It didn’t take even a whole second from the time LaMarcus Aldridge’s buzzer-beating game-winner ripped through the net in Dallas, giving the Blazers a 99-97 overtime victory over last season’s NBA Champion Mavericks, for Mike Rice (potential Portland mayor) to do the thing that only kind of makes my skin crawl: start screaming about the Playoffs.
I appreciate the Wild One’s enthusiasm as much as the next Blazer fan. The thing with Friday night’s game, and why it doesn’t thrill me to follow it up with amplified “Playoff potential” ramblings, is that it was a great win, the kind of win that can be built on by even a non-Playoff bound team. It’s my feeling that instead of being excited about LA’s first game winner, in his home town, against the NBA Champs, and using Friday as some sort of launching point to a miracle Playoff run takes away from the actual good that we saw in Dallas.
I know, I know, beating good teams is bad for business, etc. etc., but I think we can talk about winning in Dallas as a good thing, even if it’s a clear indication that every effort this team is making to lose has pretty much failed.
Instead of focusing on numbers and stuff like that (although I will say that the difference in Friday’s game may very well have been Portland’s ability to keep Dallas to a measly 29% shooting from three), I want to speak first on what it means for LaMarcus to get his first game winner as a Portland Trail Blazer.
In the last season and change, we’ve had the privilege of watching LA develop from a strong second scoring option into an All-Star. What this team really needs from LaMarcus is to take that next step from one-time ASG participant to a bona fide superstar, a franchise caliber player that can spearhead the newest Blazer revival without too much residual drop-off in the upcoming season.
One big in-game element that will help LA make the jump to Dirk Nowitzki levels (or thereabouts) is becoming the go-to option on final possessions. The Blazers used to have a steady closer, one of the best in the business if I’m not mistaken, but he’s gone now. This season and some of last, there has been a concerted effort to find that guy that can replace Brandon Roy with the game on the line and the ball in his hands. Unfortunately it’s probably not going to happen. Brandon made late-game heroics so commonplace in Portland that we often forget how rare an occurrence they actually are (which leads directly to everybody being upset with Jamal Crawford when he can’t deliver every night at the end of games), and trying to replace that is a losing battle.
But instead of trying to fill Brandon’s role with another player who has the same basic method of scoring points, what Portland can do going forward is start to rely more on LaMarcus. Most late game situations this season have seen the ball in the hands of Jamal Crawford, and as I’ve already pointed out, the success rate in those scenarios hasn’t been super good.
Friday was set up to be more of the same. Portland started their final possession with 19 seconds on the game clock. Dallas wisely used their foul to give with three seconds remaining, and that made the Blazers re-set their final play from an in-bounds. If you go back and watch the replay, which you should, you’ll notice that it still seems like the intention isn’t to get the ball to LA.
It makes sense to not throw directly inside on a last second in-bounds play in a tie game in overtime. It’s a dangerous pass, and a lot can go wrong, so maybe Friday’s play shouldn’t be the archetype. However, once LA got the ball, he was able to create space and take a very high percentage shot. That’s all you need in late game situations.
The Blazers aren’t always going to be in the situation they were in Friday: limited amount of time, worst case scenario (barring something totally tragic like a picked off pass turning into a game-winning lay-up) another overtime. But they are going to have late-game scenarios again at some point. To get LaMarcus the ball on the last possession might take some different kinds of strategic planning (like running an actual play in the last few seconds instead of calling an iso, or getting into a set with 11 seconds left instead of four or five), but not only will giving LA the ball on a game’s final possession give him a confidence boost, something I firmly believe he needs, it will also give Portland their best chance to win games. Winning games is important.
Friday wasn’t just about LA, though. Something else very important happened. Something that has already become a hot-button issue with those who care a lot about the Blazers and spend time talking publicly about those feelings. Raymond Felton had an absolute MONSTER of a game, his second big game in as many nights. In fact, Felton has now had big nights in three out of his last four starts. What’s more, all three of those big nights have been Blazer wins.
Ray has the ability to draw hate like few others before him (although that assessment is a bit skewed, I’m sure Orlando Magic fans would be hard pressed to care at all about what’s going on with Felton at this moment). He’s reputation is so defamed that even when he plays well nobody has anything good to say about him. The usual follow-ups to a good Felton game are hesitant approval, damning with faint praise, and a warning to not get to used to it because it will get worse or wasn’t really that good to begin with (I admit I’ve done this too), or nothing at all.
Ray’s play Friday was hard to overlook: 30 points, 5-of-8 from deep, seven rebounds, six assists, two steals, and an unbelievable third quarter, all while only turning it over twice in 43 minutes. Felton spared the local press having to credit him personally with the win by missing a late lay-up, but if anybody other than LaMarcus deserves credit for Friday’s victory it’s Felton, without a doubt.
I’ll admit, Ray’s play has been much much better as of late. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that his improvement has come in the face of the most intense scrutiny and criticism. Felton has always struck me as one of those pros who plays at his very best when people are telling him he’s horrible. He came into the league with a chip on his shoulder. That’s his natural disposition.
I’m like everybody else, I think the Raymond Felton experiment has been a bust and Portland should move on. Felton is going to do everything in his power to prove me and everybody else wrong. The good thing about this situation is that it’s a win-win really. If Felton stays, the fan base will explode with vitriol like we’ve never seen, he’ll be the center of any and all arguments of how Portland failed in their rebuilding process, he’ll be blamed for every loss next year.
How exactly is that a win-win? Well the media wins by having an automatic scape goat, the Blazers win because an angry, out-to-prove-you-wrong Felton seems to be an effective Felton, and Ray wins because he plays his way back to his previous contract/trade value. Blazer fans win on all fronts; they get to watch a winning team, they get to snipe at the media for taking pot-shots at a winning PG, and they get to say good-bye to Raymond Felton when he finally does get traded. So really, it’s a win-win-win-win. There’s some positivity on the Ray Felton front.
So Portland does it, they give Kaleb Canales his first back-to-back victories. That’s phenomenal. They have a chance to stretch that run to an even three tonight in Milwaukee against the Bucks. Again, this is a game loaded with implications. Hopefully Mike Rice will keep a lid on the Playoff talk should Portland win. I can only imagine how hard it is going to be to listen to him talk about the Blazers still have a chance to make the post season should the lose.
One quick thing:
- As to the J.J. Hickson/Joel Przybilla who should start debate. Joel started on a bad ankle, played only slightly more than Jonny Flynn and Hasheem Thabeet, and scored on Portland’s very first possession. Hickson played 27 minutes, and struggled from the floor, shooting 4-of-11. J.J. did have 7 rebounds and played some good interior defense. Neither guy was in at the end of the game, with the Blazers opting for a three guard set so they could have shooters on the floor. The feeling right now is that Kaleb is going to defer to Joel; if he wants to play he’s going to play, and if he’s playing he’s the starter. I get it. I really do. Joel is a vet, he’s a rock for this organization, he deserves it. Having said that, getting J.J. in with the starters might help his rhythm, and it will limit his time on the court without LaMarcus Aldridge. J.J. is at his least effective when he’s the only scoring option on the court, and he helps out the most when he keeps big guys from doubling LaMarcus. I know I started this post slamming Rice for talking Playoffs, but if the Blazers want to make a real run and they decide to shorter their rotation, J.J. in for Joel is not only a no-brainer, it could be the type of thing that turns a two-game run into a longer-than-two-game run (I’m not going to speculate specifically lest I jinx it).
Email me: [email protected]