I’m just going to come out and say it right off the bat, that way it’ll be done and then we can all move forward. I am going to apologize for the Portland Trail Blazers Tuesday night. They played poorly, they lacked focus and strength, and they got soundly defeated by a team that they probably should be able to handle. So, on behalf of the Blazers, I’m sorry. Let’s move on.
Although there were plenty of terrible things that happened Tuesday night, I am actually not that worried. Rarely does a team have to integrate three players at once, and rarely does that team, in so doing, basically have to revamp their entire style of play. Without Marcus Camby and Brandon Roy for the better part of the last few months, Portland has played a gutty style of basketball, lead by the personal vendetta held by LaMarcus Aldridge against the league that snubbed him as an All-Star. Those days are behind us. Camby and Brandon are back, and LaMarcus has stopped playing like he wants to eat the hearts of his opponents. And folks, that’s the problem. There is no reason that Portland should have to completely divest themselves from the style of play that has recently given them a renewed outlook on this season and those seasons yet to come.
Nate McMillan said as much following Tuesday’s loss. Saying that he didn’t recognize the team that was on the floor, that the scrappy play and swagger were gone, and that his team looked like they weren’t having fun. True, true, and true. So now we’ve identified the problem, how should it be corrected. The first move will likely include personnel changes. One in particular. Gerald Wallace will likely be added to the starting lineup, if not Wednesday night in Sacramento, then likely Saturday night back home against the Bobcats. Wallace recorded his first double-double as Blazer Tuesday night, collecting 14 points and 10 rebounds, and although he had five turnovers and didn’t seem completely comfortable at times, he was one of the only guys in white to consistently attack the rim.
With Wallace as a starter comes the question of who does he replace. There are really only two options. Nicolas Batum or Wesley Matthews. Wesley started the season on the bench, then took over for Nicolas, who then returned to the starting rotation for good when Brandon went down. With both players there are upsides and downsides. If Wallace replaces Nicolas and starts at the three, he’ll be able to be matched up on offense with a small player that he can post up or overpower off the drive. Of course that’s true if he replaces Wesley also. With Nicolas going to the bench, Portland gives up one of their best perimeter defenders, and one of their more consistent offensive weapons. Tuesday, Nic was one of the bright spots, scoring 22 points to lead all players, and looked pretty confident in his jumper. With Wesley coming off the bench, the downside is slightly less. The offensive match-ups will be the same, and on defense Portland will have two long athletic defenders covering the wings. My only issue with bringing Wesley off the bench is that he has played SO much better as a starter. Wesley often needs to get touches and shots early in the evening if he wants to have a big game. Coming off the bench could throw off his rhythm. That being said, offense from Wallace could negate the lack of offense from Wesley. In my mind it’s six of one, half dozen of the other. Nate needs to pick a guy to bench, and do it soon. Portland can afford to lose to Atlanta and Houston at home right now, but they can’t let this streak of bad play run any longer if they want to have a chance to compete in the Playoffs. The upside to switching starters now is that Camby and Brandon are still playing limited minutes. Wallace, Nicolas, and Wesley all logged well over 30 minutes Tuesday night.
One thing that was evident in spades Tuesday was the lack of interior defense on the part of the Blazers. Portland can be forgiven their offensive cohesion, but defense is about effort, and effort alone. The Blazers gave up 52 points in the paint, which is a lot. It’s worse when you look at Houston’s roster and see that their big men are Luis Scola and Chuck Hayes. Both fine players, but not low post dominators. Scola, who just flat out kills the Blazers, only missed a single field goal attempt, going 10-of-11, on his way to finishing with 21 points. Hayes didn’t do much, meaning that the remaining points in the paint were scored off layups. Many of those layups came off hard cuts to the hoop off the ball and drives from Kyle Lowry. With Aaron Brooks gone, and Goran Dragic still trying to get his sea legs, Lowry has basically been given free reign at the point guard position. He takes full advantage of it. Lowry has always been a player that knows how to make the most of his own hot streaks. Tuesday he couldn’t miss, and most of the way through, it was his play that made the difference.
It’s pretty amazing how up and down this season has been, and how we can go from riding the high of Brandon’s late game heroics to sinking into the depths of despair over uninspired play in less than a week’s time. On the one hand, it’s a testament to the commitment of this fan base that as the Blazers success rises and falls so too do the emotions of the people. At this point, I would say this to the fans: be patient. I agree that there is very little time left in this season, and two or three more games like this, and we could be talking about the late season collapse that kept Portland from the Playoffs. But here’s the thing, the Gerald Wallace trade showed the Rich Cho isn’t super interested in blowing this team up, that there is a chance that this core group of players is still going to the be the future of this franchise. This stretch of poor play might mean an eight seed instead of a six, hopefully that’s a worst case scenario, but taking the time to get Crash fully acclimated to what Portland is doing might mean that a Blazer team at full strength makes a deep run next season. That’s a pretty big deal.
For the short term, Portland needs to hit their shots, and they need to go back to what has worked. What has worked has been passing the ball to LaMarcus, but more than that what has worked has been heart, hustle, and intensity. If Portland commits to that for the rest of the season, the fans won’t feel quite as cheated, and the Blazers just might get some wins.
The Blazers head down to Sacramento to take on the Kings on Wednesday, and then are back home for the Bobcats on Friday.
Just a couple quick thoughts:
- Rudy Fernandez missed Tuesday’s game due to an illness.
- Brandon Roy played 21 minutes Tuesday, and will be held out of Wednesday’s game. Brandon looked OK, he was on the receiving end of a lob pass from Camby that he was unable to finish at the rim, showing how limited his explosion is. I’m still a major proponent of playing him. He probably isn’t going to get any worse physically, and he needs reps now so he can change his game accordingly going forward. Also, there wasn’t a single Blazer that made more than seven shots, so to say that Brandon’s poor shooting was in any way to blame for the loss doesn’t make sense to me. Brandon also took fewer shots than everybody but Marcus Camby, Luke Babbit, and Armon Johnson.
- Gerald Wallace played with his headband.
- In case you need a reminder, which I’m sure you don’t, Saturday will be the return of Joel Przybilla and Dante Cunningham. Expect a big ovation for DC, and quite possibly the biggest ovation you’ve ever heard for Joel.