Come with me, if you will, on a journey back in time for just a moment.
The year is 2007; the day is March 6th. The 25-36 Portland Trail Blazers are hosting the 43-18 San Antonio Spurs, the best team in the league and winners of 10 straight. On this night the Blazers are led by two rookies that would one day grow up to be All-Stars (one LaMarcus Aldridge the other Brandon Roy), another future All-Star that was yet to be run out of town (Zach Randolph), and a local boy made good who was Portland’s last training camp invite and would eventually leave the city where he played high school, college, and pro ball–and occasionally walked his dogs–at the end of the season to receive his hard earned millions as a highly sought after free agent (Ime Udoka).
On this night, Portland jumped out to an early first quarter lead, and carried 54-47 advantage into halftime. San Antonio continued to lose ground in the third quarter, and by the start of the fourth, the Blazers’ lead had swelled to nine. The night’s final 12 minutes were tense from the get-go. San Antonio’s shooters came alive. Michael Finely scored five straight and cut the lead to four with 10:46 to play. But Portland was resilient. At the 4:14 mark LaMarcus Aldridge dropped in a two-footer, and the Blazers led 88-80. This team of over achieving upstarts was about to overachieve to the highest degree. Then everything fell apart.
With two minutes to play Manu Ginobili hit a three: 92-88 Blazers. With 1:37 to go Manu Ginobili hit another three: 92-91 Blazers. With 1:27 to go Brandon Roy lost the ball out-of-bounds. With 1:07 to go Beno Udrih hit a three: 94-93 Spurs, the visiting team’s first lead since Francisco Elson split a pair of free throws 15 seconds into the first quarter giving San Antonio a 1-0 edge. With 35 seconds to play Michael Finely hit a three: 97-93 Spurs, and now its over. With nine seconds left Manu ices it with short jumper. Final score 99-94. In two minutes Portland went from closing out the biggest win of the season to becoming just another notch on the belt of the eventual NBA champions.
I didn’t watch that game. But I listened to it on the radio sitting in a temporary shack watching over a basically empty emergency room parking lot at the Adventist Medical Health Center behind Mall 205. Hearing the Spurs dismantle the Blazers in that game’s final minute, I experienced for the first time being gut-punched by the radio.
I’m sure right now, if you’re still reading, you’re asking yourself why I decided to recap a game in 2012 by talking, at length, about a game that happened five years ago. Couple of reasons: first, I’ve run out of things to talk about with this Blazer team at the moment that feel either fresh or relevant, mostly because I’m tired of talking about tanking, and second, Monday’s 102-97 loss to the Utah Jazz felt like the exact opposite of that 99-94 loss to the San Antonio Spurs in 2007 (which according to the all knowing Internet was a Tuesday).
When Portland lost to San Antonio that night (in similar if not exactly the same fashion that they lost to Utah on Monday), they played a great game, far better than anybody expected them to play. They hung with the best team in the NBA all night. A few more missed shots by Manu or a couple of made baskets by the Blazers in the last two minutes, and they would have won.
When Portland gifted Utah Monday night’s game, they played sloppy offense, they played bad defense, they turned the ball over, and they barely made Utah work at all for their game-winning field goals.
Five years ago when Portland lost to San Antonio you could see the future on the horizon. Yes Udoka and Z-Bo were gone at the end of the season (two big parts of most of the Blazers wins in 06-07), but the foundation was there. Blazer fans knew they were never going to have to suffer through a 21-win season again.
Monday night when Portland lost to Utah, you almost wished the Blazers could blow it up again, just to prove that management cared enough to be pissed off enough to kick somebody out of town if they couldn’t be bothered to focus for half a second with the game on the line.
I’ve tried very hard to not get involved in the Raymond Felton thing. I feel like a lot of the criticism has long gone beyond his game and become disturbingly personal, and that’s just not something I’m into. Right now, to get too malicious about Ray feels a little like piling on, as I’m sure everybody is going to be talking about his performance down the stretch and what percentage of the loss is his fault (I’ll set the over/under at 85.5%).
I will say this, though, he probably needs to not be a Blazer at the end of this season. Not because his play has been so terrible. I think overall he’s drifted somewhere between serviceable to not very good all year. That’s not a ringing endorsement, but I’d rather have Raymond at the point than say Sergio Rodriquez or any of the guys from my city league team. I just think he needs to go because it is clearly not working out. Maybe it’s the system, maybe it’s the town, maybe it’s the weight he didn’t lose in the off season, maybe it’s some magical combination of those factors. Whatever it is, I will be supremely disappointed if he is Portland’s starting point guard next season.
Post game all the Blazers did the thing professional athletes do. To a man (including and probably starting with head coach Kaleb Canales) they turned “we didn’t lose the game in the final possessions,” into a mantra. Nobody blamed Ray, except for Ray himself. Nicolas Batum, the in-bounder to Felton on the turned-over in-bounds play that sealed the win for Utah, blamed himself, saying he should have noticed Jamaal Tinsley streaking in from out of nowhere. To his credit though, I’m sure Nic was just as shocked as everybody in the Rose Garden to see Tinsley even on the court at all. Like the rest of us, he probably thought Tinsley retired in 2004.
Of course nobody on the Blazers is going to call-out Raymond Felton for his terrible turnovers on two key possessions. And although saying this game was not lost in the game’s final possessions makes no literal sense (Portland led by one and had the ball with 1:55 left on the clock. Two turnovers later they’re down three and the game is basically over. To me that seems like losing the game right there.) I understand the sentiment. It’s a team game; so no single player wins and no single player loses. It’s a 48-minute game with 80 or more possessions for each team; so no two-minute stretch decides the game, and no one turnover decides the game. I get it. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s everybody’s fault. It’s not one play. It’s every play. Fine.
To be fair, and to give credit where it’s due, Utah needed this game a lot more than Portland did, and maybe that was the ultimate difference. Like that game in 2007, the better team won. San Antonio did what they needed to do in the final two minutes to avoid losing to a young team 10 games under .500. Monday, Utah did what they needed to do to get a big win against a team they needed to beat. The Jazz made all the extra hustle plays, got all the second chance points they could, and made enough easy baskets to put themselves in a position to win. Portland got most of the way there too. But like that 2006-07 team, these Blazers just didn’t have the right stuff to get there all the way.
Also like that 2006-07 team, this 2011-12 team will finish outside the Playoff picture and in the lottery (the race for the eighth spot is academic now when it comes to Portland). Hopefully they use that lottery selection to make sure that games like Monday’s become a thing of the past.
Gerald Wallace returns to the Rose Garden as an employee of Jay-Z on Wednesday night as the Blazers try to close out this home stand with a win against the New Jersey Nets.
I’ll leave you with this, courtesy of the one and only Seth Johnston, formerly of “Writing On The Internet.”
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