One of the most traumatizing and saddest moments in my personal history as a Blazer fan came on April 18, 2009 at the Rose Garden in game one of Portland’s first round Playoff series with the Houston Rockets. You all remember that game, I’m sure. After winning 16 of their last 20 games, the Blazers hosted the Rockets in a “Welcome Back to the Playoffs,” series. After 24 minutes the Rockets led by 18. The game, the series, and the season was over. A sell-out crowd of delirious fans hungry for the Conference Finals and beyond sat in stunned silence when that game ended, not believing what had unfolded right before their eyes.
Monday’s loss to the same Rockets (same in name only, the Houston team that crushed the dreams of Rip City Reborn featured some guy named Ron Artest, Yao Ming ret., and Aaron Brooks) was not nearly as soul crushing, and might even serve to remind us that making the Playoffs is special, and takes an extended effort and just the smallest amount of luck.
The Blazers, in their history, have been relatively consistent when it comes to reaching the post season. Since the 1970-71 season, Portland’s first in the NBA, the Blazers have failed to reach the Playoffs 12 times, including a run of six seasons at the birth of the franchise that ended in Portland’s first and only NBA championship. That’s 41 total completed seasons and 30 Playoff appearances. That’s pretty good.
2011-12 will be Portland’s 42nd season, and it’s 13th without reaching the post season. It’s probably that imbalance of long-term success versus short-term failure that makes a game like Monday’s tough for fans.
Blazer fans demand success all the time no matter what. When the wins don’t come, the natives get restless. Remember 2005-06? Portland goes 21-61, rumors fly that Paul Allen’s ditching the team, or worse packing up his ball and moving the Blazers north to Seattle. It was mayhem and pandemonium. The Blazers avoided a three or four season rebuilding run with some draft day trickery, and fast forward here we are, talking rebuilding out the left side of our mouth while the right side refuses to admit that the Playoffs are no longer on the table.
It’s why Monday night coach Kaleb Canales took a 20-second timeout with Portland down 90-81 with 1:08 left to play in the fourth quarter, and a full timeout with 16 seconds left and the Blazers trailing 92-84, and then another 20 with 5.6 seconds left and Portland behind 94-87.
It’s also why, when asked about his choice to burn the Blazers’ timeouts to draw up plays and teach his guys a lesson or take advantage of a learning opportunity or whatever it is that coaches do in those situations, Canales balked at the question saying that a three makes it a five point game, and a steal and another three makes it a two point game. Every game is a winnable game is the attitude. Every game is another chance at getting back into the Playoffs. That the Playoffs have come and gone a month ago and nobody wants to admit it is what is frustrating to me.
I’ve long maintained that tanking isn’t something Portland should be doing, but that doesn’t mean the Blazers shouldn’t be getting a look at the guys they have that might want to be a part of the long-term picture for this franchise. Monday, Luke Babbitt could have gotten a lesson in perimeter defense from Chase Budinger. Nolan Smith could have worked on his fitness levels tracking Goran Dragic and Kyle Lowry, same for Jonny Flynn. Portland fans could have had all their dreams fulfilled watching Craig Smith smash Louis Scola over and over.
Instead, Canales goes with the rotation (something he said post game he has not been advised to do by anybody that you very much), and a Playoff bound team beats a lottery team, an outcome that surprised almost nobody and would have been the same regardless of which guys played 35 minutes and which guys played 15.
One good thing that came from rotation guys getting heavy minutes was more J.J. Hickson and LaMarcus Aldridge. That two-some is still very much a work in progress, with Hickson coming down to earth a little in the last few games. There were times when Hickson setting up on the low block kept LA from catching the ball as deep as he’d probably like. But overall, having Hickson on the floor with LA allowed for a much more open pick-and-pop, setting LaMarcus up for plenty of uncontested top of the key jumpers, the shot that has made him an All-Star and will turn him into a superstar.
As for Hickson, Bobby Roberts of the Portland Mercury and other stuff made an astute comment to me when he said Hickson was like controlled chaos, or something like that. I agree. Hickson seems to play at somewhere between 8.5 and 10 at all times. There isn’t anything wrong with that; I prefer a balls out hustler who doesn’t take a play off than a guy who loafs half the time. The key for J.J. will be finding that level of play where he can work hard without losing control or making bad decisions.
My contention when it comes to Hickson is that when you begin your career playing with LeBron James you get used to being able to do whatever you want on the court. With LeBron every play is LeBron does stuff with the ball. Your number is never called. You only get yours by freelancing when the LeBron with the ball play breaks down. That’s not a totally terrible place to be.
For Hickson it means he’s developed a sense of how to score without having a play called for him. It also means he probably won’t get all emo because LaMarcus Aldridge is going to be doing most of the scoring. On the other hand, though, LA isn’t the Chosen One or King James or whatever new nickname LeBron has given himself, so J.J. will get a more active offensive role in Portland.
Maybe when NBA.com brands Portland with that little dot that signifies no Playoffs, coach Canales will play Hickson and LA 40 minutes apiece, giving them the last eight nights or whatever is left to use this game time to really gel, getting a jump on next season.
The Blazers have Tuesday off, and then are back in action against the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday. Finally a game with absolutely no Playoff implications for either team.
Just a few quick things:
- Goran Dragic might be a free agent target for the Blazers. Seems logical. Portland has a tendency to go after mid-level guys at or very close to their ceiling who probably demand more than they’re worth. ESPN’s John Hollinger was in the house Monday, and he used the Goran Dragic to Portland premise to really flex his Twitter comedy muscles. He started with this, then took it up a level with this, then just couldn’t help himself with this. Proving that he is so hip to Portland’s game, he left us wanting more with this. I quit listening to the NBA Today podcast from ESPN when I heard Henry Abbott say the words “improve games.” I probably won’t quit Twitter, but I’d recommend Hollinger takes a look at the feeds of real comedians, you know dudes who are paid to be funny, before he quits his day job. Hollinger, if you somehow stumbled onto this post, I recommend Rob Delaney, Kyle Kinane, the Sklar Brothers for sports comedy, and Ian Karmel, Ron Funches, and Sean Jordan if you want to stay local.
- Speaking of Twitter. While the Blazers were helping the Rockets prepare for the Playoffs, the Lakers were facing the Hornets in New Orleans. Up two with only a few seconds left to play Metta World Peace delivered the best in-bounds play ever. Peace took to Twitter following the game, and before inviting both men and women to Skype with him took a shot at NOLA’s Jason Smith. MWP then went super meta, live tweeting what sounded like a crazy group Skype session. And then, just to keep everybody on their toes said goodbye to all his Twitter followers until July. My guess is there is a rider in his contract that he can’t Tweet during the Playoffs. They say the line between genius and total lunacy is thin and porous in places. Only a few people in human history better reflect the accuracy of that adage than Metta World Peace.
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