Well this wasn’t really what anybody wanted to see, and there’s a good reason for that. Following up a heartbreaking loss with a galvanizing, bring the house down, jump three spots in the standings win is an excellent indication of mental toughness, focus, and above all determination to keep a bump in the road from defining a season. And doing the opposite? Rolling one home loss into a second home loss, then hitting the road where wins have been seldom? Not something any Blazer fan likes to see. And not really a place where this team at this point in the season wants to be.
Saying that the Blazers fell on Wednesday due to some residual after effects of getting robbed on Monday against Oklahoma City is pure speculation, done primarily because it backs the theory that I posited pregame. There’s no real way to determine if Monday’s outcome had any impact on Wednesday’s. There are, however, a few concrete things that can be pointed out that will help to explain why Portland lost Wednesday night.
Thing number one: Houston out-rebounded Portland 39-to-29. Thing number two: Houston’s bench contributed 66 points, with all but one reserve reaching double figures in scoring. Portland’s bench scored 37 points, 21 coming from Jamal Crawford who took 15 field goal attempts to get there. Thing number three: Houston shot 53% from the field (to Portland’s 47%) and 44% (to Portland’s 39%) from three. Thing number four: The Blazers can’t finish at the rim to save their lives, shooting 18-of-35 in the paint, 51% compared with 60% for Houston. Not a great night on any account for the home team.
These four statistical categories have something in common, that’s the reason I selected them to be highlighted. Losing the rebounding battle, letting the second unit wild, not closing out on shooters, and failing to convert on lay-ups and short jumpers all point to the lack of the extra effort needed to beat a scrappy team like the Rockets. It also is an indication of a failure to execute the finer points of the game. The devil’s in the details, as they say, and Wednesday night, Portland got beat because they weren’t focused enough to complete the little things.
In the first half it was things like playing strong defense for 22 seconds only to give up a long three at the shot clock buzzer. That happened at least once, and was a result of not helping the helper. When double-teaming on defense, one man is left open, that man is usually the man furthest from the basketball. To keep the open man from being the guy closest to the ball–often the man being defended by the guy sent to initiate the double-team–another man has to rotate, or “help,” to the player being defended by the double-teamer. “Helping the helper,” means rotating to cover the man that is left open when a defender shifts to cover the doubling man’s defensive assignment. When the “helping helper” is slow to rotate, or fails to rotate at all, one man is left open. To take advantage of slow rotations, a good offensive team will send its shooters into the corners, often the place furthest from the ball when it is entered into the low post, then doubled, so all a doubled passer has to do is find the corner, or find a guy close to him who can then find the corner. That’s a long way of explaining how a double team can be beat. The short explanation is Chase Budinger and Courtney Lee.
In the first half Budinger and Lee barely did a thing to get wide open looks from three. In fact, they didn’t have to do anything. Portland doubled the post, the help-side rotations were slow, the ball was swung–to the corners for Budinger to the high-elbow for Lee–and the threes were made. You can’t expect two professional basketball players to miss that many wide-open looks. In the first half Budinger was 3-of-3 from deep, and Lee matched him shot-for-shot. In the second half, Portland stopped double-teaming, and started running at the shooters. Budinger was 1-of-5 from three in the second, Lee was 1-of-2. Which scheme do you think worked better?
But it wasn’t just slow defensive rotations and shot clock buzzer beaters that killed Portland. It was unfinished defensive plays just in general. One play stands out above all the others. With just under three minutes to play and the Blazers trailing 96-90, Budinger launched a high-arching three from the corner and drew front iron. Nobody in a Portland jersey reacted fast enough to stop Budinger from sweeping in, grabbing the long rebound, and scoring at the rim, turning a two possession game into a three possession game.
It was plays like this that ended up being the death blow for the Blazers. They surrendered a big lead–as big as 19 at one point–but they fought back enough to make it a game in the second half. But fighting back just enough to keep it close is never actually enough. In January, when Portland lost four of six road games on their first extended trip, one of the things that was continually problematic was having to consistently play from behind. Against Detroit, still what I think might be Portland’s most disappointing loss of the season, the Blazers got down big, only to battle all the way back to even, but just did not have enough in the tank or get the right calls or bounces to go from even to up.
In the fourth quarter Wednesday night, Portland cut Houston’s lead to two four times, three twice, and tied it on three occasions. They never led. Getting that lead in a comeback is very very important. Wednesday night the Rose Garden, which was as dead as it’s been all season during a lackluster first half, was ready to explode on a number of occasions. If Mark Mason would have gotten to make his favorite PA announcement, “BLAZERS LEAD,” this game probably would have been over. Give the Rockets a ton of credit for being able to push back at Portland every time they got close to making that final push in their comeback. But also know the Blazers had a number of opportunities to take a late lead. Each time they either failed to convert, failed to collect a defensive rebound, or simply failed to get a stop. Failure certainly was a theme.
Post game, coach Nate McMillan was asked the all important question if maybe there was some holdover from Monday. He said he hoped not, and that this team has to get over that game. Now they have a second task, they need to get over this game too. Not easy, considering the road has done this team no favors so far.
The Blazers are in New Orleans to face the Hornets Friday, one place they actually have won a road game.
Couple of quick things:
- Houston’s back court duo of Kevin Martin and Kyle Lowry didn’t have great nights. Martin was 2-of-5 from the field in 15 uninspired minutes. Lowry fared a bit better, 5-of-10 from the field, 2-of-4 from three, but left the game in the third quarter with an injured elbow and did not return.
- Raymond Felton returned to action Wednesday after missing Monday’s loss to OKC. Felton looked pretty good right out of the gate, but had a lot of trouble on the defensive end against Houston’s speedy PG combo of Lowry and Goran Dragic. Felton shot 4-of-11 from the field and 0-of-3 from deep.
- Speaking of Felton, Jamal Crawford had most of the ball handling duties when he was in, even when sharing the court with Raymond, who is actually Portland’s only real point guard. Having Felton on the court but not handling the ball makes little to no sense. Post game, Nate was asked about possible line-up shake-ups to move past this little hiccup. Nate was dismissive of the suggestion, even putting it to The Columbian‘s Matt Calkins for his roster-change suggestions. I was a bit surprised when Calkins didn’t immediately volunteer himself to fill out Portland’s roster, although he has been complaining of late of some lingering back-pain following his most recent LA Fitness shooting session.
- Minutes Watch: 17:36 for Marcus Camby. Camby missed Portland’s first loss to Houston, and his limited minutes might help to explain the rebounding issue. Post game Nate said that Marcus had not been feeling good. There’s no indication that Camby’s being held out was anything more than a precautionary measure.
- Standings Watch: Wednesday was a big night for moving, too bad Portland went in the wrong direction. Pregame, Yahoo Sports had Portland at the 6 spot (Basketball Reference had them in a four-way tie for 5th), leading Houston and Dallas (7th and 8th respectively), and behind the Lakers (5th) and the Nuggets (4th). The Jazz in the sucker position at 9. Wednesday night, Dallas beats Denver, Houston beats Portland, the Lakers and Jazz are idle. Post game, NBA.com has Houston jumping all the way to 4, Dallas moving to 5, Denver falling to 6, the Lakers to 7, the Jazz (by doing nothing) sliding into 8, and the Blazers taking the booby prize at 9. It’s going to be like this all season for the 2 through 10 teams in the West. Portland can do themselves a favor by not losing any more games like this.
- On the note of not losing games, I predicted in my February preview the Blazers would lose only three times all month. For that to be true Portland has to win out. I know it was a generous prediction, but I didn’t expect the Blazers to start the month 2-3.
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