I had a few feelings this evening while watching Portland drop their second game in Texas (107-104 to Houston in overtime), and their third straight. First, when the Rockets made a run in the second and third quarters to push out to a double-digit lead, my thoughts were that Portland was losing because they were failing to execute on offense and they were not committed on defense.
Too many times Houston was getting looks at the rim from simple, back door cuts from wing players, a symptom of over playing the shooters are preemptively jumping the passing lanes. Aggressiveness on defense is key. But over aggression, or attempting to play strong defense without using your head is a good way to get beat.
Then a few things changed. Portland made a run in the fourth quarter, took the lead, and it looked like the Blazers were going to get an important road victory. As this was happening, my thoughts were thus. Portland is a good enough team that basically all they need to do against sub .500 teams on the road is get a burst of offense, put a run together, and they should be able to win some games.
But the little run that I felt like could have been good enough to win on Saturday came a little too early, and couldn’t be sustained. The Blazers turned Houston over a couple of times, had a few cracks at taking a three-point lead to a five- or maybe seven-point lead, and put the game on ice, but they just couldn’t do it. Too many missed lay-ups, too many open jumpers, not enough Nicolas Batum down the stretch. It was back to an inability to execute.
But it was more than that. In the beginning the offense was stagnant; in the end the offense just looked confused. When Portland played their way back into the game, they did it by sharing the ball on offense, and they did it by not giving up on defense. In the fourth quarter and then into the OT period the Blazers maintained their defensive focus, but the offense just wasn’t there.
Portland has a ton of guys capable of scoring, but since the departure of Brandon Roy, they haven’t had a guy they can go to every time down the stretch regardless of who has played well or what the specific game situation may be. Saturday was a breakout night for Nicolas Batum. He collected four tremendous chase-down blocks, hit six threes, and basically played his way into the starting lineup (that’s my subtle way of saying that I think coach Nate McMillan might decide to start Nic against New Orleans instead of Kurt Thomas now that Marcus Camby is on the short-term DL).
However, Nic is still Nic, his role has always been to defer to Portland’s big-time scorers, and get his as it comes. Saturday he needed to see the ball in crunch time. Batum hit his final three with 6:52 left in the fourth quarter. He didn’t get another shot until there was eight seconds left in the overtime period and Portland was down 105-101, and the game was basically over.
I know that it isn’t in Nic’s character to demand the ball from his teammates, but he needs to start. Or at least he needs to get the ball when he’s having basically the game of his career.
Portland has a ton of depth, we know that, but playing without a superstar to take the ball at the end of the game makes it a little difficult to close games. The Blazers have a superstar in the making in LaMarcus Aldridge, and he needs to start taking the game’s biggest shots. I know I just said that Nicolas Batum needs to demand the ball when he’s hot, and he does, but it needs to be LA who steps up to take big shots at the end of games.
Saturday he had a chance. With Houston leading 101-100, Portland had a set play that moved the ended with Raymond Felton shooting, and missing a corner three. Ray’s a decent career three-point shooter, and down one with less than a minute to play, I’ll take that play most days. Except, in the course of getting the ball to Felton, LaMarcus passed up a wide open look at the top of the key. That’s his shot. He wasn’t really hitting all night, but he needs to have confidence in his game that he can step up and knock that shot down.
By losing to Houston, Portland has fallen to fourth in the Northwest division, and eighth in the Western Conference. It was a long time ago that they were holding on to that number one spot. They probably won’t get back to number one this season, not with the way Oklahoma City has been playing, but it’s safe to say the Portland is better than eighth.
They need to find a way to close out games. They need to stop giving up double-digit leads. And they need to find a way to win on the road. I have a feeling that if they can get a win in New Orleans they’ll be well on their way to turning this road trip around. Winning on the road is going to be key all year. If Portland doesn’t figure out how to do it soon they might be in real trouble.
Couple of quick things:
- Nicolas Batum had some amazing blocks. Ben from Blazersedge snagged the best one of the night, a chase-down on Kevin Martin that was basically obscene in its “from out of nowhere” ness. If Nicolas can get involved defensively it might be the spark he needs to have a big offensive game. Most NBAers are the opposite–a couple good offensive looks and they’re locked in on defense–but Nic isn’t like most guys in the league. (EXTEND HIM YESTERDAY)
- Craig Smith came to play in the second quarter, hitting a couple nice shots in the lane against an over matched Patrick Patterson. Rhino couldn’t capture lighting in a bottle twice though, and didn’t have an effective second half shift. That’s the problem with being an end-of-the-bench type player. They feed you when you’re hot, but as soon as you start missing it’s all over. Smith can be an effective offensive weapon, especially when LA isn’t hitting, but he might need some more minutes to find his rhythm. Who knows if that is going to happen.
- The plus/minus stat is a strange one. Saturday night, Jamal Crawford was 3-of-12 from the field, missed a handful of ugly shots, and never got established. He led Portland with a plus/minus of +6. Wesley Matthews, on the other hand, played what looked like an effective 34 minutes, didn’t turn the ball over, and did some nice stuff on D. His plus/minus? -13. Plus/minus is often distorted by minutes played, meaning that a guy that is on the court more might have a lower plus/minus just because more points are scored when he’s on the floor. Having said that, and I know that Jamal Crawford has done some stuff that has made Portland fans pull their hair out, but I like having a guy like Crawford on the floor. He can score, and he can miss five shots and then make the next five. Wesley is streaky too, but he’s the kind of streaky player who gets hot and stays hot, but struggles late in games to find his shot when it hasn’t been falling early.
- LaMarcus Aldridge finished with 22 points, but he had to take 21 shots to get there. A more efficient night from LA, and Portland wins. He also collected 10 rebounds.
- It will be nice to see this team actually play a 48-minute game on the road–as the coaching staff has been asking for. Or, I guess another 48-minute game on the road. The Blazers’ lone road win was a pretty complete game.
- Kyle Lowry dominated Portland’s back court, scoring 33 points. I wouldn’t beat against him for the All-Star Game.
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