This is the kind of game recap I hate to write. Mostly because with five minutes to go in the fourth quarter it was looking like I might get the chance to do the kind of recap I love to write. Against all odds, playing poorly, letting their opponent back into a game that was a blowout, but scrapping at the end, making the key defensive stops, getting the big buckets, winning, giving me hope for the future. That’s the kind of recap I like to write.
Instead it went the other way. Portland played an excellent 12 minutes of basketball, followed by 36 minutes of basketball that seemed to be played for the purpose of disabusing Blazer fans of the notion that this team had any idea how to play good basketball. Well maybe not 36 minutes of bad basketball. Portland led by 11 at the half, and 18 a couple minutes into the third quarter. It was a slow-moving train wreck after that. The Clippers led 5-4 at the 8:11 mark of the first quarter. They didn’t lead again until there were three minutes and 51 seconds left in the game. Talk about dragging it out.
So we don’t get the game we want, and this is what we’re left with: a team that has been exposed, a season that hangs in the balance, and a lot of questions that need to be answered. At the beginning of this back-to-back-to-back Portland played with no energy and lost to Washington, in the middle they brought energy enough to win in Oakland, and at the end they ran out of energy and lost to the Clippers, stretching their home losing streak to four.
And it’s the energy thing that really gets me. Thursday night the Blazers came out fired up, they dove for loose balls, they created turnovers, they played defense for 24 seconds. And for the most part the energy didn’t go away. There was plenty of hustle on both offense and defense from the guys in the Rip City jerseys. And to be honest, that’s a problem. It’s a problem because that means the issue isn’t motivation, and it isn’t lack of trying. The issue is skill, or maybe not skill, maybe personnel.
Raymond Felton isn’t trying to be terrible on purpose; he’s just not that good. Jamal Crawford doesn’t intentionally take horrible shots; he’s just a gunner who looks to shoot regardless of how open he is or game situation. Marcus Camby doesn’t miss lay-ups because he thinks it’s hilarious; he just isn’t an offensive player at this point in his career. Add those things up, toss in another bad shooting night from Wesley Matthews, inconsistent offense from Nicolas Batum, and a non-existent Gerald Wallace, and it’s pretty clear how an 18-point second half lead turns into a three-point loss.
Post game I tweeted that Portland clearly needs to get LaMarcus Aldridge back. I got a couple of responses (here and here) saying that I over simplified a bit. I agree and disagree. Yes, there is a lot more wrong with this team than just the fact that LA has missed a couple of games. But think about it like this. LA isn’t just the most effective offensive weapon in Portland’s offense, he’s the starting point.
When LaMarcus comes back (Saturday at the earliest) pay attention to how many possessions start by throwing the ball into him in the post. It’s not until that pass goes in that guys start to make their cuts and Portland starts to run their sets. Without that element in the offense, guys that are used to being the second or third pass are having to initiate the offense on their own. That’s not working.
Jamal Crawford is going to get a lot of flack for the way he played Thursday night, dribbling for too long, taking bad jump shots, missing a lot at the rim, but without LaMarcus to start the offense Portland needed somebody who could get themselves a shot. Crawford is the only Blazer that can create a shot with the ball in his hands.
Nicolas is playing much better in the starting lineup, but his game is at its very best when he catches and shoots off a curl, or when he can catch the ball on the wing already facing the basket, pump fake, attack the hoop, or launch a three, and at it’s worst when he has to take his man off the dribble.
Gerald Wallace is the same way, as is Wesley Matthews. Raymond Felton is Raymond Felton. It’s not saying much about your point guard when he’s the last guy you want handling the ball in any situation. Yes Jamal took a lot of bad shots in the fourth quarter, and yes he missed a couple of times at the rim when he had no business flying at the Clippers’ bigs. But given what Portland was putting out there, he was the guy to have the ball and try to make something happen.
Post game, coach Nate McMillan talked about failures to execute. When the Blazers go back and watch tape of this game, they’ll see what he’s talking about–the lateness of getting into sets, an offense that basically stopped moving midway through the third quarter–what they’ll also see is that the Clippers were the aggressor on defense down the stretch, and that more than anything that’s what turned this game.
From the beginning of the second half LA played body-to-body defense on every man. There were no easy passing lanes, there were no free runs through the key (something they were giving up almost every possession in the first half), and there were no clean looks at the hoop from anywhere. Portland played good defense too, and it was that defense that kept this game as close as it was in the fourth quarter, but it was the Clippers’ ability to take a punch and get back up and give a punch that allowed them to win. The Blazers landed the first blow, and it was a good one, but they never followed it up.
Before I close this out, I want to take a second to talk about the Clippers. I still don’t believe that they’re going to be in the Finals (Conference or otherwise) but it’s clear that they are going to probably finish in the home-court advantage half of the Western Conference. And that’s the kind of difference maker Chris Paul is. Thursday night, CP3 had a terrible three quarters. And he had a pretty darn amazing fourth quarter. Paul hit five of his eight field goal attempts in the game’s last quarter–including a three to push a one-point lead to four–grabbed two steals and three rebounds, and dished out two assists, one on the three by Mo Williams that gave LA the lead.
Prior to signing Chris Paul, the Clippers were a halfway decent team with a human highlight factory in Blake Griffin. The kind of presence that Chris Paul brings–the attitude that every game is winnable no matter how much you’re behind–and the calmness with which he handles big game situations, has turned on OK roster into a favorite to win a Playoff series and fight for a spot in the Conference Finals.
Imagine if Portland had somebody like that.
Just one thing:
- LaMarcus Aldridge addressed the media after the game Thursday. He said that he is surprised at how fast he is healing, and hopes to get back on the court as soon as possible. If he gets the go-ahead from medical he’ll be back out there Saturday against the Hawks. I think LA needs to come back sooner than later. This team needs him. Also, he needs to prove to himself that he can play. One of the biggest issues with sustaining an injury like a sprained ankle is that guys can get freaked out that it’s going to happen a second time. That leads to tentative play, which often, paradoxically, leads to another injury. LaMarcus has had very little history of injury in his career, so getting him out and giving him the confidence to play on a sore ankle is key, should Portland still want to participate in the Playoffs. That being said, I’m OK if he comes back this weekend, plays well, doesn’t show any signs of the injury, but skips the All-Star Game. It’s awesome that he got picked, but I don’t want LA to risk getting hurt in a game that doesn’t matter. Plus, then there would be a spot for Jeremy Lin. He played in the Western Conference last year (and earlier this year). I’m sure Stern could find a way to fudge the rules and let him switch conferences for one night.
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