OK everybody, take a deep breath, hold it, now exhale slowly. Minnesota was a gut-check, and Portland failed. Monday at home against the New Orleans Hornets was a pulse-check. The Blazers are still alive. But barely. Granted if Monday had gone the other way, this would be a very different recap, but I think it’s well within my rights to say that a victory over the worst team in the Western Conference doesn’t solve all that ails this Portland team. It was a victory through, and that’s what matters. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t even watchable for more than two or three minutes at a time, but it counts.
Over the course of this two weeks of games (starting with Portland’s loss at home to the Houston Rockets) the Blazers have looked lethargic and at times uninterested on the court. Most of that has been expressed in the first quarter. In reverse order of the Blazers’ last couple losses, beginning with Saturday’s loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, Portland has surrendered 40 points, 32 points (vs. the Heat), 29 points (at Denver), and 29 (at the Lakers in which the Blazers had seven). In their two victories in that same stretch, they scored 41 and 33 (the San Antonio practice team and Atlanta respectively both at home). If there is a good indicator for how this team is going to do in any given 48 minute period, the first quarter is it.
Monday’s first quarter wasn’t spectacular, not by any stretch, but the Blazers scored 27 points, and held NOLA to 17. It would take Portland another quarter and a half to really put this one on ice, but still, baby steps. A strong first quarter on both ends of the ball shows that this team was into this one from the jump. The Blazers will need more of that if they want the future to include the Playoffs.
Speaking of putting this one away, after a down second quarter, and a slow start to the third, a thought crossed my mind. New Orleans is the kind of team that is hard to pull away from. They play a gritty, grind it out type of game. They don’t give up easy shots, they play a lot of defense, they make their opponent work for every inch. A team like that gives themselves a chance if they can stay connected deep into the fourth quarter. Blazer fans, if you want to look for a second positive from Monday night, look at the fact that the Blazers had their biggest lead a few minutes into the fourth quarter, turning a 10-point lead (which was more consistently in the 5-to-9 region) with 5:05 to play in the third into a full-on blow out about eight minutes later. Portland tightened the screws on defense in the second half, ripping off a 15-point run that put this one out of reach, and had the Rose Garden crowd breathing a sign of relief.
There was plenty to scrutinize, though, this being not quite a thing of beauty. What is likely to get the microscope treatment will be the play of Raymond Felton. Having been reinserted into the starting five, Ray was probably involved with all the plays Monday night that could be called “basketball plays” with a straight face. His shooting wasn’t great (5-of-10 from the field, 1-of-5 from deep), but he got into the lane and to the rim pretty well, and best of all he handed out 10 assists and turned the ball over only once. So why the close read on Ray’s stat line? Well basically because he’s had good nights before and that has had little aggregate effect on his season as a whole. I prefer Raymond running the point over Jamal Crawford (mostly because Felton is a point guard and Crawford isn’t, also because Crawford is at his best when all he has to do is look to score). And I prefer that if Raymond is the starting PG that he plays like he did Monday, and maybe knocks down a couple threes.
This upcoming road trip is a point guard gauntlet: Rubio in Minnesota, Rondo in Boston, John Wall in Washington, Darren Collison in Indy, Jeremy Lin in New York, Derrick Rose in Chi, and Russell Westbrook in OKC. Make-it or break-it should be painted on the side of Portland’s charter, since it is the keyword most closely associated with this impending jaunt. Right next to it should be painted the words “point guard play.” If the Blazers can win or push a few of these point guard battles, and not get run out of town by Rose, Rondo, or Westbrook, they’ve got a shot at making a bit of hay, and coming back to the Rose City with a slightly sunnier outlook. If that point guard play comes from Ray Felton, that would be super. If it comes from Jamal Crawford that would also be super. If it comes from some as of yet unnamed third party (Steve Blake perhaps, or maybe some double secret point guard not even the most dedicated NBA bloggers have ever heard of) that would also be super.
My point is this. This is indeed a make it or break it trip (not to be confused with a fake it ’till you make it trip or a shake and bake trip). And it’s the point guard play that will do the aforementioned making it or breaking it.
Outside of buzzword-ing, a couple important things were brought up post game. First, coach Nate McMillan mentioned that this is the third game in a row that LaMarcus Aldridge hasn’t had a free throw. Part of what has made LA a better player than he was last year, his ostensible breakout season, is his development of offensive weapons that have him going to the basket. Attacking the basket, as opposed to standing at the free-throw line extended and bombing sweet looking jumpers, can end in free throws. LaMarcus is a good free throw shooter. He should be trying to get to the line. Not that he’s not trying to get to the line, he just isn’t. A big part of that is double teams. He needs to adjust better to those double teams, so he can get the ball out of his hands, so his team can capitalize on the mismatches and the advantage that the offensive team gets from a busted double team, so his opponents will stop doubling, so he can play one-on-one, so he can get the shots he likes, some of them from the free throw line.
Along with the LA free throw issue, McMillan brought up the revenge element of Portland’s first game of this trip, Wednesday at Minnesota. Nate used the word pounded, to describe how the T-Wolves treated the Blazers in their building, and said that that should be motivation for his team to return the favor in Minny. The Wolves had an impressive win over the Clippers at home Monday night (the first of two games Monday night that came down to a guy shooting three free throws for the tie), and Kevin Love is having himself a nice little post All-Star Game week. After the game, I asked LaMarcus Aldridge how he feels about Nate’s conjecture that there should be some personal motivation for beating Minnesota. His answer was a pretty stock no, he tries to prepare for every game the same way regardless of who his opponent is or where it is being played or the outcome of Portland’s last meeting with said team. When I asked him if he personally wants to do better against Kevin Love, who had just had a great game against him followed by another great game against Blake Griffin. Again, LA said there’s no personal motivation to be individually better than Kevin Love. I don’t buy it, not really, but I like LA’s attitude that it’s about the team getting the win, and about the team doing what it needs to do as a team to be successful. I do think he would like to go into the Wolves’ gym and drop 45 on Love, though.
Two other interesting things talked about post game, and then I’ll wrap this up. One: the trade deadline. It comes and goes while Portland is on the road. This team may leave with a couple of guys that it doesn’t bring home. Right now the most likely candidates are Jamal Crawford and Raymond Felton, but don’t be surprised if every single name on Portland’s roster is mentioned somewhere at least once, especially if the Blazers drop their first two of the trip.
And finally, NOLA head coach Monty Williams told the press in his media scrum that he basically doesn’t see where all the locker room chemistry stuff is coming from with regard to the Blazers. I agree.
Wednesday evening in the Twin Cities is another gut-check opportunity for Portland.
Couple of quick things:
- Minutes Watch: 12:23 for Kurt Thomas. Kurt returned to the lineup Wednesday (CJ was deactivated), air-balled his first shot attempt, but got his feet underneath him before the night was over, finishing with four points. I really like the second-unit front court of Joel Przybilla and Kurt Thomas. Their combined physical presence might be a factor against these Eastern Conference opponents. Hopefully by the time the Blazers hit the Big Apple Joel will be in fighting shape so he can take on Tyson Chandler, again.
- Standings Watch: A win’s a win. Blazers are still in 10th. As of right now, Portland is a half a game up on Utah, a game and a half up on Phoenix, half a game behind Minnesota, a full game behind Houston, a game and a half behind Denver and Dallas, and 11 games out of first. Really, a make-it or break-it road trip.
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