At this point, Portland is basically two teams. At home they play an efficient, team-based game, which features a good combination of running and half court sets, confident shot making, and strong perimeter and man-to-man defending. On the road? Let’s not even go there.
Or, if we’re going to go there I can at least say this: the Blazers are thus far not even close to the team they are at home when they’re not in the Rose Garden. In Wednesday night’s loss to Atlanta, Portland played probably as well as they have in any of the last five games (four of which have been losses), but they still showed a lot of what has been plaguing them in road games this season. Mostly stagnant offense, inconsistent defense, and almost a complete failure to take advantage of their opportunities.
It was that inability to turn extra possessions into points that ultimately doomed another decent come from behind effort. By the end of the evening, Portland had 92 field goal attempts, Atlanta had 71. The Blazers had 10 steals–five from Wesley Matthews alone, the Hawks turned it over 14 times, but time and again turn overs and second chance points ended in nothing at all.
The play that in my mind typified Portland’s play Monday night came with 1:30 left, and the final outcome far from decided. With the Blazers trailing by four, Jamal Crawford missed a lay-up, Josh Smith scooped up the rebound, and in an attempt to get a fast break going fired a length of the court pass in the direction of Joe Johnson. Wesley Matthews, playing free safety, stepped up and snagged the pass, and turned Atlanta’s fast break into a Portland fast break. But Wesley didn’t protect the ball, and didn’t see Johnson coming up behind him, and got his pocket picked. Johnson went the other way, threw an alley-oop to Jeff Teague, and instead of the Blazers cutting a four point lead to two or one (or none with the always possible Jamal Crawford four-pointer) the Hawks pushed their lead to six, Portland had to burn a timeout, and the odds the Blazers were going to pull this one out basically dropped to zero.
There were other instances, too, when Portland just seemed to be unable to get out of their own way. A sloppy and lazy turnover on an in-bounds play with six seconds to play. Two missed free throws by LaMarcus Aldridge who otherwise had another really really good game.
But not all of Portland’s mistakes came in the game’s waning minutes. Early in the game the Blazers had plenty of second chance looks that they couldn’t convert. Portland’s first two possessions including offensive rebounds that went begging. A possession here, and a possession there add up. Getting those extra looks at the basket is great way to win on the road, but they need to be turned into points.
It’s hard to say what it is that kept Portland from taking advantage of second-chance opportunities. It wasn’t bad shot selection, most of the Blazers’ misses came right at the rim, so maybe we can chalk it up to sore legs, or lack of rhythm early. Whatever the case may be, capitalizing on those extra possessions would have been nice. I’m not saying Portland lost on Wednesday because they didn’t convert on either of their first two second-chance possessions. I’m just saying that in a three-point game, on the road, every possession counts.
Give Atlanta a lot of credit too. They tried hard to lose this game, especially in the fourth quarter. Portland outscored Atlanta by 10 in the game’s final 12 minutes, and the bulk of the Hawks’ scoring came at the end of the quarter. Atlanta didn’t get their first fourth quarter bucket until the 6:35 mark of the quarter, and their 13-point lead had completely evaporated. But where Portland couldn’t make their extra looks at the hoop, Atlanta could. In Wednesday’s final frame, Joe Johnson, and then Josh Smith stepped up and knocked down shots when Atlanta needed them the most.
Give Joe Johnson credit too. He doesn’t always play like a max salary guy, but he did on Wednesday. Johnson shot 8-of-19 from the field after coming out very cold, and hit four threes on his way to a game-high 24 points. Chris Mullin, calling the game for ESPN, called Johnson “Lebron light.” I personally wouldn’t go that far, but when that dude gets hot, he’s one of the best players in the league. He’s big, so smaller guys can’t guard him; he’s quick and has a good first step, so bigs struggle against him defensively; and he can hit from anywhere on the floor, so you can’t leave him alone. Most nights, I think of Joe Johnson as a sleepwalker. Wednesday he woke up after a bad first quarter, and he earned his millions.
One thing that stands out for me as Portland continues to be barely effective on the road, is this team’s inability to score. Wednesday, Wesley Matthews shot 2-of-13 from the floor and 1-of-7 from deep. Wesley compensated with five free throws, but Gerald Wallace wasn’t as lucky. Crash went 4-of-12 from the field, o-of-2 from three, and 0-of-2 from the line. If the Blazers are going to win games anywhere, Gerald Wallace needs to score more than eight points.
The Blazers fall to 1-3 on this trip, with two games remaining before they get another home game. Luckily Portland gets those two against the Raptors and the Pistons. Toronto lost on Wednesday to Boston; Detroit fell to Minnesota. Those are two bad teams. Nothing is guaranteed in this league so the Blazers better prepare. They no doubt feel like they should be better than 1-3 in their last four road games, but if they don’t finish this trip 3-3 it might be time to panic. San Antonio is a Playoff team, as is Atlanta, Portland just can’t win in Houston. We can rationalize those losses. Losing to Detroit and Toronto is not an option.
Portland’s home stretch starts in Toronto on Friday.
Couple of things:
- Nicolas Batum took a finger in the eye from super vet Tracy McGrady in Wednesday’s second quarter. He was taken to a local hospital, and x-rays were negative for orbital fracture. He’s listed as day-to-day, but it doesn’t sound serious. Nic is a big part of this team, he has been Portland’s most consistent player through this tough trip, so he needs to get back to the court. That being said, if coach Nate McMillan believes the Blazers can win without him in Toronto or the next night in Detroit, I don’t begrudge him holding Nic out. Having a healthy Batum is key for the long term. Having him healthy for the Playoff run is more important than having him back Friday night.
- Jamal Crawford had a good game in his return to Atlanta. Chris Mullin wanted him to go for 50. He finished with 22. He had his share of bad looks, but there were a few times late in the game when Crawford didn’t get the ball when I thought he should have. I feel like this fan base is pretty split on Jamal at this point. I fall pretty firmly on the pro side, but can easily see the cons. I like Jamal because he’s one of the few guys on this team who can get his own shot. He also has the mindset that his next shot is going down, regardless of the outcome of his last 10. Again, that leads to plenty of bad shots, but it’s better than disappearing when things aren’t going well.
- I hate to be that kind of guy, but Wednesday night Andre Miller’s line in Denver’s OT win over the Philadelphia 76ers was 28 points, 10 assists, eight rebounds, +18. That team is 10-5, and is one of three teams ahead of Portland in the Northwest Division.
- Minutes watch: 9:55 for Nolan Smith. Raymond Felton is struggling. Maybe some pressure from beneath for a couple of his minutes will help him tighten the screws. Nolan played ok. More consistent minutes and he can be a real contributor.
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