Well, that wasn't our best win of the year and it certainly wasn't the prettiest, but aesthetic qualities aside, we accomplished just what we wanted to. We came out of this nasty little four-game New Year's stretch with a .500 record and ended the roughest part of our schedule for the season at 21-14, 7 games above .500. More on that later. For now...
As the Schonz used to say, this game was a tale of two halves. The first half was brutal. And by brutal I mean awful. And by awful I mean "really not very good". The main culprit was our zone defense. Mind you, zone was EXACTLY the right call against the Pistons with Rip Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace out. That's at least 50% of the Pistons' jump-shooting power and about 90% of their three-point shooting out of the game. Plugging the middle was the order of the day. The thing is, you're not supposed to plug it with a colander. There are a couple reasons to throw up a zone. First you want to collapse on penetration, making sure that the key stays guarded by a big man who is right there to help should anybody get through. Second you want to force shots from the diagonals, cutting off direct looks from the baseline especially. The Blazers' zone didn't do EITHER. Drivers were getting through left and right and when they did the rotation was late getting over. The Pistons got cheap looks at the rim in the halfcourt. Can anybody tell me what in the world Greg Oden would be doing out near the three point line in a zone? It happened. Late, out of position, not helping each other, not communicating...we might as well have been playing with our arms tied behind our backs. And on the rare occasions we stopped penetration Detroit simply kicked out for straight-on looks. We provided less resistance than a porn star's panties. We might as well have served them tea and crumpets every time they drove. "Spot of tea, guv'ner? No? You'll just be headed right to the basket then? Jolly good. Carry on!"
You know it's not going well when Rasheed and Rip are out, Allen Iverson doesn't have to lift a finger, and you're still down double digits.
On top of that our offense was strictly halfcourt, usually one-on-one, and was only producing jumpers. That's generally a recipe for disaster.
But wait...there's more. Even though we couldn't prosecute any of the advantages of a zone with that lousy execution we still fell prey to its weaknesses, chief among them being a wholesale abdication of rebounding responsibility. The Pistons grabbed 11 offensive rebounds tonight. How bad was it? We made Kwame Brown look like a #1 overall pick out there in the first two periods. That's just wrong.
Thankfully we forced a couple of Detroit turnovers right at the tail end of the second quarter and converted them into 5 quick points, leaving us down 7 at the break instead of 12.
Then the game turned.
First off we went man-to-man instead of zone. Second we forced even more turnovers which, combined with the running skills of Sergio Rodriguez, Jerryd Bayless, and Lamarcus Aldridge, allowed us to force the pace up to where it should have been in the first place. As free passes gave way to lock-downs, jumpers gave way to fast break layups and penetration, and their offensive rebounds gave way to our defensive rebounds, lo and behold...we caught up.
At that point it was a dogfight to the finish. It was Tayshaun Prince (who had an amazing night) and Allen Iverson plus a little Antonio McDyess against whoever Nate could drag out of the toybox in the absence of Brandon Roy. Sergio, Bayless, Fernandez, Lamarcus, Travis...everybody did their part. It came down to a possession-versus-possession standoff and our Travis Outlaw ended up trumping their Prince and Iverson.
First half, horrible. Second half, brilliant. Net difference? +1 point. But that's enough for the "W".
We ended up letting the Pistons shoot 50%, get up 6 more shots than we did, and obliterate us on the boards 40-28...all of which were disasters given who they fielded. We ended up getting 18 points to their 6 from the three-point line and 14 points to their 9 at the charity stripe. That made the difference in the game.
Lamarcus Aldridge had a fine offensive night, hitting 11-21 for 26 points. (Obviously we needed every one.) His offense was jumper-heavy in the halfcourt but that's usual. He keyed the heart of the comeback by outrunning the defense down the court. He also got some closer-in looks in the halfcourt in the second half. He looked lost on the boards but with the state of the defense tonight that wasn't surprising. Everybody looked lost. He got to the foul line 7 times which was important, even though he only made 4 of them.
I thought Rudy Fernandez had a very good game tonight. He shot 5-10 for 13 points, hitting all 3 threes he attempted. More importantly he played a smarter, more controlled defensive game. He had a couple of blocks plus the key defensive rebound of the game...one he ripped from the Pistons' hands to avoid disaster with 20 seconds left and Detroit up 1 still. Had he not made the effort Travis doesn't get the chance for that game winner. Overall he picked his spots, looking a lot more like Rudy Fernandez than somebody who's trying to take over for Brandon Roy. It worked.
Travis Outlaw couldn't have stopped Tayshaun Prince with 6 yards of chain, 2 padlocks, and a shotgun tonight but he shot 6-10 and scored 14 points. His scoring was timely as well. He helped keep us within shouting distance in the first half and he got legitimately hot down the stretch. He hit the game winner on an isolation play called for him. Here's a truth about Travis: He'll make you pull your hair out, elicit screams at your TV, and be the subject of 92 trade posts. But when all's said and done, even if he's sat out most of the game, if it comes down to one shot at the end of Game 7 of the NBA Finals he'll still be on the short list of people considered to take it. This is the pain and glory of Travis Outlaw.
Steve Blake also had major defensive problems tonight. At times he looked like his sneakers were laced together. However he gets credit along with Joel Przybilla for forcing Allen Iverson into a tough shot to try and win the game in the last possession. He also gets credit for his 2-2 three-point shooting, his 10 points, and his 10 assists. At times he looked like Sergio out there breaking up the defense with his passing.
Speaking of Sergio, he struggled early but came on in the second half to change the game. One of the most basic decisions for any penetrator is pass or shoot. Sergio makes this look like calculus sometimes. He'll make you bang your head against the couch when he makes the wrong decision multiple times in a row. (Tonight it was to the point that the Detroit commentators remarked on it.) On the other hand when it works that penetration and passing is spectacular and irreplaceable. We needed to push against Detroit tonight and Sergio helped us do that. 4 points, 3 rebounds, 2 turnovers, 1 assist in 15 minutes.
Jerryd Bayless looked comfortable in his own shoes for the first time this season tonight. He pressed less and let the game come to him more. He played some quality minutes during the third-quarter comeback, helping Sergio push the ball and making a couple of timely steals. He ended up 2-6, 4-4 from the free throw line (easily more free throws per minute than anyone else on the team tonight), for 8 points, 2 assists, and 2 steals.
The Pistons decided they wanted Joel Przybilla to beat them from the free throw line tonight if he was going to touch the ball. This seriously hampered his offense. He ended up with 2 points on 2-6 shooting from the foul line. He got his revenge with 7 rebounds and 2 steals, plus he punked up Kwame Brown a little bit, reminding him that he wasn't really a first overall pick...or at least not one that anybody wanted to remember. It worked.
Nicolas Batum had 3 rebounds, hit a 3-pointer, and collected an assist in 20 minutes. Let's hope he was taking notes on Tayshaun Prince's game tonight. Someday, my son...
Greg Oden collected 4 fouls in 13 minutes and was crazy weird about where he put himself defensively. This wasn't one of his big hustle games. He did have a couple of nice back-down post moves. He ended up 2-3 for 4 points. He only had 1 rebound, which was really not cool.
Channing Frye played more that twice as well as Darius Miles tonight. He played for 4 minutes and he managed not to register all zeros in the boxscore. He missed one shot to post a "1" in there.
Thus ends the Miserable Schedule of DOOOOOOM TM. Let's hope we never, EVER have to go through a 2+ month stretch like that again. Serious, SERIOUS props to the Blazers for coming out of it 7 above .500. If they can manage to keep their wits, get Roy healthy, and not relax and take teams for granted we should see some nice win totals over the next couple of months. That's not to say even the next game is an automatic win. It's not and the rest of them aren't either. But on balance, on average, the Blazers should be able to win a lot more games than they lose in the next 90 days. We have a good shot at heading into the last month of the season in double-digits above .500 territory.
Often when I feel exhausted or like quitting in the second half of workouts I will think back about all of the energy I put into just getting to that point. I ask myself whether I really want to waste all the agony I went through at the 5-minute mark or the 18-minute mark by slipping or giving up at the 30-minute mark. Let's hope the Blazers employ a similar focus. They fought really, really hard to earn these wins. Let's not let a few streaks of inattention give them right back to the league.
It'll be a hard fight, but a winnable one. The major obstacle for the team is simply themselves. The Pistons' broadcast put some interesting graphics up when introducing our players. Instead of giving stats or listing age they put up years of experience in the league. That was an eye-opener. You think of Lamarcus Aldridge as one of our veterans, yet he's only been in the league three years including this one. Total our starting lineup even with Roy in there and you come up with 14 years of experience overall. Without Roy it's only 12 years of experience. And 6 of those belong to Steve Blake. Many teams field a single player who equals those numbers. Every other playoff contender in the West obliterates them. Then again, the Blazers have been playing beyond their years the entire season. Why should it stop now? Let's hope it doesn't.
Check out the Jersey Contest results from this game and enter the next one here