The name is Jones...James Jones

The agate type is hardly impressive...18 minutes, 8 points on 3-4 shooting, 1 rebound and 2 personal fouls. His plus-minus stands at an unequivocally neutral 0. No assists. No blocks. No steals. But it belongs to one of the most important players on the Portland Trailblazers. Unlike Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge or Travis Outlaw it seems unlikely that James Jones will ever be an All-Star but he is something else. He seems to fill the role of the glue that holds together a Blazer team that is more talented than their rather pedestrian 31-28 record would indicate. To be sure, part of that record stems from having stars Roy and Aldridge miss significant numbers of games...but it could be argued the loss of Jones hurt equally as much. After all, Portland did win in Utah without Aldridge...but not without Jones.

With Jones Portland is 23-12...without him they are 8-16. How do you go from a .667 winning team to a .333 team when "all" you lose is a guy averaging 9 points and less than 3 rebounds? It is not as if Jones is a stellar defender. His paltry .07 assists per game indicate he does not create a significant number of opportunities himself. Yet his return to the team after a lengthy spell sitting out with injury showed how he helps the Blazers.

Facing their long-time nemesis the Lakers, Portland started slow. Aldridge could not buy a bucket...early on it looked like the Lakers would run away with the game as they built a comfortable 10 point lead. It was not the 10 points that were the was the way the lead was built.

The Lakers were getting contributions from their entire line-up and the Blazer defense was, to put it charitably, porous. Meanwhile, outside of Roy and an occasional 3 from Steve Blake the Blazer offense was non-existent. When they moved off the ball they got in each others' way, pulled Lakers into prime defensive position to create double-teams, and ended up taking shots against the clock. Adding to their problems was easily the worst job of officiating I have seen in a long time.

Referees have a difficult job. The home fans never think fouls called against their guys are the correct call and seldom think any missed shot was not the result of an opposition hack. With that said, more often than not the referees get it right. Sure, they miss a call here and there...they are just human. But overwhelmingly they get the calls right. This game was an exception. You expect Kobe Bryant to get the benefit of superstar is frustrating, but that is how the game is and has been for a long time. Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan...they all got a lot of calls that a Jerome Kersey, Steve Kerr or Joe "Jelly Bean" Bryant didn't get. So be it. But when even Sasha Vujacic is getting those calls it makes it tough.

Again and again Lakers sent Blazers crashing to the floor with no call while at the other end the merest breath would draw a whistle. With 5:30 to go in the game the Lakers had only been whistled for 13 fouls in a very, very physical game. Joel Przybilla was unfairly in foul trouble. He picked up two fouls when Bryant ran full-speed into picks that were reminiscent of the old Karl Malone movement, just a strong guy set. It was awesome watching Bryant crash to the floor knowing he was about to get called for the foul...only to have it go against Joel. What? Horrendous, horrendous calls that affected the game. With Przybilla in the game Portland was controlling the defensive boards. Without him the Lakers ripped 13 offensive boards. The calls were so bad that at one point Jarrett Jack grabbed a rebound, was surrounded by 3 Lakers trying to foul him and instead a jump ball was called. Even the Lakers were laughing. So the Blazers were struggling on offense, battling some tilted officiating, and had all of 18 points in the first 8 minutes and change. Then, as if to make up for their earlier blown calls, with less than a minute to go and Derek Fisher guarding air he was called for a couple fouls that were the classic "phantom call". The 7 fouls called on L.A. in the last 5 minutes left the number of calls almost even for the game (21-20) but don't show the impact the officiating had on the game.

It looked bleak indeed. The vaunted home court advantage enjoyed by Portland was falling to effective Laker offense, ineffective Blazer offense, and officiating.

Enter Jones. He had no points in the last 3:37 of the quarter...but the Blazers had 9. Okay, so they scored a third of their points in the last third of the quarter. Hardly impressive...except for the WAY they scored them. Suddenly instead of the fools gold of getting bail-out desperation 3s against the shot clock that somehow went in they were getting good looks with plenty of time left on the clock. They were moving freely, creating havoc for the Lakers defense, and getting good scoring opportunities even when the ball didn't hit the bottom of the net. This boded well for the remainder of the game. This was largely due to the return of James Jones.

Even after he returned to the bench the Blazers had a more effective offense than they have had in weeks. They were moving without the ball, their picks were timely, they were making smart decisions, getting open looks, and were hitting those open shots. Now it was the Lakers with porous defense. Jack was getting to the rim at will, Roy was finding people open from every angle imaginable, Aldridge was coming up with timely buckets and Portland ended up outscoring the Lakers 92-79 over the last 3 quarters. That offensive explosion by a team that was getting height-inspired nose bleeds if they scored 90 points in a game prior to the return of Jones was a wonderful thing to see and provides hope for the near future. With games against the Warriors and Suns in the near future Portland will need to top the century mark with some regularity if they want to finish the season over .500.

And to do that they need more of what Jones brings to the table. Leadership. Movement on offense. Timely defense.


Oh, we are supposed to shoot BEFORE the clock expires?

As the Blazers were running out to a 32-16 first quarter lead the Rose Garden was rocking, every time out was greeted with a standing ovation by the ecstatic fans, and I turned to my wife and said, "They are going to lose this one." That 32 point explosion was fools was the paltry 16 points the Celtics were in the process of scoring.

Even though they were scoring seemingly at will there were signs the Blazers offense was in deep trouble. It seemed like every possession they were scoring with 1 - 2 seconds left on the clock with a bail-out long range jumper against tough defense. Even worse, that seemed to be by design.

The Blazers seldom hurry to get the ball upcourt. Whereas the Suns want to shoot in 6 seconds or less, 6 seconds is less time that it takes Portland to get the ball across the mid-court stripe. Once they do they are still in no hurry to get into their offense. Typically Brandon Roy, Jarrett Jack, or Steve Blake will dribble outside the 3-point line until about 10 seconds are left on the shot clock. During this time there is little to no motion off the ball. Then they will try to initiate their offense. Too often that meant throwing the ball in to LaMarcus Aldridge too far out on the floor for his post up game to work and with plenty of Boston help to force him to kick it back out. That meant whoever got the ball had 1 or at most 2 dribbles and then had to force up a shot. Fortunately for Portland they were hitting those shots...but good results does not mean good execution. They were setting themselves up for a scoring collapse.

Meanwhile Boston, despite having but 16 points after a quarter, had everything in place for a high scoring evening. It all started in a surprising place. As a long-distance observer of the Celtics the guys who are scare are pretty obvious; Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett. And by the end of the night those three combined for 59 of the 112 points put up by the Celtics. But as good as they are the key to the Celtics offense on this night was two-fold.

First, they get into the offense early. As soon as the ball crossed mid-court there was near constant movement. They were making solid fundamental basketball plays such as setting back screens to free up shooters for wide open looks. Second, they had Rajon Rondo and Portland has Steve Blake.

Blake has been a solid player for Portland this year. He shoots a high percentage and plays pretty solid defense. He generally does a good job of getting Portland into the offense, the last couple of games excepted. But there is a huge hole in his game and Rondo was exploiting it all night. Rondo is, plain and simple, too fast for Blake. Again and again he exploded past Blake and created movement as Portland scrambled to cover for him. This created easy opportunities for all the Celtics, not just their big three. The paltry 8 assists Rondo was credited with on the night do not show just how dominating he was. A better clue is the 58% the Celtics shot from the field. That was due in no small part to Rondo breaking down Blake repeatedly, Boston making the extra pass, and taking shot after shot after shot after shot with no Blazer within 5 feet. By getting into the offense early Boston had plenty of time to move the ball after Rondo got into the lane.

Interestingly enough, one Blazer did the same thing to Rondo. Sergio Rodriguez was making Rondo look slow. Rodriguez is an interesting case study. He has games like this where he comes in, is explosive, creates offense, defends brilliantly and changes the game around. Then there are games like this where he just...disappears. And often enough it is not his fault. At one key point in the second quarter he was being guarded by Eddie House. He hit a 3 and then, on the next possession, broke down House, got to the rim and scored a quick bucket to give Portland a 39-23 lead. There was a television time-out and for whatever reason he was pulled. Now, normally when Brandon Roy comes into the game it is a good thing. Portland obviously has nobody with his talent level. In this case, however, it was the right substitution at the wrong time. Portland would watch their lead shrink to 7 at the half but by then, even though they were leading, it was blindingly obvious they were going to lose the game.

And so much of it came back to the offense. Portland had 2 people capable of creating offense; Rodriguez and Travis Outlaw. Outlaw was having a stellar game. However, so much of his game was coming against the shot clock that it was pretty much unsustainable. On the bright side, Portland identified who was scoring for them and started riding Outlaw. Unfortunately, instead of getting him the ball in the center of the court they started getting him the ball in the corner where his superior speed and agility was neutralized as Boston was able to use the baseline as an extra defender. Players such as Grant Hill are excellent at playing the baseline offense...Outlaw is much stronger in the center of the court.

There were some bright spots for the Blazers. Aldridge clearly has an agenda when it comes to Garnett. He was calling for the ball and, when he got it with time on the clock and was able to avoid the double-team, was very effective. At one point instead of posting up he got the ball foul line extended right. He drove left, Garnett backed off, Aldridge pulled up and hit a 15 foot jumper. Then he made sure Garnett knew he had made the move on him. That is a brave strategy for a second year player and, at least in this game, it would not come back to haunt him as Garnett had a very sub-par game.

But there were not many. Boston simply had too much offense...a lot of it by Pierce after a pile-up on the floor which got him interested in the game...and Portland had too little. It seems strange to score 102 points and talk about struggling on offense but that is exactly what happened.

In the end Portland got beat by a better team. There are lessons to be learned that will help the Blazers be a threat in the playoffs in a year or 2 but for now Blazer fans will have to be content with watching Roy develop. Assuming, of course, that the re-injury of his groin that limited him to 26 ineffective minutes is not serious...


Of bad offense and worse opponents

Due to work and other life circumstances I had kind of lost touch with Portland. I was vaguely aware they were on a losing streak and were struggling mightily. Somewhere in there Brandon Roy played in the All-Star game and, judging by his performance making the front page of the Oregonian, apparently played very well. But I have been unable to keep up with what is going on and have lost my feel for the team. Fortunately, last night I was able to attend the Seattle game, a game I selected mostly to get a Brandon Roy Bobble head. The availability of said toys shocked me because it speaks quite clearly to the popularity of the "reining Rookie of the Year" as Mark Mason announces at every game. We got to the game an hour early...and they were out of Bobble heads as you had to be one of the first 5000 fans there. How late were we? My good friend John got there 2 hours early...and the bobble heads were gone. Portland fans do not, as a rule, show up 2 hours before game time. I think it is safe to say that even in the midst of a losing streak the Blazer fans love B-Roy. Fortunately as a season ticket holder I still got the bobble head...

The excitement was palpable. The Blazers have made a couple changes since I last saw them. First, the starting line-up has changed. Jarrett Jack is back in the starting line-up and Martell Webster is coming off the bench. This is an interesting change. It makes the Blazers smaller and faster. Roy slides to small forward instead of shooting guard, Jack slides into the shooting guard role and Steve Blake runs the point.

In theory this should improve the offense while weakening the rebounding further yet. Jack, Blake and Roy are by far the best passers on the team and all three have point guard instincts. It would stand to reason therefore that ball movement would be improved. Jack is a better perpetrator than Webster so there are three threats to break down the defense and create some shots in the paint. With LaMarcus Aldridge to either work the post or spot up for the 18 foot jumper and Joel Przybilla to set picks and rebound this line-up can post up, penetrate, and have multiple shooters to kick the ball out to if double-teamed.

As for rebounding, the Blazers already struggle in that department. It is not helped by replacing the 6'8" Webster with the 6'3" Jack. Webster is willing to get inside and battle. His statistics are not staggeringly high compared to Jack but his presence allows Aldridge and Przybilla to do their work with less interference. This is one of those areas that "don't show up in the agate type" areas.

The line-up has potential. Repeatedly Aldridge would get double-teamed and make the proper pass to the open man who would rotate the ball out top...where it would stop and the Blazers would wait for the Sonics to set up their defense. This resulted in multiple shot clock violations and several forced shots against the buzzer. For whatever reason the combination of Blake, Roy and Jack does not move the ball particularly well and when they do rotate it to the open man he is too hesitant to pull the trigger. Thus the offense struggled all night long. Eventually it degenerated into either Travis Outlaw coming off the bench for repeated clear-out, one-on-one situations or scramble plays where pure hustle resulted in good scoring opportunities.

The Blazers shot just 38% for the game. It would be nice to attribute this to the Seattle defense. But that is hard to do. Again and again Portland created open looks and refused to take them. Or they would get the shot they wanted and just miss. Here are a couple of examples.

Roy takes his time bringing the ball up the floor. By the time he reaches the offensive end 6 seconds have elapsed. He dribbles outside the 3 line for a couple seconds, then works it over to Blake who makes the entry pass to Aldridge. At this point Blake is supposed to cross out to where Roy had been to give Aldridge that side of the floor to work on. His defender knew the play and started towards the top of the key. Instead Blake runs baseline which runs his defender directly into Aldridge which unintentionally creates the double team. Roy scrambles to the spot vacated by Blake and Aldridge kicks the ball back out to Roy who is closely guarded. With about 6 seconds left Roy rotates it out top to Jack who is wide open. He hesitates which allows his defender to close, then throws it into the post to Przybilla who does not have great hands, fumbles the ball out of bounds and the possession is wasted.

To the Sonics credit when Blake went the wrong way they adapted and made the correct double team. When Jack hesitated on his shot they closed out and everyone was once more covered. But the offense moved the defense into the correct position.

The second example is quite similar. Outlaw has the ball outside the 3 line, foul line extended right. He breaks down Jeff Green, gets into the lane and draws a triple team. He kicks it out to the right corner. Blake, wide open, elects not to shoot. He dribbles to his left, rotates it out top to an open Roy who then dribbles backwards a couple steps and resets the offense...which allows the defense to reset. Outlaw moved the defense out of position, Portland had 2 open looks and took neither. If you fail to take advantage of situations where you get the defense out of position it will make for long, sub-40% shooting nights.

Fortunately the Portland defense was stifling. Seattle was being funneled into the middle where Przybilla and Aldridge were sending back seemingly everything the Sonics put up. At half time the Blazers had blocked a whopping 9 shots. But it is not the blocked shots is the adjustments those blocks make in the heads of the opposition. Time and again Sonics rushed shots close-in knowing that Aldridge (5 blocks) or Przybilla (4 blocks) was roaming the paint and missed easy shots. In the first half the Blazers were doing a good job of controlling the defensive boards so they were in the game.

This game showed once again one of the interesting things about this Blazer team. Particularly in light of the big trade the Sonics were involved in this team is built around Kevin Durant. Portland typically does a good job of making the opposing stars work hard for their shots and, while they typically have decent games, they seldom (Kobe Bryant excepted) go off for huge nights against the Blazers. However, role players have career nights with frightening regularity. This game was no exception.

Durant had a decent game...22 points on 6-15 shooting, 6 boards, 4 turnovers...but he had to work for it. Meanwhile, the guys killing Portland were Nick Collison and Luke Ridenour. It does not show in the box score but in the first half without Collison the game would have been a blow-out. He had 6 early points and numerous rebounds, hustle plays, and so forth. The entire section we were sitting in was muttering imprecations against him because, though it was "only" 6 points, they were 6 points that gave Seattle the lead in the first quarter and his 14 rebounds nearly put them over the top and nearly allowed Seattle to win the game.

Then Ridenour took over. He rained 3s from everywhere. Again, it was not the TOTAL number of points he scored...his modest 10 point total was hardly game-breaking...but the timing was key. Portland started the third quarter rather well and was on the verge of breaking the game open. The 3s Ridenour rained in broke the run and, for a time, the Blazer spirit. He single-handed changed the game from a Portland romp into a dog-fight that allowed Durant to come back in the 4th quarter after 2 relatively quiet ones and carry Seattle down the stretch. He made it a game but Portland held on for the 92-88 win.

This game spoke volumes about the current state of the Blazers. Take away their 13 game win streak and they are 9 games under .500. If they had played at that 36% clip during the 13 game stretch their record would be 24-34 which would rank slightly behind Sacramento. That actually seems a little closer to where this team actually is in terms of cohesiveness than their actual 29-25 record. This is a team that needs James Jones healthy, that needs to discover some offensive rhythm, and that needs to remember the magic that had them the hottest team in the league at one point. Friday night will be a good test. Seattle is not yet they Supersonics...they are more like the SadSonics at this point. Even as the second night of a back to back home and home series against the I-5 rivals Portland SHOULD beat Seattle in Seattle. The question is will they. It will be interesting to see if they step up and win a game they should or if Seattle can claw their way to a rare win.