Well you know what they say, nothing lasts forever. A 5-0 record in overtime games was nice. A 6-0 record in overtime games would have, of course, been better. Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Keeping Tuesday’s game close was basically all that could be asked for from the Blazers. It doesn’t get any closer than tied after 48 minutes. The problem, of course, with losing as Portland did in Denver 115-111 in overtime, is that the Blazers maximized their effort but minimized their outcome.
What do I mean by that? Look at the box score for Portland re: minutes played. Wesley Matthews 43 minutes, Nicolas Batum 45 minutes, Damian Lillard 42 minutes, LaMarcus Aldridge 45 minutes, and J.J. Hickson 34 minutes. These numbers are fine if the Blazers could have held on in the extra five-minute period. You take that kind of heavy load when it ends in a win. But when you’re starting five are getting up into the mid forties, you risk giving up one game and basically forfeiting the next because everybody’s wheels have fallen off entirely.
So what is Portland to do to keep this kind of thing from becoming a problem? There’s not much that can be done, unfortunately, and that’s the real problem. Finishing late game situations can come down to luck. One bounce or one foul call can tip the scales toward one team or the other when a single possession in the difference between winning and losing. The Blazers can’t get lucky time out. They need to find a way to avoid having to play a close game every night. But with the bench they have, Portland isn’t going to be able to blow out many teams in the NBA, certainly not the Denver Nuggets in their own home.
Because of this sad fact, I’m going to make a bold suggestion, the Blazers need to not worry at all about running their top five guys into the ground. I’m saying basically abandon the bench. As Portland’s GM Neil Olshey has said, the core of this team is Lillard, Aldridge, Batum, and Matthews. That four has been pretty phenomenal all season. That four can play with any team in the league. J.J. Hickson has had his moments, but he’s not really part of the future of this franchise. Play those four guys 40 minutes a night, and deal with what comes.
Why do I think Portland should do that? Two reasons.
First, the Blazers get absolutely nothing from their bench. Jared Jeffries got a shout out from Mike and Mike during Tuesday’s game for providing important minutes. In nine minutes of action on Tuesday, Jeffries didn’t attempt a single shot and his only stats were two blocked shots. Will Barton played 17 and a half minutes and scored seven points, and at this point, he’s the bench outlier. When Meyers Leonard comes back, whenever that may be, he’ll be a bench outlier too, playing consistent minutes and maybe even scoring. Other than those two, there’s no reason to play Portland’s bench other than to guarantee that none of the starters are going to die from exhaustion on the court.
Second, Portland’s starting five might be good enough to make the Playoffs this season, and barring some off season snafus or other unforeseen problems will certainly compete in 2013-14. The window here for the Blazers (in my opinion) is from this season until the last season of LaMarcus Aldridge’s contract the 2014-15 season. This isn’t the window for a championship, I’m not that big of a homer, but their window to compete enough to convince LA to re-sign in Portland. By playing the core of this team as much as possible, they grow together and will gel fast enough to be competitive sooner rather than later. That’s important.
Not only that, if Portland has a well established top four, it makes it that much easier to identify and incorporate a key addition. When there are four or five variables to fix, the possibilities are endless for getting the wrong guy. If a team needs only one or two things addressed, then it’s easier to not mess up with the wrong signing.
Which brings me back to Tuesday’s game. Right now the Blazers’ margin for error is pretty slim. If they could have gotten a more meaningful contribution from Luke Babbitt or Ronnie Price, they would probably be leaving Denver with a win instead of a now three-game losing streak. But relying on Babbitt or Price isn’t where anybody wants to be. It’s very hard to poke holes in the games played by Lillard, Hickson, Matthews, Batum, and Aldridge. Against a very deep and multifaceted team like the Denver Nuggets, five guys playing great sometimes isn’t enough.
The Blazers are back in action Wednesday night at home against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Portland will be starting another extended home stand needing a couple wins to continue the positive flow of the month of January.
One quick thing:
- Standings Watch: Portland sits at 8th, .001 ahead of Utah and half a game behind Houston. Thirty-eight games isn’t quite half way through the season, but it’s safe to say that Utah, Portland, the LA Lakers, and the Timberwolves will be fighting it out for the eighth spot in the Western Conference. You have to count Minny in the race because Kevin Love will come back at some point. The Jazz might get a face lift (or the opposite of a face lift) when they trade either Paul Milsap or Al Jefferson. The Lakers just got 62 points from Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant and Laker bros the world over are claiming their team is back. I think the Blazers have a good shot (plus there are other teams that could fall out of the top eight), but they’ll have their work cut out for them.