There are only 10 home games left in 2012-13. Blazers’ head coach Terry Stotts, when asked after Portland’s loss on Wednesday to the Memphis Grizzlies, if it’s time to admit that the season, as far as the playoffs is concerned, is over, he responded by saying he, his players, and his staff are still taking it “one game at a time.”
The sentiment is good. The head coach of a middling team on the rebuild giving up on a season that was never really supposed to go anywhere sends the wrong message. The sad thing, though, and something that doesn’t really get to be talked about since the Blazers hit the skids a little bit through a very difficult second half, is that this team is actually pretty good. We don’t get to enjoy the successes, and there are many, when they come in losses.
Because the Grizzlies are one of the top teams in the Western Conference, and because Portland only has three more games this season against teams with below .500 records, I’m going to buck the trend here a little bit. Instead of looking at some the negative aspects of Wednesday’s game (things such as being totally unable to stop Mike Conley and Nicolas Batum checking out on the offensive end) that tilted it in the favor of Memphis, I’m going to take this opportunity to highlight some of the things Portland did well.
It’s stands to reason that after a tough loss, with more tough losses looming and the off-season fast approaching, that we’d get all cynical and focus only on the negative. I’m counseling against it. Sure this season is over, but there’s good stuff coming, and some stuff that went down Wednesday should back up that theory.
Starting with Meyers Leonard.
Leonard missed nearly a month the first time he sprained his ankle in 2012-13. This most recent time, he missed only a single game. Meyers wasn’t on fire Wednesday, he missed a couple of long jumpers that weren’t exactly ill-advised but didn’t look super great, but he was moving around just fine. Leonard played 17 minutes and went 3-of-6 from the field. His makes and misses were balanced, two makes one miss instead two misses one make outside, and his fouling was basically kept in check. Meyers struggled against Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, but so does everybody else in the NBA.
The future for Meyers is a little uncertain, especially if Neil Olshey uses the bulk of Portland’s cap space to land a marquee center (Al Jefferson maybe), but if Leonard can keep his minutes average at or around 20 for the remaining regular season games and if he can continue to score inside he’ll carve himself a spot on this roster.
Moving on from Meyers Leonard to Eric Maynor.
It’s hard to overstate the long-term impact adding Eric Maynor has had on Portland’s roster. The Blazers’ offensive efficiency is up, the second unit is no longer a black hole, and Damian Lillard can play off the ball a little, maximizing his prodigious catch-and-shoot talent.
Maynor hasn’t taken long to find his groove with Portland. Through eight games, the Blazers’ first real back-up point guard is averaging 22 minutes, eight points, and five assists a night, and he still hasn’t really had the time needed to master Portland’s offense. A summer to continue his return to game shape, and a camp and pre-season to iron out the kinks, and Maynor will be really ready to go.
And finally, how the Blazers closed out Wednesday’s game.
This is kind of a two-part thing. First, Portland closed Wednesday’s game, which was basically over with a couple of minutes to play, by attacking the rim and getting either quick hoops or trips to the line.
Two possession games with under a minute to play are a tough nut to crack. NBA players are usually better than average free throw shooters (or at least NBA teams have enough good free throw shooters on their roster to put guys on the floor who aren’t going to miss), and even though the 24-second shot clock means the team with the lead can’t just hold the ball starting at the two-minute mark, using the clock to force possessions and try to get stops is iffy at best.
Down four with 45 seconds left, you can’t let your opponent burn 24 seconds hoping they don’t score at the buzzer (or worse miss a shot and then get an offensive rebound). The trailing team has to foul, and to maximize the impact of fouling late in games, that trailing team also has to find a way to get scores without letting much time run off the clock.
Wednesday, Portland was able to score 12 points in the final 41.3 seconds. Memphis scored 10 points in the same time period, but they were leading, and all but two of their points came at the line. The Grizzlies earned their win Wednesday by not chocking, but the Blazers did all they could to put the pressure on.
That only five of Portland’s last 12 points didn’t come on free throws also shows that the Blazers, though the game was out of hand, were set on attacking the rim to close the gap. Relying on bombing threes to race back into a game can be fun when it works, but it doesn’t work all that often. Getting free points with the clock stopped is a much better tactic. That Stotts has his team playing smart late against a strong team, giving themselves a chance in one or two free throws didn’t fall, bodes well for the future.
The other important thing to take away from Portland’s closing run was personnel. The Blazers finished Wednesday night with Lillard, Maynor, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, and LaMarcus Aldridge on the floor. That’s a scoring line-up. That’s the line-up that blew San Antonio out of the water. Those five allow Portland to push the pace, and with two distributors and three shooters on the floor, the lanes are open for drives and the perimeter is uncovered for threes. There are worse ways to close a game.
So those are my positive takeaways from Wednesday night. They can be stretched out to cover the season if you want, or they can be localized to just this last game.
The Blazers are stuck on 29 wins right now. One more win, and Portland has reached the lower limit of my season win-total projection. That win could come this week (Detroit comes through on Saturday and is the second to last team with a sub .500 record to play in the Rose Garden).
If the Blazers hit 30 wins, we should really celebrate. Things have been up and down for Portland in 2012-13, but at the end of the day everything could be a lot worse for this team than losing by five to a team that has a better than decent shot at the Western Conference Finals.
Raymond Felton returns to Portland with the Knicks on Thursday.