I said in my preview that Wednesday’s game against the Nuggets in Denver is going to give us a good idea of what to expect from Portland for the rest of the season. Well, I think this game accomplished that. I think that it also showed us fans probably the clearest reason as to why the Blazers have not been as good as they should be, and why, following this most recent loss and tomorrow’s probable loss to the Miami Heat, they’re sitting at .500 (projection) and at least one spot removed from the Western Conference Playoff table.
What’s that reason, you ask? Lack of engagement. More than usual, this Blazer squad has been unable to get involved in games early. We saw it in the team’s first home loss to Orlando, we saw it against the Lakers in an absolute shame-fest of a first quarter, and we saw it again Wednesday. Before the Blazers could blink, before they could find any kind of rhythm on either side of the ball, before we could get to the first TV timeout, Portland was down double digits. I firmly believe you can’t lose a game in the first three or four minutes, but what you can do is set yourself up for a long, tough night.
Wednesday it wasn’t just offense–terrible shot making was partially to blame for the LA debacle–that held Portland out of this game until the middle of the first quarter. Denver was getting whatever they wanted going to the hoop.
One or two passes, and there was a Nugget with the ball in his hands and not a Blazer within five feet. And if that guy, most times a dead-eye like Al Harrington or capable shooter like Arron Afflalo or Ty Lawson, missed the wide open jumper, well then Kenneth Faried or Timofey Mozgov was standing right under the hoop without so much as a single guy in a Portland jersey to contend with.
The Blazers weren’t playing defense, they weren’t rebounding, where were they? And that’s the question we’ve been asking an awful lot lately with this team. As they’re known to do, Portland made a run, and got it close enough in the fourth quarter so that everybody probably watched the game all the way to the end. But it’s clear, although this team can play well from behind, they can’t come all the way back from 19 down. And really, who can?
There are still plenty of games left for Portland to make up the distance they’ve put between themselves and the contenders in the West, but they’ve got to make some changes if they want to avoid having to play from behind for the rest of the season. So what’s the solution? Well I would suggest the Blazers get to start the game four or five minutes before their opponent, that way they’ll get all their bad play out the systems before they have to actually see another team, but you know that’s not going to happen.
How about coach Nate McMillan says that on offense the first five possessions have to go through LaMarcus Aldridge? That might decrease the number of bad jump shots that lead to long rebounds and fast breaks going the other direction. How about Nate gets on his guys to crash the defensive glass hard for the first seven minutes and forget about running altogether? I’m not really a big fan of telling everybody to stay put on defense, fast breaks are the best method of getting an offense from idle to high gear, but giving up second chance points the way Portland did Wednesday is a good way to lose a game.
Maybe Nate needs to do something that isn’t tactical. Maybe these guys need to see a sports psychologist. There were times in the middle of this game where the Blazers looked like they’d given up. There’s no reason for this team to believe they can’t win games, and there certainly is no reason for this team to give up in the middle of a game or in the middle of a season that can still have a positive result.
How can I say that Portland can still turn this into a positive season? Well, if you watched closely Wednesday night there were some pretty positive things coming from the Blazers. On more than one possession they got an open and easy look by passing the ball more than once. Ball movement has been rare for Portland lately, as they’ve started to rely more and more on isolation plays to get open shots. Seeing the Blazers make an obvious effort to move the ball, and having that effort pay off has to be considered a step in the right direction. More positives? Jamal Crawford looked smooth with his jumper. Raymond Felton played well for stretches. Elliot Williams got some important minutes and made the most of them.
Sure much of what the Blazers did well was negated by a slow start, an abysmal finish to the first half, and an inability to string together stops and scores at the end of the game when it was relatively close. But those shortcomings shouldn’t be grounds for chucking the whole season, or whatever is left of the whole season.
It doesn’t get easier from here for Portland. Miami’s next. If the Heat get the kind of second chance points and effortless offense the Blazers let the Nuggets have, that game will literally be over in the first quarter. But beyond just Thursday’s game, there isn’t going to be a lot of gimmies coming down the pike. Portland will have to show up to beat teams like Minnesota or Golden State. And now they don’t have a choice.
We’ve reached the point where the Blazers’ play has severely limited the team’s chances of getting to take nights off. They’re now going to have to beat every bad team they play just to make the Playoffs. Missing the Playoffs isn’t the end of the world (it might be the end of Gerald Wallace’s time in Portland, Jamal Crawford’s too) but this team is too good, has too much potential, to fall to lottery status just because they haven’t been trying.
Couple of quick things:
- I mentioned Elliot Williams earlier. Mike Tokito of The Oregonian pretty much nailed Elliot’s night with this tweet. I would love to see Williams get a few more minutes and some more regular touches. I will saw this though. Elliot made a couple, glaring rookie mistakes. One in particular happened in the second half. Elliot came up with one of Portland’s very few offensive rebounds, but found himself under the hoop staring down two of Denver’s big guys. Instead of looking to get the ball out and reset the offense, Williams tried to take on both defenders, likely in an attempt to draw a foul. He didn’t get the foul, he didn’t get the hoop, he barely got the shot off. Williams is a freak of nature athlete, but so are most of the guys in the NBA. He’s going to have to figure out who he can out leap and out muscle and who he can’t. If he can develop the thinking part of his game he’ll be a player. Hopefully Nate lets him keep running the rest of the second half of the season, so we can see some development in that area.
- Kurt Thomas got his bell rung pretty seriously at the beginning of the game Wednesday night, and was diagnosed with a minor concussion. Head injuries have become a hot button topic in all of professional sports (See Kobe Bryant or THE NFL), so there’s a very good chance Thomas will not play Thursday night against the Heat. That means there’s a chance Joel Pryzbilla will be activated–I wouldn’t count on it though–and that Chris Johnson might get to play a little bit. CJ got in Wednesday night, and had an impact. It could be a coincidence that the Blazers made one of their better runs while Johnson was on the court, I choose to think it wasn’t. Whatever the case may be, CJ has to know that he’s very likely to be demoted when Joel is ready to play. He’s the kind of player who knows how to take advantage of what he’s given.
- Last off-season Kenneth Faried from Morehead State was a guy Blazer internet enthusiasts wanted desperately to see in Portland. It was not to be. Wednesday night Faried finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds. The really impressive stat, though, was that seven of his rebounds were on the offensive end. The Blazers as a team only had four more offensive rebounds than Faried. That’s trouble.
- Minutes Watch: PG comparison. Raymond Felton 23:54 off the bench six points, seven assists, two rebounds, one steal, one turnover. Not bad. Jamal Crawford 35:46 as a starter 21 points, five assists, five rebounds, one steal, two blocks, one turnover. A little bit better. However, on plus/minus, Jamal finished -9, Raymond had the ever illusive zero.
- Standings Watch: If the Playoffs started tomorrow, the Blazers would be watching from their couches. Good thing we’ve got 31 games left.
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