Thursday night was one part homecoming, one part retribution and re-birth, and one part welcoming party. It was loud in the Rose Garden, as it should be. Shots that were missing in Dallas were falling, as they should be. Bounces and whistles were going in Portland’s favor, hard to say about that one. And ultimately what matters, after all the drama and ups and downs of the last 48 hours ended with game three’s final horn, is that the Blazers got on the board. The question is, of course, is it going to be enough?
The series is now 2-1, and will definitely not be over on Saturday. That much we know. And to be honest, that’s about all we know. In games one and two, Portland struggled to get in a rhythm offensively, and failed miserably at guarding the perimeter. Thursday wasn’t that much different. The Blazer are still leaving shooters open around the three-point line, they are still giving up the lane way too easily, and they are still fouling Dirk Nowitzki in the fourth quarter. That’s the story on defense.
Offensively it’s not that much different. Portland’s starters are playing well, for the most part. LaMarcus is consistently scoring in the post and with his jumper; 27 in game one, 24 in game two, and 20 Thursday. Andre Miller is dictating the flow of the offense when he’s on the floor, and is able to do what he wants against JJ Barea and to a lesser extent Jason Kidd. Other than that though, Portland hasn’t been able to get into the type of offensive flow that we were getting used to seeing in the final games of the regular season. Gerald Wallace hasn’t had a great offensive game yet; Nicolas Batum and Rudy Fernandez have been virtually non-existent. Those three guys are important elements in the Blazers limited offensive arsenal, and Thursday they combined for 14 points, and that’s including a goose egg from Rudy.
So what was the difference Thursday night? That’s the real question, and that’s what Portland’s coaching staff have to figure out before Saturday afternoon if they want this momentum to carry over so they can head back to Dallas with this series tied up and an outside chance of getting a shot to finish it at the Rose Garden. It’s hard to say where the differences are between loses in game one and game two, and a win in game three. Here’s what I think. First, it starts with the home crowd, it carries over to doing the little things, and it ends with some good execution and a little bit of luck.
Beginning with the home crowd. The Rose Garden is known around the league for being one of the loudest arenas, and for being one of the most difficult places for opposing teams to play. The home crowd was jacked up Thursday night, and it was never more clear than at the 2:17 mark in the first quarter when Brandon Roy checked into the game for the first time. There’s no need to get into the Brandon Roy situation. It’s been covered. However, all the speculation in the world led up to this moment when he entered the game. Everybody probably remembers game four of last year’s Playoff series with the Suns, when Brandon returned basically a week after having knee surgery, and led the Blazers to a victory. That game Brandon entered the game to the theme song from Rocky, and there was not a person in the Rose Garden that wasn’t totally screaming their head off. Thursday was a completely different situation, and you could be forgiven if, like me, you were somewhat unsure of what the home crowd’s reaction to their franchise player was going to be.
We know the end result, a standing ovation, and we know what it did for Brandon Roy. In 24 minutes, Brandon hit 6-of-10 from the field, 1-of-3 from three, and 3-of-3 from the line. He also played with the type of confidence that has been sorely lacking in his game the last few months. At one point he broke Peja Stojakovic’s ankles in a manner I have never seen from Brandon before. We can’t make the mistake of saying that he’s back, or that this saga is now over, because we all know it isn’t, but I will say this, I was in the building and in the locker room following Brandon’s 52-point beauty against the Phoenix Suns in 2008-09, and though he wasn’t as fired up Thursday as he was that night, I would say, demeanor wise only, he was as close to that level as I’ve seen him all year. For a guy like Brandon, confidence level makes all the difference in the world.
So hyperbole aside, Brandon was the night’s retribution and re-birth. The welcoming party, as you may have been able to guess, was for Chris Johnson. D-League Defensive Player of the Year Chris Johnson. And this brings me to doing the little things. This means little things like roster or rotation tweaks, bringing in a guy on defense that I can guarantee these Mavericks know very little about, and it also means little things like running out on shooters, and limiting offensive rebounds. Chris Johnson played all of five minutes and thirty-six seconds, but it may have been the best five minutes and thirty-six seconds any one player has had in the NBA all season. In those five minutes and change Johnson snagged three rebounds, and blocked two shots. He also changed at least two or three more shots, and basically scared Dallas out of the paint on offense. The best part about Johnson is that he is not an offensive player. In a seven game series, an offensive player can get hot and win a game for their team, Peja, and then a team can adjust to take that offensive player away, Peja’s line Thursday was 3-of-7 from the field, 1-of-4 from deep for seven points. But a defensive player, like Chris Johnson, is harder to adjust to. Dallas can try to make him defend Dirk, which he might not be able to do one-on-one, but that’s about it. Johnson’s not going to start game four, of course, but don’t be surprised if we see some more of him. Dallas doesn’t have bruisers in the post positions, so his size is not really an issue, and with the Mavs best penetrating players all being short guards, Jason Terry, Barea, and Jason Kidd, the length of Chris Johnson on the weak side could potentially be a game changer.
The final difference between Thursday’s win, and the loses in Dallas, in my opinion comes down to execution and a bit of luck. Execution in the first quarter came in the form of Wesley Matthews going absolute bananas from behind the arc. It’s not uncommon in the Rose Garden to see Wesley knock down his first couple three-point attempts. Thursday he took it one step further, hitting his first four. Wesley took his third and fourth three without evening thinking about it. He’s the kind of player that can get hot in a hurry, and he’s also the kind of player that knows when they’re hot, demands the ball, and does good things with it. Wesley set a career Playoff high with 25 points, and better yet, got the offensive monkey off his back. Execution came late on the defensive end. Portland’s defense wasn’t great most of the game, but in the second half the Blazers tightened down a notch or two, and got the stops they needed. A lot of credit for that goes to Chris Johnson. I know that just about six minutes percentage-wise isn’t that much of a basketball game, but his energy and effort on D in the third and fourth quarter made his teammates play better, more focused defense.
And then there is a bit of luck. Dallas misses 10 free throws, Jason Kidd keeps thinking he’s hot from deep and shoots 2-of-8 from three, a Jason Kidd three with 12.9 remaining is ruled a two, Tyson Chandler fouls out, Jason Terry gets only three shot attempts in the fourth quarter. Those are the kinds of breaks Portland didn’t get in Dallas, and they were just what this team needed to get one step closer to evening the series.
So what does Portland have to do to get Saturday’s game, and start this series over in Dallas? First, they have to get offense from Gerald Wallace, Nicolas Batum, and Rudy Fernandez. Second, they have to continue to push the pace on offense. Third, they have to play Saturday as if it too were an elimination game. And finally, maybe most importantly, they have to believe they can play better. The Mavericks aren’t going to roll over, not with the chance to avoid having to come back to Portland to get a game six. The Blazers have yet to put together a flawless 48 minutes, and they’ve lost two close games and won one equally close game. Saturday will be close yet again, if Portland has any chance at winning this series, they have to bring to Saturday’s game the good things that came out of Thursday’s game. And above all, they have to win.
Just a few quick things:
- The people at Penguin Books were kind enough to send me a couple of copies of Blazer owner Paul Allen’s new book. I have few copies to give away, and I will most likely be doing that on Saturday at the game. Send me a direct message on Twitter, but please wait until Saturday, and I’ll see what I can do. Just so everybody knows ahead of time, I only have four copies to give away.
- Brandon Roy’s comments in the press following Portland’s game two loss stirred a lot of interest around the league. This story is tailor made for Internet coverage, plenty of intrigue, lots of room for opinions, and no shortage of quotes to fuel the discussion. At this point, since so much has been said, I feel my personal opinion is pretty irrelevant, but Holly Mackenzie over at the Basketball Jones does a pretty good job of saying what I would probably say on the matter.
- Dallas owner Mark Cuban got in a shouting match with some Blazer fans late in Thursday’s game. Reports are unconfirmed as to whether or not those people hurling insults at Cuban wrote about basketball on the Internet.