Most nights when a team trails for almost an entire three quarters they often lose. I say often, because sometimes they also win. Saturday night was just another day in the life of the Portland Trail Blazers: a pregame mini presser from a hobbled star, the early scratching of an important big minutes starter, a first quarter in which they go down by nine, a second quarter deficit pushed as high as 13, a furious comeback in which said big deficit becomes a double-digit lead, horn, game, win for the Blazers.
Saturday the injured star was Brandon Roy. He spoke briefly to the media for the first time since his double arthroscopic knee surgery, seeming almost confident that he could return to the court this season. It’s a mighty fine goal, but Roy also said he wants to take it slowly this time, seeing as he is at somewhat of a cross-roads in his professional career.
The starter scratched was Andre Miller this time. Miller was said to be suffering from gastroenteritis, which according to Wikipedia means the stomach flu and according to Oregonian beat writer Jason Quick is a case of the runs. Andre tried to play, starting the game, but managed to remain on the court for less than three minutes. Dre going out was very nearly the straw that broke the camel’s back; for the first 12 minutes, and almost the entire first half, Portland simply could not find a rhythm on offense, and neither Patty Mills nor Armon Johnson could stay with the Pacers speedy point guard former UCLA Bruin Darren Collison. Portland went to “Point Guard by Committee” starting in the second quarter, and they stuck with it for the majority of the evening.
Portland got their big run in the fourth quarter, and it came thanks to some big time plays from Nicolas Batum. Nic’s fourth quarter went a little bit like this: 11:11 Batum three,9:32 Batum three, 7:52 Batum three, 7:17 Batum three. Portland started the fourth quarter behind by a count of 70-67; after Batum’s fourth long ball Portland led 85-77. In the fourth the Blazers led by as much as 11, and very nearly ended up with their second straight down by double digits win by double digits game. The Pacers battled back, though, and actually made it a game in the final few minutes.
The play of the evening, in my mind at least, came in that final minute, and involved the player I think everyone in Blazer nation needs to keep a close eye on, Dante Cunningham. With Portland leading by four and with 11 ticks remaining on the game clock, DC recovered from being shook by the other DC, Darren Collison, and sent away his shot attempt with an emphatic block. It wasn’t a Roy vs Joe Johnson moment, but it made it pretty clear that Portland is still committed to getting the job done on the defensive end.
We shouldn’t watch DC just on the defensive side of the ball, though. Cunningham is a player we need to start paying attention to on offense. Here’s why. Other teams are catching on. The NBA is one of the best scouted leagues in all of professional sports. A dude has a big night, any dude on any team, or puts together a mini string of big games, and teams change up. Indiana was doubling LaMarcus Aldridge like crazy, and every team from now until the end of the season will be doubling LaMarcus every time he touches the ball. It’s what they should do. Right now LA is really Portland’s only go to option. Nicolas, Rudy Fernandez, and Wesley Matthews are stepping up, but they are wing players, and are going to get the majority of their looks around the perimeter. Cunningham is a legit four, he can guard small fives, but when he’s on the floor he is guarded by and guards a big man. Those big men, usually, are the ones that double LaMarcus. If DC can consistently knock down 10 to 20 footers, he’s going to make it much more difficult for teams to double LaMarcus. Post game I asked Dante if he’s looking for his shot more often. His answer was yes and no. He takes shots when he’s open, but he doesn’t go out with the intention of scoring. He needs to start. He needs to come on the court and think of himself as an offensive player. The minutes are there for him, he’s been injury free, knock on wood, and he hustles on the defensive end. A little offense from Dante could make a big difference.
Along with a big night from Batum, LA had another double-double, 25 points and 12 boards, and Wesley and Rudy put up big assist numbers, nine for Wesley and eight for Rudy. Rudy looked pretty comfortable at the point, but don’t expect him to get too many minutes at that position going forward. Knee surgery isn’t the expected course of action for a person with a stomach bug.
Five Portland players logged major minutes Saturday with LA leading the way at 46. Nic and Wesley both played 43 minutes, Rudy played 37 minutes, and DC played 30 minutes. There were a few moments where Portland looked as bad as I’ve ever seen them, and those minutes came with what was left of the Blazer bench on the floor. No need to say it again, the Blazers are very thin when it comes to bench players. Every night from now until the end of the season is going to be like Saturday. There are going to be some times when the Blazers look like a D-league team, and there are going to be some times when they play great, high-energy ball. Saturday, the good outweighed the bad, enough so that Portland got the win. At this point, all we can hope for is that that happens more often than not.
Portland is back at the Rose Garden on Monday to take on the Sacramento Kings.
Just some quick thoughts:
- Saturday was not a good night for Armon Johnson or Patty Mills. Head coach Nate McMillan seemed to have very little confidence in either of his young back-up point guards. Armon, who’s been racking up the DNP’s since losing his back-up gig to Patty, played only 5:20, turned the ball over one time, and looked a little bit lost. Patty had a very poor first shift, but played a little better his second time out, hitting a pretty big three at the end of the third quarter. After the game, Nate said that part of the reason he didn’t go with Patty or Armon, choosing Rudy as the de facto point, was because they couldn’t handle the speed of Darren Collison. I felt like Nate was being nice to his young guys. Andre doesn’t have the quickness of either of those two players, neither does Rudy. Patty and Armon just didn’t have it on Saturday. Possibly because Patty isn’t used to coming in after two minutes, and Armon isn’t used to being on the court at all. Whatever it is, they better shake it off.
- Portland decided to get Joel Przybilla involved in the offense early in the game, which may not be the best strategy going forward. Joel is looking better every night, but Saturday he missed two point-blank layups early in the evening. He made up for it though, finishing the night with six points in 18 minutes.
- During his pregame media session, Brandon Roy seemed guarded but confident about the rest of his season, and as expected he got a nice, loud round of applause when he was shown on the big screens at the beginning of the game. Greg Oden, who celebrated his birthday Saturday, also got a big hand on Saturday. I expect we’ll see more of B Roy as he progresses through his rehab and eventual return.
- I had an interesting chat with Blazersedge‘s Ben Golliver pregame about the Pacers’ rookie guard Lance Stephenson. You may remember Stephenson from Gunnin’ For That #1 Spot in which he was the youngest player featured. Currently Stephenson is struggling through his first NBA season, and it’s in no small part due to some off the court issues. Here’s a little piece from SB Nation’s Indy Cornrows to give you a sense of what I mean.