As the telecast closed on Wednesday night’s unfortunate loss to the New Orleans Hornets, Blazer TV announcer Mike Barrett mentioned that although this was a big game, it probably wasn’t the biggest game of the season. I’m going to agree and disagree. I’ll agree that it wasn’t the biggest game of the season, basically because all that hyperbole probably needs to be stored somewhere deep, only to be brought out for games late in the post season. I’ll disagree, because Wednesday, like every single one of Portland’s seven remaining games, was a very very big game. Losing doesn’t spell doom for the Blazers going forward, but of the two possible outcomes, it was the least preferable.
We all knew coming in that New Orleans was trailing Portland in the West, and that that lead was so minuscule that a win for New Orleans meant a seeding switch. The Hornets, on the back of some late shooting and defense, get the win, and with that win have vaulted the Blazers into the sixth spot. Memphis, sitting now at eighth, also won Wednesday, meaning that Portland is now a single game out of eighth place in the West. Luckily, the Blazers got a little help from Philly, who knocked off the Houston Rockets, so that cushion between seventh or eighth and the first loser is a healthy four games. Not so healthy that Portland can cruise, but just enough so we can all start making plans for where were going to be come the first round of the Playoffs.
Wednesday’s a tough one to really sum up. For the most part, this game featured everything that I love about NBA basketball, and why the Playoffs, and to a lesser extent, the run-up to those Playoffs, are so exciting. For most of the evening the execution was tight, the ball was moving, the half court offense was in full effect, and across the board both teams were playing hard and playing well. What I didn’t love about Wednesday, of course, was how it ended.
After building a strong lead in the second quarter, squandering most of it in the third quarter, Portland was completely unable to deliver the knockout blow. This worries me some, considering that the Blazers still have to win to reach the second season. One thing that really stuck out Wednesday, and in my mind was the difference between winning and losing for Portland, was the Blazers inability to keep the Hornets off the free throw line. New Orleans took 13 more free throws than Portland, and made 10 more. Basically what this meant was that the Blazers were unable to get stops. Portland was playing a lot of defense on their heels, and were reacting late on the help side. With only one actual deep shooter seeing the court for New Orleans, Marco Belinelli, the Blazers could have done themselves a favor by packing the paint and playing the drive. Lord knows other teams do that to Portland, making them win with jump shots, and sometimes it even works. As the final string gets played out, and the Playoffs actually begin, teams are going continue to attack the basket. The Blazers need to find ways to get stops in the paint. It’s that simple.
This really plays into one thing that was pretty apparent in all three of these last road games. Portland is small. Starting Gerald Wallace was a great move. He needs to be on the floor as much as possible, and Marcus Camby is realistically going to give only about 20 good minutes a night regardless if he starts or comes off the bench. The problem is deeper than that. Or to be more precise, the problem is is that Portland is not deeper than that. Sunday in OKC, and Monday in San Antonio, Portland was exposed inside. They couldn’t stop the drive or the play of the pivot positions, and they were more than neutralized on the defensive glass. Again on Wednesday, the Blazers were dominated inside. Emeka Okafor had a huge offensive rebound and put-back in the fourth quarter, as did Willie Green. Okafor’s follow effectively killed Portland’s attempt at a closing rally, and was NOLA’s second to last field goal of the evening before finishing it off from the free throw line.
Wednesday was a game or runs, with Portland’s big run coming first and the Hornets’ run coming late. In a game of runs, its important to finish plays that sustain a counter-attack, in order to slow down or reverse that run, if you’re the team being run on, and it’s equally as important to finish plays that maintain a run, and help to avoid a strong counter attack, if you are the team doing the running. Too many times, the Blazers were unable to finish on offense, and too many times the Hornets were given extra possessions that led to baskets. That combination turned a mid-quarter spurt into a closing run. If Portland wants to finish this season with some momentum, and have a shot at the second round of the Playoffs, avoiding those situations in which spurts become runs, and leads become deficits is going to be key.
Portland did a lot of things right on Wednesday, and to their credit winning in New Orleans is always a tough task. Give former Blazer assistant Monty Williams credit, you could tell he and his team wanted this game badly too. One more thing that I love about late season NBA games that matter, and the Playoff games that follow, is the game within a game type situations. Subbing offense for defense, using each timeout effectively, calling big set-plays late in the game, fighting. Like I said earlier, Wednesday had all of those elements. Portland has played too hard, and has looked too good over the last week and change to let this season slip away. The remaining games aren’t easy, but those two Golden State games and the Utah game might be just the breathing room this team needs. I’m sure that coach Nate McMillan and his troops are going to figure out a way to close games, and close the regular season.
The Blazers are back in the Rose Garden Friday for their final match-up of the season with the Oklahoma City Thunder. OKC has clinched the post season for the second year in a row, but don’t expect them to take the night off. Expect Portland to try to figure out a way to play big inside, on both offense and defense. And expect another fight. It will be like that every night until this is all over.
Just a couple quick thoughts:
- Gerald Wallace took a hard hit from Emeka Okafor and the end of the first half. Crash was slow to get off the floor, and for awhile its was suggested that he might not return for the second half of play. He did return, and Mike Barrett did point out that at times in the second half he looked a little out of sync. I’m sure he will be checked out in Portland, and that he was checked out in New Orleans at halftime, and he probably wouldn’t have been allowed to play if the team docs had determined that he had suffered a concussion. That being said, concussions in sports are a big deal. There is plenty of good information out there on all this stuff, and every sports fan should educate themselves about all of it. It’s football that is getting the most attention, but guys get hit hard in basketball too. Portland needs Gerald Wallace on the court every step of the way the rest of this season, but more important than that is his health. Hopefully he was more dazed than seriously injured.
- On a lighter note, Patty Mills found some rotation minutes Wednesday, and he made the most of them. Patty had another one of those nights were he scored more points than the number of minutes he played. He was stroking it too, knocking down all five of his shot attempts, three of them from deep. At one point I even found myself telling the TV to put Patty back in the game when Portland couldn’t find anything on offense in the fourth and the game was starting to get away. Although I think Patty’s Playoff minutes will be scant, he is the type of guy that in a seven game series can steal a game. He’s the type of player that can’t really be scouted, you never know what he’s going to bring. That’s not always a good thing, but if we can catch him on the right night, he could be a big time game changer.
- The plus/minus is such a strange stat, and its hard for me to decide what it really means. Portland had two players that were in the plus column, with the rest getting minuses. Andre Miller, who was key in keeping the Blazers within striking distance in the final minutes of the game, was a game low -17. Gerald Wallace, who was pretty steady but stopped attacking as much in the final quarter, was +2. Patty Mills: a game high +14. Another one, just to muddy the waters even more. Brandon Roy, who didn’t do a whole lot of anything, had the third highest plus/minus with -1. Make of that what you will.