Who are these Blazers? They wear the same jersey, get called by the same names, but something about them is different. A week ago, when the bottom was falling out, and heads were being called for, you could point to Thursday’s game with the Orlando Magic, and sigh, thinking to yourself, “I hope we’ve broken this skid be then, because that could be Nate McMillan’s last game at the helm of the Blazers.” This one was supposed to be a loss. Even after scrapping for wins against the Clippers and the Suns, Thursday’s game was going to be a loss. The question wasn’t if the Blazers were going to lose, but by how much were they going to lose.
Unfortunately for the doom-sayers out there, and fortunately for the immediate future of this team, nobody told Portland they were supposed to drop this one, or if they were told, they did themselves a favor and didn’t listen. And that’s the difference. Especially in the second half meltdowns against Utah and New Orleans, Portland has recently looked like a team that thought they didn’t belong on the court. Thursday the attitude was different. The Blazers were the aggressors, they set the tempo for the game, and they carried out their game plan. And with the game on the line, it was the Blazers that stepped up. That comes from attitude, and somewhere in the last few days, Portland seems to have found the right attitude.
Life in the NBA is too up and down to throw out blanket generalizations about the state of a team after one big win or one big loss. Of course that never stops it from happening, but there is one thing that points to a potential turn around following Thursday’s win; this win was not a fluke. Yes every one in a blue jersey that didn’t go by the name Dwight Howard failed to show up, but a lot of their shooting problems were caused by good perimeter defense played by the Blazers, but more than that, Portland looked like a team that could do stuff on offense. And they haven’t be able to do that in a long time.
There were stretches where the Blazers’ ball movement was as good as I’ve ever seen it. In 2008-09 the offense was give the ball to Brandon Roy, and let him break people down in the one-on-one because he could. Send the double-team, and he could find an open dead-eye in Travis Outlaw or Steve Blake. Those days are gone, and Thursday Portland looked like they were taking steps to adjust to the present. Ball movement is key to stretching a defense, and Thursday there were plenty of sets in which the ball moved around the perimeter, and then was entered to a wide open player standing under the hoop. Attacking the rim doesn’t have to be done only off the dribble, and with a point guard with the pin-point accuracy of Andre Miller, the Blazers should have no problem getting at least some easy looks. Thursday night, Portland scored 50 points in the paint. That’s a great stat, considering Portland doesn’t have a low post player that can produce on offense. It’s an even better stat when you consider that going at Dwight Howard must feel like shooting over a house. A house with a 30-inch vertical.
Thursday’s game was not perfect, let’s not get carried away. The Blazers are still having quarter length episodes where nothing happens offensively. If given a choice, I prefer a third quarter lapse to a fourth quarter lapse, but Portland may have found the secret. A first quarter lapse. The Blazers looked horrid straight out of the gate, struggling to get 14 points in the opening frame. If you can remember all the way back to 08-09 for one more second; Portland crawls to 13 points in the opening period against the defending champion Boston Celtics at the Rose Garden. I don’t have to tell you how that game turned out. Here’s a hint, Boston lost. Portland was able to overcome a bad start in both Thursday’s game and the game in 08 against the Celtics because they didn’t let the slow start dictate the rest of the evening. Portland hung 31 on the Magic in the second 12 minutes, and then 30 in the final 12 minutes. In the third quarter Portland held Orlando to 16 points. That’s a good ball game.
The Blazers are half way to getting back the six they dropped heading into this home stand, and they’re going to have to get some back on the road. NBA coaches always preach carry-over. Portland has turned a horrible situation on its ear in three games. If there’s a time to focus on carry over, now is that time.
The Blazers head out tonight to play the Suns in Phoenix tomorrow.
Here are some quick thoughts on a HUGE win:
- The red-out was in semi-full effect. It was cool to walk into the stadium pregame and see the seats draped in Blazer shirts, I must say, but a few other bloggers and writers seemed to agree that the whole idea felt slightly gimmicky. Every Blazer fan has to know at this point that we’re on shaky ground right now. Thursday’s win was big, big enough to have season-long implications, but management at this point is hedging their bets. They want people in the seats, and free stuff is as sure of a bet as they come. If you were in the RG on Thursday, you saw the empty seats. That’s no good. We’re not quite in Jackie Moon territory, although I would like to see Rubber Boy wrestle a bear at halftime, but a gimmick is a gimmick is a gimmick. The best way to get butts in the seats is by putting a good product on the floor. So, I guess Thursday was a success across the board.
- Nate McMillan joked in his post game that Andre Miller had the day off, and he should be rested, hence the team-high 38 minutes. Dre was big, and you could tell he wanted to come out with some real fire. I wanted to hear a big ovation for Andre Miller when he was introduced, and it wasn’t as great as I thought it should have been. I’m a big fan of Miller, and I think he got a pretty raw deal from the league. I’ve had this argument already a few times, even once pregame, but you’ve got to tip your hat to a guy that can string 632 games together in a row. That’s longer than the average NBA career. Yes, I understand he’s just showing up for work everyday, but even dudes that don’t play one of the most physically demanding sports in one of the most competitive leagues in the world take some work days off. It’s tough to see that streak go down, and it’s made harder by the fact that there was no acknowledgment from the team.
- Wesley Matthews is looking more and more comfortable in a leading role. When Orlando put a nice run together late in the game, cutting a 15 point lead to ten, Wesley was key in keeping the Magic at arms length. Along with his offense, Wesley is really starting to assert himself on defense, and that’s rubbing off on his teammates. Portland played all night with active hands, leading to turnovers and steals, a few that led to easy fast break buckets. Matthews finished with 20 points. I think it’s safe to say he’s a starter for the remainder of the season.
- Nicolas Batum contributed a double-double, 15 points and 10 rebounds, and he looks like he’s starting to find a balance between attacking the hoop and settling for jumpers. Nic’s shot has improved, especially his deep ball, but I think he needs to go to the hoop three times between every jump shot. Nic’s got the length and the athleticism to be a deadly slasher, and getting his man to respect his first step will give him the air space to get better looks. It’s a win win.
- LaMarcus Aldridge looked sluggish, missed a lot of shots, and probably was grateful that he only played 32 minutes. Brandon was practically nonexistent. LA finished with 14 points, but he had to take 15 shots to get there. Brandon scored only nine points. With Brandon, it’s going to be about adjusting to what his body can do, and also adjusting to not being the best offense player the Blazers have on the floor. If Portland keeps winning, Brandon and LA’s individual numbers seem like a moot point.
- Patty Mills was the first point guard off the bench. He’s come down to earth though. In five minutes, Patty logged one turnover, and that was his only stat. Portland played point guard by committee in the second half when Andre Miller was out. It worked pretty well, and Patty is going to have his work cut out for him if he wants to really crack that rotation.
- A few words about Dwight Howard before I shut it down. DAMN! Dwight is a big boy. His post moves aren’t pretty, neither is his jumper, but it’s coming around. Also, he had a dunk in the first half that basically ripped the basket out of the floor. Howard finished with 39 points. If any other Orlando player had done anything, Thursday probably would have gone the other way. On the other hand, maybe teams in the future will follow Portland’s lead. Don’t guard Dwight, make his jumper-happy teammates beat you. If that happens, look for Howard to bust some big offensive numbers. The anomaly of the night: Howard hit 13 of his 18 free throw attempts.