There were a lot of interesting descriptors being thrown around by the Blazers following Wednesday’s blowout loss to the Brooklyn Nets, a loss that comes as a pretty severe blow to what shred of hope still remains that Portland will be participating in this season’s playoffs.
Head coach Terry Stotts questioned his team’s focus and its consistency. Meyers Leonard called the game embarrassing and Damian Lillard agreed. J.J. Hickson said the Blazers got punched in the mouth and didn’t respond. Overall, the team seemed to be searching for a deeper reason as to why, following a relatively successful final extended road trip, they played arguably one of their worst home games of the season.
But for my money, it’s far more simple than being unfocused and inconsistent, being mental unprepared and unable to react. Brooklyn does things Portland can’t, they have a roster and a rotation designed to attack a team like the Blazers where they are weakest. Wednesday Portland was weak in the interior, both on defense and on offense, Brook Lopez and Reggie Evans took advantage of that.
I know that might sound like an oversimplification, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. The Blazers have struggled all season against teams that are big and physical down low, and it really has nothing to do with lack of focus or inconsistency. It is a direct result of gaps in personnel. J.J. Hickson is a good rebounder, but he’s not a great rebounder like Reggie Evans. Hickson is not the kind of rebounder who excels in traffic or when the man he is fighting against for the ball is as good at positioning as Evans is. Wednesday, a few of Hickson’s defensive rotations were slow and his box outs were soft, that was all Evans needed.
As for Brook Lopez, LaMarcus Aldridge really isn’t able to guard him. He did better than Hickson or Meyers Leonard, but he could really only slow the Brooklyn big, he couldn’t stop him. And that has nothing to do with LA’s defensive abilities. LaMarcus can’t match up against arguably the best center in the league because LA is not a center.
Wednesday was the nightmare come to life Neil Olshey was having last off-season when the Pacers matched Portland’s offer sheet to Roy Hibbert. It was the shining example of why a project big like Leonard maybe doesn’t belong on a team like the Blazers with aspirations for the playoffs this season and for sure next. It showed that for all J.J. Hickson has done to boost his stock in 2012-13, there are a lot of guys out there who are simply better than J.J. at the things he supposed to be so good at.
Portland has a few options left for the 11 games that remain this season. Brooklyn was the Blazers’ last Eastern Conference opponent. The final stretch includes two games against Utah (home and away), and home games against Memphis, the Lakers, Oklahoma City, Houston, and Golden State. There are no easy games left, but there are enough meaningful games that should Portland get hot and close the season with some wins, they might (emphasis HEAVILY on MIGHT) give themselves a shot. That means playing every game like it could be the last game of the season. That means shortening the rotation. That means not pulling LaMarcus Aldridge when he rolls an ankle in the first quarter. That’s one option.
The second option is to bag it. There’s no way at this stage in the season the Blazers can make the kind of adjustments needed to get the right amount of wins to get themselves into the playoff picture. It’s just not possible. So maybe it’s time to give up. Stotts doesn’t need to bench his whole rotation, but how about cutting LA’s minutes in half, playing Meyers Leonard and Joel Freeland together for at least 20 minutes a game over this stretch, and what about Will Barton? There are guys on this roster that could use the extra time, plus these last 11 games could be used as an extended try-out/audition for Luke Babbitt and Nolan Smith. They might still have value in a sign and trade scenario, but Portland won’t know unless they play.
Really, there’s no reason not to go with this second option, the Blazers will certainly miss the playoffs, but that’s going to happen regardless, and when they get blowout big by the Thunder and the Grizzlies, the team will have the built-in excuse that it was a result of playing deeper rotation guys. Option one is a win if (and only if) Portland gets the wins and makes the playoffs. It’s a lose if anything bad happens at all, an injury to one of the core four being the worst thing that could happen. Option two is a win-win.
Wednesday Stotts employed a third option by combining option one with option two. We’ll have to wait an see if that’s going to be the game plan moving forward. Portland’s regular rotation got the bulk of the minutes in Wednesday’s first three quarters, then were pulled early in the fourth. A lineup of Will Barton, Nolan Smith, Joel Freeland, Meyers Leonard, and Victor Claver cut a 30-point deficit to 14 and flirted with getting the game closer. Nets head coach P.J. Carlesimo, who had been playing his bench too at the time, went back to his starters, Stotts didn’t, and that was that.
Smart money says that Portland continues their quest for the playoffs up until they are mathematically eliminated from contention. The Blazers are three and a half games behind the Lakers, so that mathematical elimination could come as early as next week. The approach changes slightly once there is no chance Portland makes the post season. Until then, though, expect more of the same from the Blazers.
They’ll come out talking about the playoffs, and if they play well they’ll continue to maintain that they have a chance. If they play like they did Wednesday, they’ll react the way they did Wednesday night: dejected, embarrassed, as if their season is slipping away. That’s fine for where this team is in it’s development, plus I’m not going to be the one to tell them their season was over in the middle of last month.
Portland faces off against the Utah Jazz Friday in their final home game of March.
One quick thing
- Terry Stotts was asked in his post game presser about not going back to his starters late in the fourth quarter. He said he left his bench guys in because they made the run and they deserved to see the game to its conclusion. It was an interesting scene Wednesday night to see Deron Williams, Gerald Wallace, Brook Lopez, Reggie Evans, and Keith Bogans check in with five minutes to play up 14 in a game that was certainly over. It was even more interesting to watch how easily Brooklyn’s top five sucked the air out of Portland’s run and dominated that final run of the game. I’m not sure how I would classify P.J.’s move. The Nets want to win, certainly, but don’t his second unit players deserve a chance to try and keep a game from getting away from them? Does he really need to put all his starters back in? Did he expect Stotts to put his guys back in too and his strike was preemptive? It didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. What did make sense was the reaction to the question about his tactics. This game was never close, even after that run. Stotts was sticking with his second unit guys because the game was over. Now if Portland had cut the lead to 10, you can bet Stotts would have had his guys back in the game. And if he hadn’t, that would have been Wednesday night’s main story.