Coming off their big win against Boston, the Blazers had every right to feel confident. Instead, the pre-game show, pre-game blogs and so forth were all talking about the danger of a let-down, calling this a trap game.
How does a game with a team that should be your rival for years to come become a "trap game"?Looking at the Hornets and Blazers, there are a lot of similarities. LaMarcus Aldridge and David West are both excellent power forwards. Aldridge has a slightly better back to the basket game but West is slightly better from mid range. The differences on that end are pretty negligible. Defensively Aldridge is a little bit quicker but West is a better post defender. No team would be disappointed to have either player on their roster.
Both teams have defensive liabilities who can crank up threes at a high percentage. For the Hornets it is Peja Stojakovich and for Portland it is Steve Blake.
Both teams have potentially explosive 6th men who provide energy and scoring punch off the bench. For Portland it is Travis Outlaw and for New Orleans it is James Posey.
Both teams have offensively limited centers who score mostly on dunks and offensive rebounds but who provide solid defense and rebounding. For the Hornets that would be Tyson Chandler and for the Blazers it is two guys, Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla.
Both teams have superstars who can score, create, and who make their team better. For the Hornets it is Chris Paul and for Portland it is Brandon Roy.
Both teams are young, talented, and on their way up. Based on last year the Hornets have the advantage and are not going anywhere. They are too good defensively and too good at creating their preferred pace to play at. They seem to have been built on the San Antonio model.
Looking at either the Spurs or Hornets roster, there are only maybe 3 players that scare you but somehow they crank out victory over victory over teams that appear, on paper, to have vastly superior talent.
The first quarter largely set the tone. After throwing a 13 point first quarter at the Celtics, the Blazers followed up with a 16 point first quarter against the Hornets. But the signs were there that this was going to be a difficult game indeed.
The Blazers were struggling to score. David West was bodying up on Aldridge and keeping him from getting to the spots he wanted, Oden was encountering the same thing in Chandler, Steve Blake seemed non-existent, Rudy Fernandez is uncomfortable in the starting line-up, and Nicolas Batum last shot sometime in pre-season, or so it seems. For whatever reason he has lost all confidence in his shot and when the ball comes to him, he looks to pass it as quickly as possible.
When you give top defensive teams like the Hornets the opportunity to play 5-on-4 defense, your results may vary. Sometimes they will be awful and other times they will be horrific.
Meanwhile, the Blazers defense was...well, to be polite, we will say porous. The entire first half seemed like one continuous loop of open Hornets launching three pointers. The amazing thing was they were missing so many.
It isn't often you can see a team shoot 47% from three point range for the game and still think they had an off night. They were that open. Only their poor three point shooting was keeping Portland in the game.
It is no accident the Blazers give up such high percentages of three point shots. It has to do with their defensive philosophy. They are willing to drift away from their man if he is on the side of the court away from the ball.
The problem is, they then do not close that gap when the ball rotates to the top or baseline. This presents the offenses with clear passing lanes and a quick-releasing shooter will have the ball in the air long before the Blazers can close out. As a result, they give up numerous open looks. NBA shooters with open looks have a habit of knocking those shots down.
Take teh above picture. Batum is defending Stojakovich. It will take him too long to close out on Peja to prevent an easy open look which, in fact, is what happened on this play. Yet this is where every Portland defender plays his man. Clearly, this is how they are being coached. Just as clearly, it is not working.
Somehow Portland limped into half time in better shape than they did against Boston, trailing by just two at 45-43. This was their chance to overcome the "trap game" start to the game.
The start of the second half was bizarre. Typically, Coach McMillan goes with his starters for at least 6 minutes a half. Somewhere between the seven and four minute marks he replaces Batum with Travis Outlaw and then spaces his substitutions out about two minutes apiece. On this night, Joel Przybilla started the second half in front of Greg Oden.
With the injury history Oden carries with him, this had the Rose Garden crowd buzzing and nervous. There were several reasons it might have been the case, however.
On occasion, when a starter is having a particularly bad game, he has shown a willingness to replace that player for the first few minutes. Normally it is Batum who suffers this fate. On this night, however, it was Oden who was replaced. That would prove key to the events to follow.
With the game moving along at a pace best described as somewhere between methodical and glacial, it led to some interesting conversations in the stands. The conversation between Josh and myself had to do with who was the dirtiest player in the NBA.
I always come back to about three players and one of those is always Chandler. He elbows, grabs, pushes, and just generally takes a lot of away-from-the-play cheap shots. In this game, he would get caught.
After an Aldridge dunk at the end of a 30 second, three offensive rebound possession, the Hornets took the ball down court trailing 54-51, their biggest deficit since early in the first quarter.
Chandler was in the middle post area, away from the action when Przybilla extended a hand to put on his back as post defenders regularly do. Now, a little background on Przybilla.
He was listed as questionable for the game due to an avulsion to the scapula on his left hand. To protect it as much as possible, he was wearing a wide wrist band.
Chandler, ever the classy gentleman, saw his opportunity to severely injure Przybilla and took a massive, intent-to-injure hammer blow at it. What happened next is debatable.
One of us thought Przybilla responded with a shove, the other thought it was a swing. There was no question about Chandler's response; he took a massive roundhouse left hook at Przybilla''s head.
After an official review, the foul on Przybilla stood, Chandler received a Flagrant 2 and an ejection.
I kind of thought Przybilla should have been ejected as well. From where I sat it looked like he threw a punch, albeit a soft one. Either way, Chandler had to go for that humongous swing. And the referees did spend quite a while looking at the monitor whereas I saw just one replay. Even ESPN pretty much glossed it over.
By the end of the third quarter, Portland had tied the game. Sadly, it was tied at 61. That is the downside of good defensive teams. The games tend to be a bit boring to watch for those who enjoy scoring.
This one was a slug fest. Portland spent a lot of time trying to pound the ball in to Aldridge or Oden. It was not a hugely successful strategy as Aldridge shot just 5-for-18 and Oden just 2-4.
That is right...on a night Portland more or less featured him on offense for most of the second half, Oden got off four shots. Four.
Meanwhile, the backup for Chandler, Hilton Armstrong, went off with 6-for-6 shooting. Armstrong was NOT the feature of the Hornets offense, by the way. Just in case you were curious.
The problem with the Aldridge possessions had a lot to do with position. He is far better on the left block. He can spin either way, but when he spins right it gives him a big, sweeping, virtually unstoppable right-hand hook.
Instead, he kept finding himself on the right block which limits him primarily to turn-around jumpers.
On this night, with Aldridge struggling, Oden invisible, Blake quiet, only Rudy Fernandez and Travis Outlaw were scoring. It wasn't enough. For the second time in the game Portland dialed up a 16 point quarter. For the third time in the game they scored 18 or less.
Meanwhile, Chris Paul was showing why every other team in the NBA is jealous the Hornets have Chris Paul. CP3 was having a rough night for three quarters. The fourth quarter was all Paul.
He scored on drives. He scored on a trey. He dropped pretty passes to Armstrong for dunks. He dropped a gorgeous pass to Stojakovich for an open, crippling three. He had nine points and three assists for the quarter and they all mattered. He personally ripped out the Blazers heart, stomped on it, then wrapped it up in a ball, tossed it to Armstrong, and watched Armstrong dunk it uncontested.
Blazer fans are used to seeing that in the fourth quarter. Problem is, they are used to seeing it from Brandon Roy, the sharp-dressed guy sitting on the Blazer bench watching the team implode.
Portland simply needs Roy to have any consistency. He can create the shots the other Blazers sometimes cannot get. He can motivate the team, guide them past the rough stretches, and when they need a stop of a point guard, he is usually the guy Portland counts on.
There were some bright spots to be sure. Outlaw had his second consecutive strong game. Fernandez had one of his best games of the year. Bayless shows flashes of promise.
But overall, this game was about watching a superstar take over a game and having no answer. On this night, the Hornets were simply better. The onus is now on the Blazers to find a way to win in New Orleans, to show them that the Blazers can compete with them.
And next time, to keep an eye out for Chandler.