In my opinion it doesn’t really count as a meltdown when you carry a wafer-thin lead into the fourth quarter and then lose, if the team you lose to is the defending NBA Champions, and if the game is being played on their home court. I’m not saying Portland deserves a pass for letting yet another match-up against the Lakers slip away, and I’m not saying that this loss is any less heartbreaking than the overtime game at the end of February. What I am trying to say is that to beat the Lakers, on their home court, a team needs to play an almost perfect game. Sunday the Blazers played well, very well for stretches, but were far from perfect down the stretch. That, coupled with a few bad breaks, was all it took for the Champions to snatch a big victory from a very very hot team.
Going to the play-by-play of Sunday’s game won’t make this loss any easier to take, but it might shed some light on what exactly went wrong. Portland grabbed a lead late in the second quarter, and was able to hold that lead pretty much for the rest of the evening. The Lakers threatened in the third quarter and early in the fourth quarter, but Portland was able to answer every run with a few defensive stops and some big buckets. Then came the game’s final two minutes.
At the two minute mark, Nicolas Batum turned the ball over leading to a Derek Fisher fast break lay-up that put LA on top 78-76. From that point on, Portland’s next three offensive possessions went like this: Brandon Roy miss, Gerald Wallace offensive rebound then turnover, LaMarcus Aldridge miss, Rudy Fernandez miss. In the middle of those four possessions, Kobe Bryant came down the floor and nailed an eight footer, putting the Lakers up four and the game basically out of reach. Although Portland had two costly turnovers late in the fourth quarter, the looks were there, they just didn’t go. On the other end, playing calmly for probably the first time all evening, Los Angeles was able to convert. That’s the difference between these two teams, execution. Overall, in the game’s final two minutes the Lakers hit four field goals, and the Blazers managed only one. In fact, Los Angeles scored on all but one of their final five possessions.
Say what you will about Portland’s offensive failures at the end of the game, but a lot of credit goes to LA’s defense, and a lot more credit goes to the injury to Marcus Camby’s ankle. Camby left the game with four minutes remaining after coming down awkwardly following a contest on a Kobe Bryant lay-up. Up to that point, Camby had collected 10 rebounds, five on the offensive glass, and was doing a great job controlling the painted area. Playing without Andrew Bynum limited the Lakers’ length, although they still have legit big guys is Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, and Portland needed any advantage they could get by having Camby on the floor. Camby’s minutes have been limited since being swapped out of the starting lineup for Gerald Wallace, and Sunday was his longest run in some time. It was clear that he was the difference maker. If Camby stays in the game Portland probably wins. That being said, Gerald Wallace in the starting lineup is the way to go, the question is just how to play big once the players have started to get accustomed to playing small.
Along with Marcus Camby, Nicolas Batum had a decent night. I say that it’s decent because I’m averaging his performance over two halves. In the first half, Nic was the best player on either team. In the second half he was not. Nic had 19 points in the first half, and was as hot as he’s been in his career. In the second half it looked a little bit like he was thinking too much. Nic is at his best when he just lets it fly. Sunday’s second half was not good for Batum, finishing with only six points in the night’s final two quarters. Three of those points came on a three-pointer with 28 seconds remaining and Portland trailing by five. It wasn’t a meaningless three, and if the Blazers had played 24 seconds of defense on the next possession instead of 20 it might have ended up being the basket of the night, but to say that Nicolas was less than effective in the second half is an understatement.
Nic can be deadly on offense. His shot has improved greatly, his confidence is very high, and he can get to the rim better than most of the players at his position. What needs to happen now for Batum is a growth mentally. He seems to be fine playing third or fourth option, getting the shots as they come. When the ball starts going to Nic on purpose is when he seems to struggle. He needs to get over that. If Portland wants to advance past the first round of the Playoffs this season, and hopefully deeper in seasons to come, Nic needs to embrace the fact that he can be a featured element in the offense, and start playing like it.
Nic could take a cue from Brandon Roy, who hasn’t met a jump shot that he didn’t like, and especially from Kobe Bryant. Down the stretch, Kobe did what Kobe does, he took over. It wasn’t a situation where Bryant had to take a lot of shots to get LA back into the game, but it was a situation where when the Lakers needed a big bucket Kobe was able to provide it. He had no basket bigger than a fade-away from the baseline over Brandon Roy with 32 seconds left in the game. Brandon’s defense was as good as it can be against a shooter like Bryant, but a shot like that comes down to confidence pure and simple. Kobe can get a shot at any time from any where on the floor, so can most good shooters at the NBA level, and he takes some of the absolute worst shots I’ve ever seen. The thing about Kobe is that he believes that his shots will go in, and sometimes they do. That is the mentality of the Lakers too. They believe that they are going to win. When they do it was fated; when they don’t it’s a fluke.
Coach Nate McMillan has talked before about Portland watching the Lakers play instead of Portland playing their game. Though that didn’t happen too much Sunday, there is an implication there that the Blazers don’t fully believe that they can or should beat the Lakers. They can, they almost have twice this season. The next step is for these guys to believe that a victory is possible. And not just one victory, but three or four. There is still a chance that Portland will meet LA in the Playoffs.
The Blazers are back in the Rose City Tuesday to try and avenge an early season loss to the hapless Washington Wizards.
Just one thing:
- Mid way through Sunday’s game, Andre Miller tied and then passed Boston Celtic Hall of Famer Bob Cousy for number 14 all-time on the career assists leader board. Not too shabby.