There is almost no doubt that what is going to be said by the Lakers, and those around the team, following their mostly blow-out loss to the once again hot Portland Trail Blazers will be in the vein of, “this game didn’t matter,” or more likely, “they needed this one more than we did.” Don’t buy it Blazer fans. This LA team was the hottest in the league following the All-Star break, and the talk among those that get paid to talk was that there was a pretty good chance that the Lakers were going to catch the San Antonio Spurs, and make themselves the number one seed in the Western Conference.
A three, now four, game losing streak later, and LA is the number two, and can do no better. Portland is the six, with a chance to fall to the seven with a loss. Falling to seven means a first round date with these same Lakers. One more loss in 2010-11 to the Lakers, and it would have been a clean sweep of Portland by LA on the season. Now tell me that getting a chance to play a team in the first round of the Playoffs that you’ve beaten every time you’ve met this season isn’t something to fight for. Sure, before the game there were whispers that for whatever reason the Lakers wanted to avoid the Blazers just as much as the Blazers wanted no part of LA. Speculation being speculation, some were even hinting that the Lakers might go so far as to take a dive Friday night, all but ensuring Portland will face Dallas in the first round. That makes no sense to me, seeing as the Lakers out seven-footer the Blazers three to one, and guessing by the way LA played down the stretch, that logic made no sense to them either.
I’ve said all that to say this. Portland beating LA on Friday mattered both to the Blazers and the Lakers. And although it wasn’t start to finish the best game of the season, it might just go down as one of the marquee wins, and one of the crowning achievements of this team in this season.
How did Portland beat the team that will most likely be the favorite of all the pundits when the Playoffs start? Well, first of all the Lakers played a little uninspired, a little loose down the stretch, and spent too much time picking fights, throwing elbows, and watching Kobe. All negative indicators for that team’s Playoff run, but all little things that Portland took advantage of.
As important, or more important depending on how you feel, as the poor play of the Lakers was the early execution of the Blazers. Yes Portland flagged at the end of the game and at the end of the first half, and that should cause fans to worry some and I’ll get to it shortly, but for the most part, when the Blazers were executing their game plan they controlled the game, and controlled the Lakers. That game plan was unique, showing that maybe this team does have a few wrinkles yet; run. Run, run, and run. For 79 games Portland has not been a fast break team. For one game they were. The Blazers outscored the Lakers on the fast break 20 to 6. When you’re outsized the way Portland was Friday night, Marcus Camby was held out for the second straight game due to a lingering neck/back injury, the way to counteract the mismatches underneath is to make the big guys run. The Blazers had Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol running from end-to-end, and when Portland had their biggest lead of the night they did it all on the fast break.
Who knows if the Blazers will turn into a fast break team for this Playoff run, but when you’ve got a guy that handles the ball in the open court like Andre Miller, and guys that can run the floor like Gerald Wallace, Nicolas Batum, and LaMarcus Aldridge, I don’t see a single reason why this team couldn’t adopt a “seven seconds or less” style. Or maybe a more conservative, Nate McMillan-esque “10 to 12 seconds or less” style.
I’ll use that to segue to the other main reason the Blazers were victorious on Friday; the play of the starting five. All five Blazer starters scored at least 12 points. Miller, Wallace, and Batum were phenomenal in the open court. LaMarcus got as many lob dunks as he possibly could. And Wesley Matthews came up with his share of big buckets. This group can play with any starting five in the league, and can beat most. Add Marcus Camby back to the mix, sending Batum back to the sixth man role, and Western Conference Playoff teams have every reason to be scared.
Among this group, Gerald Wallace once again emerged as Portland’s best all-around threat. Crash was all over the place, a few times even up in the face of notorious crazy person Ron Artest, and had a magnificent stat line. Wallace finished with 19 points, 13 rebounds, and seven assists, made it clear to everybody that he spoke for the team when he said post game that he wasn’t afraid of the Lakers, and was treated to a “Gerald Wallace” cheer. There’s no doubt that this guy wants to win a Playoff series for this Blazer team.
Andre Miller and LaMarcus Aldridge both had fantastic nights. Dre almost had more assists than the entire LA roster, 13 for Andre 14 for Los Angeles, and LaMarcus matched the offense output of Kobe Bryant with 24 points, leading the team.Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum hit big threes late, and added buckets to extend runs and end dry spells. Matthews finished with 18 points, Nic with 13, providing the offense in the game’s closing minutes that stopped LA’s final run.
So, like I said, the starters were good. Unfortunately, the bench for Portland was not good. Rudy Fernandez, Brandon Roy, Patty Mills, and Chris Johnson finished with seven points between the four of them, hitting 3-of-15 from the field. Rudy and Patty were not just off, a combined 1-of-8 and 0-of-5 from deep. Brandon was a little better. He knocked down a three, and hit a jumper. More importantly, he played nearly 30 minutes and didn’t turn the ball over a single time. The second unit was almost Portland’s Kryptonite. The Blazer offense had absolutely no punch when the lineup was Roy, Fernandez, Mills, Johnson, and Batum or Aldridge. If the Lakers had stolen Friday’s game, it would have happened when this unit was on the floor. Case in point, every Portland starter had a +\- of positive double figures. Patty and Rudy were both minus double digits, Johnson was -8, Roy was an even zero. Bringing Camby back and having Nic be the first man off the bench might change the offensive nature of the second unit, but this team has to get better, and more consistent production off the bench. That’s going to have to start with Rudy snapping out of his current funk. The last few games he’s looked very bad; Friday he seemed to have no confidence in his stroke, attempting only two shots in 15 and a half minutes. The Blazers need to get more than that out of Rudy.
Overall, though, most of what can be taken away from Friday’s game is positive, very positive. Portland took some shots from the champs, including a crazy stretch at the end of the first half when it seemed like Kobe couldn’t miss from beyond the three-point line, and they didn’t fold. Not only that, they might have played themselves into a favorable Playoff position. New Orleans has Memphis, Utah, and Dallas left. If they lose more than one of those games, the Blazers should have a solid lock on the sixth seed. Portland still has Golden State in the Bay, and Memphis in the RG before that though. The best way to get Dallas, easily the ideal match up for the Blazers all things considered, is to keep winning. The best way to get a winning streak going is beat the Lakers. So far, mission accomplished.
Portland’s final home game is next Tuesday against the Grizzlies.
Just a few things:
- The Memphis Grizzlies clinched the final Playoff spot in the West with a victory Friday night over the Sacramento Kings. Memphis is in the Playoffs for the first time since the end of the Pau Gasol era. Having clinched a Playoff birth, Tuesday’s game will not be as important as it otherwise might have been, but expect it to be a good prelude to the Playoffs. These seeds have still not been decided.
- Ron Artest did basically everything he could to incite Gerald Wallace late in Friday’s fourth quarter. Artest is of course not sane. I can only imagine what kind of antics he’ll get up to should Portland and LA end up meeting in the first round of the Playoffs. I would take Crash over Artest in a fist fight, but for pure ability to turn psychotic behavior into big time play, there is nobody quite like Artest. Ron Ron was not good from the field until the game’s last few minutes. At which point, following his few tussles with Wallace, Ron nailed back-to-back threes, and put the Lakers well within striking distance with plenty of time remaining on the clock for Portland to choke. The Blazers avoided yet another collapse to the Lakers, but just imagine how jacked up Artest will get once the Playoffs start. For everybody’s sake, you hope which ever player Ron decides to try and goad in the Playoffs can hold their ground like Wallace did Friday night. Artest can rattle a player better than anyone, and never ever seems to get rattled himself. Probably because he knows just exactly how crazy he is.
- I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a +/- of 0, like Brandon Roy had Friday night. Sure the +/- is dubious at best, but hitting that zero mark might be just what Brandon should go for. He’s not the go-to guy anymore, at least not for right now, but he also isn’t doing anything to derail the team.
- Greg Oden was featured momentarily on Friday’s TV broadcast. GO is not the most outgoing individual when it comes to talking on camera, especially since he’s been relegated to the background all season, and his interview was of course not very sunny. Greg mentioned the possibility of it being five months before he could do basketball stuff again. That’s a long time, longer than the off season, and it isn’t what anybody wants to hear. What’s good to hear, and to see, is that Greg is taking a long view. The team has said that he’s part of the future plans, as he probably should be. No doubt it will help him mentally to think about coming back as being a process, with many steps that need to be completed, so that when he does step back on the court, which he will, we’ll get a season’s worth of games, or two or three or four season’s worth of games, out of him.