There’s really no good way to start talking about Wednesday’s game, so I think I’ll jump right in and try my best to not focus to intently on the negative. For most of 48 minutes Wednesday night, the Blazers were the best team on the floor, which is no small feat considering that they were sharing the floor with the defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. But as we all know, only part of 48 minutes is not usually enough to win. There didn’t seem to be one glaring moment that turned the game, leading to the eventual disappointment in overtime, Portland just missed shots. During the tough times of the not so distant past, coach Nate McMillan would repeat ad nauseum, the Blazers can win when they make shots. It works the other way too, and that was usually the context in which Sarge would be speaking. Chalk Wednesday up to missed shots, a lot of missed shots. Sure some people are going to say that they game plan wasn’t right, or that the Blazers simply aren’t as good as their now ended six-game win streak had the home crowd thinking they were. Let them talk. Wednesday, plain and simple, they missed shots.
Give a lot of credit to Los Angeles, and their coach Phil Jackson, for adjusting on defense. Early in the game the Lakers were primarily guarding LaMarcus Aldridge with one guy. LMA, I’m going to use that instead of LA for confusion sake, was tearing up the single coverage. Laker bigs, mostly Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, were content to let LaMarcus stand outside and shoot, and LMA was content to stroke jumpers for the first three quarters. In the final quarter Los Angeles was sending two guys at LaMarcus every time he touched the ball, and a few times even fronted him in the post. LMA has seen his share of double teams lately, and he passed pretty well out of the low block all night. Once the ball hit the perimeter Portland’s wings were doing a good job of keeping it moving and making the extra pass. Which brings me back to my original point. The problem wasn’t that Portland was getting stymied by an ingenious defense scheme, the problem was that they weren’t making shots. Rudy Fernandez, Nicolas Batum, and Wesley Matthews all had and missed open looks in the fourth quarter. Of course we all want those shots back, but be honest, in the same situation in the next game you want those guys to shoot those shots. Sure maybe a head fake and a dribble towards the hoop every so often would have been nice. But those guys are shooters, and you want your shooters to shoot.
Along with Los Angeles shifting up its defense, some form of credit has to be given to Kobe Bryant. LA has fallen to the third spot in the West, and without a huge stretch run, they are not likely to catch the San Antonio Spurs for the one seed in the Playoffs. It’s something to be a fan of a Playoff team, like the Blazers, and it’s something totally different to be a fan that is expected to win a title every year. For the Lakers, and in a larger sense for the NBA fans out there that have no geographic allegiance, the three seed for the Lakers is tantamount to a wasted season; a three-game losing streak to the end of the world. Kobe has been feeling the pressure, hence his All-Star Game performance, and hence the swagger he brought to the court Wednesday night. I’ll be honest, I don’t like Kobe, not a single bit, but there probably isn’t another player in the NBA that can get hot like he can and basically win a game all by himself. If we had caught LA in two weeks, after a little bit of the losing streak hype had passed, it might have been a different story. Trailing by 10 with less than six minutes to play in the fourth quarter Kobe might have hung it up, and his teammates would have followed. Give the dude credit, after 15 years in the league and five championships he still feels like he has something to prove.
Wednesday wasn’t all Los Angeles though. Actually for a lot of the way Portland looked as good as they have all year. LMA had his jumper going, the wings were knocking down shots, at least for awhile, and there was some defense being played. Wesley Matthews and Joel Przybilla get the credit for leading the defense. Kobe ended up with 37 points, but he had to take 31 shots. Wesley bothered him all night, only once falling for the patented seven head fakes followed by a step through jumper for the foul and bucket move. Some of Kobe’s biggest baskets came on shots that only he could make. In my opinion that is a pretty good night defensively. Joel set the tone early, banging with LA’s huge guys, we could even call them huges instead of bigs, and looked like Joel of old for the first time this season. Maybe it was because he heard his named bandied about in trade rumors all afternoon, or maybe he was saving his best for one of the best teams in the league. If Joel isn’t a Blazer tomorrow, and if this was his last game as a professional basketball player, he went out playing like he should, hitting guys, sticking picks, blocking shots, and grabbing rebounds.
Another trade target, Andre Miller, didn’t have as good a night as Joel, but minus one big glaring error, he looked at least like the guy that I would like to have running the point the rest of the way. That error was pretty big though. In the overtime Dre hit a big jumper to give Portland their first lead of the extra period. On LA’s next possession, Pau got the lead back with an and-one. With just over a minute left, Portland down a single point, Dre basically handed to ball to Kobe on an entry pass that probably would have been stolen by any guard in the league. Kobe was able to play so far off Andre because he has no outside shot. I don’t think I am in the minority when I say that Andre has the tools to really push this team to succeed. But it’s true that his lack of outside shooting is a major liability. If Andre is dealt in what little time remains before the trade deadline, Portland HAS to get a point guard back, and that PG has to at least be as good as Dre on the break, and better with the jumper. There are not many guys out there that meet those requirements.
So Portland blows a big one to Los Angeles, and in a sense we start over. The Blazers fall from fifth to sixth, and go back to the drawing board to figure out a way to beat a team with enough big guys to control the paint. It could be a lot worse though. Back in November, the Lakers blew out the Blazers 121-96. At least Portland has shown obvious improvement since then.
Portland is back in action at the Rose Garden Friday night against the now Carmelo Anthony-less Denver Nuggets.
Just one quick thought:
- Speaking of Portland’s last match-up with LA. It was following that game that intrepid basketball journalist one Mr. Ron Artest broke the news to the world that Brandon Roy looked like he may be playing hurt. We all know what happened after that. On Wednesday, Brandon made his return. Roy played his last game December 15th in Dallas, which also happened to be LMA’s big breakout game. Wednesday night Brandon played 15 and a half minutes, took five shots, made two, and finished with five points. Roy pulled a step-back jumper that probably made the whole city of Portland smile, and tried hard to get Nate to put him in during OT. The Blazers are right to take it slow with Roy, although I would have personally loved to see him take the final shot in regulation, but in my mind he looked pretty good, almost as if he might be able to finish out the season. That in and of itself is pretty shocking. Next to come back will be Marcus Camby. He should help at least as much as Roy, if not more.