OK Blazer fans, it’s time to admit that we are at a bit of a crossroads. Maybe not a generation defining crossroads, but at least a month of November, early season defining crossroads. There are two ways to look at Saturday’s game, each way leading down a different path of thinking. One way is to look at Saturday as some kind of moral victory. The Blazers are hurting for a big time scorer, the Utah Jazz are one of the hottest road times of this young season, and Portland played them well for three out of four quarters. Along this path, the Blazers are, for lack of a better term, in some kind of “rebuilding” mode. That term “rebuilding” has been thrown around a lot these last few days, and who can blame the Blazer fans that are ready to scrap this whole thing, hunker down, and play for next year.
OK, that’s one road. Here’s the second road. Forget rebuilding, forget the closing of the championship window, forget the end of the Brandon Roy era. Portland is in the hunt for one of the top spots in the Western Conference, they have a ton of talent, lots of depth, and right now they are not playing well. From this perspective, Saturday’s was a win-able game, a game Portland had in its grasp, and due to poor execution, bad decision making, and a lack of effort on the defensive end, the Blazers gave it away.
Call me naive, call me optimistic, call me a homer, but I’m taking the second road. Saturday Portland was the better of the the two teams, and they gave it away. Taking this view won’t make this season any easier, should things go from bad to worse in the coming weeks, but it will make it all that much more satisfying when Portland is in the thick of it come playoff time.
The Blazers lost on Saturday for a few reasons. They settled for too many jump shots late in the game, they turned the ball over too many times, and they altogether failed to make a single meaningful defensive play in the game’s closing frame. The Blazers entered the third quarter leading 74-65, and got outscored in the final 12 minutes 38-20. That was the game. There was one other thing that turned Saturday’s game in Utah’s favor, C.J. Miles. In the the fourth quarter Miles, was lights out, hitting all five of his three-point attempts. Miles dropped a few long bombs that looked like they came from half court. Post game Nate McMillan said they lost Miles on defense a few times in transition and a few times when double-teaming Al Jefferson. It seems to me that when a guy hits two or three triples in a row, and your trying to protect a lead, he might be someone you want to find on defense.
Saturday night the Blazers picked the absolute wrong time to go ice cold. In the fourth quarter Portland shot 7-of-23 from the field and 2-of-9 from three. Compare that to Utah’s numbers for the period, 13-of-18 from the floor with C.J. Miles’ 5-0f-5 from deep, and once again there’s the ball game.
Along with talking about losing Miles on defense, McMillan talked a lot about settling for jump shots. With Greg Oden not coming back, Portland will not have an inside presence on offense other than LaMarcus Aldridge. In order to win games, the Blazers are going to need to get easy shots, meaning lay-ups and dunks. Without a big guy that’s an inside scorer, those easy baskets are going to have to come from wing players coming off of screens and slashing to the hoop, and ball handlers penetrating, drawing defensive attention, and dishing the ball off for layups. In the first half Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews were getting to hoop, or at least trying to. In the second half a lot of that action stopped. The thing about wing players and guards attacking the basket; it requires a lot more energy than planting yourself in the paint and working, Al Jefferson style, through a how-to-video like set of low post moves. After 48 minutes, its no surprise that Portland’s slashers would be out of gas. The Blazers are going to have to find a way to score easy baskets, there’s no simpler way to put it.
Going back to the crossroads theme, and whether or not it’s time to seriously consider blowing up the team and starting over, the best place to look for how to feel about Saturday’s game is the team. The Blazers needed team basketball to beat Memphis and Denver, and for three quarters they played the type of team basketball that could have beaten the Jazz. After the game there was no feeling in the locker room that anything positive came out of the way things ended up on the score board Saturday night. One journalist in the scrum in front of Wesley Matthews’ locker post game asked if he was surprised to see C.J. Miles get so hot. Wes’s answer was short and to the point, he said no.
If this team were in to moral victories, they would look at Miles’ game high 25 points as an indication that it just wasn’t meant to be. These Blazers want to win. These Blazers want to prove to the fans, to the league, and to themselves that this season is far from over. I, for one, tend to side with them.
The Blazers get some much-needed R ‘n R, not playing their next game until Friday of next week, November the 26th against the New Orleans Hornets at the Rose Garden.
I’ll leave you with some quick thoughts:
- The Blazers made up for their poor free throw shooting performance on Thursday, hitting 20 of 22 attempts. Unfortunately, that was counteracted by shooting 4-of-22 from deep. Wesley was 0-0f-6, Nicolas was 1-of-6, and Rudy Fernandez was 3-of-10.
- Portland has been getting to the offensive glass like mad this season. Saturday night, the Blazers grabbed 24 offensive rebounds, the largest offensive rebounding total this team has had since 2005. Again, though, the offensive rebounding numbers must be presented with one caveat. Portland managed only 17 second-chance points. In one sequence, the Blazers managed three offensive rebounds without getting a made bucket. We’ve talked on this blog before about the conundrum faced when offensive rebounds are not turned into points. McMillan and Marcus Camby didn’t have a lot to say about the fact that Portland seems to be unable to punish teams for giving them second and third chances at the rim. You praise the effort for crashing the glass, but you’ve got to scratch your head over the inability to convert.
- Nicolas Batum had the highlight of the night in the middle of the first quarter. Driving from the left side of the hoop, he encountered shot blocker Andrei Kirilenko in mid air, dunked under the rim to the opposite side, and practically tossed the ball over his head, off the backboard, and in. Nic looked like he was just trying to get the ball to the rim and get to the line, incidentally there was no foul called, but the whole thing was pretty fantastic. A lot has been said about Nic’s play so far this season, by me and by other people, but I’ll say it one more time for good measure. This guy is fun to watch.
- Post game every Blazer talked about how nice it’s going to be to have some time off. I couldn’t agree more. These guys need a break, a chance to step away from the media circus that has been surrounding the constant injury updates, and a chance to get their heads back to playing winning basketball. Of course the flip side is that if Portland comes back from the lay-off and are rusty the days off are going to look a little different.
- Yesterday and today a trade between the New Orleans Hornets and the Toronto Raptors was brought up and finalized. The trade involves two former Blazers from the not so distant past. Jerryd Bayless and Peja Stojakovic will be heading to Toronto for Jarrett Jack, Marcus Banks, and David Andersen. This trade is kind of significant for one reason. Jerryd Bayless, who as we all know was traded for a future draft pick during the preseason to make room for Armon Johnson, will be playing with his second team since leaving Portland. More importantly, he will not be with the Hornets when they come to Portland on the 26th. Because the Toronto Raptors have already made their one trip to Portland for this season, baring a third trade, Bayless will not play a game in the Rose Garden in 2010-11.
- Speaking of Canada, Andrew Unterberger from the esteemed Canadian basketball blog The Basketball Jones is in the middle of a cross country basketball watching journey. Saturday night brought him to Portland. Follow Andrew on Twitter for updates on his journey, and if you haven’t already, check out The Basketball Jones. The accents are my personal favorite part.
Enjoy your holiday break.