Call the police! Somebody broke into Steve Blake's kitchen and stole all his daggers!
Unfortunately for the Portland Trail Blazers, that somebody was Atlanta Hawks guard Joe Johnson, who outshot both Blake and Brandon Roy down the stretch, guiding the Hawks to a second half comeback and eventual overtime victory over Portland 99-95.
Despite being the only loss of the team's current five game road trip, tonight's game was by far the trip's most entertaining. The cold shooting, slow starts and weak opponents that made some of the games earlier this week nearly unwatchable were replaced by a fast start, an insanely hot first quarter and a quality opponent that refused to lay down in front of their empty arena home crowd. Good times.
The Blazers played a marvelous first 12 minutes on offense and needed to, as the Hawks pounded the ball inside -- scoring their first 14 points of the game in the paint, I believe -- with great success. The Blazers countered by establishing Greg Oden (11 points, 7 rebounds) and LaMarcus Aldridge (18 points, 9 rebounds) early and then hitting the open shots that resulted when Atlanta was forced to help. The first 12 period was capped off by a buzzer-beating 3 from Rudy Fernandez (more... much more... on that later).
Things really started clicking early in the second quarter, when the Blake/Fernandez/Webster/Aldridge/Przybilla lineup pushed the Blazers lead to double digits. The Hawks pulled the game closer when the Blazers subbed Andre Miller and Juwan Howard into the game but Miller soon threatened to blow the game wide open, making consecutive open jumpers, stealing a pass and taking it the distance for a layup and then making a sweet backdoor feed to Brandon Roy, who found Juwan Howard for an easy layup. The Blazers lead was again in double digits and the game seemed firmly in control; the Blazers switched to a zone defense look and the Hawks couldn't hit their perimeter shots or convert on their offensive rebounds.
Things changed in the second half, as Atlanta looked to exploit the Joe Johnson and Andre Miller mismatch, pounding Johnson in the post and getting him off to a quick second half start. The lead shrunk to 50-47. But just when you started to get the feeling the roadtrip was catching up with the Blazers, Miller again provided a spark, scoring four straight and then assisting on a Blake 3 pointer, pushing the lead back to double digits once again.
With the Blazers leading 61-49 halfway in the third quarter, this game was right there for the Blazers taking. The Hawks settled for four jumpers in a row -- missing on all of them -- yet the Blazers simply couldn't blow it open. A few sloppy turnovers, a wide open three missed by Steve Blake, and then some more careless turnovers in the quarter's final minutes left Atlanta within striking distance entering the fourth.
That's when the Blazers offense started to stall, with Martell Webster missing a jumper, throwing up a wild shot in traffic and then forcing a pass that was deflected out of bounds (eventually resulting in a hopeless attempt to beat the shot clock buzzer). The Hawks, finally ready to capitalize on the Blazers' evident fatigue, pounded the ball to Al Horford (15 points, 10 rebounds), Josh Smith (20 points, 16 rebounds) and, of course, Joe Johnson (35 pounds, 9 rebounds), their comeback complete when a Johnson 3 pointer tied the game at 72-72 with six minutes left in the fourth quarter.
The final six minutes were played to a draw, and thus overtime, thanks to a second buzzer-beating 3 pointer from Rudy Fernandez. On the final play of regulation, Rudy inbounded the ball on the side to Greg Oden and then smartly received a return pass on the move near the top of the key, his long step-back jumper forcing overtime.
That 3 was the emotional high point for the Blazers and it would also mark the moment they really, truly ran out of gas. With Brandon Roy doubled over with his hands on his knees, having played nearly 43 minutes total, Joe Johnson took over in overtime, driving the ball repeatedly and getting virtually any shot he wanted. He made a layup, he made a pull-up, and the Blazers were staggering. Al Horford added a bucket for good measure and the Hawks dominated overtime, the final score of 99-95 looking closer than it actual was thanks to yet another buzzer-beating 3 pointer from Rudy Fernandez.
A tough, exhausting loss but certainly a loss Nate McMillan can live with.
Steve Blake had four opportunities to seriously swing the momentum and result of this game and, unfortunately and uncharacteristically, he was 0-4 in those opportunities. With an 11 point lead in the third quarter, Blake sized up and missed a wide open three that would have given the Blazers serious momentum. With 1:36 left in the fourth quarter, Blake missed a three with the Blazers down 81-80. Roughly 34 seconds later, the score the same, he did exactly the same thing from the same spot. Down 91-87 in overtime, absolutely needing a basket, Blake misfired on a short baseline jumper. On the night, he shot 3-11 for 8 points but chipped in an awesome 11 assists against just 2 turnovers. One of those turnovers, however, came with less than a minute to play in overtime, the Blazers down 4, as he decided to honor the legacy of Jarrett Jack by stepping on the sideline while holding the basketball.
All of that aside, some of Blake's assists were of the tantalizing variety, including multiple lobs to Blazers big men and a nice alleyoop to Martell Webster.
Brandon Roy finished with 17 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and, as mentioned above, simply ran out of gas in overtime. He did hit a number of big time baskets in the end of the fourth quarter and had an incredibly heady offensive rebound after Greg Oden missed 2 free throws in the final minute of the fourth quarter. He immediately converted the rebound into two points with a basket going to the rim. Add another chapter to the Roy/Johnson rivalry, with Johnson the victor this time around.
LaMarcus Aldridge did a nice job of showing more than just the fadeaway jumper, giving as well as he was taking from Josh Smith, who is a physical monster. Aldridge played 45 minutes -- the most of anyone on the team -- and was called in quickly a few times when Nate McMillan started feeling antsy with Juwan Howard in the game. It was one of the more physical games we've seen from Aldridge overall this season. An inspired Smith won their matchup in the end thanks to his all-over-the-place game-changing defense, but it was close.
Andre Miller gives and Andre Miller takes away. He keyed some runs with smart plays and gave away points with some dumb ones and his inability to check Joe Johnson at times. 14 points on 4-10, 3 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, 3 turnovers. Just up and down, up and down. Blake/Roy/Fernandez ended up playing most of the minutes that really mattered for that reason.
Greg Oden got off to a hot start, did a very nice job of avoiding fouls in the first half, and then got dinged with some questionable calls (one in particular that had the Blazers bench heated) down the stretch.
When the Blazers switched to zone, the Hawks succeeded in picking it apart pretty well in the second half, even getting some easy buckets close to the rim due to slow rotations and the like. Oden did a nice job on the boards but in the second half, when a few defensive rebounds would have saved the team's legs and shortened the game, the Hawks beat the Blazers to the ball time and again. Of course this doesn't fall solely to Oden (indeed, it might be more fair to blame the guards for not boxing out religiously) but one or two extra boards would have made the difference. Rebounding out of a zone can be incredibly difficult.
One other minor Oden note: his point guards need to do a much better job coming to him when he inbounds the ball and when he is looking to outlet. Multiple times Oden was standing there looking for someone (anyone!) to get the ball to and at one point he actually dribbled to halfcourt by himself. Come on, guards. Make his life easy.
Hopefully, the two missed free throws in the last minute of the fourth quarter aren't eating his soul right now.
Rudy Fernandez finally really, truly, showed up for a game this season, knocking in 4-6 three pointers, hitting a beautiful tear drop in traffic, and even nailing the first midrange jumper he's made since 1947. He was active defensively with 4 steals but also a little careless with the ball (3 turnovers). Overall, you love his 19 points in the wake of Travis Outlaw's injury and you absolutely love his energy at the end of the road trip. On defense, the Blazers shifted to the zone with him in the game and he more or less did his part.
Martell Webster showed why he isn't starting, looking inept on the offensive end during the fourth quarter as described above. His alleyoop dunk in transition was vicious, though. He looked lost at times on defense and it's amazing he played just 11 minutes in a 52 minute game. Tonight, Nate McMillan rode Rudy's hot hand instead. Hopefully tonight serves as another wakeup call for Webster to bring the consistency and focus he showed in "Oklahoma City."
Joel Przybilla had a quiet night. Too quiet. he had just 3 rebounds against an Atlanta team that outrebounded the Blazers 47-37. He did have a nice block but didn't attempt a field goal. This is Greg Oden's team now.
Juwan Howard played seven minutes and even that felt like 3 or 4 too many. He had a great run-out dunk that earned an and-one but he gave it back to Josh Smith on the other end almost immediately. With Travis Outlaw injured, Howard has to play but it's unclear how long the Blazers can manage with him in games against quality competition and physical front lines.
Jerryd Bayless came in briefly to spell the point guards and to help slow down Hawks rookie backup Jeff Teague. He drew a foul right before halftime and made a free throw. That was about it.
The road trip ends at 4-1. A very impressive trip to say the least.
There were some questionable calls by the referees down the stretch but, after watching the game a second time, they absolutely did not decide the game. Feel free to disagree with that; I'm sure many of you will.
In case you were wondering, I subbed in on the recap for Dave tonight because he was called in by the team's medical staff to rub ointment on Travis Outlaw's foot. Updates to come, surely.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter