Wednesday

How can the Roy-less Blazers compete with the Boston Celtics?

Going into the Boston Celtic game on the 30th of December, it looked very bad for Portland. Even with super-stud Brandon Roy, they managed a franchise record low 78 points against the Celtics earlier this year. 

In that game, they looked good until late in the second quarter at which point the Celtics showed why they are the defending World Champions with a 21-0 run that essentially decided the game. 

During that run they were hapless to either score or stop the Celtics. Additionally, they looked intimidated. Certainly the Celtics are an intimidating team, and at times they have acted the bully, particularly Kevin Garnett.

So with the intimidation factor, the recent lack of success against the Celtics, and no Roy, it looked grim indeed for Portland. 

They were faced with a tough choice; who to start in place of Roy. The three primary choices were Rookie Rudy Fernandez, rookie Jerryd Bayless, or 6th man Travis Outlaw.

Bayless has barely played this year. All reports out of Blazer camp have him working very hard but being caught in a numbers crunch behind Steve Blake, Sergio Rodriguez, Roy and Fernandez. He is probably the best defender of the group but the worst at getting Portland into their offense. 

Outlaw has looked very uncomfortable in a starting role and is far more valuable providing scoring punch off the bench.  That left Fernandez. This would, of course, seriously alter the effectiveness of the second unit but it was ultimately the choice Coach McMillan made. 

Early on it looked like a very poor choice. The Blazers could muster but 13 points in the first quarter. All of those came from just three players; Blake had five and LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Oden chipped in four apiece.

Only Rookie Nicolas Batum seemed to be keeping Portland within shouting distance as he vacuumed up every board in sight. His play both on the glass and defensively was enough that he played the first 10 minutes, one of the longest consecutive stretches he has played all season. Typically he is replaced by Outlaw at anywhere from the eight to the six minute mark.

But even with his stellar defense and rebounding, the Blazers already trailed by 10 after the first quarter, 23-13. From the stands the Blazers appeared intimidated and the Celtics seemed to be deep in their psyches.

The second quarter was the Blake and Outlaw show, however. Blake hit a couple treys and scored nine in the quarter and Outlaw came alive to add seven. Portland slowly began to claw back into it. 

A lot of that had to do with someone who was not scoring a great deal. Greg Oden was everywhere. He was drawing enough double teams to end the first half with three assists and five rebounds. A lot of his points were coming at the line; he was drawing fouls and forcing double-teams. 

This allowed open looks for the remaining Blazers and by half time they had pulled to within five at 45-40. The impressive thing is there were no big runs. They plain and simple were outplaying Boston in every facet of the game but one. They were shooting a better percentage from the field and three point range, they were controlling the boards, had more blocks and more steals. 

In fact, the real difference was at the line. For the first half they shot a disappointing 7-for-12 while the Celtics also took 12 free throws but hit them all. 

Those five extra points from the line were the difference in the game in the first half. Nor was Boston due to cool down for quite some time. They ended up hitting their first 21 consecutive free throw attempts.
 
Meanwhile, the Blazers were scoring as a team. Aldridge got going a bit early in the quarter, Oden had a couple buckets, Outlaw had a couple buckets, and so forth. Everyone (except Batum) who set foot on the floor for Portland was scoring.

Faced with that sort of balance, the Celtics defense began to falter. By the time Oden completed a three-point play to give Portland their first lead since the 6:04 mark of the first quarter, the Rose Garden was rocking and the Blazers looked not just the equal of the Celtics but actually even better.

Paul Pierce hit a pair of free throws to send the game to the fourth quarter tied at 64, but it was too late. The Celtic mystique was gone. No longer were the Blazers accepting their bullying; far from it.

In fact, going back to the 5:11 mark of the second quarter, the bullying was no longer having any effect. Again it was Oden at the center of it. He had been being ridden, shoved, and hammered by a stream of Celtics with no calls. So when he hammered Ray Allen, he put a bit extra into it and really got his money's worth. 

When Allen flew into the crowd the referee gave Oden a technical. Sadly, he hit Allen little harder than Pierce was hitting Outlaw all night without even drawing a foul, but it had an effect. 

After Allen hit those free throws to give the Celtics their largest lead of the night, Portland went on their biggest run of the game, 9-4. The point was, they were not taking the cheap shots and dirty tactics without giving some back any longer.

Now, in the fourth quarter, there was no chance they would cave in. Bayless hit a pair of free throws, Aldridge hit a jumper and then dunked. In fact, the 4th quarter was largely about Aldridge. Going into the 4th quarter he had just eight points.

For the last couple of years, Portland fans have grown used to watching Brandon Roy enter the fourth with eight or 10 points and finish with 20 or 22. He is the money man in the fourth. Last season Outlaw helped but he has gotten off to a slow start this season.

Against the Celtics, Aldridge became the man. He hit shot after shot, scored 12 points in the quarter, and finished with 20. 

But it was Outlaw who put the exclamation point on the fourth. Pierce had hit seven of eight free throws to pull Boston within a deuce. Portland was struggling to get the ball to Aldridge and the ball ended up in Outlaw's hands in the left corner. Pierce closed out on him. 

Whereas breathing on Pierce is a foul, he was allowed to body up on Outlaw, reach, push, clutch and grab. Somehow Outlaw got past him, exploded to the basket and threw down a thunderous dunk in the face of Kevin Garnett. 

It was a seminal moment. Perhaps it signals the return of Outlaw. He scored "just" six points in the quarter, but they all came at key points. Furthermore, they were the type of points Portland needs from him. Instead of hanging out in the corners settling for contested threes, he was driving to the hoop and drawing fouls or scoring on dunks. This aggressive Outlaw is the guy Portland had last year.

If he continues to play this way after Roy returns to the line-up, Portland will elevate its game yet again. 

Already there are signs they are improving game by game. First, there is the improvement of Oden. He is more aware on defense and is picking up fewer fouls. On offense, he is starting to show a few moves that are not just back-them-down-and-try-to-dunk. In this game, he started that move, switched it to a soft finger roll and scored. Just a small moment, but one we did not see earlier in the year.

That elevated their game. Roy becoming more aggressive elevated their game. Having outlaw return to the high level play he showed last year would move Portland further yet up the ladder.

After his dunk it was just free throws. With both Fernandez and Serigo Rodriguez hitting pairs, the Blazers held on for a 91-86 win.

It was a big win. It is the first time in years they have had winning records the first two months of the season. They finished the first two months exactly where I predicted they would: 19-13. 

(Ninja edit: I was wrong. They are a game better than I thought, 20-12. So I actually was not optimistic enough! Something must have distracted me...)

Some wags have pointed out this is only one (Correction:two) game(s) better than their pace from last season and claim the team has not improved. Those people need to do a little better research.

The Blazers played the toughest opening schedule any NBA team has faced since 1982-83. They had very few games against the Minnesota/Memphis/Oklahoma City type teams and have had plenty against the likes of the Suns, Hornets, Celtics, Magic, Nuggets (two apiece), Spurs, Pistons, Mavericks, Rockets, Lakers and so forth. And they are winning against all of those but the Lakers and Mavericks.

Furthermore, they came through a schedule where after 18 games they had averaged a game every 41 hours, where they had a five game road trip, were home for the second game of a back to back to close that out, then went on the road for three more.

Last year their record relied on a 13 game winning streak. Take away that streak and they were three and thirteen. This year they have been much more consistent and won in a lot of different ways.

The  early January schedule is tough as they have home games against the Hornets and Pistons sandwiched around another trip to the Forum to face the Lakers. After a soft home game against the Warriors, they then head back East for another five game road trip. 

The momentum and confidence gained from beating Boston without Roy should be the shot in the arm they need to keep improving their record. It won't be long before the NBA has to take notice. The Blazers are back, and they are coming hard. 

They are no longer a team that can be intimidated. They are not a team who fears any other team. Night in and night out they know they have a better than average chance to win the game. 

It is extremely possible that at the end of the year when they are sporting a nice 53-29 record (or better) they will point back to a handful of moments that defined the season; Roy's 5 point 1.9 seconds against Houston, the Phoenix win, and two moments from the Celtics game; Oden's foul on Allen that let the Celtics (and the NBA) know it was time to stop pushing the Blazers around and Outlaw's dunk on Garnett and Pierce. This was truly a memorable game.

Sunday

Roy-V-P! Brandon Roy carries the Blazers past the Raptors


Early in the Raptor-Blazer game, it was all about the big men. The Blazers, as they often do, went to LaMarcus Aldridge. In a statement that will be summarily dismissed by Raptor fans, I will argue Aldridge has a similar skill set to Chris Bosh, though of course Bosh is the better rebounder. Bosh scores more, but that has more to do with how many opportunities he gets than a massive disparity in ability.

For example, on this night Bosh got 17 attempts from the field and a further 11 trips to the free throw line as opposed to 13 field and 8 free throw attempts for Aldridge. This is true on a consistent basis. The Blazers have so many valid scoring options that Aldridge does not get enough attempts. And on this night, he would not even be the best inside option for the Blazers. That honor belonged to oft-maligned rookie Greg Oden.


Jermaine O'Neal and Oden were going at it tooth and nail while the referees kept their whistles in their pockets. It resulted in some pretty spectacular plays. First O'Neal got Oden with a spectacular block that demonstrated many of the issues Oden has had this season. He first tried to simply overpower O'Neal. When that did not work, he put up a surprisingly soft jumper. O'Neal held his ground and delivered the excellent one-on-one shot block.

Normally, that would have settled the possession as Oden tends to get out of position when taking shots, and this is particularly true when his defender blocks his shot. On this night, however, Oden would not be denied. He demonstrated an aggressive streak and position awareness that has sometimes been lacking, got the ball back and demonstrated a little more authority as he then dunked on O'Neal.


With Aldridge and Oden scoring inside, that left Portland wings wide open for shot after shot. Unfortunately, as the game progressed, those shots clanged off the rim with regularity. Travis Outlaw and Rudy Fernandez bombed away for trey attempt after trey attempt, most of them wide open. Unfortunately for Portland, those bombs were exactly that. They exploded left and right, threatening to shatter the backboard, rim, or floor, whatever they hit first.

Meanwhile, Toronto found a few holes in the Blazer defense, mostly outside the three point line. At one point Blazer fans started a "Defense! Defense!" chant. Judging by the 80% the Raptors were shooting from beyond the arc, perhaps they should have been chanting "Three-fense! Three-fense!"

By half-time, the Raptors' three-point percentage had descended to a more believable 75%. Only a 3/4 quart off-balance desperation trey by Outlaw kept the Blazer deficit in single digits. Fortunately, as Blazer fans can attest, there are still elements of the game that can be enjoyed even when a team they should defeat handily is kicking their tail up one side of the court and down the other.


We could also enjoy the start of the second half as a 10-3 run pulled the Blazers within two early in the third and a late 8-0 run put the Blazers up by four. The Raptors were reeling and ended the third quarter trailing by a deuce.

It is now time for a digression. I read a fair amount of NBA-related material and over and over see "MVP Candidate" lists. Those lists contain the usual and deserving suspects; LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Chris Paul. It is hard to argue against any of those choices. I am also seeing a few people talking about Chauncey Billups and Tim Duncan.

Blazer fans can attest, however, that there are very few players who do for teams what Brandon Roy does for the Blazers. This man is amazing. Every night he provides three or four spectacular, mind-blowing, acrobatic drives that somehow produce awkward, off-balance shots you know are going in.

More importantly, he provides whatever the team needs. If his running mates are scoring well, he dishes out assist after assist. If Portland is struggling on the boards, he suddenly starts coming out of big-man pile-ups with the ball. If they need wing defense, he takes on the tough assignment.

On this night, Portland needed scoring. They were sitting on only 69 points after three quarters. Chris Bosh was scoring seemingly every time he touched the ball. So Roy did what Roy does; he turned in an MVP caliber performance.

he scored nine of 11 Portland points in one stretch and then, when the offense faltered again, scored another nine straight. After scoring only 14 points over three quarters, he poured in 18 in the fourth.

He made it clear to all his teammates, to all the Rose Garden fans, and definitely to the Raptors the game was going to end in favor of Portland. He simply would not be denied.

He hit jump shots. He hit free throws, he drove to the rack and dropped in teardrops and lay-ins, he hit a pull-up three with a hand in his face. If Mike Tyson in his prime had been there, Roy might have hit him, too. He simply could not be stopped.

It was so impressive my brother and I actually started a "Roy-V-P" chant. This was the first game this particular brother has seen since Arvydas Sabonis was rolling around the Rose Garden court. You did not have to know much about basketball to know you were seeing yet another amazing performance.

The thing about it is, Rose Garden attendees are spoiled. We have come to expect this from Roy and are surprised when we don't. Roy is just that good.


So are the Blazers. By the time the final horn sounded they were up 102-89, a comfortable 13 point win but the game was closer than that. The differences in the game were two-fold;

First, the Blazers shut down the Raptor three-point attack. By the final buzzer they only had a 36.8% score from outside the arc.

Second, the Blazers rode Brandon Roy. On offense, the ball was in his hands for 3 assists on top of his 18 points. On defense, he directed traffic, boxed out, and forced the ball away from where Toronto tried to get it.

In the end, Roy will probably get at best very marginal consideration for MVP. After all, NBA fans think there are nine guards in the Western Conference better than Roy. Intelligent fans, however, will know; Roy belongs in that conversation.

Next time the Blazers come to your town, show you know. Start the Roy-V-P chant. For all of us. And whatever you do, when he is on the floor with the ball, keep your eye on him. You are likely to see something you would regret having missed.
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Friday

Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks Ruin the Blazers' Christmas




When Dallas took an early time out, down 10-2, the Rose Garden was rocking and it looked like the Blazers might be on their way to another home rout of a pretty good team. After all, since their disastrous 2-7 start, the Mavericks have gone 14-4 to get back in the middle of the hunt for playoff home series.

Dirk Nowitzki is playing at close to an MVP level, Jason Terry has embraced the vital sixth man role, Josh Howard is playing at a high level, and the rest of the team is contributing in different ways on different nights. Nor can you discount the contributions of Jason Kidd, acquired in last season's disastrous trade that divested the Mavericks of young stud Devin Harris in favor of a declining troublemaker with a history of problems with coaches, teammates, and off-court behavior.

Ironically, Kidd was a favorite target for trade-mongers at the popular Blazer fan site Blazers Edge. Clearly, the individuals suggesting he was a good fit for Portland have not followed his history of domestic abuse accusations for starters and team chemistry destruction to continue.

Additionally, he is a noted poor shooter who opponents love to see take the big shot because they know the odds are with them. 

This is not to say Kidd is not a good, even a great player. If he is not a first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee there should be an ivestigation. His passing skills, ability to penetrate the lane seemingly at will, and undeniable record of regular season success should ensure that. He just isn't the type of player Blazer fans would be likely to embrace.

Indeed, he would be a regression towards players like Rod Strickland, Rasheed Wallace, Damon Stoudemire, Bonzi Wells, J.R. Rider and so forth...guys who played at a high level in Portland but wore out their welcome with off-court shenanigans.

Note the "play at a high level" portion of that comment. This was another night where Kidd did that. Though he could not put the ball in the basket, he did a great job of finding the guy who could and getting him the ball.

Coming out of the time-out, Kidd made sure Nowitzki got to shoot and shoot he did, taking six of the next seven Mavericks shots. The only shot he did not take was a Josh Howard lay-up off a nice feed from Kidd. 

So with Nowitzki scoring nine points between the 8;33 and 6:46 mark, the Blazers' possessions included turnovers on an offensive foul by Nicolas Batum, Nowitzki stealing the ball from Greg Oden, a Steve Blake turnover, and a pair of free throws by Brandon Roy.

Everyone in the building could feel the tide turning. Once more we saw the difference between a playoff-experienced team that can win in tough places and a team seeking to get there. Dallas identified their best scoring option(s) and got them the ball.

For the night Nowitzki took 18 shots, Jason Terry took 14, and Josh Howard 13 shots. That is pretty good. Those are the primary guys that should be volume shooters, and the 13 shots Jose Barea took made sense even though he only made four. Most of the Barea shots came during a stretch where Portland was playing a bizarre zone that repeatedly ended up with LaMarcus Aldridge isolated against Barea 24 feet from the rim and resulted in Barea drives that produced good scoring opportunities.

Portland would like their volume shooters to be Roy, Aldridge,  and Rudy Fernandez. On this night Roy took 20 shots, Travis Outlaw 13, Fernandez eight, and Aldridge just three shots.

Let me repeat that last stat. 

LaMarcus Smurfing Aldridge got three shots. Add the free throws and he had seven possessions to attempt to score. That was a rotten job by Portland of getting him the ball. His first post-up opportunity came in the third quarter. Once he got those chances, he took it to Dallas and got Nowitzi into foul trouble. He scored seemingly at will or got to the line. He was unstoppable. He just didn't get enough shots.

Meanwhile, Steve Blake racked up four turnovers. For those not good at math, Blake ended up with more turnovers than Aldridge took shots. That is not a good sign when the coaches rave about how Blake takes care of the ball.

His stat line ended up looking better than it should, too. He made some horrific passes that should have been picked off but Blazers outworked Mavericks to get the ball and maintain possession.

The sad thing is that even with all the flaws, even with allowing 48.8% shooting for the Mavericks, even with getting out rebounded by 10, Portland still should have won this game. During the third quarter they had the Mavericks on the ropes.

Nowitzki picked up a technical foul and his fourth personal at the 10:25 mark of the third. Coach Rick Carlisle picked up a technical. Josh Howard picked up a flagrant and followed it up with a second technical to get himself ejected.  It was clear to everyone that the Mavericks were melting down.

Yet with all that, the score was only tied at 70. 

The fourth quarter was pure ugliness. Showing no killer instinct at all, the Blazers could only muster 14 points. When you go in up just three, that is not going to win many games whether at home or on the road. 

The Mavericks played better down the stretch and took the game away. Two turnovers and five missed shots by Roy ensured that outcome. But in a sense, this game was lost earlier.

For whatever reason, Portland struggled at the line all night, ending up shooting just 65% from the line. If they shot a reasonable percentage they would have had probably another four points which would have completely changed the character of the gaem. 

This has been a recurring issue for the Blazers. When they miss free throws they tend to miss them in bunches. When they leave as many as 11 points on the floor they are going to struggle against the top NBA teams and this night was no exception.

Still, it was an entertaining, back and forth game that gave us a good look at one of the teams Portland is looking up at and trying to take their place. The day they do is not so far away, but on this Christmas, at least, it is not here yet. 

Give credit where credit is due. Jason Kidd, Dirk Nowitzki, Josh Howard and Jason Terry all showed up. The same cannot be said about LaMarcus Aldridge, Travis Outlaw, or the Blazers centers. The result was a 102-94 Mavericks win.

It therefore falls on the Blazers to simply say, "Next time, Gadget. We'll get you next time."

Wednesday

What the Blazers need to do in preparation for their first Playoffs

The 18-11 First Place Northwest Division record of the young Trailblazer team has surprised most expert observers, particularly when you consider they had the toughest opening schedule of any team since the early 1980s, including being the first team in history to play their first five games against teams that won 50 or more games the previous season...three of those games on the road.

Blazer fans are delighted. Blazermania has been deemed to have returned, the Rose Garden is selling out every night with rabid, noisy fans, and we have already been treated to several blowouts.

Nor were all the blowouts against soft, weak teams. Portland crushed the Hornets, holding them to just 86 points while dialing up 101 of their own. Beating a quality team like the Hornets by 15 is something not seen around here since the middle part of the Jailblazer era and this time it is being done by great character guys.

They are also being done by a very focused team. Every Blazer knows the goal is not to get into the playoffs but actually win at least one series once there. This is a team with enough talent to do that, but after 29 games there are a few areas that have shown flaws in the Blazer game plan that can be exploited.


It starts on defense. Against the Suns, Blazer fans were screaming, "This just in...Matt Barnes can shoot!" as he rained down open trey after open trey. Against the Kings, Blazer fans were screaming, "This just in... John Salmons can shoot!" as he rained down open three after open three. Against the Nuggets, Blazer fans were screaming, "This just in...Linas Kleiza can shoot!" as he rained down open trey after open trey. Hmm. I think I am noticing a pattern here.

Portland has a bad habit of drifting too far into the lane to help out on post players. The result is they give up numerous wide open looks from downtown. Only five teams are worse at defending the three: Memphis, Minnesota, New Jersey, Golden State and Sacramento. If you are a Blazer fan, don't look at the combined record of those teams...it isn't pretty:New Jersey is .500 and none of the others has won more than nine games.

Last season Portland did an excellent job of staying in front of their man and forcing contested jumpers or treys that at least had a hand in the face. Against Phoenix they did this so seldom that they gave up 66.9% shooting from beyond the arc. If that happens in the playoffs it will be one and done. 

Another key issue is free throw rebounding. Again and again the Blazers give up free extra possessions to the opposition  as they fail to pull down the defensive board after free throws are missed. Inexcusably, this is often after noted poor free throw shooters such as Shaquille O'Neal hoist bricks. Portland has to figure out a way to protect the lane and get those rebounds.

Conversely, on offense the Blazers must find better spacing. Against the Nuggets, Portland often allowed four defenders to converge on Brandon Roy without creating passing lanes for him. They mostly stood static. In the picture above, they show what can happen with movement:Roy rotated the ball to Rudy Fernandez, forcing Linas Kleiza to rotate out on him. When he did so, Steve Blake floated to the corner for an open trey as no Nugget could pin down to the corner to contest it.

If they remember to create spacing with movement when opponents double or triple team Roy, particularly 30 feet from the basket as is becoming commonplace, they will continue to create open looks from deep or create driving lanes for their wings.

It then becomes vital that players like Nicolas Batum, Travis Outlaw, and Martell Webster (when he returns)  move without the ball and then cut towards the basket for dunks until Roy is given space to operate. But it is not just Roy who can create offense.

Portland habitually starts the game by going to LaMarcus Aldridge on the low block two or three times. This is an excellent start to the game. 
Once he has shown success, opponents are forced to double him. With rapid ball movement they can create open jumpers and sometimes dunks when small, quick Blazers flash to the post.

Unfortunately, the Blazers often forget Aldridge. He will provide four, six, eight, maybe 10 points of offense, and then not get another entry pass for two or three quarters. Portland needs to do a better job of identifying and exploiting areas of offense like this one that can create easy buckets. Aldridge should be getting at least 15 shots a game in a mix between post-ups and the nice mid-range jumper he possesses. That will require the Blazers to do a better job of staying with him rather than establishing him and then forgetting he can score.


There is at least one other area of concern that will become more and more important as teams are able to prepare exclusively for the Blazers. For some inexplicable reason, they struggle mightily with inbounding the ball.

One sequence late in the Nugget game illustrates the problem. Earlier in the game Nene picked off a soft inbound pass and broke away for a solo dunk. Late in the game, with every possession key, Portland took a time out. Rudy Fernandez was then forced to call a 20 second time-out as no Blazer got open. Coming off back-to-back timeouts, he then made an entry pass to Brandon Roy, but the pass was tipped, Roy picked up a loose ball foul, and the Nuggets were presented with 2 free throws as the Blazers could not even get the ball inbounds.

This is not an isolated incident. Portland has struggled all season with getting the ball inbounds in key situations. As the season extends and teams get better looks at what the Blazers are doing, this situation will only be exacerbated. If it continues to be an issue in the playoffs, close games will be won and lost on "small" things like this.

Portland simply has to find ways to free up players to receive the inbounds pass. They need to alter the back screens and angles they move to receive the ball or they will find themselves losing close games without even being able to get a shot off.

These things are all fixable. On defense, Portland has the length and agility to cover those open spaces without leaving their big men without help. Rebounding is a matter of timing and effort. Spacing on offense is a matter of awareness and coaching. Inbounding is something that training and creative plays can fix.

It remains for Coach Nate Mcillan to address these issues. Make no mistake about it, McMillan is a superior coach who will find ways to get these issues addressed. It is a matter of time and coaching. The only question is if he has enough time to get the message across to his players this season before the playoffs.

Tuesday

LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy lead Blazers to First Place Tie with Nuggets in Northwest Division




Fan is short for fanatic. This aptly describes many NBA fans. For example, Portland is currently experiencing what is, for us, a record snow fall. My chariot clearly was not making it to the game tonight, nor was that of my wife.

Fortunately, the mass transit system is an easy mile and a half walk away so off to the game I went, managing to fall just once on my way. After all, if the Blazer Dancers can make it, so can I.



The game started poorly for Portland. The Nugget defense seemed to be everywhere. For the second night in a row they seemed able to get deflections whenever they wanted, force the ball away from Brandon Roy's hands and still get back in their rotations, and outside of LaMarcus Aldridge, no Blazer could score.

Worse yet, Portland could not seem to get their hands on a rebound. When Greg Oden picked up his second foul, the Nuggets held a commanding 9-3 edge on the boards. Rebounding is where Oden is most useful for Portland right now.

Enter Joel "The Thrill" Przybilla, aka Joelzilla. This was a Joelzilla night. He must have had stickum on his hands or something because every ball found its way into his mitts.
At one point he even had over half the Blazers' total rebounds. By the time the night ended he had 19 rebounds in 40 minutes. Every one of them was needed. With foul trouble limiting Greg Oden to eight minutes, it was left to Joelzilla to patrol the paint. This he did, while also contributing a better than average (for him) 10 points on an efficient six shots.

His offense was necessary because it was a slow night for Brandon Roy. Going into the fourth quarter he had only seven points and that had a lot to do with the Denver defense. Every time Roy got the ball in a scoring position, he found himself confronted with multiple defenders.
Even if he got past the initial double team, he would find Nene and Kleiza or some similar combination confronting him, making those lane shots he is so good at into virtual impossibilities. The Blazers helped Denver out with poor spacing. They would stand in the corners, immobile as statues, and by so doing not penalize the Nuggets for triple or quadruple teaming Roy.

That is unfortunate because Portland has the firepower to make teams pay. Early in the season they were getting help from unexpected sources. Nicolas Batum is an excellent example. Early in the season he would float to the open spaces on the floor , either forcing his defender to clear the lane or making them pay with a corner trey or baseline drive. 

However, as the season has progressed he has become timid about shooting and essentially become a non-factor. Additionally, his defense has suffered a great deal.

Early on, he was tipping at least four or five balls every game. He was also staying in front of his man, even the small, quick guards like Steve Nash, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Paul. Now, however, he is having trouble staying in front of his man and his tipped balls are way down.

Batum doesn't need to provide a lot of offense, but he does need to provide some, and the more his defense suffers, the more necessary it will be for him to provide some offense. With his tailing off, Portland is looking more and more anxiously for the return of Martell Webster who, even if he is not one of the NBA's top defenders by any means, at least is prepared to shoot. 

If Batum doesn't lose his timidity soon, his role could be relegated to teaching us all French.

Meanwhile, the Nuggets built an early 21-14 advantage and with just a couple minutes to go in the first quarter, the Blazers were on the verge of losing contact with the Nuggets and being blown out. Nene was dominating inside, Linas Kleiza could not miss, and the entire Nugget team looked amped up.

Enter Rudy Fernandez. 

He had a personal seven point run in about a minute of game time to change the complexion of the game. Suddenly, it was obvious that even if Roy struggled offensively, the Blazers were not going anywhere. 

It was not as if Roy was not contributing. On one memorable possession, he scored a fast-break lay-in that carried him a couple feet out of bounds. The Nuggets sprinted back up court with a man advantage...only to watch Roy take a charge and force a turnover. I had to watch the replay to make sure he had made both plays. That showed tremendous hustle to return up court that quickly after being furthest down court by a couple feet. 

With Roy not scoring, Fernandez scoring only in a short burst, and Oden playing all of 8 official minutes with foul trouble, it was up to the Blazers third star, LaMarcus Aldridge to carry the offense. 

All game long, when Portland went to him he produced. He shot 7-12 from the field and 8-9 from the line. That shows both the strength and weakness of the Blazers.

On the bright side, Aldridge is worthy of praise for his inside-outside game. He has shown an ability to score down on the blocks with a variety of moves and is also a very good shooter from 15 to 18 feet. Again and again he creates offense for the Blazers. If there is no double team is he a high percentage shooter on post moves. When the double does come, he is excellent at finding the open man. Typically he does not get an assist because the Blazers typically prefer to rotate the ball one more time for an even more open shot, but the success of those possessions goes back to Aldridge identifying the double and making the correct pass out of it.

The thing that needs to be explained is why he is getting only 11 or 12 shots per night on nights when the Blazers are struggling from the field. This is a reminder the Blazers are a young team overall. They do not always do a great job of identifying their advantages and riding them. 

They really need to focus more on plays for Aldridge when they need consistent high-percentage possessions and Roy is being kept under control.

Of course, Roy is still Roy and when the game is on the line, Portland is wise to find ways to put the ball in his hands. As he is wont to do, he took over in the 4th quarter, scoring 12 points in that frame alone. He also played some tough, intimidating defense. 

That was impressive because of the flow of the game. Chauncey Billups gets away with a lot of pushing and grabbing. So does Kenyon Martin. All night, Blazers were getting called for touch fouls while the Nuggets were mauling them pretty good.

This is not a critique of the officials; they were calling the game the way it was being played. Portland was often tentative, reaching in a lot, playing defense with their arms extended while Denver was bodying up. Yes, the Nuggets play probably should be called as fouls, but the reality of the NBA is that when teams establish that style of defense, the officials do not call fouls on them.

In the fourth quarter, Roy began fighting back. Now it was him in the face of Nuggets guards, breathing their air, making it all but impossible for them to see the floor or generate any movement towards the basket. It was the Nuggets who melted down, with both Chris Anderson and Chauncey Billups picking up technicals for complaining about calls...including the one on Anderson coming after he had scored.

Following Roy's example, Aldridge became more active as well. When the long arms of Aldridge start waving around the paint, it really helps close it down. On top of that, Travis Outlaw had a couple of spectacular blocks. Ironically, a Chris Anderson after-the-foul slap out of bounds of a Sergio Rodriguez shot made ESPN Sportscenter while neither of Outlaws' did. For the record, both of Outlaw's were credited, the highlight "block" that showed up on ESPN was not an official block. 

The game was great fun to watch. Both teams built leads of seven points or more. Both teams came back from those deficits to take the leads. Without Carmelo Anthony, this is perhaps more impressive for Denver, but it does speak to why they are a dangerous team. They have several players who can score, great energy from Nene and Anderson, and an above average defender in Billups

But they don't have Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Joelzilla, or Fernandez. Tonight, those players made the difference. It was great to watch. Even on a night where Roy "struggled" to 19 points and six assists, Portland had what it took to get the job done and pull back into a tie with the Nuggets.




Greg Oden is developing an offensive game thanks to Maurice Lucas



Greg Oden has experienced a lot of negativity from the media. Apparently, anything short of coming out throwing down six dunks a night, scoring 20 points, pulling down a dozen boards, and blocking three shots a night is a colossal failure.

Never mind he is playing his first uninjured season in four years. Never mind that he is coming back from micro fracture surgery. Never mind that he is still developing physically, still learning how to play night after night against players with nearly the same size he has.

If anything, Oden has been very impressive under those circumstances. It generally takes over a year after players return to the floor to regain their lateral movement, their quickness and explosiveness. And Oden certainly has not shown those things too much.

Coming out of the draft the line on Oden had him showing the lateral movement, the agility and quickness of a guard. What we have seen is a slow big man who tries to overpower everyone and everything.

His development was also hindered by an unexpected event that fell under the radar of all too many Blazer fans. Take a look at LaMarcus Aldridge for what I am referring too.

Aldridge was criticized for having no post up game. However, some time spent with Maurice Lucas turned that around. Aldridge has shown continued development. He has a back-to-the-basket game that is now reliable, has recently started using a sweeping hook across the lane, and has gone from a power forward at his best shooting 18 foot jumpers to a guy who at times has shown moves reminiscent of the Dreamshake

Unfortunately for Oden, Lucas developed pneumonia. For several weeks he was battling a serious illness. His return to the bench was rightfully greeted with a huge cheer...and it showed up on the floor shortly thereafter.

Even without the presence of Lucas, Oden was showing occasional flashes of the player he will eventually develop into. Against Sacramento there was the flash into the lane that surprised everyone with its quickness, he easily handled the pass on the move and dunked. 

There was the moment against the Hornets when he came off his man across the lane and blocked a shot that had flown over the tips of Aldridge's fully extended arms...and Aldridge is 6'11" with long arms. That was a moment of such speed, agility, and skill that I watched it over a dozen times. 

He has also shown a real talent for rebounding. He is pulling down almost 8 boards a game in just under 23 minutes a game. He is blocking 1.63 blocks a game. In other words, he is already showing a big effect on the game from a standpoint of defense and controlling the boards. 

Nor are all his rebounds of the "I am big, tall, and under the boards, rrrrraaaaaaaaaarrrrrggggghhhhhhhh" ball falls into his arms type. A lot of them are the long bounces off the rim that he is reading well and getting to before smaller, quicker players can. At times he is showing the same sort of dominance that Joel Przybilla did late last season where any ball coming off the rim that lands in anyone elses' hands is a minor upset.

After struggling to rebound all season last year, this year the Blazers are out rebounding opponents by over 5 per game. Oden is making a huge, huge impact.

But since the return of Lucas, we have been seeing things that show Oden is going to develop into an offensive force as well. For now he is doing just fine, shooting over 53% but the truth is, the majority of his shots come as the result of guard penetration that pulls away his defender or else offensive rebounds. Working with Lucas is giving him a bit more to work with.

Early in the season, an Oden offensive possession was essentially catch the ball and go bull in a china shop, trying to bulldoze his defender and dunk. The few hooks or turn-arounds he threw up were painful to watch and more likely to break the rim or bruise a fan in the second row than go in the hoop.

Lately, particularly since he has been working with Lucas, he is turning into a real offensive player. The Denver game showed four fine examples of his development. 

Early in the game, he caught the ball on the low block. Instead of trying to run over his defender, he started the back-down, then went with a short turn-around. It gave him a clean look at the basket and he buried it. 

Later, from the other side, he caught the ball and went with a quick move across the lane, throwing up a left hook from about six feet. Early in the season it would have dented the rim. Now it smoothly went through the net for another deuce. It was a gorgeous move.

Even more impressive, however, were two third quarter possessions where he did not attempt a shot. In the first one he drew a double team. With no hesitancy he found an open shooter for three. 

The next possession, he again drew a double and again found the open teammate, this time for a dunk. 

Those two passes were smooth, quick, decisive, and led to open looks. They were a result of his developing offense where he actually is showing moves and demonstrating a touch around the basket. 

His legion of critics will point out he is scoring "only" eight points a game. It is  ridiculous criticism. Portland does not need him to score 15 a game this year. Brandon Roy is a man on a mission, scoring almost 23 a game. Aldridge is chipping in close to 17. Shots are needed for Travis Outlaw, Rudy Fernandez, and even a few for Steve Blake to stretch the defense. 

There simply are not 15 to 20 shots a game available for Oden right now. To put it bluntly, almost every play run for Oden has a lesser chance of being effective than a play run for any of the aforementioned players. 

In the next year or two as his speed, explosiveness, and agility return, that will change. He will provide a nice addendum to Aldridge's post-up game as he continues to develop under the tutelage of Lucas. Already we are starting to see flashes of what will come.

The main thing Oden needs right now is time and patience. He needs to know we the fans are not as critical as the media. We just appreciate his talent and loo forward to watching him develop. 

The other night when the Blazers retired Terry Porter's jersey, they interviewed Porter and several questions were about the Championship seasons. Again and again, Porter responded with comments along the lines of, "What I really remember was the journey" or,"I really enjoyed the journey". 

The same sentiment holds true with Oden. Don't demand things he is not ready to provide. let him work with Lucas, learn the NBA game on a terrific team, and for yourself...just enjoy the journey. 

Friday

Brandon Roy's 52 Leads Blazers to First Win Over Suns in 12 attempts

There is a simple process of determining what shots the Blazers should take. For example, this is a great shot attempt.



Any time he has an opportunity, Greg Oden should feel free to attempt that. It has a pretty good chance of going in. Note a few things; his erstwhile defender, Shaquille O'Neal, is outside the restricted circle having as much impact on the shot as the Ice Cream Vendor in the Alamo Dome. Which, for those keeping score at home, is in San Antonio, Texas, not Portland Oregon.

Second, the help defender A'mare Stoudemire is also spectating. Two other Phoenix defenders can easily see the power of Oden as they are just a few steps away.

In other words, this is a great shot attempt for Oden, LaMarcus Aldridge, or any other Blazer to attempt; an uncontested dunk.

Here is their second best shot;



As you can tell, Brandon Roy is off balance, going up on the reverse side of the rim, throwing up an awkward, just been fouled shot that still finds a way to tickle the twine. In truth, though, it doesn't really matter if he made the shot or not. The important thing, as any Blazer fan can tell you, is that any shot taken by Roy is, by definition, a better shot than any shot that is not an uncontested dunk that is attempted by any other Blazer.

Roy has been on fire for the last few games. First he went back to back to back 30+ point games, including a career high 38 point outburst. In the fourth game he was merely great, scoring "only" 29 points...of course, had he not sat out the entire fourth quarter, he probably could have crested the 30 point mark fairly easily.


So on a night when the Phoenix Suns came to town, Roy got ready to kick it up a few degrees.

One of those big scoring games saw the normally reliable, 90% free throw shooter Steve Blake almost single-handed give the game away as he missed four out of five free throw attempts inside the last minute, allowing the Clippers to tie a game Portland had completely in hand and then surprise the Blazers in double overtime.

On this night, it was Roy's chance to ice the game. Leading by 3 with just under 10 seconds left, he stepped to the line for a pair of free throws. He had every excuse to miss; he had played the entire second half, was all over the court defensively, was bringing the ball up the floor, and so forth. He was doing everything.

After the two recent shocking home losses, Portland fans were nervous. If Roy missed the first, everyone would have gotten that "here we go again" feeling, knowing Phoenix would somehow find a way to tie the game and then win in overtime.

The final box score tells you all you need to know. In the picture above, Roy had 50 points. For those who don't follow Portland, his jersey number is 7.




Roy does it all. On a night he poured in the second highest total in Blazers history, scoring more than even Geoff Petrie or Clyde "the Glide" Drexler ever did, he still managed to pick up six assists and five rebounds. Even more impressive, he turned the ball over exactly zero times. None. Nada. Zip.

There were some other fine performances. Travis Outlaw exploded for eight points in 2:23 to close the third quarter, completely changing the momentum of the game. With his drives, jumpers, and variety of scores he kept Phoenix from being able to double and triple team Roy.

LaMarcus Aldridge, facing his nemesis Stoudemire, scored 16 points on just 12 shots. Steve Blake added 22 points, providing a fourth scorer.

But this night, and this season, was all about Roy. He is the unquestioned leader of this team. Coach McMillan is on record as saying he goes to Roy when he needs to find out how the team is feeling. Roy provides that connection. He also identifies what needs to be done.

A couple days ago he was interviewed on the Jim Rome show. He made a point of saying the Blazers are a young talented team, but they need to become a young, TOUGH and talented team. He discussed how that toughness is shown by playing hard-nosed defense night in and night out. He mentioned the length of guys like Oden, Aldridge, and Nicolas Batum and how they needed to keep their feet moving in order to keep their man in front of them.

On this night, when the Blazers gave up 56.9% shooting (and a ridiculous, must be a mis-print 66.7% from beyond the arc), when the game was on the line he made a point of getting in the face of his young charges. Lo and behold, a Blazer team that seemingly could not get back to back stops all night long suddenly went on a mission, outscoring the Suns 9-2 over the last 2:56.

If they can turn on the defense like that when the game is on the line even on a night where they give up 119 for the game, they will make a lot more noise than people currently think they will come playoff time.

And if Roy has to keep putting up 38 or 52 points to get a few votes for the All-Star game, that will be an embarrassment for NBA fans. What "knowledgeable" fan would vote Manu Ginobli and his less than double figures games played ahead of Roy as an All-Star? Pathetic. Shame on you, fans. Get a clue, do the right thing, and put this guy among the top vote-getters.

I think Roy suffers a bit in that regard because he is too fundamental and not flashy enough. I think he had one dunk tonight, and that on a break-away. On the Blazers post-game show on 95.5 The Game, Coach McMillan referred to his game as a "quiet 52". Sadly, I knew what he meant.

At one point, I nudged my wife and said, "He is one point away from his career high." The guy on the other side looked at the scoreboard, gasped, and said, "Feels like he only has about 20." He had 37.

He just is so smooth, he scores within the offense, he doesn't force the action, he keeps his team-mates involved...holy smoke, I think I have a man-crush.

Just kidding.

But I do love his game. Every night he is worth the price of admission. On Tuesday, Portland retired Terry Porter's jersey. Tonight, they retired Brandon Roy's. If he keeps going like this, #7 will be in the rafters in about 10 years. It also will have an excellent shot at the Hall of Fame.

Whether he makes the Hall or not, he will provide Portland fans with some incredible memories in the meantime. Brandon Roy, former Rookie of the Year, last year's NBA All-Star, and this year's Most Improved. Think about it.
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Tuesday

Terry Porter's Jersey Retirement: Miscellaneous Memories

His career numbers never blew anyone away. By the time he finished, Terry Porter's career average was only 12.2 points and a measly 5.6 assists per game. Those are not even All-Star numbers, much less Hall of Fame numbers when taken at face value.

However, there was a six year run in Portland when Porter was perhaps the second most important Trail Blazer. His second season in, 1986-87, was a huge year. It wasn't just that he contributed 13 points and almost nine assists every contest...it was his presence.

The most points he ever averaged for a season was 18.2 and the most assists were 10.1. In an era dominated at the point guard position by Magic Johnson, Kevin Johnson and John Stockton, those numbers often would not have gotten him into the All-Star game, though he was there twice in 1991 and again in 1993. 

Without Porter the Blazers would not have made the NBA Finals against either the Pistons or Bulls. He meant so much more to the team than mere statistics.

Porter seemed to always make the big play. Even on a team where Clyde Drexler was THE star, Porter was often the player the Blazers looked to in crunch time. He provided us with so many great, great memories.

For example, there was the game, I believe against the Spurs, where everyone in the building knew Porter would shoot the try, trying for the tie...but he instead cut to the basket, scored, and was fouled, tying a game the Blazers went on to win.

There were so many plays like that where he simply did the unexpected and it always worked out. He was not as flashy as Kevin Johnson, didn't have the Karl Malone for the pick and roll like John Stockton, and so forth. Yet he still meant every bit as much to the Blazers as those talented players did for their teams.

Portland fans will never forget the epic Suns-Blazers duel where it seemed like every game saw the Suns' Tom Chambers, Dan Majerle and Kevin Johnson go off for 20 or 30 points apiece, only to see the Blazers match with Porter, Drexler, and maybe Jerome Kersey one night, Cliff Robinson another. 

That series was epic. If the entertainment value from that series could be bottled and sold, Budweiser would go out of business. They were teams that could score, loved to run, and matched up well together.  

Likewise the series with the Utah Jazz. As Buck Williams and Karl Malone banged each other hard enough to leave the fans with bruises, Porter and Stockton put on clinics on how to play point guard. 

Again and again Porter found Kevin Duckworth on the pick and pop for that one-handed jumper Duckworth loved to shoot, or found Drexler driving to the bucket or, barring that, simply scored from wherever he felt like shooting.

Stockton was no slouch, either. With Williams and Malone all but canceling each other out, it was up to Stockton and Jeff Hornacek to provide scoring punch. Back and forth went the series until Portland pulled out an improbable Game 6 win in Utah, mostly behind the stellar play of Porter.

Who can forget his 6-for-8 three-point shooting in the first game? It was not as if Stockton did not know how to play defense...but it did set the tone.

In short, while his overall numbers may not be game-breaking, his impact was. 

And of course his Blazer numbers are better:He is their all-time leader in assists and steals, and second in points and steals. 

But it was also what he meant to the community as a whole that mattered. People outside the Portland area might not fully understand what that meant to Portland, but those who suffered through the Jailblazer era do. 

Porter was not only a great player, he was a great guy. In 1992-3, he won the NBA J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award due to his efforts in the community. For Blazer fans, that meant almost as much as, if not more, than his All-Star game honors. 

Blazer fans don't just want to win, they want to win "the right way" which means with players who are not rolling around the streets getting high, running dog-fighting rings, and so forth. Porter was a guy who definitely played the game the right way, both on and off the court.

Porter's numbers suffered a little bit because of the talent that surrounded him. It wasn't just Drexler averaging in the high 20s. Jerome Kersey, Buck Williams, Cliff Robinson and Kevin Duckworth were all capable of averaging close to 20 points per game. Porter found ways to make sure everyone got the ball, even at the cost of his own numbers. 

Playing alongside a passer like Clyde Drexler also hurt his assist numbers. During Porter's prime, Drexler averaged as many as 8 assists per game but never fewer than 5.8. When playing alongside that sort of passing talent, it makes it hard for a point guard to ring up huge numbers.

Clearly, when Porter has his jersey retired at the game tonight, it has a lot to do with his impact on the team far more than it does pure numbers.

Porter was a great player and a very good man. It is an honor to have been able to see him play basketball. Thanks for the memories, Terry Porter, and congratulations on seeing the #30 raised to the rafters. You are truly a deserving member.

Saturday

What we learned about the Blazers in their loss to the Celtics

Blazer fans can remember back before the classic late 90s teams of Terry, Clyde, Jerome, Duck, Buck, and Uncle Cliffy when Portland was a "running team" that sometimes wouldn't run. 

They had some nice players and were built largely around Shooting Guard Jim Paxson. Game after game the Blazers tried to win via the fast break. But then something strange would happen. They would be matched up with the Showtime Lakers. 

Each time, the Blazers changed their philosophy. They correctly recognized they could not run with the Lakers. As a result, every time they matched up with Showtime, they changed their philosophy. 

Again and again they tried to turn the games into half-court slug-fests that would theoretically minimize the Laker advantage. Unsurprisingly, it never worked.

Since the Blazers were built around running, that is where their talents lay. They struggled to score in the half-court. Slowing the game down was intended to minimize the number of possessions which, in turn, would minimize the talent gap between the Blazers and Lakers.

The strategy had a serious flaw, however. The Lakers had a good half-court game where Magic could penetrate the lane at will, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a great post player, and slowing the game down really only meant more shots inside by Jabbar and less shots for the fleet wings of the Lakers in transition. 

By contrast, the Blazers were giving up on the one thing they really did well. The talent gap between the Lakers and Blazers in the half court was larger than it was in the running game. The Blazers effectively defended themselves by taking their greatest strength out of their arsenal before the game even began.

I am sure it is just faulty memory, but it sure seemed like every match-up during those years was an easy Laker win, usually by blow-out.

Why bring up painful memories of losses to the team I despise most in the League?

The answer is simple. I was listening to the Blazer pre-game show. After interviewing Coach Nate McMillan, the radio personalities explained the Blazers game plan was to expend most of the shot clock, keep the score in the 80s, and win that type of game.

They scored 101 against the Hornets. They scored 96 against Detroit.  Those are a couple pretty good defensive teams and Portland won by 15 and 11 points respectively. Now, admittedly, Boston is a better defensive team than either of those, but the point stands. Against the Pistons and Hornets Portland played their best game and saw where they stood. Against Boston they deliberately planned to play Boston with less than their best game plan.

By deliberately taking longer in the shot clock, they made the Celtics defend for less of the shot clock. This just in, Boston is pretty good on defense even without that help.

The result was an ugly 78 point output for Portland. I suppose it is a bright spot that they "only" gave up 93 to Boston...as long as you ignore the "mere" 15 point spread on the scoreboard. 

Against the really good teams in the League, the best chance you have to beat them is to play your best game. When Portland set out to play less than their best game it made the game easier for Boston. Portland is going to get to the point where they don't have to play their best game to beat the top teams in the League, but they are not there yes and probably won't get there this year.

Meanwhile, Boston does not have to play their best game to beat most teams in the League. They are so good and work so well together that they can have half their team "off" on any given night and still pull out the win, particularly at home.

It seemed to me that the mistakes of the past were being repeated as Portland saw a team they were looking up at talent-wise and, instead of playing their best game, tried to play a strategy they were less skilled at in an attempt to beat a better team. It did not work. It will not work next time.

Portland's game has a lot to do with their depth. They go 10 deep in guys who can get them double figures on any given night. If LaMarcus Aldridge is struggling, they go to Channing Frye. If Nicolas Batum is not scoring, they can bring in Travis Outlaw. Rudy Fernandez is often a dynamic scorer who can fill it up from anywhere and in bunches. The beat goes on. 

By playing fewer possessions and effectively shortening the game, the Blazer game plan largely canceled out the depth advantage. Boston is so good that when an opponent helps them that way, a blow-out is a veritable certainty.

The real irony is that Portland is good enough to compete with Boston assuming a few things fall in place: 
1) They get over their psychological fear of Boston. Last year they said they felt "bullied" and intimidated. It showed this year, particularly in the 21-0 Boston run after Portland took a 36-35 lead.
2) They play their own game instead of trying to play styles they are not used to. That means maximizing the things they do well and minimizing they things they do poorly.
3) They play the tough, intense defense they are capable of instead of being intimidated and letting Boston do what it wants.

Overall, it is just one game in the loss column. However, it is one game that shows the difference between playoff-ready, potential Champions like Boston and teams that, at least at this point in the season, is not ready to face the top teams in the League in games of particular importance.


Wednesday

When a win isn't a win

With the new schedule at work I have not been able to listen to or watch the last few Blazer games.  I did catch the last 5 minutes or so of the New York game, but otherwise it has simply been post-game shows. On the bright side, those post-game shows have all been after victories. On the downside, I note a trend among Blazer broadcasters. They are showing disappointment at times over margin of victory. 

The difference between good teams and bad teams has never been margin of victory. Sure, your Boston Celtic type teams will have more big-margin wins than a Minnesota, for example. More importantly, however, is they find a way to win all the games they are supposed to, even when the opponent plays over their head.

There is not an NBA team that is not extremely talented from top to bottom. When you watch pre-game warm-ups, for example, you will see the 12th man on the glorified D-League team the Oklahoma (lack of) Thunder drill shot after shot after shot, demonstrate lateral movement that ordinary people can only dream of, and just generally show in every way, shape and form that he is a superior athlete.

Yet Oklahoma has won 2 games in nineteen attempts. Sure, the players on the Celtics are slightly stronger, faster, better shooters and rebounders, but not so much so that on a great night for Oklahoma where every Celtic has a horrific night, the Thunder could not win.

Yet if teams like Oklahoma have good games for 40 minutes, they will still lose because teams like Boston figure out ways to win. They come up with the big stops, find ways to put the ball in the bucket at the end of the game, and come away with the W. 

By contrast, mediocre teams like New York or Golden State often build leads but find ways to fritter them away and pull defeat out of the jaws of victory. 

And at the end of the day, they find a loss is still a loss just as the winning teams figure out a win is still a win.

Portland is a team moving towards being outstanding. They are winning at home and on the road. They are beating all the teams they should and a couple teams where the outcome might be surprising. However, sometimes that is not enough for their announcers or some fans.

Again and again after the Washington Wizard game I heard the phrase, "Well, they didn't win by as much as you might have expected but it was still a victory."

I would take a certain exception to that phrase. How can you say ahead of time that one team should win by x number of points? There are so many uncertain factors that come into play.

 Will young legs be unprepared for the second night of a back to back after playing New York the night before? Will Washington get jacked up about all the losing, come out and play over their heads all night? Will Brandon Roy see his shot off by just that tiny bit that turns 2 points into a fast break the other way?

One difference between the good teams and the bad ones is that even when they don't get the "expected" margin of victory, they still come away with the victory. It is not as if the game suddenly goes in the loss column after a team wins by less than they expected.

Last year's Memphis game provides an excellent example. Prior to the game, it seemed Portland should win by at least 10 points.  As it turned out, they didn't...they won inside the last second on a bucket that had to be reviewed for about 3 minutes to determine if it beat the buzzer or not. 

While it was not the double digit win that it should have been, it was still a key moment. Portland did not stop winning for quite some time, going on to win their next 12 games after the Memphis win. That last-second bank shot turned around their season.

Mostly, it turned it around because it was a win. Their final record of 41-41 counted it as just one game. If they lost, they would have finished 40-42. Obvious, right? Well, if they had won by 20, they still would have finished 41-41. Unlike the bizarre, Machiavellian machinations of the BCS system, in the NBA a one point win is as good as a 38 point win in the standings.

The main thing is to get that win. It doesn't matter if it is one point or 20, the point is to get the win. When the team has an off-night, whether offensively, defensively, or both, the good teams still find a way to win games against the teams they should beat. 

Right now, Portland is doing that. Sure, in a perfect world they beat both the Wizards and Knicks by double digits, but come playoff time when they are doing the seeding, a pair of wins by a combined 13 points will look just as good to Portland as the 2 wins by a combined 78 they had last week. 

So an open memo to Blazer fans; worry less about margin of victory and more about enjoying the wins. It hasn't been that long since winning seven road games in a season would have been a success, so enjoy winning that many in the first 13 attempts. A win is a win whether by one or one hundred and, far from being a reason to worry, it is a reason to celebrate.


Was the Portland Trailblazers not trading for Shawn Marion a good thing?

In the off season and pre-season, Blazer fans were wildly proposing trades to fill the two biggest problem spots on the Blazer roster. Conventional wisdom held that Greg Oden, LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy locked down the Center, Power Forward, and Shooting Guard locations but the Blazers were in big need of help at the Small Forward and Point Guard positions.



One of the most popular names circulating was Shawn Marion. Without bothering to see if it made sense from the Heat point of view, it was assumed Portland could pry him away for essentially the expiring Raef LaFrentz contract and spare change.

For the Blazers, it seemed to make sense. Marion is an excellent wing defender, a great transition scorer, and can drill the three. He would step into the starting line-up, provide them their key defender and some added scoring punch, act as the sinecure "veteran", and fill their second biggest hole.

This would allow Portland to move some combination of Martell Webster, Travis Outlaw, Channing Frye, Sergio Rodriguez and/or Steve Blake to pry loose a premier point guard from some other team.

Just 10 or 12 games into the season it is illuminating to see how much the landscape has changed. Nicolas Batum has been a nice surprise, Webster's injury had the rather ironic impact of whetting fans' appetites for his return, and Marion no longer looks quite the prize he once did.

Suddenly Portland fans are starting to realize what they should have known all along. This team is pretty hard to improve on already. The players mesh very well together and fulfill the roles needed on the current roster.

Webster is an above average long-range shooter who is rumored to have improved his defense. He was showing flashes last year of developing into a better than average wing defender and training camp reports this year had that much improved.

Travis Outlaw has taken a small step back offensively but is improving his defense. He can still create his own shot and at times does a nice job on the boards, though he does disappear occasionally as well.

Batum has been a revelation. His on the ball defense is already good and his help defense at times spectacular. He consistently hits the open jumper and three-ball and is good on the boards. His production is excellent for the time he gets but Portland is just too deep even at Small Forward for him to get more time.

Marion is no longer looked at as a huge upgrade by many Blazer fans. That may not be fair. Marion is still more versatile than any of the Blazer 3s is individually. He is also a better defender. However, he is not so far advanced of what we already see our guys doing that there is still an outcry to get him.

It is amazing what a little patience will do and how it changes the outlook of fans. There are still a few voices trying to get rid of Blake at all costs under the mistaken assumption he is not a good enough point guard for this team when in truth he is a great fit. He doesn't need a lot of touches but he is effective when he gets them. He provides the steady veteran leadership that keeps the team from panicking. He strokes the three pretty well. Sure, his defense is shaky, but then again, name 5 teams that are perfectly set up to defend the Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Devin Harris type of point guard.

I saw one comparison of Blake and Laker guard Derek Fisher. They have similar games and often seem like statistical clones. Yet I don't hear a lot of Laker fans yelling for Fisher to be traded, any more than I heard Bulls fans wanting to unload Ron Harper. I would have to say that style of point, the one that doesn't need the ball in their hands but can score when called upon is pretty effective on teams with guys like Brandon Roy, Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan. Properly built, that is a better choice than a ball-controlling point guard who has to have it in his hands.

So now that the season is starting to shake out, Blazer fans are starting to realize the move for Marion, while it may have been a good one, would ultimately have had too high a price. There is a reason this team is 9-6 and on its way up. That reason has a lot to do with the players Portland would have had to give up or not play if they acquired Marion.

This is certainly no slight on the Matrix. He is a very good player who helps any team he is on. Can you imagine him in Boston with their current crop? It would be a tough fit at first, but with hi versatility, they would be all but unstoppable. But as good as he is, looking back, the landscape has changed so much that at this point, Blazer fans should be ecstatic that trade was never a realistic possibility.

Sometimes the best moves you make are the ones you don't.

Monday

Blazers vs Kings; Can Portland Win Another Nail-Biter?


A few hours before game time we got the news; Greg Oden would make his first home start. Personally, I was a little disappointed. I believe he will be a monster and a key cog in the Blazers' Title runs in the next few years. However, at this moment in time, Joel Przybilla just fits better with the starting line-up.

As an aside, a fan at the stadium had a new nickname for Jole that I like even better than "The Vanilla Gorilla" or "The Thrilla", and that would be Joelzilla. Simply awesome. I hereby demand all references to Joelzilla retroactively be changed to reflect this new name which just might have people going deaf from overexposure to awesomeness.

When Joel starts, the Blazers like to start the game by pounding it inside to LaMarcus Aldridge. LA has really developed a strong post game over the past couple of seasons and this establishes him. It also gets Portland rolling with an inside out game that leads to open perimeter looks for Steve Blake, Nicolas Batum, and Brandon Roy. 

Joelzilla does a tremendous job in this line-up of setting picks and, almost as important, not clogging up the lane for LA or for Roy's drives. Oden, by contrast, too often plants himself down low and simply tries to overpower people. The offense bogs down, he picks up offensive fouls, and low scoring becomes the norm.

On this night, the low scoring did not happen. In the first 6 minute stretch, with Oden and Batum on the floor, the Blazers shot out to 14 points and a small lead. However, Oden did not look comfortable at all.

That is okay because this is a move for the long term. Joelzilla is a very good team guy but may not be the right starting center for a team planning to do damage in the playoffs. It will take time to get the new starting line-up acclimated together and what better time to do it than against a lower echelon team with a marginal inside game?

Early on, it looked like Oden or not, the Blazers were going to blow the Kings off the court. Then something strange happened. The Blazers forgot that Stephen Hawes and Brad Miller are atypical big men who can shoot from distance. And shoot from distance they did.

Over and over we yelled at Blazer defenders stuff like, "This just in. Miller hasn't missed a three this half!" as he bombed in another wide open trey. It was so bad that at one point the Blazer free throw percentage was 64 and the King 3-point percentage was 71. That is not a typo. The Kings, well into the fourth quarter, were shooting over 70% from deep.

That is one way to stay in a game when you are being out-rebounded 48-32, commit 22 turnovers, and give up 24 free throws. Credit the Kings with hanging tough.

And even more, the Kings deserve major credit for the defensive job they did in the last minute. Everyone in the building knew Roy was going to get the ball. But the Kings decided he wasn't. John Salmons played tremendous denial defense, forcing the Blazers to go to Travis Outlaw who mustered only an awkward looking drive that never really had a chance of going in and left the Kings with the last shot in a one point game.

Twice already Portland has had to score on their last possession. Well, three times if you count the Houston game as two. The Spurs got a last shot, but that was in transition with no time to run a play.

This was the first time this year Portland had to play defense against a set play with the game on the line. We know they can score to win games. Can they defend to win games?

Somehow, someway they completely disrupted the Sacramento play and Salmons heaved up a wild, tough shot against some pretty intense defense. There is a reason Portland is 9-6 and the Kings are 5-11; the Blazers finished the game stronger at both ends.

Along the way we had a few awesome moments. Roy added yet another highlight reel, spectacular drive. This one started left of the key with a behind-the back dribble to leave on King in his wake, a spin, a shift around one Kings big man and a layin over the late rotation of a second. Simply gorgeous. 

For the night, we learned a lot of things. We learned that one reason Portland will continue to be successful is because guys accept their roles without complaint, continue to do their job, and pull for each other. We learned that even on an off night offensively, Aldridge can contribute on the boards. We learned that even on nights when the bench struggles (14-34 from the field), Portland is going to win.

I guess you could say we learned Brandon Roy is spectacular...but I suspect most of us already knew that.

I expected Portland to win by double digits. They won by one. In a way, that is disappointing. They should beat even an inspired Kings team running without Francisco Garcia and Kevin Martin by more than one. Then again, in a way it is inspiring. As numerous players said in the post-game interviews, a couple years ago Portland would have lost this game. This time they showed poise, they showed maturity, and did what it took to walk away with the W. Ultimately, that is what it is all about.