I’m not going to blame this loss on the officiating, but I’d really like to. Makes sense, though, that when one team shoots 35 free throws, and the other team shoots 19 free throws, and that when the team with a +12 free throw differential wins by 11, there’s a significant possibility that the uneven whistles may have played some role, however insignificant, in the game’s final outcome. Having said that, though, someone was sage enough to point out on Twitter during what my be Portland’s final road game of the season that referees don’t miss open jumpers. For that matter, referees don’t completely fail at crashing the defensive glass. And they also didn’t lose game five for Portland. They helped, but the Blazers have only themselves to blame for pushing their chances for a road win in the opening round of the Playoffs to the very last possible moment.
But here’s my thing, I’m OK with it. Blazer fans, be honest, this season should be over. I was right there with you when Portland was getting run out of their own building only to comeback in historical fashion. This team is playing with house money right now. You think for a second Dallas believes they can win a game in the Rose Garden? Dirk Nowitzki, following his team’s monumental collapse in game four pointed to the fact that Dallas has two shots at Portland in Dallas. As if to say it’s a foregone conclusion that this series is going the distance. Dallas knows, and Portland knows, the Blazers going in to Monday’s game had two shots left at the Mavericks in Big D. They missed shot number one. That’s all.
Saturday was amazing. The most incredible thing I’ve seen on a basketball court, the most incredible thing many people have ever seen on a basketball court. But here’s the thing, Saturday never ended. Videos were popping up even today, twos days later, on the Internet of Brandon Roy’s heroics that made sure game five was not an elimination game. Hell, 95.5 replayed the fourth quarter call by Brian Wheeler as a lead-in to Monday’s pre-game show. Why am I bringing this up? Because the message is very mixed. On the one hand, Portland, and it’s fans, are supposed to forget Saturday. But that’s the centerpiece of this series until it’s over. Portland’s season ticket folks have even built a new advertisement using footage from Saturday. How are we supposed to get over it? Losing helps.
Here’s the other thing, winning game four puts pressure on Dallas, but really only in the existential sense. The Mavericks are owners of a few historic Playoff collapses, and losing a 23-point lead will get tacked on to that resume even if they go on to close this series out and advance to the next round. What has me confused is, how can a game be both a back-breaker and a motivator at the same time? The NBA is all about narrative, especially the Playoffs which live off of slow motion replays played over intense instrumentals and ambient crowd noise. But in this case, the narrative is a little confused. How was game five Portland’s best chance to steal and game in Dallas if it’s also Dallas’s best chance to send a message to the Blazers that winning two close games at home does not somehow make them the favorite?
I guess I’m skirting the point here a little bit. Saturday was just a basketball game. It was amazing, incredibly memorable, and could still end up being the beginning of the next chapter in the history of Brandon Roy. But after all of that it was still just one game. Monday is the same. Portland had a lead early in the first half, and couldn’t capitalize, and then faded away down the stretch. Portland didn’t win the series on Saturday. Dallas didn’t win it on Monday. The best thing about winning game four, better than the play of Brandon Roy or the atmosphere at the Rose Garden or anything Brian Wheeler screamed over the airwaves, is that it guaranteed that this series would have to pass through Portland one more time before it was all over. If Portland can win at home, and they should feel supremely confident that they can, then Dallas/Portland round one Western Conference Playoffs 2011 really is a one game series. In one basketball game anything can happen. Just ask Brandon Roy.
So what does Portland need to do to win game six, and then win game seven. Well, first off they need to believe that they can do both those things. Saturday the Blazers played on sheer will for most of the fourth quarter, and when Dallas finally realized what was going on it was way too late. Monday, Dallas played like a confident team down the stretch. They attacked the basket hard, and sold out to get foul calls. They crashed the boards on defense and on offense. And most of all, when they put up shots they were surprised when they missed, not overcome with shock and awe when the actually went in.
The Blazers need to play like that. Yes, Dallas has been the better team five times in five games, but that’s mostly because Portland has not played very well. Except for the majority of game three, the Blazers have been out of synch most nights on offense. Portland’s best offensive sets in the regular season involved getting the ball in low to LaMarcus Aldridge, and hitting perimeter shots. I can understand LA not wanting to go inside and get abused when the refs were only calling fouls on Portland, but Wesley Matthews has lived from behind the three-point line all season. Remember game three, when he couldn’t miss in the first quarter? What’s changed in his game? My guess is confidence. If he makes his first three, he usually makes his first couple threes. If he misses, or worse doesn’t get a shot off until late in the first half, then it can be a long night. Nicolas Batum is the same. Monday he played better on offense than he has for awhile, but he needs to find some consistency in game six. Nic had one possession in the first half in which he backed down JJ Barea that showed he has the ability to make that part of his game, but he only did it once. Nic made a great move to lose Dirk on the perimeter and get a good look at a three, which he hit, but again, he only did that the one time. Nicolas contributing on offense is a new wrinkle this season, but the Playoffs are not the time to revert to not being an offensive weapon.
The most unfortunate part of Monday’s loss came early, and may have all Blazer fans thinking about what might have been should the Blazers get bounced from the Playoffs later in the week. Gerald Wallace, who hasn’t yet been a factor on offense, came out fired up, got a couple early buckets and a couple early defensive stops, then picked up his second foul. Those minutes on the bench took Crash out of his game. The auto bench after two first quarter fouls is something that gets talked about a lot, especially in situations where one or both of the color commentators in a national broadcast used to be coaches. Some say don’t do it. How often do you see a guy pick up two quick fouls, get benched, play fewer than normal minutes, and finish with only two or three fouls for the night having been rendered completely ineffective in his time on the court? Wallace finished the game with four fouls and a respectable 16 points, but he never found the energy he was showing in the game’s opening quarter. Coach Nate McMillan is conventional from top to bottom, but I wouldn’t mind seeing him buck his usual behavior, especially if it means keeping the one high energy guy in a Blazer jersey out on the floor. Wallace’s offense is going to be an indicator of how game six goes. A big game from Crash and Portland wins. An inconsistent game, and it’s gone fishin’ time.
One last thing that I think Portland should do in game six; mix it up a little. It could be the last game of a crazy season. It will be on the home court and you know the crowd will be at 12 all night. Play Chris Johnson and Marcus Camby at the same time, that seemed to work. Get out and run. Get up in Mark Cuban’s face. Anything to get the edge. It will be on Nate to make those calls, but if he wants his team to have a real shot at the next round, it’s going to take some kind of something that wasn’t present Monday night.
Portland plays what might be it’s final game of the season on Thursday, at an as yet undetermined time.
Couple of quick thoughts:
- Brandon Roy was not the savior of game five, shooting 2-of-7 from the field for five points in 26 minutes. It was unfair to expect that Brandon was going to have the kind of game Monday that he did Friday, although he did hit a jumper early in the fourth quarter that I’m sure gave the city of Dallas a collective panic attack. With Brandon’s offensive resurgence, Dallas has been shifting it’s defensive attention some what to number seven. This means open guys after the double team. And it also means open shooters have to score or drive. Rudy Fernandez and Nicolas Batum have become reluctant drivers in this series. They need to shake that. Not only that, they need to make hard drives that create contact or create made baskets. Nic had a weak two step drive in the first half that was erased by Brandon Haywood. Rudy had a pathetic drive in the second half that almost ended in an airball layup. The wings need to do better.
- One more reason this loss can’t be completely blamed on the disproportionate foul shooting: Portland missed too many free throws. Yes they only didn’t make five, but when you only shoot 19, they all count. Also the Blazers shot 25% from three. Free throw shooting and three point shooting have to improve.
- It’s never too late for Rudy Fernandez to have a good game.
- I really think that this series will go seven. At that point, the pressure should be squarely on Dallas. Think about this series like a really long game. We’ve all seen Portland not put away an inferior opponent, only to let that team hang around, and then steal the win. Dallas could have won this series in four with the way Portland has executed at times, and most definitely should have wrapped it in five. Now they have to get back on that team plane, come back out to the rainy Northwest, and try to close out a series in a building that will be hostile to say the least. Portland has hung around in this series. They should fell like they’ve got a punchers chance should this thing require finishing in the Lone Star State.