It had to happen sometime, and Monday night turned out to be that time: the Portland Trail Blazers came crashing back to Earth in the Rose Garden. Jerryd Bayless's offense, Brandon Roy's efficiency, the Blazers' team defense, and Juwan Howard, difference maker, could all be found in the wreckage of a 104-93 send-the-fans-home-early, cover-the-spread-then-smother-your-opponent road victory for the Philadelphia 76ers.
After the game, both Nate McMillan and Brandon Roy chalked up the loss to the team's lack of effort. "The game itself must motivate you, regardless of who you're playing, whether player or team," McMillan reflected. "I thought tonight we just didn't have that scrappiness, that hunger in this game that we need every night." Roy added, "We didn't have that extra gear on defense, just like we didn't on offense, it was a little more effort [needed] and we didn't really have it, especially down the stretch."
Their assessment seems accurate, to a point. When the Blazers needed to turn it on -- trailing by double digits in the fourth quarter -- they simply couldn't do it. The jumpers weren't falling -- the team was just 5 of 15 from deep -- and that was pretty much that. But even if the shots had been falling from outside -- even if Roy (9 for 20), Bayless (0-7), Martell Webster (2-7), Blake (4 of 10) or Dante Cunningham (2 of 6) provided timely, voluminous offense -- it wouldn't have been enough tonight. Not when the 76ers shot 57.7% from the field as a team (!!!), racked up 60 points in the paint and tacked on 16 fast break points (runouts, alleyoops, you name it... the Sixers didn't miss) for the highlight reel. Not when the guys who got battered down low -- LaMarcus Aldridge, Jeff Pendergraph and Juwan Howard -- all gave solid efforts. Aldridge finished with 17 points, 12 rebounds, a block and an assist. Pendergraph had a career-high 11 points and 5 rebounds in less than 19 sometimes-spectacular minutes. Juwan Howard went 3 for 5 for 6 points and 3 rebounds, playing hard as always.
Despite those efforts the Blazers lost the second half 61-44 against a team that is just 8--22. When it mattered, they were helpless against a past-his-prime Elton Brand (25 and 9), a past-his-prime-squared Allen Iverson (19, 5 and 4), and a hasn't-yet-had-a-prime-but-it-sounds-like-fun Marreese Speights (14 and 2). Oh, yeah, Sam Dalembert (14, 8, 2, 3 blocks) went way off too. It was coming from all sides and there were no answers.
Asked what adjustments might have been made to prevent the loss, Roy said that the Blazers hadn't properly defended Brand. "We were supposed to front Elton in the post. And we just weren't getting around him. For what reason, I don't know. We were letting him catch the ball too easily and he was scoring on us. And not just him, all their players were just scoring in the paint. We gotta do a better job, we just didn't execute the gameplan."
For his part, McMillan maintained that his late-game strategy would stay the same despite the fact that his 4 guard lineup of Bayless or Miller plus Blake/Roy/Webster/Aldridge leaked baskets and free throws down the stretch, making a comeback all but impossible. Asked if he would look to go bigger at the end of games, McMillan responded with a touch of defiance, "Why? We're down 11. So we need scoring. The bigs weren't playing the whole game so you try to make up 11 points, 13 points, with 4 minutes to go. Having bigs out there who aren't guarding -- we went to a spread option to try to speed up the game."
Manufacturing speed definitely makes some sense. On this night, an increased zip on the offensive side was missing and badly-needed, particularly in the second half. But McMIllan's defense of his late-game rationale obscures a deeper, 48-minute-a-night problem: fast or slow, the Blazers can't manufacture size.
Help is needed. Maybe not every single night. But a lot of nights, including this one.
Random Game Notes
- Before the game, Blazers Assistant Coach Monty WIlliams was d-ing up on Steve Blake. A Blake fake (rhyme time) sent Williams crashing to the ground in apparent pain. After checking his shoelaces and flexing his ankle, Williams got up and continued through the drill, with a grimace or two for good measure. On any other team, at any other time, this wouldn't warrant a mention. While it happened, it felt like a potential national headline. These are the days of our lives.
- As I first reported back on December 17th, Nicolas Batum has been shooting jumpers before games. His shot this evening looked OK. Not a particularly clean stroke, thought it never was. The results hovered in the 50%ish range from 18 feet. Let me just throw it out there: I see absolutely no reason to rush Nicolas Batum back. Let's remember that this is the same kid who attended nearly every practice after being injured, showing up in a sling to dribble the ball with his off hand and listen in to the coach's instructions. Batum's will to play and desire to compete are unquestioned. He's ruthless and more than capable of playing through pain. That's why he was briefly dubbed Nicky Barnes last year. Let's hope that both the team and the player realize the many benefits of taking the most conservative approach possible when it comes to Batum's timeline.
- Taking that a step further, assuming Rudy Fernandez comes back first and the Blazers use their second hardship exemption on a center, Batum's return wlll leave the Blazers without Anthony Tolliver and Unknown Center X. While his return will certainly relieve Webster of some minutes and help reduce the wear and tear on Roy, it will also serve to thin out the Blazers' frontcourt, their biggest area of need that has no chance for reinforcement, barring trade. The question boils down to: would you rather have a healthy center or a recovering Nicolas Batum for, say, the month between the end of January and the end of February? I know it's counterintuitive to want a non-NBA player instead of a potential starter but with such a distinct positional need, it's a question worth asking, especially in the short-term.
- Blazers Owner Paul Allen's courtside seat was empty tonight.
- McMillan again showed some flexibility in his guard rotations, leaning on Andre Miller when Bayless faltered. Miller had a few sensational passes -- including a great look for a Pendergraph dunk -- on his way to 11 points, 7 assists and 4 rebounds. One of his better performances recently.
- He may or may not know it yet but it took just two games for it to become do-or-die time once again for Jerryd Bayless. While he made some decent reads and limited his turnovers, Bayless must score -- and score in bunches -- to truly impact games. Doing that without going overboard is an almost inconceivably tricky balancing act. Above all else, he must shoot efficiently. For the record, 0-7 from the field with just two free throw attempts is not an efficient performance.
- Jeff Pendergraph was shown on television leaving the court briefly to head to the locker room due to an apparent knee injury. After the game he called it "just a bump" and said he would practice tomorrow. He was heavily-iced and receiving extra bandages from a member of the training staff.
- Questions have been coming in tonight about the latest on-air personality for Comcast Sports Northwest. Her name is Dianna Russini. TheBigLead.com has some background. Laura Green is sidelined, having just given birth recently.
- It will be interesting to see if this tweet sent from Martell Webster's account during the game will result in a fine from the NBA league office. The tweet clearly states that it was not sent by Webster and was instead sent by member(s) of his foundation's staff. In the past, the league has fined players for tweets sent on their accounts, even if they weren't sent by the player himself. Both Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler were fined for tweets that occured during games but that didn't originate from the player himself. Good eyes Blaze of Love.
- Isn't it a bit insensitive and uncouth to have Blazers Assistant Coach Bill Bayno participating in the "Corona's Coach's Corner" segment of the television show pre-game?
Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments
Struggling against small, up-tempo teams
The first thing is, we didn't establish ourselves on the defensive end all night long. I thought we played on our heels. We are a team that, we gotta be the aggressors from start to finish. Tonight, I thought we were on our heels. Once again we're down in the fourth quarter, we're trying to make a run to come back. We're not good enough to do that every night. We give up 61 points in the second half. They get 60 points in the paint. We never establish ourselves defensively. And then offensively, some of the guys making shots late, didn't make shots. I thought we tightened up going down the stretch.
Jump shot heavy?
We had some shots -- I need to look at the film -- we were a step slow I thought all night long. The movement, the ball movement, setting our screens, getting up, getting the hits, we didn't -- we kind of walked the ball up the floor. It was a lot of taking the ball out of the basket. Just the tempo -- I didn't think we got to our tempo. They played their tempo, walking the ball down the floor, running the Princeton offense, attacking us. Elton Brand came off. We really didn't have any defense for him, their bigs tonight coming off the bench tonight. After the made bucket we never really got into a flow offensively.
How discouraging is this loss?
It's a loss. We didn't play as well as we're capable of playing. I didn't think we came with that sense of urgency that we've seen. It's a loss. If it was another team it would be the same. This team beat us last year twice. We can play better. We didn't tonight. Just like we won those games we lose this tonight. We've got to put this behind us and get ourselves ready for another team that is going to be under .500 and got some guys that can play.
Talk about the Clippers
This same thing. This same thing. Having yourself ready is a skill. Not using or having a jersey, a name or an all star to motivate you, the game itself must motivate you, regardless of who you're playing, whether player or team. I thought tonight we just didn't have that scrappiness, that hunger in this game that we need every night.
Being thin in the interior
Well, Brand, size, he pretty much dominated the paint. We really had no answer for that. A couple of times we could get double teams on him and they were able to knock down some shots from the perimeter. I just thought they -- that sense of urgency that we played with and we play with mainly in the fourth quarter, we couldn't get to that tonight. We were missing our shots, they were coming down and scoring, as the game just got deeper into that fourth quarter, I just saw us really not have that confidence in our shots, not taking them and they continued to get stops and score.
That's something that we are working on. Every night getting your team to play with that energy is what coaches have to do. Tonight we didn't get to that. They pretty much controlled this game from start to finish.
Was Iverson their energy boost tonight?
He's going to attack. He's going to be aggressive. Tonight he certainly was able to score and provide another option for them. But Elton Brand and their bigs coming off the bench were the guys that really established themselves. Then some other guys were able to knock down some shots I think made us hesitant double teaming the post and having to guard the perimeter.
Does this game make you re-think going small down the stretch?
Why? We're down 11. So we need scoring. The bigs weren't playing the whole game so you try to make up 11 points, 13 points, with 4 minutes to go. Having bigs out there who aren't guarding -- we went to a spread option to try to speed up the game.
Does your reaction to a loss change because you're so short-handed?
Well, you know, again we know that we can play better than tonight. Regardless of who we have in uniform we can play better than this. For us, that 's what we are looking at. Reacting -- my reaction is no different than if I have our all guys in uniform. We can play better than we did. We weren't -- we didn't bring that energy. I've got to look at what I did and what we did on the floor, look at that tape. You know, you can win when you have the energy and you'll lose regardless of who you're playing if you don't. We didn't have that scrappiness tonight.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter