There was a strange moment during coach Kaleb Canales’s post game presser following the Blazers “almost there but not quite there,” loss to the defending NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks Friday night.
This moment came when Canales stated in a matter-of-fact tone that he was proud of his team and their “game-winning effort,” and then a moment later delivered a prompt response when asked that since their effort was game-winning but they still lost would he, his team, and his staff be considering it a moral victory. His prompt response: “no.”
We’ve been in the land of doublethink for some time now, case in point the shutting down of LaMarcus Aldridge for medical reasons having absolutely nothing to do with the fact that every game for the last month or so has been meaningless, but this incidence of saying two contradictory things at one time left me a bit mystified.
I understand the importance for staying away from the death trap that is the moral victory; a coach wants real victories at the expense of all other victories. As a coach, when you start openly congratulating yourself on losing but doing it while almost winning or accomplishing some intangible or unquantifiable thing (like setting better ball screens or something), that’s the time you also start looking for a new job.
I just question what about Friday’s effort made it so “game-winning?” I’m not trying to run down a very admirable effort made by Portland to fight their way back from a 20-point deficit against a hot shooting Dallas team, it’s just a little unclear to me why you can call a losing effort winning, but you can’t claim something as a moral victory. I guess there’s a lot I don’t know about the inner workings of the mind of an NBA head coach.
As for Friday’s actual game, and the aforementioned “game-winning” effort. It’s my feeling that coach Canales hit it on the head when he said his team never quit. That’s a fantastic trait. Not quitting can mean the difference between spending the next season in the bottom half of the conference and making 2012-13 more productive than 11-12. So it’s good that that’s been covered.
The problem Friday wasn’t that the Blazers didn’t quit, it was that they didn’t show up until it was too late. In the first quarter Dallas shot 57% from the field compared to 25% for Portland. The Blazers didn’t lose this game in the first quarter, something I feel like I’ve said a number of times, but they didn’t do themselves any favors.
There were plenty of factors at play that led to a poor start for Portland. Dirk Nowitzki hit his first four field goal attempts, Shawn Marion hit his first three. The Blazers bricked all five of their opening three-point shots. In six minutes Luke Babbitt took three shots and none of them were threes. However, I think the thing most responsible for Portland falling on its collective face in the first quarter was of a more aesthetic nature. The score board wasn’t working. How can you tell you’re being creamed when you have no idea what the score is? And if you don’t know you’re getting creamed how do you counter punch?
I’m kidding of course. Yes the score board wasn’t working, and no I don’t think it had any influence on Portland’s play. The long and short of Friday’s game was that Dallas needed this win a lot more than Portland did. The Mavs came out gunning, they built an early lead, and then they spent three quarters trying to defend it. It’s not championship basketball, but just like you don’t win or lose a game in the first quarter, you don’t win the NBA title by beating the Blazers in April.
Friday had its share of intriguing moments down the stretch. There were, of course, the jokes about the last time Portland trailed by 20 to the Mavericks in a fourth quarter in the Rose Garden (we all know what happened way back then), there was the moment when it looked like history might repeat itself, and then there was the inevitable realization that even if we joked about it happening again in an effort to will lighting to strike twice, nobody will ever see a repeat of Brandon’s Game Four heroics. Not in Portland. Not anywhere.
The main difference between that fourth quarter last April and this fourth quarter almost a year later (apart from all the emotional elements tied to Brandon Roy being on the court at all) was that in that game the Blazers capitalized on every opportunity. In that game every Dallas turnover and every missed shot was turned into a positive for Portland. And every Blazer possession was handle like it could potentially tip the game in favor of the Mavericks for good.
In the fourth quarter of Game Four, Portland turned the ball over a grand total of ZERO times. Any one turnover in the course of that quarter, even if it was at the very beginning of the quarter before the Blazers started their push to the final moments, would have cost them the game.
Friday night’s fourth quarter saw Portland turn the ball over four times (twice at the very end but we all know who was responsible for that and I’m not going to go there). That’s more than enough turnovers to stall out and then eventually derail a comeback effort.
When we’ve had a few moments to reflect on 2011-12 when it is finally over for good, one thing we’re going to notice a lot is that there were many games when Portland was there at the end and couldn’t do what they needed to do to come away with a W. Blame it on Raymond Felton if you like. He’s had more than his share of late game foibles.
But instead of going knee-jerk on it, and pointing to one guy, think about how this team has chosen to close out games. Too many times this season late possessions have ended in turnovers or heaves at the shot clock buzzer. Very rarely have these Blazers been able to gather themselves late in a game call a play or initiate the offense, and get a good high percentage look. That happened long before Nate McMillan shoved off and Gerald Wallace headed back east. Every possession in the fourth quarter should be played like it can determine the outcome of a game, because sometimes it can. There have been far too many incidences of loose play this season leading to game losing decisions.
If and when the Blazers make the transition from furious comeback to measured and controlled performance without wild play and inopportune turnovers, there’s a good chance that they won’t have to spend three quarters of a basketball game climbing out of a double digit hole. There’s also a good chance that when that transition occurs, whoever holds the title of head coach can talk about a “game winning” effort in reference to a game that was actually won.
Enjoy your Saturday.
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