Something was very clearly missing for the Blazers Friday night at the Rose Garden. It wasn’t exactly intensity; Portland played three and a half quarters of very solid basketball, dictating the tempo of play for most of the night. It wasn’t execution either, at least not for much of the game; Friday the Blazers got a lot of very good looks and were able to get easy baskets even deep into the fourth quarter.
It wasn’t even LaMarcus Aldridge. With their All-Star sitting behind the bench in street clothes and gleaming diamond earrings, Portland got very valuable contributions from Victor Claver and Meyers Leonard, nearly making up for what they lost without LA in the lineup.
What was missing from Friday’s game was a closer, or if not a closer, then a finishing move. Friday’s game was basically the opposite of Wednesday’s. The Blazers lost to the Nets in Wednesday’s opening minutes. They lost to the Jazz in Friday’s closing minutes.
A young team, with a very positive future is still learning things 72 games into an 82-game season. Games like Wednesday’s and Fridays offer different lessons. On Wednesday Portland learned that Reggie Evans can influence the outcome of a game with three offensive rebounds in a game’s opening half dozen possessions. Friday, the Blazers learned that you can lead for 45 minutes, but that means little when you’re trailing after 48 minutes.
The best teams in the NBA start and finish games strong. Those teams that are still learning their way lose at the beginning and the end of games. Portland has never been one of the best teams in the league this season, even if they’ve flirted with the top 16 or higher (I think at their highest they were near the top 10 in at least one league-wide power ranking), and over the last week and change, they’ve shown more of their true colors. The 2012-13 Blazers are a work in progress. The progress has been good, but they still have a long way to go.
Friday’s game reminded me a bit of one of the most memorable games of Brandon Roy’s rookie year. It was a late season home game against the Spurs, and Portland, headed again to the lottery after making a bit of early-season noise with a crazy long winning streak, lead almost all the way. In that game’s final few possessions, Manu Ginobili went super nova, and the Spurs won. It was just another W for the best team in the league at the time, but for the Blazers it was a backbreaker, a season deflator.
The Jazz weren’t really toying with Portland Friday, as the Spurs may have been doing on that night so many years ago. Utah was the better team, even when trailing, but this was a competitive game, the Jazz didn’t just flip the switch because they felt like it was time to throttle the Blazers. Utah played opportunistic basketball. They took advantage of Portland not being able to shut the door. They took advantage of four straight Blazer turnovers that helped to erase a six-point Portland lead. They made shots down the stretch when the Blazers couldn’t. In short, they had what Portland didn’t: a closer.
Al Jefferson had a fantastic night Friday, abusing both Meyers Leonard and Joel Freeland with his patented set of ball fakes, spin moves, and mid-range jumpers, but it was Mo Williams who provided the baskets that made the most difference at the close of the fourth quarter.
Williams is no stranger to torching the Blazers, he went for 40 (or there about) as a Cavalier in 08-09, helping Cleveland achieve what was basically impossible that season, getting a win against Portland in the Rose Garden. Mo scored 14 points in Friday’s final frame, eight of those points came during Utah’s closing run that that tilted this game in their favor for good.
Damian Lillard played very well against the crafty Williams, but he didn’t get the help he needed, not from the referees who were letting a lot of contact under and around the rim go, and not from his teammates who all seemed to go cold at the same time.
The Blazers probably won’t want to watch tape of Friday’s game, and I don’t blame them. It was hard to watch Portland cough up a very important game in real time; I wouldn’t want to see it again in playback. What will be important, though, is to remember, if not be reminded, of how Friday’s final three minutes played out.
A team like Utah, with a number of savvy veterans and a very very real shot playing spoiler of the number-one NBA narrative of 2012-13 (sorry Bron and your other-worldly winning streak, the Lakers hold the trump card) is going to find a way to steal a big win if you let them. Too many bad passes, too many empty possessions, not enough stops: the classic formula for handing over a close game.
Portland travels to Oakland Sunday to take on the Golden State Warriors yet another playoff bound Western Conference team.
Couple of quick things
- Meyers Leonard got the start Friday. With LaMarcus Aldridge sidelined, J.J. Hickson started at power forward and Meyers played center. It was a bit of a mixed bag for everybody. Hickson recorded another double-double (fitting since Friday the Blazers introduced their new Mr. Double-Double J.J. Hickson t-shirt), and looked pretty good in his natural position. Meyers had a nice game for three quarters, and was a bit of a disaster in the fourth. Leonard was responsible for at least one of Portland’s really bad turnovers during Utah’s close-out run, he also made a pretty horrible pass out to Victor Claver that ended in a hurried deep three to beat the shot-clock buzzer that fell probably a foot short of the rim. Leonard was pulled immediately following his last, and most egregious turnover, a floated pass that lead to an and-one run out by Randy Foye that gave Utah the lead they then wouldn’t surrender. It was a tough ending for what was a pretty good game for Portland’s other lottery pick. Leonard was not quite despondent in the home locker room after the game, but he wasn’t very happy with himself. Regardless of the outcome, though, it’s good for Meyers to get the minutes. His on the job learning has been good much of the season. With LA out maybe for another game, Leonard will have a good chance to build on Friday’s game in Oakland. If Portland decides to shut down LA, which actually doesn’t seem that likely, it would be great for Meyers. He needs to get more starts under his belt. Moving J.J. Hickson to the bench is also an option, although that too seems unlikely. What Meyers needs to do in his final 10 games as a rookie is contribute in his minutes, that way, even if he doesn’t start, he’ll stay on the floor.
- Speaking of rookies who need development, both Joel Freeland and Victor Claver had good minutes and bad minutes Friday. Freeland is showing that he can play a little bit of defense, although he bit pretty hard on a couple Al Jefferson pump fakes. Even a rookie from overseas should know that Al Jefferson pump fakes. Claver’s a bit of a paradox, he’s a stretch four who can’t shoot threes. Claver’s best moments Friday came when he put the ball on the floor and attacked the basket. That too is a bit paradoxical. To get open lanes, he has to have a deep ball his opponents’ respect. Also, Claver can’t defend a guy like Derrick Favors, and it’s a bit unfair to even ask him to try. More than Meyers Leonard, the development of Claver and Freeland is very important. They’re here to stay, at least for awhile, and if Portland is going to use cap space to retain their respective services, they need them to contribute.