I know it might not seem like it at the moment, but Friday’s loss is just the kind of thing this Blazer team needs right now. The Los Angeles Lakers are basically the exact opposite of the Blazers. The Lakers were built to win now. Like right now. They haven’t gelled through 30 games, but the first 30 games of this season are totally meaningless. In fact, all 82 of 2012-13’s regular season games are meaningless, unless of course the lose enough games to miss the Playoffs.
Portland, on the other hand, is a work in progress. Although winning individual games is still pretty meaningless, the development of this roster over the course of the season is what matters most. The Blazers won’t be in the Playoffs, regardless of how many bad teams they beat in a row. The Lakers will be in the Playoffs, and it will break our schadenfreude loving hearts when it happens.
So why does getting absolutely dominated start to finish by a .500 Laker team help Portland? First, and probably most importantly, it brings everybody back to reality. Second, it exposes a couple pretty glaring weaknesses that can then be addressed and fixed. And third, it gives these young Blazers something to look at and build off of.
Let’s address these things through, shall we?
First, the reality check. The Blazers, their fans, even some of their bloggers were flying high this month. Sure, they beat up on a couple of bad teams, but they looked alright in the process. No, they’re not going to make the Playoffs, and yes this is still a team with a long way to go, but watching Portland play well, watching Damian Lillard shine night in and night out, and seeing five wins in a row has gone a long way to erase the memory of last season, something everybody even remotely involved with this organization desperately needed.
What they needed too, was a healthy dose of what’s actually going on. Just as the Lakers’ miserable 30-game start will have no bearing on how they finish the season, so too will Portland’s better-than-expected opening two months and then some change the fact that 2012-13 is the first of at least two rebuilding seasons. The sooner we all realize what this season is all about, preparing for a future in which the Blazers win 45 to 50 games and actually compete in the Playoffs, the better off we’ll all be. Especially considering that January looks to be just as brutal as December was easy.
Second, fixing the obvious errors. Friday night the Los Angeles Lakers did something Portland has not been able to do so far this season. They came out with a clear game plan, they executed that game plan, and they totally dominated the game. LA’s plan was two-fold. On offense, they forced everything inside to utilize their quite substantial height advantage. On defense, they denied the ball to Damian, and when he got the ball they bodied him up and doubled him. The didn’t do much to stop or slow down LaMarcus Aldridge, and they were more than happy to let Portland’s cast of other guys try to score if they wanted.
Both tactics worked. The Lakers racked up 58 points in the paint, getting basically everything they wanted inside. Dwight Howard did most of the damage for LA in the paint. He finished Friday with 21 points, shooting 7-of-13 from the field, and showed that more than anything, the Blazers are lacking a center. How does this situation get fixed? Well, the long-term fix is Meyers Leonard. The short-term fix is to trade J.J. Hickson for picks so Meyers Leonard has to start.
Along with Dwight Howard having a big night, Kobe Bryant was untouchable in Friday’s first quarter. He finished with 27 points, hitting nine of his 18 field goal attempts, and would have had more if the Blazers could have kept the game within arms-length for more than a couple of minutes. How does one solve Kobe Bean Bryant? Well one really doesn’t. What Portland could have done Friday, though, to lessen the impact of a big game from Kobe, would have been playing a little better off the ball defense and crashing the boards. Those are things that can be easily addressed through film sessions and practice and stuff like that.
As for dealing with the defense the Lakers played on Damian Lillard, that’s a very key issue for Portland to address. It was very clear that LA’s plan was to stop Dame, and thus stall out the Blazers’ offense. It worked. Lillard went 4-of-17 from the field and 1-of-4 from deep. He still contributed 11 points, four assists, and two rebounds, but his team got blown out even after LaMarcus Aldridge shot 12-of-17 from the field for 26 points. Teams around the league are going to see that.
They’ve been jumping out at Damian for a couple of weeks now, but Friday was the first time we’ve seen a team go all-in on keeping the ball out of Lillard’s hands. The Blazers will now have to adjust, and that’s not a bad thing. How do they make that adjustment? They get other guys involved in the offense. By other guys I specifically mean Nicolas Batum. Nic has been passing the ball a lot lately, and it’s led to a lot of good things. But it’s also led to a drop off in his offensive effectiveness. Friday, Batum was 5-of-11 from the field and 0-of-5 from three. Those numbers need to go up for Portland to win when Damian is having an off night. The good thing for Nic is that if twos are committing two defenders to Dame, he’ll have a lot of open looks.
The third and final way the Blazers were exposed Friday night was in their inability to sustain or stop a run. There were a few minutes when this game was actually close. Those minutes came in the second quarter when Portland closed the gap to four. They went on a run to get there, but the run was short. Then, unfortunately, the Lakers went on a run, a run the Blazers couldn’t stop.
To get to the point where Portland can sustain a run or stop their opponents from going on a run, they need to get help from their bench unit. Most of the Blazers’ back-ups were completely ineffective on offense. They were equally as ineffective on defense. To beat a team like the Lakers, you have to take full advantage of the time when their stars are not on the floor. This game was always out of Portland’s control (let’s be honest, the Lakers needed a win in the worst way and the Blazers reverse lucked into being the team that got beat up to give them that win), but if Portland’s reserves could have kept LA’s reserves from getting hot in the second quarter, Friday could have been a much closer game.
And finally, Friday’s a game to build off it. Let us take a look back to my favorite recent Blazer season shall we? To start the 2008-09 season, Portland walked into the Staples Center, and walked out short Greg Oden and losers by 20. They went on to win 54 games.
The Blazers have had lower lows this season, but a game like Friday’s is just the type of game a young team can look to in the middle of a rough stretch and say let’s not do that again. Friday Portland was not engaged, the effort wasn’t there to match the effort put out by a very highly motivated Laker team, and they got totally steamrolled. Led by Damian Lillard, this team of young guys doesn’t like to get knocked down. They don’t like to be embarrassed. Friday will be a motivator.
Does that mean i think they’ll go on to win 54 games? Of course not. But I do think losing the way they did to the Lakers might give the Blazers the motivation they’re going to need to get at least one big win on their upcoming road trip to start the month of January.
Portland closes out December at home against the 76ers on Saturday.
Just one quick thing:
- In my December preview, I predicted the Blazers would finish the month 8-5. Right now Portland has eight wins on the month. I didn’t correctly call all of the Blazers’ wins and losses, but if Portland doesn’t beat the Sixers, I would have had my first correct prediction since I started making monthly predictions last season. I can’t decide if it’s better for my ego to get my prediction right, or better for the Blazers to exceed what even I considered pretty lofty expectations.