I’m in a strange place after Tuesday night’s gutsy, team-based, hard fought win. Phoenix is a far cry from the team they were a year ago, but still, they are in the hunt, along with the Blazers, for that final spot in the Western Conference playoffs. They’re a better team than the last team that lost at the Rose Garden, the LA Clippers, but they aren’t anywhere near the other team in Los Angeles, or the teams in Dallas, San Antonio, and New Orleans. I’m in a strange place because, yes Tuesday’s win feels good, and Tuesday’s win wasn’t like Sunday’s win, a game that basically devolved into a street brawl, but also, this whole thing isn’t over yet.
Portland won on Tuesday primarily for two reasons. Reason number one: DEFENSE. Huge defensive plays down the stretch allowed Portland to have a comfortable lead while icing the game from the free throw line. The Blazers have struggled, on occasion, putting the final touches on a victory from the charity stripe (anybody remember Steve Blake?) but making a two possession game a three possession game with under a minute to play is likely a little less stressful than making a one possession game a two possession game under the same time constrictions. Reason number two: Heart. File Patty Mills under this category, but I don’t want to give the whole thing to him. Rudy Fernandez hustled enough to foul out, Nicolas Batum made some heady plays on offense and defense, and in limited minutes Armon Johnson showed that he is still in the fight for those backup point guard minutes that have seemingly found their third owner of the season.
I guess we can throw in a third reason, just for good measure, as to why Portland is now embarking on a mini winning streak. That reason, scoring. After losses at home to New Orleans and Utah, Nate McMillan said the shots were there, they just weren’t going down. Tuesday? The shots were still there, this time they were going down. Sounds simple, because it is simple, Portland has confidence in its offense. Things aren’t going to change a whole lot going forward, and that’s what really leaves me with a strange feeling. The Blazers need to make offensive changes. They need to stop standing on the perimeter and start attacking the rim. And when they do attack the rim, they need to look to score. Time after time, someone, either Rudy, Brandon Roy, Patty, basically everyone, drove to the rim, and at the last minute kicked the ball out to a shooter. Every so often that works, especially against a team with a world class hot blocker. Although the Suns carry the center with the most regal name in the league, one Earl Barron, they’re really without a true shot blocker. Portland could have done themselves a favor skipping the kick-out and trying to finish.
Speaking of finishing, both Brandon and LaMarcus Aldridge have had trouble finishing at the rim as of late. Of course Brandon seems to be off a step or two, but LaMarcus should really live in the painted area. Brandon tried to attack the hoop, but like I said, his step being slow really takes away a lot of what not too long ago was his most effective weapon. My advice; switch Wesley Matthews for Brandon in those sets, just for one game, and see what happens. Brandon is still the star, and Nate and Wesley will defer to him until they are blue in the collective face, but at some point it might be wise to hand Wesley the keys and see how it goes.
You can tell a lot about a team in how they act post-game. Tuesday night, the home locker room was practically jovial, especially around the locker of Patty Mills. Behind the good-natured ribbing that every single Blazer shot at the second year Aussie man of the hour, was the feeling that this team really needed this win. Sunday the players seemed too exhausted to be excited about the win, too disheartened by the fact that they turned a beat down into a nail-biter. Tuesday might have been the first time anybody in a Blazer uniform got a chance to breath easy.
Don’t breath too easy, though. Every Blazer win going forward is going to be a grind, and every night is another opportunity to undo all the good that comes from the kind of victory Portland enjoyed Tuesday night.
Here are some brief thoughts:
- Patty Mills. What else can you say. Two weeks ago he was waving a towel, looking like a glorified mascot. He’s not an All-Star, or really a true contributor, but things could have gone worse for him on Tuesday. A lot worse. Steve Nash is one of the best point guards in the history of the NBA, and the damage he did against Patty was limited. There were times when Patty was shook beyond belief, but they weren’t the deciding factor. Patty’s stat line wasn’t great, and if he is going to play real back-up minutes he is going to have to improve. I’ll give Patty my highest accolades though by saying this, he reminded me NOT AT ALL of Sergio Rodriguez. I think Patty has potential, time will tell though. If he limits his mistakes, takes smart shots, and keeps dishing out the assists, we could be looking at Portland’s real back-up point guard. It might be time for Sean Marks to brush up on his Petey Pablo impression.
- LaMarcus and Brandon both struggled Tuesday. LaMarcus shot 5-of-11 from the field, and Brandon shot 5-of-15. Both players took some bad shots, and struggled to make an impact off the dribble. However, both of their nights were salvaged from the free throw line. B Roy: 9-of-9. LA: 10-of-10. Brandon and LaMarcus finished with 20 points apiece. Wesley Matthews collected a team-high 24. Nicolas Batum and Rudy rounded out the Blazer’s top scorers, netting 12 and 11 respectively.
- A quick note on free throws. Portland shot 32-of-33, the only miss coming from Wesley Matthews. The Blazers need to start getting to the free throw line. It’s a way to manufacture points and stretch leads, and anybody that has watched a nationally televised NBA games has heard the adage that the best way for a shooter to get going is from the line. Here’s a great free-throw related stat. 25 of Portland’s 33 attempts came in the second half, 17 in the fourth quarter. Lately in the second half, Portland’s offense has flat-lined. 17-of-17 from the line is a way to make up for that.
- One thing that may seem minor, but in my mind is a little troubling, that I noticed Tuesday was the complete absence of Dante Cunningham. Dante’s shot has been off put it mildly in the last few weeks, and now his minutes are quickly evaporating. Dante isn’t a major piece of the offense, but he needs to be able to come on the floor at least to spell LaMarcus Aldridge. He is Portland’s only back-up power forward. It is simply frightening to look at Portland’s bench right now. After Rudy Fernandez, and minus Patty Mills at this point because it’s too early to tell what might happen with him, there isn’t a single scorer. Joel Przybilla is the only Blazer sub that I could point to right now and say that he deserves any serious playing time. If Portland wants to be a playoff team this season, Rich Cho needs to do something about the bench.
- One final note on Patty Mills. I’m sure everybody will have their favorite moments of his post-game. I’ll give you mine. Coming out of the shower area, Nicolas Batum took one look at the group of reporters surrounding Patty, and let out a long low whistle. Classic.