasol that misses.
- Defensive Possession Seven: Kobe gets Aldridge guarding him in transition, driving the paint before kicking back out to Fisher up top (well defended by Aldridge, relatively speaking). Fisher enters into Gasol on the right block with Webster defending, and Gasol spins baseline for the layup. 1:16 left now, 84-81 Blazers.
- Offensive Possession Seven: Miller and Aldridge run a slow pick-and-roll on the right wing, resulting with Aldridge getting the ball behind the arc. Aldridge passes back to Miller, who resets. The pair run an almost identical slow pick, with Aldridge popping out to the same spot. But this time Miller keeps the ball and goes to the hole for a layup. Odom and Gasol are both late with the help. 86-81 Blazers.
- Defensive Possession Eight: Fisher gets the ball near mid-court after inbounds. He passes to Bryant, three feet back of the arc up top. Fisher then runs directly into Webster (on Bryant), who gets pushed back, allowing Bryant to take, and make, the deep three. Jeff Van Gundy calls Fisher’s move a running block. In the NBA rulebook, this is called a moving screen. To Fisher’s credit, it was subtle enough to not notice at first. 86-84 Blazers with 49 seconds to play.
- Offensive Possession Eight: Millers brings it up right side. Rudy sets a strong pick on Fisher, so Miller tires to speed past by the sideline. Vujacic hops in front of Miller and draws the “charge”. I’ve watched this play about 25 times in slow-mo and still don’t really know what to think of it. Vujacic does actually plant his feet, but he gets them down almost after the contact from Miller is drawn. It’s a questionable call — and a flop, but let’s save our bullets on that — but the official is standing right there, so you would think he’s in better position than even the camera (despite not looking at Vujacic’s feet on the play). The only problem here is, the official MAKES THE BLOCKING FOUL MOTION before pointing the other way for the charge. Still, the Fisher moving screen was more egregious.
- Defensive Possession Nine: Kobe uses a pick from Gasol to drive the lane. Aldridge slides over to help long in advance and sets his feet. Kobe hits the layup and knocks over Aldridge, who is whistled for the block. The argument for Aldridge is that he was there long before Kobe. The argument against Aldridge is that he slid his left foot over slightly to ensure he drew contact (though this movement didn’t change his position at all). Kobe makes the extra point. 87-86 Lakers, 31.5 to go. Blazers call timeout.
- Offensive Possession Nine: Rudy enters the ball in to Aldridge left block. Aldridge puts the ball on the floor, drawing the help from Fisher. Aldridge picks up his dribble, Fisher leaves, and Gasol overcompensates to Aldridge’s left side. Aldridge spins back to the hoop and takes a double-clutch chip shot, which misses but gets rebounded by Camby for the putback. 88-87 Blazers.
- Defensive Possession Ten: Martell Webster clearly and intentionally fouls Kobe. The Blazers were already in the penalty. Hence, bad move by Webster. Nay, suuuuuper bad move by Webster. Fortunately, Kobe misses both free throws. Cool stuff. But then the Lakers grab the rebound. Not cool, not cool at all. After collecting the board, Gasol kick out to Fisher, who fakes a three and then stands. Literally just stands a waits. Then Miller karate-kicks him, sending Fisher to the line for two more. He makes 1-of-2. Tie ballgame, 4.7 to play.
- Offensive Possession Ten: For the inbounds play, the Blazers look like they are running a Rudy-Aldridge screen to either free Rudy in the left corner or Aldridge up top. But Rudy jumps the Aldridge screen before it is set, and neither gets open, so Miller inbounds to Webster near midcourt. Webster then, thinking he is a ninja, drives between Kobe and Fisher and LEAPS into the air running forward with 3.5 still on the clock. Miraculously, he gets fouled. It’s a legit foul, but a complete bailout. At least Webster hits all three freebies. 91-88 Blazers.
- Defensive Possession Eleven: For the inbounds play, Kobe runs down the middle to set a pick for Gasol, who in turn was part of a double pick for Fisher. Webster simply switches off of Vujacic to cut off any pass to Fisher in the right corner, leaving Gasol the only one open up top. Aldridge closes out, stands tall with his arms extended, and Gasol misses a three, hitting back iron. Ballgame.
Starting on the offensive side of things, Aldridge got sincere looks on eight of the last ten plays, not counting that he was one of the two primary options on the final play which went to Webster. Of those eight looks, Aldridge touched the ball six times and shot it four times — just one being a poor shot. Other than Miller, who touches the ball on every play as the point guard, Aldridge was the offense. Things weren’t perfect, as the Blazers only got points on four of the eight possessions Aldridge was directly involved in (wait, that’s 50 percent, so it’s kind of good), but two things are important here: One, LaMarcus seemed to want the ball every time down, was comfortable with it and yet didn’t and two, those late-game repetitions are crucial to his development as a leader. The Blazers are a better team if they are confident in one of their best players in big games.
Defensively, the Blazers switched on just about everything. This isn’t terrible when Aldridge has to play a perimeter guy, but when you get Camby on Kobe or Martell on Gasol, you’re dead meat. In the playoffs, they are going to have to work much harder to fight through picks, otherwise opponents are going to terrorize them with mismatches.
Those three consecutive calls against Portland weren’t great, but let’s not waste our breathe of the officials, alright? Just mentally prepare yourself for some big calls to go against the Blazers (that’s what happens in the playoffs), especially if they play the Lakers (this doesn’t need to be explained).
The Game That Will Decide Fate is tomorrow night when the Oklahoma City Thunder are in town. The results of that games could mean the Blazers playing any one of L.A., Dallas, Denver, Utah or Phoenix. I’ll take one of the first two, please.