Portland 81, New Orleans 96

Early in the game Portland was toasting New Orleans. Blake and Aldridge were hitting everything in sight, they were about even on the boards, and were protecting the ball. Meanwhile, New Orleans was struggling to score. West had 16 first quarter points...and New Orleans totaled 20. Outside of West they were as cold as could be.

But then the second unit came on. Roy missed a shot, Jack missed, Outlaw had about 4 of those drive-step back jumpers he loves so much that were wide open but missed. Jones missed a corner trey. Rodriguez missed a wide open three. It was a bad, bad sign. New Orleans was not playing defense but they did not need to because Portland was not even attempting to go inside and their shots were not falling. Meanwhile, noted studs Pargo and Bowen were eclipsing their prior season totals (it seemed like). Pargo had 15 second quarter points and Bowen another 6. Together they tallied 21 of 28 points.

This is the type of performance we have come to expect from the PORTLAND bench. When all but one starter struggle, typically Outlaw or Jones or Jack will step up with a big game. This time, instead the bench was missing everything but home and the starters started to get infected. They were only able to tally 18 points for the second quarter; 9 of those came on Blake 3s sandwiching a Jones 3 on 3 consecutive possessions. Outside of that stretch they had only a 9 point quarter. They had a 48-44 deficit at the half, nothing they cannot overcome.

But there were some very, very bad signs. First off, they were missing relatively easy, makeable shots. Not to cast aspersions on the defense of the Hornets because they are a very solid defensive team, but the poor shooting in the first half was not because of that defense. Portland was getting open looks from the right people in the right places. The shots just weren't falling. When your open shots are not falling and you are facing a team which can put the clamps on when they need to as the Hornets can, you are asking for trouble. Second, Roy seemed...well, disinterested. He is not a demonstrative or "fast" player but he usually is involved in the game. This time he felt like he was going through the motions. Very unusual for him. Third, the Blazers had kept Paul and Chandler very much in check (though West had wrecked them in the first quarter) but were giving up huge nights to second line players while getting virtually nothing from their own.

The third quarter has been a nemesis all year. This game would be no different. They had open shots but could not convert. They got free throws and missed. At times it looked like a contractors convention the way bricks were being laid. After a poor 18 point 2nd quarter, they bounced back with 15 in the third. New Orleans, fortunately, also struggled to score, though their 22 was still a 7 spot better than the suddenly punchless Blazers and the spread was 11 after 3.

The 4th quarter is one the Blazers have just owned for weeks now. And after back to back possessions where Outlaw fed Aldridge for easy scores it looked like this would be more of the same. Portland pulled within 77-72 with 5:29 left and had the ball in to Aldridge. His shot was blocked, though, and a quick 10-2 New Orleans run all but ended the game.

They had their chances. But New Orleans, who appeared relatively indifferent defensively for most of the game, clamped down on Roy when the Blazers got close, forcing tough shots late in the possession against the clock, keeping the ball away from Roy, and making other guys beat them. Most of the year, other guys have stepped up. This time they missed their shots, some of which were easy and some of which were against some stiff defense. Meanwhile, the Hornets had 3 dynamic scorers in Paul, Stojakovich and Pargo. Pargo finished with 24.

Going in I was hoping for the upset but something just did not feel right. Portland has seen the Hornets 4 times now and split with them, each team taking 2 on their home floor. The teams are fairly evenly matched. Portland's defense is typically very effective at slowing Stojakovich (he scored 6 of his 12 in the last couple minutes when the outcome was basically decided) and often harass Paul into tough shooting nights. But they can't keep Chandler and West off the boards (New Orleans won the rebound battle 41-25) and West just has a field day against the Blazers it seems like every time. He only ended with 22...but that is largely because he was not needed in this game after the huge first quarter. Meanwhile, Portland is well set up to score against the Hornets as Jones, Aldridge, and Outlaw all have marked advantages over their respective defenders and the floor really opens up when the Hornets concentrate so heavily on Roy. The deciding factor each time has seemed to be the home floor.

That is quite disappointing as New Orleans has a very poor crowd. The games are poorly attended (11,006 people for a team that is 29-12, a game ahead of Dallas and a game and a half ahead of San Antonio. They are, record wise, the best team in the most talented division in basketball...and can get only half capacity of sit-on-their hands fans. That is some pretty poor support. And sure, many people will offer the "New Orleans is devastated" party line...but at some point you have to get past that. Check out Saints attendance figures, folks. The fact is, New Orleans is just not a basketball town, at least at this point in their history. There is a reason the Jazz moved, and it wasn't because they perceived of Utah as a jazzier place...

As an aside, this was an unusually poorly officiated game. You will always see the home team and the more aggressive team get some favorable calls. When they home team IS the more aggressive team, that advantage becomes even more pronounced. I do not object to that. There was a time when Portland was known as "Rip-off City" for some of the questionable officiating that seemed to benefit the Blazers far more than the opposition. And the officiating did not determine the outcome. Portland had their chances and simply got outplayed by a team that, at least on this night, was the better team. But some of the calls were pretty brutal.

For example, on one play Jarrett Jack was on the baseline and a ball caromed in his direction. Chandler jumped out following the ball into a statue-like Jack. Chandler inadvertently landed an elbow to the head. Unlike some plays I have seen Chandler make, this one did not seem dirty to me, just one of those things that happens when people go after a ball. Either way, the contact was initiated by Chandler leaping out. Jack not only got the elbow to the dome, he got called for a loose ball foul. I spent some time thinking about that one, as in how Jack fouled him. Apparently standing in the path of someone jumping away from the basket is now a foul. Later, Aldridge had the inside position and Chandler barreled into him from outside. Again it was the Blazer who got called. Neither time was the Blazer airborne. Once he had inside position, once outside. Both times they got called for the loose-ball foul. Uh, okay.

Those were just two easy examples. There were several calls that had me scratching my head. But the point here is not to attack the officiating, it is something Portland can do to improve. They can make sure they become the aggressors which will gain them more calls. Instead of standing around letting the opponents go after the ball while they watch from court seats, they can crash the boards, make the other teams work for their rebounds, and make the refs notice there are two teams worthy of benefiting from whistles.

Be that as it may, the road trip was still a qualified success. The road is always a difficult place to win and at the beginning of the season if you heard they went 3-4 on this trip it would be a tremendous accomplishment. Even now I think 4-3 would have been hugely successful, and it is a sign of just how good the Blazers have gotten this quickly that it is in any way a minor disappointment to go 3-4 instead of 4-3. Winning on the road at a 43% clip is pretty impressive. The Blazers should be congratulated. They competed in every game, could have won the Toronto game, and even had a shot at this one with 5 minutes left. Well done.

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