Two questions surrounded the contest between the Blazers and Thunder tonight. The first, most immediate, and most important is simply, "Would the Blazers win?" The answer, thankfully, is yes. Portland took advantage of Greg Oden's interior dominance, Brandon Roy's bull-headedness, and some timely jump shooting to outscore Oklahoma City in an ugly game in which the offense for both teams was sporadic and sub-par. The game came down to a contest of wills and Portland, with more experience at winning when things go astray, took it in the fourth quarter.
Surprisingly the Blazers failed to control the boards in their usual fashion. The Thunder snagged 14 offensive rebounds on the night, 7 by Jeff Green alone. The upside was that Greg Oden vacuumed up everything that came his way off the glass. Do not take his rebounding ability for granted just because you're starting to see it every night. He is one of those guys who can bend the game just from the caroms he retrieves. He looked like a force tonight. He didn't get every rebound but for the most part if Greg was near it nobody else was getting it. The rest of the team ended up looking fairly mediocre on the boards as a whole, a couple of vibrant plays excepted. You just didn't see the Blazers wrest control of the glass, the game, and the tempo early. That made it a more difficult affair than it needed to be.
On the plus side the Blazers broke down the Thunder early by getting it into the lane. Greg Oden (a second mention!) had a couple of nice post moves which caused them to pay attention to him. Jumpers followed and after that cuts off of screens. This kept the Thunder wondering where the attack was coming from and led to a couple of sweet-looking halfcourt sets...the kind where the pass is as spectacular as the finish. That, combined with OKC missing a ton of otherwise makeable shots, gave the Blazers a 10-point lead after the first quarter.
At the beginning of the second period with largely reserves in the Blazers' offense stalled completely. They went one-on-one a great deal, resulting in an astonishing number of turnovers. At one point they had committed 7 TO's in 6 minutes. It was like the team collectively lost its brain. Everybody was over-dribbling and then bail-out passing. The ball never got anywhere near scoring position. Meanwhile the Thunder were gaining energy off the break and by making mincemeat out of the Blazer defense using Russell Westbrook. Westbrook would end up with 9 turnovers on the night but he also sliced and diced repeatedly, making the Blazers look powerless to stop him unless he coughed it up. The Blazers promptly and obligingly lost their lead, finishing the half with 39 points, heading into the locker room up 2.
Portland extended its lead by only 2 points in an equally ugly third quarter. The offense once again consisted of everybody exploring their own possibilities for several seconds before getting stymied and bailing out with a pass to someone else...who explored their own possibilities for several seconds before getting stymied. It's not like the Thunder were putting on a defensive clinic. They didn't have to. All they had to do was follow the ball. The big exception was Brandon Roy, who actually made threatening moves off the dribble. He didn't produce points in the quarter but he did break down the defense, allowing guys like Webster and Blake to find shots.
Roy kept the ball in the fourth, drawing multiple fouls. Webster and Blake continued to chip in. Oklahoma City, meanwhile, forced shots. When the Blazers smelled the blood in the water they upped the pressure, converted the points, and never let the Thunder up off of the mat. Badda-bing, badda-boom, wrap up the victory.
But that brings us to the second question of the evening: "Would the Blazers win in such a way that evidenced sustainably good basketball, so as to make you think they had their act together?" The answer to that one was no. Granted, Portland likely would not have won this type of game on the road a couple years ago. In that sense they have shown strides and due credit is given. You don't have to worry about the Blazers chucking a game like this because they fell apart or failed to exert effort. But concerns remain nevertheless.
This still doesn't look like a team that trusts each other on offense when under any kind of pressure. The ball movement is beautiful when the defense breaks down. Portland isn't going to pass up opportunities and between Fernandez, Miller, and Roy they have the chops to convert pretty plays. But when the defense is even remotely decent the offense devolves into watching somebody work or passing fruitlessly without real attack. The Blazers certainly have the talent to exploit individual matchups but it's not the best part of their game. More to the point, until Roy steps in and just takes over it doesn't look like they're trying to exploit matchups on purpose. They seem more like they lack better ideas after their initial screen doesn't produce a shot, so they just give it to somebody who looks likely, saying, "Do something!" Often that person tries to create for themselves, drawing the defense, but others don't react in time...maybe because they're not sure yet what's going to happen. So you end up with an awkward jumper or a guy getting double teamed, having to stop, and not being able to make an incisive pass to find the open man. Or, as in the second quarter tonight, you end up with turnovers. Basically the ball slows down to a crawl and even mediocre defenders are all over it.
This is still a team that's giving up more free throws than it takes. The disparity tonight was huge until that fourth-quarter run the Blazers made. For whatever reason the Blazers just aren't able to attack the rim with enough authority to draw calls. Either they eschew the drive in favor of the jumper or they get in there and put up something that looks weak enough that the officials have a hard time blowing the whistle. Obviously Brandon Roy is a huge exception, but how long can our offense consist of him penetrating and defenders, knowing exactly where the attack is coming from, setting up to knock him out of the sky? Whether through re-designing the scheme or through more individual commitment the Blazers have got to find a way to get to the line. Without fast break points it's about the only option for easy points.
In a similar vein, Portland has some good shooters but hoisting 21 of 69 attempts from distance is too high of a ratio. They hit 38% of those threes tonight but many nights that's not going to happen. Or even if you don't want to say "many" nights, there will be at least 8-10 games this season where the long ball just isn't dropping. If that's your most devastating assault you're going to lose most of those games. How many games will the division be decided by? Western Conference seeding? Flirting with the three can bring a lot of excitement and zest to your day, but it's fickle and you don't want to tie the knot with it.
The Blazers continue to have trouble with individual defensive matchups and then trouble again covering. Turnovers aside, Russell Westbrook was doing some NSFW things to his defenders tonight. That would be Not Safe For Watching, at least if you're a Portland fan. Had Kevin Durant had any kind of offensive evening (and he was brutal for most of it) Westbrook would have killed us and we likely would have lost. We have problems defensively at point guard still. We have problems covering for point guards. We have trouble when Greg Oden gets drawn into screen situations with a point guard. Back in the day opponents could break us down with half a move and any good pass. Nowadays it has to be a good move and it usually takes two passes, but we still get broken way too much.
In the end this is a little bit like forecasting the economy. Certain indicators seem to say the recession is over. Others aren't budging. Who knows really? But it's pretty certain that even if the Blazers play 75-80% of the games facets in good fashion, that missing 20-25% is going to keep them away from the status they're seeking. Over the long haul they need to build cohesiveness...far more than we're seeing. The short-term goal is winning while growing. Hopefully we'll see a game pretty soon where it all snaps together, confidence builds, and winning basketball builds upon itself. Until then we're due for more ugly nights and nail-biters.
If you're going to have a bail-out plan in an otherwise ugly game, Brandon Roy is a fine option. Despite the 5-17 shooting night he wasn't going to let this team go down. He dropped 5 dimes and kept the pressure on once it became apparent that the game would be hard-fought. 16 points in 39 minutes.
LaMarcus Aldridge went down with a knee contusion after only 12 minutes of playing time. He made a conscious effort to get inside. Unfortunately he was met by a swarm of defenders there and thwarted. But he stayed aggressive, rebounded the ball well, and even dished 3 assists in his limited minutes. The Blazers have to find a way to keep LaMarcus deeply involved if they want to win consistently.
Greg Oden pretty much feasted in the middle tonight. This was one of those game which, were this 2012-13, he would have scored 30 and grabbed 15 boards. In 2009-10 it was 12 points and 10 rebounds. He also played 29 minutes, about 7 more than he's been used to, with only 4 fouls.
Martell Webster matched Roy for a game-high 39 minutes and scored 10 therein. His main contribution was defensive, as he responded to last night's minute-reduction with a bunch of hard play. He was rewarded with 4 steals, 5 rebounds, and generally poor shooting from his opposing counterparts. To say that was all Martell would be a stretch. But he helped.
Steve Blake scored a Blazers-high 18 tonight, hitting 4 of 5 threes. He was a good offensive outlet and did what he was supposed to. Defensively he was just overmatched. He collected 5 fouls, experiencing the full wrath of Westbrook. He got 31 minutes because, to be fair, who on the Blazers was going to stop Westbrook? That doesn't change the fact that it's a problem even if it's not unique to Steve.
Travis Outlaw played 32 minutes and shot 4-10 for 12 points and 6 rebounds. This wasn't a reliable night for him but he did alright in a Travis-esque way. He's just a gamble in so many ways. On some nights that's fine. He's the dagger in the back the opponent can't guard against. But on nights when you need a reliable frontal assault Travis often comes up short.
Andre Miller played 20 minutes, collected 4 fouls, rebounded the ball 3 times, scored 4 points, and didn't manage an assist. He tried to face down Westbrook a little more aggressively. It was the right idea but it didn't work much better.
Joe Przybilla had 5 rebounds and 4 fouls in 17 minutes. The Blazers keep trying to give him the ball in traffic which is a bad idea. If that pass is available it could be because the opponent doesn't care if you make it. Joel needs his teammates to create such a threat that his man leaves him alone with a seam. Then he can catch and convert. Otherwise he's a one-man No-Passing Zone.
Rudy Fernandez had 2 steals in 14 minutes but had trouble hitting shots or making plays for others. They had him set up the offense a little but he dribbled a lot with not much result. Still a work in progress. With Jeff Green out there dominating the boards it was hard to field a smaller lineup, which probably pinched Rudy's minutes.
Juwon Howard got 9 minutes and managed 3 fouls, a bucket, and a turnover.
It'll be interesting to see how the Blazers respond to Atlanta and San Antonio, each a tough opponent presenting disparate challenges. The Hawks may be a kick in the pants to get the Blazers into high gear. If Portland doesn't come to fight for 48 minutes they'll be trouble though. You can feel the humidity thick in the air. There's going to be a lightning strike somewhere. The question is will it be the Blazers igniting and striking another team or will that discharge happen within the team itself as frustration boils over? It's not like the Blazers are in bad shape. They're 2-2, reasonably close to 3-1. But it's been a tough 2-2. Hopefully it gets easier soon.
Check out the Thunder perspective at Welcome to Loud City.com.