Sunday night’s win was just the kind of win Portland needs at this point in the season. The only thing that keeps this out-and-out runaway from ranking with the best wins of the season is that one team really didn’t show up. You can’t fault Dallas for not having the desire and energy that Portland had Sunday. Their Playoff ticket is punched and home court in the first round is guaranteed, they’re playing now just because they have to. Having said that, if Portland finishes in the sixth spot, and faces Dallas in the opening round at the third spot, you can look at Sunday’s game and possibly say that this kind of win could be just the confidence builder Portland needs to take a series from this team.
That’s why this specific win is important. In a more general sense, winning is important because as bad as we all want this Playoff push to be over, it still isn’t. Houston won again Sunday night, keeping the Blazers from clinching with this win, meaning there is at least one more game day left in which Portland’s Playoff future is still undecided. One is better than two, just as two was better than three, and if the Blazers come to play on Tuesday against the Golden State Warriors, this race to the second season will finally be over. At this point, that fight and hustle, and that desire to put teams away early and get on to the real business should be expected.
If you’re looking for one player to pin this most recent string of games on, you’d have plenty to choose from. Sunday, all the usual suspects were there with their game faces on. Start with Gerald Wallace. Since being inserted into the starting lineup, Crash has become Portland’s energy guy. He hustles and plays smart defense, and he is a phenom in the open court. More than anything, Wallace has shown the uncanny ability to come up with huge offensive plays when Portland looks like they are on the verge of stagnation. Sunday, Wallace made a couple of nice slashing moves to the hoop that either killed a Dallas run, or brought the Rose Garden crowd back to life. The RG, as we all know, is a loud arena. That decibel level will no doubt increase come Playoff time, but Gerald Wallace is the kind of player that can produce plays seemingly at will that blow the roof of the building.
After the play of Gerald Wallace, Nicolas Batum is at least partially responsible for Sunday’s win, and Friday’s equally important win against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Batum, the NBA’s top sixth man of the last three days, has seemed to embrace his turn as Portland’s Lamar Odom, providing both offense and defense for the Blazers’ second unit. Batum has struggled somewhat this season with his consistency. In the first five, he’s not the go-to guy, and that can sometimes lead to slow or unproductive offensive nights. Being part of the second unit means more shot attempts, and a more featured role in the offense. So far, Nic has shown that that also means consistency. Yes, two games is a small sample, but so far so good. Expect coach Nate McMillan to stay with this rotation for a little while longer.
Another big bench factor Sunday, and for this home stand and home stretch, was Rudy Fernandez. Rudy seems to play the best when he is just on the edge of being totally out of control. He doesn’t have a gear other than full speed. This can be bad, leading to poor shots and turnovers on offense and missed assignments on defense, but when it works it can often be the difference maker. Rudy produced one of Sunday’s most memorable plays, chasing a loose ball into the first row of court side seats, turning a leaping save into a fast break layup for Gerald Wallace, and showed with that play one of the reasons everybody wants him to stay in Portland. Hopefully he took to heart the “Rudy” cheers coming from the upper deck in the third quarter. Rudy’s energy helped Portland take an 18-point lead into the night’s final frame, taking some of the tension out the game’s last 12 minutes.
Beyond those three, LaMarcus Aldridge and Andre Miller once again showed why they have become Portland’s leaders. Miller didn’t have the best line of the night, but he managed to keep the Blazers to their game plan, and help to control the tempo all night long. If there is one overarching reason that Dallas should not want to meet Portland in the first round, it’s the play of LaMarcus Aldridge. It was in the Blazers’ loss to Dallas in the Big D that LA began to show that he might be able to fulfill his nearly unlimited potential, and yet again on Sunday, the Mavericks basically couldn’t stop LaMarcus at all. LA’s numbers on Sunday weren’t as stellar as they were in Portland’s previous match ups with Dallas, 28 and 10 and 30 and eight respectively, but again his jumper was fluid, and he had no trouble taking Brendan Haywood to the hoop. Haywood was playing because of the late scratch of Tyson Chandler. Chandler will be back when the Playoffs start, but LaMarcus has shown that he has the Mavericks’ number.
So once again, Portland had five guys put together solid games, but that wasn’t all. Wesley Matthews had a big offensive night, which always helps, Marcus Camby crashed the boards and made it hard for Dallas to score at the rim, and Brandon Roy looked a little bit more comfortable running the back-up point. Matthews is a tough read. His offense can be a tad inconsistent, but his defensive energy is there most nights. When he gets his looks early he is usually at his best. Sunday, half of his 16 points came at the free throw line, and none of them came from beyond the arc. That means he was attacking the basket. In my opinion that’s a good thing. We all know that Portland has the unfortunate disposition of falling in love with the jump shot.
Marcus Camby isn’t a hard read at all. He works hard when he’s on the floor, and there’s little more that can be asked of him. Chris Johnson saw the floor early in Sunday’s game, which was an interesting move. It might have been a prelude of sorts, as Nate probably thinks keeping at least some length on the floor at all times will help Portland in the Playoffs.
The real mystery in Portland’s lineup right now is Brandon Roy. He’s had some off nights, to say the least, and he has been pretty darn good at other times. Sunday, he was neither bad nor great. That might be the best we can hope for on a nightly basis at this point. Running the backup point guard for the most part, Roy took nine shots, and hit three of them. Nine shots is not enough for Brandon to get big scoring numbers, but obviously if his jumper is as bad as it has been the last week or so, keeping Brandon from shooting Portland out of a game is more important than trying to get his shooting numbers back to 08-09 levels.
The Roy situation is a bit of a paradox, and more than a little puzzling. He continues to say that he feels fine, although it’s clear at times that his movement, especially from side to side and up and down, is limited. I am for Roy as the backup point guard if it’s being done because the coaching staff thinks that’s the best way for Portland to keep winning. I’m against it if it’s simply a ploy to keep him on the court. If the latter is true, and not the former, I would implore Nate to go back to Patty Mills, at least a little bit, push the pace, and have Brandon follow Rudy off the bench. To me, it doesn’t look like Brandon’s offensive game is getting better. He does appear to be facilitating more when he’s on the court, but he slows the game down, and is frankly a liability on defense.
Having Nicolas on the floor with the second unit helps Brandon, Nicolas being another offensive weapon as opposed to Marcus Camby who is not, so if Nate stays with Nic as sixth man, I can probably come around to Brandon at the backup point. I just don’t think it’s a good long term solution.
As I said earlier, Portland’s magic number is one. That one could be as soon as Tuesday, when the Blazers are back at the Rose Garden on Tuesday to face one of the only two non-Playoff teams left on the Blazers’ schedule, the Golden State Warriors.
That’s it, enjoy the rest of your Sunday.