One down, 81 to go.
This game was decent by opening night standards. The Blazers were sloppy, somewhat inconsistent, and seem to get distracted for stretches but they executed the basics on both ends of the court, they kept their heads, and they never came anywhere close to falling apart or even getting rattled. They looked like a team that was finding itself but they also looked more mature than in years past. It was the kind of win you'd hope to see on an imperfect night.
The evening began decently enough with Portland relying on LaMarcus Aldridge for early offense while trying to make the Rockets work hard for outside looks on the other end. LaMarcus came through, scoring 7 points in the first three minutes of the game. Brandon Roy bolstered him with a couple of buckets off of nice passes from teammates and the offense was rolling. On the other end the Blazers did a nice job of shutting down the middle but they had to rotate and swing so much that they left the perimeter wide open. The Rockets took advantage by hitting threes. When Portland tried to get out and cover those they couldn't recover back to the middle quick enough when the Rockets drove. Houston didn't get actual buckets off of penetration as much as free throws. Houston had 12 free throw attempts in the first quarter to go along with their 7 three-point attempts. Between the two ranges they hit enough shots to stay even with the Blazers. Neither team was ecstatic with their start but both survived it just fine.
The pivotal moment of the first half came when LaMarcus Aldridge picked up his second foul with 7:30 left in the first quarter. That's when he came out in favor of Travis Outlaw. At first this looked like a bad deal for the Blazers, as Aldridge was their main scoring threat to that point. But Travis went all wang-dang diddly wubba SPROING wow-wow on everybody as soon as he hit the court. You could see it in his step as he walked out there and in his early defensive movement. He looked assured. And then he started hitting. And hitting. And hitting. These weren't Travis Specials from years past either. There was little dribbling involved and almost no spinning. It was catch, step, shoot OR catch, drive, float OR catch, hit that three all night long. Nobody on Houston's end had an answer for him. When Andre Miller came in and pushed the pace right on through the second quarter everybody started scoring. For a while it didn't look fair. Houston wanted to run but Portland wanted to run A LOT. The Blazers never sat with the ball and seldom walked it up. The extra time allowed them to run more cuts and screens, leading to some nice, easy points even when the fast break wasn't producing. They balanced that by draining multiple threes, stretching the defense and opening up the lane even more. After being tied at the end of the first quarter Portland found themselves up 13 at the half. Everybody who had hit the floor outside of the centers had scored a bunch. It was happy time.
The third quarter saw the Blazers attack the rim even harder. They eschewed the outside game and generated points in the paint. They even drew a few foul shots, which was the only part of the arsenal that had been silent (providing Houston a lifeline). They continued to protect the lane on the other end, daring the Rockets to generate points any other way they could. Houston ended the quarter down 19 and would fall to the full 20 points behind early in the fourth.
At that point the Blazers let up. They started walking the ball up, going one-on-one, and letting the Rockets get to balls first. Defending single players and hustling are two of Houston's strong points this year. The Rockets kept chipping away at the lead and the Blazers failed to respond consistently. Houston cut the lead to 9 with seven minutes to go before Andre Miller stepped in and hit a couple of nice shots, one an open three. Everyone figured the game was in the bag at that point but again the Rockets refused to fold. They trimmed the margin to 6 with two minutes left but at that point everything had to go right for them. Brandon Roy, Travis Outlaw, Steve Blake, and Greg Oden scoring wasn't right for them. Even with the let up the Blazers ended up with a 9-point victory.
Several things looked good on the Portland side of the ledger tonight. Chief among those was the rebounding. Houston can bang and board but the Blazers obliterated them, finishing with a 51-33 edge. Portland also patrolled the middle with intensity. The Rockets never got uncontested shots close to the basket unless they were on a flat-out break. And they didn't even get that many of those. The offense looked good on the run and when the ball was moving. The Blazers looked like they knew each other and they played unselfishly. You didn't see very many forced shots nor did it look like Houston could contain the Blazers to a certain area or type of shot. As mentioned above, cuts through the lane were pretty. Portland also set picks and used them pretty well, especially when compared to years past. The offense as a whole looked more professional as well as coming easier to the players. Everybody seemed to have confidence in everybody else. Obviously the team depended on Brandon and LaMarcus more than anybody else but it didn't look like it was a stars-or-bust affair. In fact the bench players carried the night for much of the game. The Blazers made their second unit count...working around Houston's defensive strong points and wearing them down. Finally I'll mention again the complete lack of panic, desperation, or rattling. Composure was the order of the night.
On the other hand, some things raised concerns...or at least left unanswered questions. Much of the masterful paint defense came down to the centers. This is certainly part of the Portland game plan and has been for some time. But let's face it...the big guys had a night off against the Houston centers and had defensive attention to spare. The individual defense on the perimeter wasn't consistent and the Blazers never were able to stop the ball moving or contain the dribble for long. If that doesn't change more accomplished offensive teams are going to bring us woe. In general, and especially in the early part of the game, Portland seemed content to start their plays outside. It looked like everything from the post to the perimeter would be more effective if started 3-5 feet closer to the hoop. But few of the Blazers were able to muscle into position. Until the game neared its conclusion and Brandon Roy started driving the Blazers lacked strong finishes around the hoop. Yes there were a couple dunks but in general aggression at the rim was lacking. This also contributed to the relatively low foul rate compared to decent shots generated. And, of course, Game 1 is a little too early to be assuming wins after three quarters, even for a good team. That's not likely to be repeated, but it does show how composure can sometimes slip into complacency.
This was a nice shakedown cruise for the team. Most things worked well. Whatever bugs showed up can be worked out. There's no reason for overconfidence and even less for disappointment. It was right down the middle which is just where this team needs to be right now. You don't want to stumble out of the gate but you can't complete an entire season on October 27th either.
Brandon Roy had a 5-18 shooting night but he was also the only Blazer scoring from the foul line, hitting 10-11. It wasn't the perfect game for him but he didn't overcompensate either. He played solidly within the team framework for the early part of the game, asserting himself only to provide some scoring support for LaMarcus. Later in the game he took over the ball more and drove hard. That's mostly what you want to see out of your star.
LaMarcus Aldridge seemed to relish the early scoring role and owned his matchup until fouls took him to the bench. He's the spike that the Blazers are going to try to hammer in to crack the opponent's façade. After that his teammates will exploit those cracks. It's a good enough battle plan and he's more than capable. He shot 5-10 on the night for 11 points. He started grabbing some rebounds late and ended up with 6. He also had 4 turnovers but it's not like he was killing the team with them. He played only 24 minutes.
Travis Outlaw was the superstar of the evening. The Rockets just didn't know what to do with his compact, efficient, yet deadly-athletic offense. He ended up 9-14 for 23 points in 33 minutes. He also played some decent defense, grabbed 4 rebounds, and notched 2 assists, 2 steals, and a block.
One of the big questions of the evening was how well Greg Oden would do. It depends on which end of the court you were watching. He really played a controlled (and controlling) game defensively. He looks so much lighter on his feet than he did last year. He's quicker to jump and quicker moving sideways. His arms and feet are moving but poised. That increased mobility makes him look a ton more experienced, as he's able to hit his spots on time. He earned 5 fouls in 26 minutes but only one of them was a head-scratcher. He intimidated the Rockets with 5 blocks. The was also a Hoover on the boards. Anything he was near he grabbed, finishing with 8 defensive rebounds and 12 total. His offense was timid, however. On the good side he set some strong picks, which is great to see. On the other hand he's still not accomplished at getting position in the post. He's setting up farther out than he needs to and it leads to harder shots than he should be taking. When he did really grind down low he was never able to stand still long enough to make a pass possible. All night he was radiating that "don't pass it to me, please" vibe, which is not what you want to see out of your low post trigger guy. When he did receive the ball he got it stripped as often as he got a shot up. He ended up with 7 turnovers on the night. Not all of them were in post situations but enough were. He scored 2 points on a dunk off of an offensive rebound. There's little doubt he was a net positive for the team, though. They didn't need his missing offense but they sure prospered from his lane patrol. They'll take 12 boards and 5 blocks any night.
Martell Webster looked pretty good tonight. You could tell he was shaky at the start of the game, but he had the wisdom not to do too much. He played respectable defense, made a couple nice passes, and hit the three when he was open. In fact he hit a couple shots that Nicolas Batum would not have been able to make in his place. He looked smarter than the Martell we remember from years back. He doesn't look like he's going to hurt you a bit and his shooting can sure help. 14 points on 4-7 shooting, 4-4 from the free throw line, 2-4 from the arc, 3 manly rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, a block, and a couple turnovers. Welcome back, Martell!
You can pretty much ignore Andre Miller's 3-11 shooting night. Two of those three shots stifled the Houston run in the fourth quarter. The misses didn't matter as much as the way he pushed the pace and found his teammates diving down the lane. He made a couple of Tivo passes tonight...as in, "Rewind it so I can see how that happened!" He was the second-unit catalyst, affecting the game almost as much as Outlaw but in a different way. 9 points, 7 assists, 4 rebounds in 26 minutes.
Steve Blake had a good night with the set-up three, hitting 2-5 from distance to earn 7 points overall. He also had 3 rebounds, 2 assists, and a steal. But when he wasn't draining it his game looked pedestrian. You know Blake well enough not to judge based on a single outing but on the other hand you also know that once he puts the ball on the floor his part of the possession is essentially done. Blake got some time with Miller as well as Roy. I wonder how long that will last.
Joel Przybilla spent 16 minutes cleaning up after Oden. He did a good job in the interior and snagged 10 rebounds and 2 blocks. (That's 22 rebounds and 7 blocks for our center tandem if you're counting.) He had some trouble catching the ball and collected 6 fouls, but what the hey. Like Oden, his defensive work more than compensated for brief moments of consternation elsewhere.
Rudy Fernandez looked rusty but managed a nice 8 points on 2-3 shooting from distance (quick-draw style too) and added 4 rebounds, 2 assists, a steal, and a block. He looked pretty much like the Rudy you expect: a little out of position on defense, a serious knack for being in the right position on offense, a couple of inspired plays plus one or two that should have been more basic. Between him and Webster, though, the shooting was deadly. Teams are going to have a hard time covering them while still watching the main guys. Rudy tried bringing the ball up the court and setting the offense a couple times to mixed results. It's early though. You could tell he hadn't seen time in the pre-season.
You expected the Blazers to win this game. They should be able to win again Saturday in Houston but I am curious to see if they actually will. Games like that are going to be the test of the season.
Don't forget to read the other side of the story at TheDreamShake. And don't forget Ben's report from press row is forthcoming.