The end of last week and the beginning of this week have been tense to say that least. Two blowout losses at home, and Portland fans were looking for answers. Maybe Brandon Roy’s return was going to throw a steak in the Blazer’s new found passion and scrap. Maybe trading to bring in Gerald Wallace wasn’t such a great idea, because although nobody doubts his talent, his place on this team is not quite clear. Wednesday’s win in Sacramento won’t answer all the looming questions, but it should at least let some of the more uptight fans let out that breath they’ve been holding since Sunday when Portland was run out of the Rose Garden by the Atlanta Hawks.
Wednesday night wasn’t overly pretty, and the Blazers most definitely benefited from the fact that Sacramento at times couldn’t get out of their own way, but right now this is as big a win as any. Winning stops the short skid before it becomes a long slide, proves to this team and the fans that Portland still has some fight left, and probably most importantly gives Gerald Wallace his first win as a Blazer. Of course those last two losses weren’t even close to his fault, but you have to expect that a new player feels some kind of burden when he comes to a new town and his new team promptly lays back-to-back eggs.
Wallace has shown a lot of hustle and tenacious defense thus far in his Blazer career, and Wednesday he was a big part of what Portland did right. Add to that list Wesley Matthews, Patty Mills, and Andre Miller. Actually, I would say that every Blazer on the floor Wednesday night did something right, which is exactly what this team needed to break out of this mini slump. Wesley, Patty, and Gerald were the keys to the victory, but heady play from Dre, and clutch offense and defense from LaMarcus Aldridge helped to get Portland over the top. Nicolas Batum’s consistency on offense thrown in, minus bad shooting and periods of poor ball movement, and the Blazer’s offense looks like it’s starting to adapt to all the new pieces.
Which is good, because Portland needs to get into the practice facility and work on defense. Atlanta, Houston, and Sacramento all exposed the Blazers weaknesses on D. Most notably their inability to close out shooters, and their ineffectiveness at stopping the drive. In my mind, these two things go hand-in-hand. Portland’s wing defenders have lately seemed reluctant to get up in the body of a shooter around the perimeter. The best explanation I can think of for playing defense in that manner is to keep a speedy guard from getting a free pass to the rim. However, when those guards do get going toward the hole, the Blazer’s interior defense is slow to rotate, and often the second help-side defender is completely non-existent. No second help-side defender means an easy lay-up for the cutter. A hard close on the perimeter will limit the ability of a guard to penetrate, and at the same time will take away the three ball. It’s clearly easier said that done, but right now guys like Marcus Thornton and Kyle Lowry are taking Portland’s defense to task. What’s going to happen come playoff time when Portland has to match-up against guys like Jason Kidd or Russell Westbrook? We can hope that the outside defense picks up, but it would be better for Portland to get in the rhythm of playing strong perimeter defense now.
There were a few things that turned Wednesday game in Portland, and I’ll take just a minute to point them out in case they slipped past anyone watching. One thing that happened, and kept the Blazers in it for basically the middle of the game, was Patty Mills. Dropped from the rotation just a few days ago, Nate McMillan made a point of saying that he was going to give Patty back his minutes. Nate said he brought Patty back because the second unit looked a little out of sorts without an actual point guard on the floor. That may be true, but the second unit didn’t need just any point guard, it needed Patty Mills. For all his faults, which he is working hard on both limiting and correcting, Patty pushes Portland into another gear. He’s fearless going to the rim, and he’s developing a pretty nice mid-range and long-range jumper. Wednesday he tied a career high, scoring 14 points in 13 minutes, and was one of the few Blazers that looked comfortable on offense. He isn’t going to get that many points every night out, and there are still going to be times when he does something stupid that leads to a bad turnover, but Portland needed a boost Wednesday, and Patty’s middle name should be changed to Boost.
Along with the play of Patty Mills, the star of the game for Portland late was turning defensive stops into points. The Blazer’s defense still wasn’t great in the half court, but twice front court turnovers led to fast break points late in the game, helping Portland keep Sacramento at arms length. The second steal turned breakaway involved a tip-away turned lob pass from Wesley Matthews to Gerald Wallace for an emphatic dunk. Blazer fans have been waiting to see Wallace in the open court, and they weren’t disappointed with the end result of that play. But not only was Wesley to Gerald highlight material, it was the first of two knock out blows. Crash’s dunk put Portland up five with two and a half minutes to play. Highlight plays are great, but when they come from heads up defense and help to finish off an important win, the highlight part becomes gravy.
Portland has now won five straight road games, which takes some of the sting out of the last two home losses, and they are going to need to carry any momentum gained Wednesday through the rest of this month. This month the Blazers face the Magic, the Heat, the Lakers, and the Spurs on the road. They won’t be able to run that group of four, but a split would look mighty nice. Winning a game against Sacramento doesn’t necessarily mean Portland will have the confidence to steal one in Miami or at Staples, but a loss Wednesday, and those games look that much harder.
The Blazers get a few days to rest and figure out their rotation before returning to the Rose Garden for Saturday’s match-up against the Bobcats. If you have to ask why Saturday’s game is now a big deal then you aren’t a Blazer fan.
Just a few thoughts:
- Rudy Fernandez and Brandon Roy were held out Wednesday night. Brandon due to doctor’s orders to sit the second night of back-to-backs; Rudy for an illness. If Rudy had gone, the starting lineup would have included Gerald Wallace. As it stands, if Rudy plays Saturday my money is on Crash joining the starting five.
- Kings’ rookie DeMarcus Cousins led all scores with 28 points, and managed to show why he’s got a bright future and why he can be a liability at the same time. Cousins is a beast, and if he works on his jumper he could be an All-Star and MVP level player. However, to get to that level he has to stay on the court. Cousins picked up his fifth personal foul in the fourth quarter, and had to sit for a big chunk of the stretch run. When Cousins left the game the Kings led by one; when he returned the Blazer led by five and wouldn’t trail the rest of the way. If Portland had gotten the fifth foul on Cousins earlier in the game, Wednesday wouldn’t have been nearly as close. It goes the other way too. Cousins stays out of foul trouble and Sacramento wins.
- LaMarcus Aldridge was awarded Western Conference Player-of-the-Month for February. He deserved it, and had his best first half in about a week Wednesday night. Unfortunately he had an atrocious second half. Luckily LA redeemed himself with the final nails in the Kings’ coffin. A top of the key jumper put Portland up seven with under a minute to play. LaMarcus then followed that up with a huge block on Cousins that ended any comeback hopes Sacramento might have had.
- Sacramento no longer plays in the Arco Arena, now playing in the PowerBalance Pavilion, and very soon will probably not play in Sacramento at all. If the Kings move to Anaheim, as it seems likely they will, the nearest NBA city to Portland will be San Francisco.