Here’s the thing, taken individually each of Portland’s last three losses can be explained away. Miami is one of the best teams in the league; LeBron is a beast and can kill not just teams but entire American cities all by himself. New York is a team that can get hot, and when it does can play with the best teams league wide. Phoenix is struggling, but still, nobody wants to be beaten four straight times in a single season. What I’m saying is this: on a game-by-game basis, when looking at the last three nights, the Blazers aren’t struggling. It’s when you look at the collective, or the big picture, that you see the problem.
Portland scrapped, played well, and earned its way back to .500, then over that mark in the end of December and in the first few weeks of this new year. However, dropping three straight has put the Blazers right back at even. With one game to go before the official halfway line, the Blazers are 20-20. Although they’re still in the playoff picture, it’s hard not to look at that record as see that somewhere there’s a problem.
To me, the problem was pretty clear Friday night in Phoenix against the Suns. Portland can not compete with its second unit every night. In the loss to New York, it was the lack of offense from a host of starters that sunk Portland. Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, and Andre Miller turned in below average games on Tuesday at the Rose Garden. Friday each of those players stepped up, but it was the bench that fell short. Minus the point guard position, Andre is a top flight point guard, maybe even one of the best of his generation, but he is no Steve Nash, Portland had the advantage at every position in the starting five. Vince Carter is not half man half amazing anymore, and a poor man’s LaMarcus Aldridge, Channing Frye, pales in comparison to the real McCoy.
That being said, Portland didn’t have an answer for Jared Dudley, Marcin Gortat, Hakim Warrick, and Goran Dragic. Only Dudley reached double figures in scoring, but all of Phoenix’s bench players contributed big buckets in the second half. It wasn’t just that the Blazers’ subs couldn’t stop the Phoenix subs. Portland’s second unit also couldn’t score. Patty Mills contributed eight points, but almost all of those came during his first shift. Rudy Fernandez was reluctant to shoot all night, finishing 1-of-6 from the field, 0-of-2 from deep, for only three points. Dante Cunningham wasn’t much better, adding only four points. The Phoenix bench outscored the Portland bench 32-to-15, the difference in the game and then some.
The question going forward is what can Portland do about its depth. Unfortunately the answer is not much. The Blazers should be reluctant to give up any major pieces in order to find a role player to fill the secondary scoring gap, and the players Portland does have on the bench don’t make for very good trade bait. One thing that is a little frustrating is that Portland now has three players on the end of the bench that don’t even get a wiff of the court. Armon Johnson has played no meaningful minutes, save for some when Andre was serving his one-game suspension, since Patty Mills took over the second string point guard position, Sean Marks is now behind Joel Przybilla at the center position meaning his minutes are nil, and Luke Babbitt hasn’t quite found out what he can even do while on the court. I’m no GM, but those are three spots that could be taken by players that might be able to come in to a game and provide something.
Friday night wasn’t all bad, not by a long shot. Portland led most of the way, even though the game was played almost entirely at a pace and of a style that greatly favored the home team. Phoenix plays fast and loose, and most of the evening the game could best be described as controlled chaos. The Suns, Steve Nash especially, thrive in that environment. Portland often flails, flounders, and then loses. Although the Blazers did in fact end up losing, they managed throughout the game to stave off many of Phoenix’s runs. A sign that when things aren’t going their way they can still be effective.
While Portland’s bench deals with its consistency issues, the starting unit continues to play at a high level. Wesley Matthews, who has struggled as of late, was a high point on offense. Questionable before tip, and clearly favoring an injured ankle, Wesley mixed short and long jumpers on his way to a team-high 26 points. LaMarcus Aldridge added 25 points, Nicolas Batum scored 18 points, and Andre Miller was the fourth Blazer in double figures with 19. Andre had a strong stretch late in game where he was the only Portland player that was clicking on offense, and LA showed early in the game that he hasn’t completely forgotten about his jump shot.
January is going to be a favorable month for the Blazers, with a lot of home games, and a lot of match-ups with inferior teams. For all intents and purposes, the Suns are worse than the Blazers. A win in Phoenix would have set the tone for the rest of the month. A loss is a setback, as all losses are. The Blazers get a chance to get over this most recent loss Saturday at home against the New Jersey Nets. Along with having a chance for a bounce-back, streak-ending win, Portland has a chance to begin to exorcise the demons of their first 0-and-4 road trip. More importantly they get the chance to have a winning first half of the season. 21-20 is not a great record at the halfway point, but more and more 2010-11 is looking like the season of small victories. In that context, a winning record through 41 games takes on a whole new level of significance.
Just a couple quick thoughts:
- Steve Nash has been the center of a small storm of trade rumors, down a class or two from the hurricane of speculation following Carmelo Anthony. Nash is not at the level he once was, but can still put together a good game every once and awhile. Friday Nash was clutch, putting Phoenix over the top at the end of the evening. Nash’s line: 23 points, 13 assists, 6 rebounds, and only 3 turnovers.
- This was my first time seeing Phoenix play since swapping Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu with the Magic for Marcin Gortat and Vince Carter. I know Earl Clark and Mickael Pietrus were also part of that deal, but Pietrus didn’t play too much Friday night, and Clark was never really part of the Suns rotation. Carter is getting old, but still has a ton of skill. Marcin Gortat is a big body, and although he took some of Hakim Warrick’s minutes he isn’t quite a replacement for Amar’e Stoudemire. Phoenix is likely going to be left out of the playoffs, so who knows what this team will look like a season from now. My guess is some of the new faces will be new faces somewhere else whenever the NBA resumes following 2010-11.
- During the course of the broadcast, Mike Rice made an important observation about Grant Hill, as per his history with injuries and his resurgence late in his career. It’s been said many times that players can return from injuries, and Hill is often trotted out as the prime example. With Brandon Roy being scheduled for surgery on both of his knees, it is unlikely he’ll play this season or ever return to his All-Star form. It’s nice to know, though, that there is always a chance Roy will be the Grant Hill of his generation of players. Remember Hill was once an All-Star too.
- One of the things I love about the NBA is checking out the former players that are now assistant coaches, specifically to get a read on how far they’ve fallen off from their playing physique. Phoenix has two examples that embody the extremes. “Thunder Dan” Majerle looks like he could still play at 45. Former Chicago Bulls center Bill Cartwright not so much. To Cartwright’s credit he is 53, and he is a three-time NBA Champion.