So after 81 games in a grueling, injury plagued season, the Portland Trail Blazers have earned the right to play a single meaningless game. It doesn’t matter that they got there by winning a mostly uninspired contest against a team that for some reason seems content with simply making the Playoffs and not trying to better their lot, evidenced by the conspicuous absence of two major players. And it doesn’t matter that maybe a win or two back in February or way back in November might have meant that these last few nights could have been off nights for Portland’s starters that have logged major major minutes due to the Blazers’ utter lack of a bench. What matters is they’ve done it. They’re in. They’ve locked up the sixth seed, and signs are pointing to their first round opponent being the Dallas Mavericks.
Take a deep breath, Blazer fans. We’ve made it this far, we’ve got some more left still, and like Portland’s big minutes players –hopefully– we’ve bought ourselves one in 82 games that regardless of the outcome does not matter. Feels pretty good, if I do say so myself.
Tuesday’s will not be a game tape that needs to be saved, but it wasn’t exactly a gamer to toss out either. Coach Nate McMillan could definitely show his guys the first half of Tuesday night’s game as an example of how not to put a team away. Rumors started hitting Twitter with about 20 minutes to tip that everyday players Tony Allen and Zach Randolph were likely to be held out of the lineup. The speculation was such, that as both teams took the Rose Garden floor and began warming up their was some question as to whether or not Z-Bo was even in the building. This was a big game for Memphis, a win would have moved them up a place, but for whatever reason, Grizz head coach Lionel Hollins decided to validate those early rumors, sitting both Allen and Randolph. Zach we know, and know well, and his scoring in the paint was very much missed for the visiting team. Allen was never a Blazer, of course, so his game might not be as recognizable to the causal fan. He’s a defensive minded player, with NBA Championship experience, and a top-flight crazy streak. His toughness and intensity has been the spark that has pushed Memphis into the Playoffs. His toughness did little from the end of the bench on Tuesday. Say whatever you want about Hollins’ coaching, but Tuesday, Portland looked almost too stunned to play against parts of the Grizzlies’ second unit. A game that should have been over early was knotted at 45 at the break. The Blazers limped into the locker room following an 18-point second quarter, and it looked like Tuesday was shaping up to be a dreaded trap game.
The third quarter started like the second quarter ended, but Portland was able to right the ship mid-way through. I’m sure there were plenty of Blazer fans that felt like me, inasmuch as believing that all Portland really needed was to string some baskets together, get a couple of stops, and Tuesday’s game would effectively be over. After all, the Blazer were playing most of the second half against guys like Hamad Haddadi, and Ish Smith. You can be forgiven if you don’t know either of those guys. Enter the aforementioned righting of the ship. Portland’s turn around was led by Gerald Wallace, which at this point is to be expected, and by Rudy Fernandez, which was less expected but very much appreciated.
Rudy’s slump has been long and well documented. He was reaching the point, even early Tuesday, when he wasn’t even looking to shoot. Gerald Wallace led the charge in the third period by chasing down a couple of loose balls, and by finishing at the rim, common practice for Crash, and Rudy delivered the knockout blow in the fourth by hitting some threes, scoring in the lane, and converting from the free throw line. Rudy’s line on the night: 5-of-6 from the field, 4-of-5 from three, and 4-of-5 from the line for a total of 18 points. Pretty great considering in his last few nights he has been less than stellar; 0,0, and 2 against the Lakers, Jazz, and Warriors in reverse chronological order. Rudy’s four threes were his most made deep balls since the 25th of February. Rudy’s shooting is a huge asset to this team, and if he has really gotten his stroke back, it’s happening at just the right time. If there is one guy that doesn’t need a night off against Golden State on Wednesday, it’s Rudy. Nate should give him 40 minutes, and tell him to put up at least 40 shots. That’s how you break a slump.
Rudy’s offense wasn’t the only positive from Tuesday night. Nicolas Batum also came to play. Combined with Rudy, that almost constitutes a bench. Nic’s 16 and Rudy’s 18 helped the Blazer bench win the scoring battle against their Memphis counterparts. Yes, two guys don’t make a bench, and if there is any serious chink in Portland’s armor it is their depth, or lack thereof, but having two guys that can provide offense against a second unit is going to be big when the games start to matter again. Plus both Nic and Rudy have played crunch time minutes, and big minutes. Don’t be surprised if come next week, with Portland in the thick of a tough game, coach McMillan has the fortitude to ride the hot shooting of one of these two guys.
For the most part, once the Blazers got through the first half doldrums, Tuesday turned into some what of a smooth sail. That, coupled with the fact that Portland can move neither up nor down in the standings the rest of the way, and there is some rest on the horizon for this visibly tired team. The question is, who gets it, and how much do they get. LaMarcus Aldridge is a likely candidate for time off, as is Marcus Camby. LaMarcus has played close to the most minutes in a season of any Blazer ever. Camby is still one bad fall away from being done for the year. Gerald Wallace, Andre Miller, and Wesley Matthews have avoided injury thus far, knock on wood, and sitting any of those three ensures they hit the Playoffs in the free and clear. Brandon Roy could benefit from rest, as could Nicolas Batum. Basically the only players that don’t need rest are bench guys. The problem is, to a man, every Blazer that was asked post game about Wednesday’s match up in the Bay said they were playing. As a fan, you got to love the desire to play every game. But as a Blazer fan, you’ve got to know that the next injury could be just around the corner. I’m not trying to jinx the team, but anybody that watched Tuesday’s Lakers/Spurs game saw Andrew Bynum mess up his already messed up knee and probably couldn’t help but think the line on LA winning it all just got a little worse.
For now though, we can all enjoy knowing where the Blazers stand going into the Playoffs, and we can all congratulate ourselves on making it this far. And on keeping the faith.
The Blazers close out the regular season Wednesday night in Oakland against the Golden State Warriors.
Just one quick note:
- Writer Wendell Maxey, founder of Beyond the Beat, contributor to ESPN.com’s Page 2, and former writer for HOOPSWorld Magazine, is leaving Portland to move with his family to Germany. Wendell is a totally awesome guy, and his staff over at Beyond the Beat provide a lot of great coverage not just of the Blazers but of all relevant Northwest sports. If you are a regular reader of this blog and you haven’t checked out Beyond the Beat do it now or soon because when Wendell heads out it will be no more. Follow Wendell on Twitter, if you don’t already, and give him a shout out. I’m sure he’ll have some interesting stuff from across the pond in no time at all. Check out his staff as well, they’re all on Twitter and are great writers one and all. Here’s a link to a recent piece Wendell did on local Portland resident and former NBA player Terrell Brandon. Wendell’s been a great asset to the Blazer beat, a good friend to me and all the other writers covering this team, and we’ll miss him until he comes back.