Ah, a lesson in the perils of overreaction. It has sort of a knowledgy taste.
After a win as special as this one, there’s no need to pile on those who fell into doom and gloom after the previous two games, but it’s good to trust in those things that have earned patience during the regular season. We know LaMarcus Aldridge isn’t soft, and we know he’s been playing very well since around the middle of January, so jumping on the hate wagon after a couple outings doesn’t make sense, even if the voices on the radio tell you it does.
Rudy Fernandez, however has been playing poorly all season, hence you probably shouldn’t be crying for more playing time for him after he put up a DNP-CD in the second half of this win. A win made possible by Brandon Roy, for reasons unrelated to the box score.
Most people took the “Portland better know what they’re doing with Roy’s knee” stance when it was announced just before tipoff that Roy would play eight days after meniscus surgery, and with good reason. Particularly when dealing with young players, and especially when the NBA Finals aren’t on the line, it’s always best to err on the side of caution when it comes to injuries which required surgical procedures. I’ll let John Hollinger tackle this one:
The key determinant, according to a Blazers insider, was that trainers and medical staff determined Roy could do no further damage to the knee by playing. He actually had considered postponing surgery and playing with the torn meniscus — again, doctors had determined it couldn’t get any worse — but the discomfort finally prompted him to go under the knife on April 16.
Our RCP Medical Advisor concurs with this sentiment, restating that the key is that Roy is currently without pain — his primary issue being conditioning. So, in context, it’s fine that Roy played. But how did he play?
His 4-of-10 shooting doesn’t mean much. Roy clearly wasn’t getting great lift off the knee, though he still manged to break down the defense on a couple of occasions and found his range for a late three and pullup jumper that helped seal the game. But having Roy out there meant Rudy wasn’t, and the Suns couldn’t hide Steve Nash anywhere on defense anymore. Wherever they put Nash, there was an offensive threat, and the defense couldn’t sag back into the lane to suffocate Aldridge.
The obvious place this helped Aldridge (31 points, 11 boards, 3 assists) was in the post, and though the double teams still kept coming — particularly during a Blazers dry spell in the second half — LaMarcus frequently made quick decisions to either pass out or spin away from the help, adapting within possessions of making a mistake. According to Synergy, of Aldridge’s nine post-ups that didn’t result in him passing out — lots of ball movement resulted in Aldridge hitting Miller or Camby on the high post — he drew three fouls and committed just one turnover, accounting for most of Portland’s 1.4 points-per-post-up.
But the other place Aldridge was aided was in the pick-and-roll. With Roy on the floor, the defense had to spread out, which left Aldridge open for a number of open, albeit inefficient, long jumpers. Seven of his eight shots outside of 10 feet were assisted.
So maybe, in the Game 2 and 3 blowouts, Aldridge showed he’s not going to be the explosive scorer to carry a team, but in Game 4 he certainly showed he’s capable of being The Man when he at least has legitimate threats surrounding him. It was an evolution game for him, in part for how he learned how to shoulder the load, and also because it’s the type of performance a guy can carry into the offseason and build off of.
None of this matters if the defense doesn’t hold, though, especially in the early going when Phoenix could have blown things open as in Game 3. Not only did they hold the Suns to 87 points and just 97.48 points per 100 possessions, 17.82 below season average, they kept them to four fast-break points, 11.6 below average.
Everyone deserves credit for the effort, mostly because the greatest difference was the overall effort and speed of the defense. The Blazers were able to balance crashing the boards (12 offensive) and getting back in transition because they were just running faster and picking up guys before they cross the three-point line. Portland still got beat baseline a few times, had trouble rotating fast enough to to weakside corner three and were fortunate that Steve Nash committed some unforced turnovers, but in all it was a very sustainable effort.
And that’s the takeaway. While in the grand scheme of things this game was crucial in the gloves coming off and the team maturing, in respect to this series the performance will be easier to repeat. With Roy on the court to keep Phoenix honest, the Blazers only need to move the ball, get some threes out of Batum, get penetration out of Bayless, build off the steady performances of Miller and Aldridge, win the loose balls and execute defensively — a huge departure from the earlier games when anything less than 18 points out of one or two of the Batum-Bayless-Fernandez-Webster group would leave the Blazers dead in the water.
No, they won’t have the emotional boost of Roy’s return anymore, but that’s overrated. As long as Roy’s conditioning gets a little better, the Blazers have a solid chance.