Against Houston Brandon Roy sandwiched two insanely awesome shots around a nice and-one by Yao Ming to win. Against the Knicks he evaded the foul-to-give and beat three defenders to win the game. Against...well, short form; when Roy takes the last shot in a game decided by the final shot, look for the Blazers to win.
Yet in their last three home games, Portland has watched an opponent take a potential game-winning buzzer beater twice. Against Indiana, it was returning Jarrett Jack. His trey at the buzzer was much harder than people have made out; after pump-faking Travis Outlaw, he shot an off-balance, short-armed three thinking he was out of time that never really had a chance.
Tonight, against Minnesota, it was Randy Foye of the Minnesota Timberwolves taking the last shot. Ironically, it was a failure on Roy's part that made the shot a potential game-winner.
With eight seconds left, Randy Foye fouled Roy. He stepped to the line with a chance to give the Blazers a three-point lead. This would allow them to give up the two while defending the three and force the Timberwolves, who were down to their last time-out, to make a three against a defense designed to prevent just that.
He missed the second free throw, however, and thus Minnesota could use the entire court. A two would tie, a triple win. They designed a beautiful play that got Randy Foye a great, wide-open look at a three.
Every knowledgeable Blazer fan knows what I am about to say. If Brandon Roy or Travis Outlaw gets that look with the game on the line, the results are very, very favorable. Foye is the guy Portland traded to get Roy. Here is why.
In the post-game interviews, Roy was asked if he was nervous when Foye put that shot up. He gave a little chuckle and said something along the lines of, "Not really. I was close to him and could see it was off-line."
I'll take that answer. From where I was sitting, I thought it was in and, like the thunderstruck fans around me, held my breath as it sailed toward the rim, fearing it would drop. Of course, Roy had a better look at it than I did, and his analysis was correct.
It also demonstrated why Roy is one of the premier closers in the game today. If that ball left his hand, there is a chance it would miss. But it would be unexpected. He is clutch and generally makes the shots that count.
The game should never have gotten to that point, though. Minnesota was coming off being thrashed by the Lakers the night before. Portland should have come out early, put them in a hole, and thoroughly demoralized them. Instead, it was Portland that came out looking like they were on the verge of being ready to fold and Minnesota that was loose. How loose?
Kevin McHale, the coach of the T-Wolves, was caught on the big-screen singing along to the pre-game introduction background music. (John Denver? Beatles? Some horrible song. Don't remember exactly what it was...but seeing him humming it as his players were introduced was hysterically funny.)
Four minutes into the game we had to double-check and make sure the shot clock was functioning as the score was an embarrassing 6-4. It was a ragged game with a lot of whistles. Technical fouls for Defensive three seconds, fouls, turnovers, fouls on out-of-bounds plays...it was ugly, ugly, ugly.
A nice stretch towards the end of the quarter was entertaining and it looked like Portland was ready to run away with the game except for one small problem; Steve Blake was assigned to guard Sebastian Telfair.
You remember him? Star of a documentary, Blazer future at point guard, guy caught with guns in bags to start his problems and with no jump shot in his bag to exacerbate them in stops in Portland and Boston before going to Minnesota to throw up bricks?
Good defenders have been known to play several feet off him because the only way he is a threat is penetrating the lane to dish to open teammates. He shot close to or below 40% for years.
But Blake has a way of making pedestrian guards look like All-Stars, All-Stars look like first-ballot Hall of Fame players, and Hall of Fame Players look like the greatest of all time.
18 points on 7-of-13 shooting, seven assists and just one turnover. Telfair looked like an All-Star on this night. Time and again he blew by Blake to either create a great look for a team-mate or simply float it in to score himself.
That penetration forced Blazer defenders to help which, in turn, forced them to pick up fouls. The need for mobile interior defenders led to long minutes for LaMarcus Aldridge, Brandon Roy, and Travis Outlaw while limiting the minutes of Joel Przybilla. He is a superior rebounder and good interior defender, but is not mobile enough to cover the lane when quick, agile guards penetrate with regularity.
Coach McMillan saw this early and altered his rotation. He moved Aldridge to center, Outlaw to power forward, and Roy to small forward. This gave Portland a team that was undersized but long, agile, and quick.
It was also a fairly effective team. Aldridge did a great job of rotating to cover the lane, as did Outlaw. Time and again the Wolves found themselves heaving up off-balance, contested shots against the shot-clock buzzer.
And hitting them.
Over. And over. And over.
They were hitting impossible shots. This was a night they played well over their heads. Portland played some of their best defense of the year. Every shot was contested. Every possession was a dog-fight. If Minnesota had any fast-break points at all, it wasn't over maybe two to four points. They had to scratch and claw for everything they got.
And to give them credit, they did.
On this night, the Wolves played over their head and the Blazers played an average game. It showed as the game was decided in the final two possessions.
There were several take-aways from this game. Let's start with Nicolas Batum.
On this night, he returned to the early-season form he displayed. He was aggressive in looking for his shot, getting up seven shots and going to the line four more times in a shade under 23 minutes, also picking up six rebounds, three assists, and adding a blocked shot.
Scoring 12 points on seven shots was nice, but more importantly, his willingness to shoot changed the complexion of the game. When Batum gets the ball and instantly rotates it to the next player it forces the Blazers to play four on five offense. Conversely, when he is willing to shoot it forces the opponents to defend him. This covers the inside hole when Przybilla is in the game.
The Blazers have reliable, talented scorers in Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge and a nice third option in Steve Blake, but the game becomes too difficult when those three have to do all the scoring. Przybilla is a solid defender, above average rebounder, and very limited offensive player. If the Blazers field two non-threats in their starting line-up it often leads to low-scoring first quarters that in turn lead to double-digit deficits. That has to change.
One way to make that change is to look for Martell Webster to return next year. He should score 12 - 15 points a game and his willingness to take the open shot occupies a defender.
The other way is for Batum to look for his offense a bit more. That doesn't mean he should start jacking up 20 shots a night, but he does need to mix in a few drives and take the open deep ball when he has it. On this night he was doing that. Without his contribution, it is likely the Blazers would have lost to a sub-.500 team for the seventh time this season.
Having a small forward who scores 10 - 15 points a game does not mean the Blazers are suddenly going to shoot up to a 108 point per game average or anything crazy like that. But it does mean they will have to expend less energy on offense to get good looks which will in turn allow them to work harder on defense.
They will need to because they are now unstable at the back-up point guard position. Sergio Rodriguez has been struggling for the last few games since Blake returned. He feels the pressure of Jerryd Bayless sitting on the bench behind him. Rodriguez plays best when he is comfortable. Right now he is playing very poorly.
Bayless is hugely popular with the fans but is only effective in spurts. He tends to dominate the ball, generate a lot of offense for himself, stifle the team efforts, and pick up fouls in bunches as he gets over-aggressive on defense, puts his body into them, and picks up bunches of fouls.
He can be a game-changer at times. He can change the pace of the game, he can score in bunches, and at times is an intense, effective defender. At other times, though, he is an offensive foul machine who brings the Blazer offense to a screeching halt.
In time he has the potential to be a lock-down defender with explosive scoring capability and even run the point somewhat effectively. At the moment, however, he is best suited to a pace-changing role.
With so many things unsettled...will Oden return to the line-up, will the small forward position be a threat on offense, who will play back-up point guard, can Portland find a way to defend the three...it remains to be seen if Portland can stay ahead of Dallas and Phoenix and, more importantly, run down Utah, Houston, Denver, New Orleans, and San Antonio.
Don't laugh...they are within a half game of the first four and only 2-1/2 games behind the Spurs. They have a very favorable schedule that could see them going 14-6 the rest of the way while the Rockets are without Tracy McGrady, the Jazz have most of their games on the road (where they are only 11-17), Denver has shown vulnerability, and as a Blazer fan I can hope the Hornets and Spurs stumble a bit the rest of the way.
The Blazers are sitting exactly where I had them pegged, 39-23. They have the potential to go on a big, end of season run. They are going to need to in order to improve their play-off seeding. This is a Blazer team that with or without rookie Greg Oden, with or without Rodriguez getting his head on straight, with or without the small forward position regularly producing, this team has the talent to make a nice run, get a decent playoff seeding, and gain their experience by getting out of the first round, not just being satisfied with getting into the play-offs.
The only question remaining is to see if they perform to their potential. Winning games 95-93 over teams like the Wolves is not the way to do it but at least it is a win. Better a bad win than a good loss.