There are lessons to be learned from every NBA game. For example, anyone who doubted the ability of Mike D'Antoni to coach should learn from what he has done with the Knicks. Under Isaiah Thomas, this was a roster in disarray, capable of scoring 120 on any given night...as long as they were willing to give up 140.
For all the criticism of D'antoni teams playing so little defense his name should be Mike 'Antoni since there is no D, he has completely changed the complexion of the Knicks team in just a few short months. Sure, you are still going to score against them, but not like last year. He has this team heading in the right direction.
Greg Oden showed he has learned some things, too. The first two Blazer possessions went something like this; pound the ball in to Oden, watch him travel. Pound the ball in to Oden, watch him travel.
Typically this season, that has meant it will be a long night for Oden. He will pick up fouls in bunches and play 10 - 15 minutes, being no factor at all. However, he has been showing improvement and on this night, he would not let his errors take him off his game.
The Blazers started slow, getting up a ridiculous two shots in their first six possessions. This is a Blazer team that plays more mature than its experience, which is one reason the cries of "bring in a veteran!" are so ridiculous.
Portland HAS the James Posey-type veteran presences on the team in guys like Joel Przybilla, Steve Blake, and Brandon Roy. Yes, Roy is only in his third year but he plays bigger, as does Outlaw.
Once the Blazers stopped turning the ball over 67% of the time, they easily outmatched the Knicks. Travis Outlaw and Roy combined for 19 first quarter points and the Blazers were rolling.
When they get big nights from any two of the Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Travis Outlaw and Greg Oden foursome they are going to put up some big numbers on the board. This frees the second unit to relax and play their game. It does not always work, as the very sub-par performance by Jerryd Bayless would show.
There are nights where Bayless is a difference maker in a positive way. He can change the game offensively with his aggressive moves into the lane or his tenacious, harassing defense.
But he can change it negatively, too, by being over-aggressive and picking up fouls in bunches, turning the ball over in bunches, and taking the Blazers out of their offense. A lot of Blazer fans are blinded by his glitz and don't see the way he hinders the team. On this night, there was a fine example.
The two guys next to us spent the entire fourth quarter whining about how the Blazers needed to put in Bayless for Sergio Rodriguez. Meanwhile, Rodriguez was getting the ball to the right people at the right time. Even when the actual assist went to Roy, many times it was the result of Rodriguez maneuvering the defense into places where Roy could receive the ball in a position to find Aldridge or Outlaw open. When the defenders stayed home on Roy, Rodriguez himself picked up the assist.
If Bayless was in the game it is unlikely Outlaw would have gotten the ball when and where he needed it to bring back the Blazers to where Roy could perform the heroics that sent the Blazers fans home happy with another improbable buzzer-beater win.
But that is what has this Blazer team on the edge of greatness. There are so many players who can dominate the game in so many different ways.
Start with Oden. Forget his offense, it is still raw and unreliable. Oden can completely change the game defensively. He was a huge force in the third quarter. In a shade over two minutes he blocked three shots and forced Chris Duhon to travel, essentially creating a four possession advantage for Portland that allowed them to extend out to a nice lead, but more importantly, it moved the Knicks out of the paint.
Then, playing with five fouls, the Blazers down 108-103 and just 1:43 left in the game, he blocked a dunk attempt by David Lee. That block gave Portland possession, ignited the crowd, and let the Blazers wing defenders get a shade more aggressive knowing they had insurance behind them.
With Oden controlling the glass and the paint, in theory that will allow Portland to better defend the wing. That is just a theory, and we will come back to that a little later.
Up front, LaMarcus Aldridge can also be a game changer, but in his case he can dominate at either end of the floor. Offensively, he is a match-up nightmare for any defender. His post game has developed nicely to where he is a threat to score from either block and his feathery 18 foot jumper is a genuine pleasure to watch. Woe betide the team that sags off him.
But defensively is where he is making huge strides. More and more often the Blazers are turning to him when they need a big stop against an opposing big man. Against the versatile Al Harrington, Aldridge was an easy choice. He moves his feet well enough to actually be one of the Blazers' better perimeter defenders, a fact the unobservant have not yet picked up on. But he also can defend the basket, as his emphatic block on Harrington in the third quarter demonstrated.
With Aldridge able to change a game on both ends, there is not much to say about Brandon Roy. Obviously NBA fans in general are not all that aware of him as evidenced by him finishing behind Rafer Alston (!) in the All-Star voting...there were other egregious examples, but that one is bad enough. Roy is having a better season than most of the guys who finished ahead of him...nobody in their right miond would argue with Kobe Bryant or Chris Paul, but other than that, the things Roy brings to the table compare very well with any of the others and NBA fans should be embarrassed at their collective incompetence in voting for so many guys having inferior players. Of course, the coaches and players know...but it does speak volumes about the lack of knowledge too many ballot-stuffers have.
Coming off the bench the Blazers can bring Travis Outlaw, another guy who can change the game at either end. Offensively, he can create his own shot, hit the three, and dunk on the big guys. Twice in the last two years I have seen Dwayne Wade block an Outlaw shot at the apex of his release. Otherwise, I have yet to see anyone who can even contest it. This is perhaps one reason he is a team-best 6 for 7 shooter with the game on the line...better even than Roy's 7-19.
The clutch nature of Outlaw is not well understood by many Blazer fans who frequently clamor to see him put on the trading block. This would be a huge, huge mistake. Take Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, or Travis Outlaw off the team and you have made the team instantly and noticeably worse in a way that is true for no other person.
Despite my praise for Oden earlier, Joel Przybilla is, at this point, a better rebounder and defender, even if more limited offensively than Oden. Rudy Fernandez is exciting to watch with an eye for the flashy pass and moving three-pointer, but a Steve Blake or Martell Webster is, at this point, at the very least his equal. Bayless and Rodriguez are nice back-up point guards but there are several in the NBA who are, at this point, better.
Nicolas Batum is an above average defender who does a lot of things to help the team that don't show up in the box score. For example, at least three times against the Knicks he tipped balls to teammates who were credited with the rebounds. Without his tips, those rebounds would have gone to the Knicks every time.
Despite these things, he can be replaced with little or no drop-off and in most cases even with an improvement in the Blazer performance. As much as I believe the deep shooting of Steve Blake complements the interior games of Aldridge and Oden and the penetration of Roy and Outlaw, even he is basically interchangeable with several players.
In essence, then, what sets the Blazers apart from most teams are Outlaw, Roy, and Aldridge. These three guys win more games for the team than the rest of the players combined. They have a sense for when to explode offensively and when to step up the defense.
The Knick game was a fine example. When the Knick lead crested at 13, Outlaw, Roy, and Aldridge took over. They combined to score 23 points, dish out 3 assists, and in other words dominate during the 25-11 run with which the Blazers pulled out the win.
The phrase "pulled out the win" should have been unnecessary. They out shot the Knicks 53.7 - 50.6%. They dominated the boards 43-29 and outscored them at the line 14-12. In every way, shape, and form they dominated the game...except two.
First, the free throw disparity should have been greater. The Knicks shot 100%, thus maximizing their opportunities while the Blazers missed seven free throws. But the more important disparity was beyond the arc.
Three teams in the NBA are worse than Portland at defending the three; Sacramento, Washington, and New Jersey. The only other teams defending at worse than 38% are Golden State and Miami. Of those, only Miami is above .500.
This is a dangerous Achilles heel in the regular season where a team can get hot over the course of a game as New York did in the third quarter, hitting treys on four consecutive possessions at one point. For the game they hit 14 threes, including five apiece during the third and fourth quarters.
If Portland does not learn how to defend the three and runs into a hot-shooting team in the playoffs, it will be a short playoff season for them. Fortunately, they have time to work on this. It will be much easier to work with when they have talents like Roy, Aldridge and Outlaw who can rescue them when an inferior team gets hot at the wrong time.