Tuesday night was close to the worst we’ve seen of these Portland Trail Blazers, and I’m sure more than one Blazer fan was wringing their hands, thinking that right now is exactly the wrong time for a team that’s been playing well to fall flat on their collective face. Thursday was not Portland at their best, not by a long shot, but hopefully it was enough of a game to reassure the faithful that this team isn’t going to pack it in and just wait for the second season to start.
By beating Utah in Utah for the second time in 2010-11, Portland moved once again from the seventh seed in the Western Conference to the sixth seed, at least until the Hornets play another game. But more than that, this team showed that they can pull their heads out after failing to show up, and put the hammer down on an inferior opponent. Come Playoff time, the opponents won’t be inferior, but there might be a night or two in which the Blazers drop a close game or a hard fought game. The difference between the first round and the second round could likely be not dwelling on hard loses.
The difference between the first and second rounds might also be Brandon Roy. We know now that Brandon is merely a percentage of his old self, whether or not he returns to something resembling his All-Star level remains to be seen and in my opinion is irrelevant at this point, but his play my very likely determine if Portland advances for the first time in three seasons. It won’t be because he blows a team out all by himself, that’s for sure, but if he can come out two or three times in a seven game series and play solid, productive minutes, that could be huge for the Blazers.
Tuesday Brandon was down right awful, as bad as he’s probably ever been in his professional career. Thursday, Brandon was not great, but he was steady. I’m sure it helped that he was able to knock down some shots early, and establish something of a rhythm. Brandon’s 11 points was his best offensive performance in the last four games, and his second best evening since going for 21 against Dallas in his “comeback” game. Eleven from Brandon isn’t exactly parade worthy numbers, but if he can stay consistently at that level going forward he might just be able to help Portland more than he hurts Portland. One stat that should probably make Brandon and every Blazer fan happy was his shooting. Hitting five of eight from the field is a lot better than 2-of-11.
Brandon stands out as important for the Playoff picture basically because at this point we know what we’re going to get from everybody else on the roster. And that’s a good thing. Nicolas Batum has been probably his most consistent in his last four outings, going for 15 back-to-back nights, and 19 the night before that. Thursday, Nic lead the way most of the night, scoring 21 points, and attacking the rim pretty effectively. I’ve said it many times, but Nicolas has the length and athleticism to be a fierce slasher, plus he’s pretty close to automatic from the line so fouling him isn’t really an option. Nic’s J is coming along too. Put those two things together, and he is going to be dangerous.
Another dangerous Blazer, and the Blazer that has done the most to put Portland over the top on this push to the post season, is of course Gerald Wallace. Tuesday, Crash did everything that needed to be done to keep Utah at arms length when they were running in the third quarter, and slam the door on them in the fourth. Wallace can defend two or three positions, and cleans up the boards on offense and defense. All of this has of course be said many times. One thing that gets plenty of ink too, but probably could use a little more, is what Wallace brings to this team with his offense. He’s an exceptional finisher in both the open court and in the half court, and suddenly he can knock down threes. Crash was 4-of-6 from deep Thursday, and looked like he was feeling pretty comfortable putting up the deep ball. Like Nicolas, if Crash can consistently hit from the field, he’s going to have a much easier time attacking the basket.
Wallace and Batum were the stories offensively for the Blazers Thursday night, combing for 50 points, but the real story looking down the road is going to be just how versatile Portland has become on offense. In the past, the Blazers have often relied on one player to get hot and lead the team. It was Brandon forever, and then LaMarcus most of this season. Right now, Portland can realistically put five guys in double figures in scoring every night. In five out of Portland’s last six wins, dating back to March 22nd’s blowout of the Washington Wizards, the Blazers have had at least five players reach double figures in scoring. It’s not always the same five, although most nights LaMarcus Aldridge and Gerald Wallace are all but sure things, and that makes it even more impressive. With so many offensive weapons, Portland can become a very hard team to scout and prepare for.
A caveat to that is that the Blazers’ offense comes primarily from jump shooters, meaning they can all go cold, and then a hot team can drop an important game at home by double figures to one of the teams in the bottom half of the conference. It’s a risky bet to say that Portland’s shooting problems will go away once the league is down to its final 16 teams. It’s one that Portland is going to have take, but it’s also one that is improved by guys like Nicolas Batum and Gerald Wallace that can, and do attack the rim.
Mike Prada over at SBNation wrote earlier today that Portland may not be, as Chris Webber so boldly stated, the one team that could pull a first round upset. In his piece he stated that one of Portland’s problems is their inability to consistently get to the line. All in all, the Blazers are pretty good free throw shooters. If they can up their time spent at the charity stripe they can really improve their Playoff chances. Thursday, Portland shot 19 free throws. Not a ton, but getting those free points can really help this team a lot. It can also be the difference between a mediocre game and a good game. Case in point, Wesley Matthews.
Wesley has struggled some over the last few nights. Thursday, he was a quiet 4-of-7 from the field. But his 8-of-8 from the line gave him some good scoring numbers overall. Wesley is the kind of player that benefits the most from getting getting free throws. He needs to see some shots fall to build confidence in his often streaky jumper. Wesley doesn’t have the length of Batum or Wallace, but he isn’t lacking at all for athleticism, he has shown that he can take the ball inside and absorb some pretty serious hits. Getting to the cup, and then to the line, is one way that Matthews can really help Portland finish the season strong, and start strong in the Playoffs.
There’s no rest for these Blazers, as they’ll be back in action tomorrow night against the defending NBA Champion Los Angeles Lakers.
Just a couple quick things:
- Rudy Fernandez struggled mightily Thursday night. Rudy was 0-of-4 from the field, 0-of-3 from deep, and played only 13 and a half minutes. Fernandez is prone to slumps, and is just as prone to blowing out of a slump with a big offensive night. The one good thing about Rudy; he knows well that the best way for a shooter to get hot is to shoot. He might hit the side of the backboard now and then, as he did Tuesday against the Warriors, but at some point those shots are going to go in. Maybe the Laker game will be the one.
- In the middle of TNT’s broadcast of Thursday’s game, color commentator, and former player Reggie Miller mentioned Portland’s historic meltdown in the Western Conference Finals in 2000. I’m only mentioning it here to say that Reggie, who brought it up to explain how he had to change his scouting of those Finals in order to prepare for Shaq, Kobe, and the Lakers, received some harsh words, that he most likely did not hear, from a large number of people that I follow on Twitter. If you think that this is a fan base that forgets about stuff, well you’d be wrong.