Toronto 96, Portland 101

When Aldridge went out for a 5 game stretch that included 2 games with the Jazz and one in Denver my high hopes for the season were on the ropes. After the debacle in Philadelphia, team confidence was down, despite the boost it got in Memphis, and they were struggling to identify where, when and how to score.

His absence, in the long run, might have been one of the best things that could happen for this young team. Brandon Roy stepped up in two ways. First, he took charge of the team, telling them they each needed to step up and help a bit on the boards and with points, "a couple of points each". Sure, they were going to hear that from Coach McMillan...but coming from Roy it might have an even better impact. Second, he stepped up his own game. Sure, he has had a few bad shooting nights...but he is penetrating, making things happen, and most important...doing it the entire game instead of waiting for the 4th quarter.

With Webster struggling, Jones and Outlaw inconsistent and Aldridge out the margin of error for the Blazers is too thin to have Roy coast through the first three quarters with 5 - 10 points and then turn it on in the 4th. They dig too big a deficit.

Meanwhile, a primary problem for Portland during their losing streak was the third quarter. They would typically play really well in the first quarter, sometimes really well in the second, sometimes not so well, but usually it was a game at the half or Portland had a substantial lead. Then the third quarter would strike. Portland would throw low double digits up, seldom exceeding 20 points, while their opponent would often double them up. Then Portland would play well in the fourth but it would be too little, too late. So many games they should have won ended up in the L column.

While Aldridge was out Portland discovered a winning formula. They still habitually lose the third quarter...but instead of by 10 - 15 or even 20 points, now it is a manageable 3 - 5 points. And they are winning. And winning. And winning.

Naturally, I am a huge Aldridge fan. I have been saying most of the year that he and Roy, on this incarnation of the team, need to be averaging 22 - 25 points each to carry this team. I will listen to arguments that their 19 point averages are enough...but I believe they would improve the team by taking more of the scoring load on themselves as the best and most consistent scorers Portland has. This would open the game up more for Webster, Blake and Jones to bomb away. With Aldridge posting up, Roy and Jack driving almost at will, and the Webster/Blake/Jones triumvirate bombing away off kick outs for easy open shots you have the potential to have a dynamic, high-scoring team.

With that said, it really felt like they were messing with success a bit by having him return to the starting line-up last night. Sure, the winning streak STARTED with him in the line-up, but look at how effective Portland was in some tough places WITHOUT him...winning in Utah and Denver, scoring almost at will...

Now, it is hard to argue that moving Frye to the bench and putting Aldridge in the line-up can do anything but improve a team but there is such thing as chemistry.

Be that as it may, McMillan...who, despite some doubts during the losing streak I am fully behind again...pulled the trigger on putting his stud back in. Due to illness I could not attend the game but did listen to most of it and early on it seemed like the wrong move.

Portland was getting lost on offense. This is a team that fore several game stretches was shooting better than 50% and scoring well over 100. Now they were getting in each other's way and struggling to get good shots. This is when you need someone to step up. Preferably, it will be your big guns, the guys who bring you to the dance...Roy, Aldridge, I am looking in your direction here. However, what sets the great teams apart from the good ones is the great teams have "that guy" who figures out what a team needs on any given night and gives it to them.

Last night it was Blake early. He had 10 points in the first 7 minutes...and only 14 for the game. Early, when the offense was struggling he stepped up and made shots. That got Portland rolling and the ended up with a very nice 31 point quarter. Roy and Aldridge also were on pace for 20+ nights. Sadly, on the other side of the ball they weren't stopping anybody.

The second quarter started out okay, but then Portland hit a dry stretch largely revolving around Outlaw who was having a miserable night. At one point he was 1-7 from the field including having a dunk blocked. He can leap out of the building but the rim is still just 10' high...meanwhile, after over a 3 minute dry spell Aldridge rebounded a missed Jack shot and put it back in. By then there was but 5:51 left in the quarter and that pulled the Blazers to within 45-39...yep, 6 minutes and change into the quarter they had scored a whopping 8 points.

Down the stretch of the second quarter Roy scored 8 and Aldridge 6 to keep Portland close. By half time they only trailed 65-51.

That meant that, once more, the third quarter was make or break time. If Portland had one of their 10 - 15 point deficit quarters then the game might get out of reach. It started poorly. Aldridge and Roy each had a missed shot and turnover to start the quarter. Then the role players took over. Blake drove and scored. Webster dropped in back to back treys. Przybilla scored. In less than 2 minutes they stepped up and dropped in 10 points to carry Portland through a stretch where their stars were struggling.

And that is the sort of thing this team NEEDS. When Webster scored 11 for the quarter it provided the boost an otherwise anemic (25 points total) Blazer offense was desperate for. Their defense stepped up, though, holding the Raptors to just the deficit going into the pivotal 4th quarter was a large but manageable 7 points. They were not getting blown away or anything, they were scoring at a decent clip, they just needed to get a few stops.

Apparently, the Raptors also felt like getting a few stops. From the 10:56 mark until the 6:56 mark the scoring for the teams combined consisted of a Kapono jumper and an Aldridge layup. They combined to score a whopping point a minute. Why, if they continued that frenetic pace for an entire game we could see a 30 - 26 bundle of fun...However, that Aldridge lay-up was part of a 15-2 Portland run that gave them a 95-89 lead. Portland was, as is their habit lately, taking over in the fourth. They just decided to wait a while to do it...

The last 2 minutes were cardiac time for Portland. Clinging to a 97-94 lead they managed to have missed shots by Blake, Roy and Aldridge. But in the final 11 seconds Jones coolly sandwiched 4 free throws around a Chris Bosh dunk to give Portland the win...and the chalupas.

So what happened as a whole in this game? For starters, Roy had a huge game. He shot 10-16 (including 3-5 from downtown...a trouble spot for him lately), had 8 assists, 9 rebounds...he was all over. He had 3 turnovers in the first quarter but as the game went on his ball protection got better and he only had 1 the rest of the way.

Aldridge stepped right back in where he left off, 15 and 7 on only 15 shots...he needs to get more aggressive in seeking his offense, but coming back from injury, I am okay with that...

Webster stepped up nicely, providing 15 points on an efficient 5-7 from the floor including an astonishing 4-5 from the three point line...except it isn't that astonishing. This year the Blazers are blessed to have Jones and Webster, two guys who, when they get hot, it is surprising when they MISS from downtown. You just expect the ball to drop through the twine whenever they shoot. If they ever get consistent...look out. Portland just might have a juggernaut on their hands.

Assuming, that is, that Outlaw has more "ups" and less "downs" in the next little bit. He struggled from the field all night, ending just 4-12. On the bright side, he continues to rebound well (7) and is providing the intensity the Blazers need to make their zones effective.

This seems like a good time to mention that Portland once again won the battle of the boards, 40 - 35. Was that the Aldridge factor or a result of shooting 50% from the field?

Regardless, it was another great win for a young, fun, and improving Portland franchise that, if the playoffs started today, would be in 8th place. That gives rise to an interesting question; are they better served to (yes, still a long shot, but let's be positive) if they somehow squeeze into the playoffs this year only to go out in the first round or if they miss the playoffs and are in the lottery again? But that is a question for another time.

No comments: