The “players only” meeting wasn’t good for a win, neither was the over-hyped apology from Brandon Roy to his teammates. Thursday night began with a story, that, like the aforementioned events was destined to overshadow anything that was going to happen on the court, but this time, unlike the other times, it might have been just the kick the Blazers needed to pull down a grade A W.
As everyone in Blazer Nation now knows, Brandon Roy has been shut down for an indefinite amount of time. You can read indefinite as, “done for the near future,” “done for the remainder of the season,” or “done FOREVER,” depending on your own personal feelings about this ongoing melodrama, but one thing is certain, Brandon isn’t going to be suiting up anytime soon. The best thing about Thursday’s somber pregame presser; we can stop talking about Brandon Roy, and start talking about what is happening right now with the remaining healthy Trail Blazers.
What is happening right now with the able-bodied Blazers is very interesting. On the one hand, they are playing well. In two of the last three nights Portland has put together complete games that were, although not flawless, respectable to say the very least. Ok, both games have been against the same team, and as Deron Williams, the captain of that team has said, Utah is probably not as good as their record. In between the wins at home and in SLC, Portland has been blown out by a Carmelo-less Denver, and has given away a game to the Golden State Warriors. The Blazers aren’t in the Conference Finals picture as of tonight, but one things is becoming abundantly clear, this group is starting to find a rhythm, and they are starting to play high quality basketball. Is that because Brandon Roy is not on the floor? Again, that’s up to you to decide. Personally, I think Roy is still the best player this team has, but if he isn’t healthy he shouldn’t be playing.
Moving on to Thursday’s win. Here’s what Portland did right: they attacked. From the tip, the Blazers were looking to get to the rack. Without Andrei Kirilenko, the Jazz are without a good shot blocker. Dive cuts to the hoop without the ball from guys like Dante Cunningham and Rudy Fernandez, strong attacking drives from Andre Miller, Nicolas Batum, and Wesley Matthews, and some truly excellent back-to-the-basket moves from LaMarcus Aldridge were just what the doctor ordered for keeping Utah at arms length. Portland still shot a lot of jumpers, but when the game plan is to attack, and that plan is executed well enough to build a healthy lead, those jumpers flow a little easier, and the hoop looks a little bigger.
Thursday’s third quarter was really a showcase for how this team can, and should play. Deron Williams is a beast, top two point guards in the league, top ten players at any position, and with his team struggling, he took it upon himself in the third quarter to mount a comeback. Utah cut the lead to as little as one early, and then to six late, but each time a combination of inside play and deep shooting pushed the lead back out to double digits.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: With 7:37 remaining in the third period, Paul Millsap hit a 17-footer, and the lead was cut to 56-53, in favor of the Blazers. On Portland’s next possession, Rudy nailed a three: 59-53, Portland. On the next Utah possession Al Jefferson missed a hook shot, and Wesley Matthews answered with a lay-up on the other end: 61-53, Portland. Utah calls a timeout, and sets up a play that ends in a missed jumper by Millsap. Andre Miller finds Wesley on Portland’s offensive possession, and Wesley buries a three: 64-53, Portland. This is how Portland played all night. All though it’s not great that the Blazers were letting the Jazz back in, they never reached those moments that have been so frequent as of late in which a lead was turned instantly into a deficit.
There is one thing that was a little troubling about Thursday’s win, and I think it needs to be talked about so we can get it out there and discuss it. Portland looked out of sync, and sometimes downright bad, with its second unit on the floor. The Nic or Wesley argument is now moot, with Brandon down they’re both starters, and that leaves Portland’s bench pretty darn thin. Sean Marks is hustling, and if he gets his feet set he can hit a few jumpers. Patty Mills is looking better. Rudy is starting to play like Rudy. Dante is getting his consistency back, and contributing well. But that is it. Three out of the four guys coming off the bench are still developing. Rudy, too, has a ton of things to work on in his game. Utah, at this moment, is not an especially deep team, but there are plenty of teams around the league that can, and do, play ten or eleven guys. Portland is not one of them. That brings me to this question: Who do we trade? Does the team dump salary and start over just when things are starting to come together, or should they try to work a deal that trades bench players for bench players and maybe buys one or two wins in the first round of the playoffs? Again, I don’t have an answer. I like what Patty, DC, Rudy, and Sean are doing for the most part, and in my mind a big trade really only drops Portland from contention for the sixth or seventh seed to fighting for the eighth seed. If the goal at this moment is the Playoffs, which I feel like it should be, then where is the harm in letting this thing go for awhile? Remember, there is likely going to be no season next year.
But I digress of course. Thursday the Blazers looked close to their very best. Their starting unit is looking better each day. And LaMarcus Aldridge is playing like he might just be a superstar after all. That’s what we all know. What beating the top team in our division twice in two tries means? That remains to be seen.
Some brief thoughts:
- Marcus Camby got the quietest 20 rebounds I think I have ever seen. Camby is, simply put, a beast on the glass. With Marcus on the floor, the Blazers are always a better team. Often if your starting center scores only four points, and attempts only five shots, you would probably say something was wrong. That 20 in the rebounds column more than makes up for any of Camby’s offensive short comings.
- Post game I asked LaMarcus if he is making a conscious effort to attack the basket early in games, relying on his jumper less and less. He said he is thinking attack first for right now. When asked if his jumper was still there, he replied that he hoped so, and that his first few shots Thursday felt weird. I like LA attacking the hoop, it is making him a much more effective player. If he can find the balance of shooting jumpers and attacking, he is going to be one of the best bigs in the league. I guess I’m worried about LA going away from the jumper because he just shoots so well. In his warm-up before the game, LaMarcus knocked down about 1o straight long jumpers from the corner with almost no effort. LA is one of the best pure shooters in the NBA at any position, and I would hate for him to forget that. I would also hate for LA to forget the way he’s playing right now and go back to launching shots from the top of the key.
- Wesley Matthews tied a career high Thursday with 30 points. Wesley dropped 16 points in Portland’s 33-point third quarter. As a second-year player, and a first-year Blazer, Wesley has consistently differed leadership to Brandon and LaMarcus. He’s doing the best thing for himself and the team, leading by example. It won’t take too many more games like the one he put together on Thursday before Wesley is firmly in the conversation for top off-guards in the league. For Wesley, and for the team, consistency is key. He doesn’t have to score 30 a night, but he has to be effective every time he steps on the court. That is his job for the rest of the season.
- Some stats that are mighty interesting: Utah had a better shooting percentage from the floor and from three than Portland, 48% and 43% respectively against 46% and 41% respectively. Utah shot one more free throw than Portland, and had five more rebounds. The difference? Portland turned the ball over nine times, Utah turned the ball over 18 times. Portland hasn’t taken care of the ball all that well in games passed. Nine turnovers is a good number, considering that both of Andre’s turnovers happened basically in a ten second mad scramble in the second quarter.
- Portland had a slow offensive quarter yet again, scoring only 17 in the second period. Utah did them one better, managing only 16 points in the same frame.