Back in high school I used to have this recurring anxiety dream where I had finished my paper for English class (taught by a very good teacher who also happened to be a surly, old curmudgeon who didn't brook any late assignments or substandard work) but I could not find where I had stored it in my locker. As the clock ticked down to the opening bell I would dig frantically through the pile of books and homework and lunches, thinking maybe I had put it one place but then remembering that it must be in another. Tick...tick...tick... "There it is! No, wait...that was the last paper." Tick...tick...tick... "It must be right here! Oh, hi gorgeous redhead on whom I have a pressing and most advanced crush. Hmmmm...what was I doing? Oh yeah." Tick...tick...tick... "Aha! I found it! It was on the top shelf all along! And with thirty seconds to spare!!! Now I've just got to sprint to...hey! What am I doing standing here in my underwear?!?"
This game was like that dream.
We actually started out the game fine offensively. The Mavericks couldn't stop us early. Lamarcus, Sergio, Roy, Bayless, Batum, Travis...everybody got into the act. But you knew--KNEW--we were going to get in big trouble soon because our defense was atrocious. You remember the part of the game preview that said, "We'd better have good point-of-attack defense because if we don't then we'll be scrambling and out of position and you can kiss the opponent's field goal percentage and offensive rebounding goodbye?" Well, Dallas only got 5 offensive rebounds so we did OK there but that whole field goal percentage thing was nasty. The Mavericks are a good offensive team. We let them shoot a hair above 55% for the game. At one point in the first quarter they were 10-15 from the field. We made great shooters out of guys who don't shoot, let alone their stars. This problem never got solved.
But before we get to that, let's talk about the second quarter. You could have stuck a little orange sticker on it, marked it 5-cents, put it out on your lawn, and every old geezer and amateur collector in town would have passed it by with an upturned nose. I firmly believe that people who take their pets out to the back roads and dump them are some of the biggest jerks on the planet. But if that second quarter were in my house we'd be loading up the pickup as we speak. Actually that would probably be too cruel to the wilderness. You could tie that thing in a sack and throw it in the river and the river would throw it right back. The Blazers were to defense what Hudson Hawk was to Bruce Willis movies. The offense was more isolated than the chem geek at the Winter Formal. The Blazers hit 7 total shots, Travis Outlaw's six-foot pull-up was the closest to the rim by far, and the only assists were on a pair of three-pointers. We didn't draw any foul shots either. Meanwhile the Mavericks feasted on 30-points' worth of Blazer largesse. We dug a 14 point hole in the period from which we never escaped.
The offense actually came back in the second half. We started getting a little more penetration and hitting jumpers. Aldridge, Oden, Roy, Bayless, and Outlaw all came through in the third period. Ditto in the fourth with Rudy Fernandez taking Oden's place. But the defense still smelled like a month-old Gordita most of the way. Most teams look for matchups to exploit, figuring that if your power forward can't guard theirs they have an advantage. The Blazers have revolutionized that concept for the opponent. If you have a mismatch against any Portland player you can just run screens until you get them matched up against you. The Blazers' point guard on your 7-foot power forward? No problem. A center against your point out on the perimeter? You got it! Call in the next 12 minutes (because you know we can't do this all day) and we'll throw in a case of ineffective double-teams, three or four instances of slow interior rotation on drivers, and a lifetime supply of not getting out to your shooters. Regular readers will know this is not a new phenomenon for the Blazers. But the Mavericks with their Dirk Nowitzkis and their Jason Kidds and Jason Terrys make it painfully obvious. How many times can you see Jerryd Bayless on Nowitzki before you throw your hands up in disgust? How many times can you see a Portland double-team escorting an opposing driver down the lane like they were X-Wings trying to destroy the Death Star (and then see slow rotation to compensate and no secondary rotation after that) before you start to scream at your fancy, new TV for bringing this all to you in glorious, unmistakable high-definition? The dish feeds it in at 1080i (the "i" standing for "irritating") and then the set upgrades it to 1080p (meaning full-on "p.o.'ed").
And here's the thing. For all of this--all of the isolation plays, all of the craptacular containment, all of the blown rotations and foolish switches and lazy transition defense and hot Dallas shooting--the Blazers still had a legitimate chance to take this game. I've watched this game for a long time and I'm well-familiar with the NBA catch-up phenomenon, where a team will be behind by a dozen or more and then get within 5 or 6 before the leading team just accelerates away laughing. This wasn't that game. Dallas just invited the Blazers to seize the momentum and run away with it. They issued multiple invitations, in fact.
"Please, Portland...we've had our fun and scored a lot but it's your turn. Take the lead and demoralize us."
"No, no. Really, we couldn't."
"Oh please! We've been to the Big Dance before and you guys haven't made the playoffs in the last 5 years. It's only fair."
"No, you've been such good hosts we feel we'd be taking advantage."
"Not at all! We want you to walk away with the win. It'll keep your streak going!"
"Tut, tut. You have a streak going too. Don't be modest."
"Now, now. It's only three games. Nothing remarkable."
"Don't put yourselves down like that! Three games is nothing to sneeze at."
"But compared to where we used to be..."
"Now, see? That's the problem right there. Don't look back, look forward! Chin up! It's a new day! We've been awfully bad sports climbing back to within five points. Have a layup and a wide-open three. That will invigorate your spirits!"
"Oh Portland, why can't we play you every night?"
And that's pretty much how it went. The Blazers would get within four or five and then immediately cede the momentum and a ton of points back to the Mavs. That shot to take it to two or three wouldn't be a bad look, it would just rattle out in taunting fashion. Everything was an inch or a second off, right down to the end of the game when Rick Carlisle subbed out his starters for the end-game ovation and Portland promptly sunk a three, stole it, and sunk another one causing him to have to bring them back in. The recipe was simple: foul for possession and hope they miss free throws. Except we fouled before they inbounded, giving them free throws and possession back. Twice. Even so Rudy Fernandez had three free throws to get us close enough to glimpse a miracle comeback shot and...and...and...he missed one. Best free throw shooter on the team too. That's nothing against Rudy. That was just the night we had.
Brandon Roy had an amazing statistical game with 10-20 shooting for 26 points plus 7 boards and 7 assists. The guy kept us close. He also had 5 turnovers and missed some of those critical layups and shots. You can't demand better than 50% shooting without being callous. But we've all seen nights when Roy was just barely out of step and despite the production this was pretty close to one of them. He wanted to take us over the top and just...couldn't...quite...make it.
Lamarcus Aldridge had a similar night to Roy's. 8-16 shooting, 21 points, 5 boards, 3 steals, 1 block. It was good. But there were one too many turn-around fading jumpers when going to the hole would have been better. It was a good game, just not the flat-out great game we needed to seize this one.
Dirk Nowitzki, Brandon Bass, Jason Terry, and Jason Kidd all fried our fritters. A little more defensive leadership from our two stars would have helped.
Greg Oden looked like he was cemented to the floor tonight. Everything he did was a little s...l...o...w. He never really got in rhythm. He did manage to cut the fouls down but he didn't contribute that much outside of keeping the Dallas centers off of the boards. (Which he did very well.) 6 points, 4 rebounds in 21 minutes. Mark my words: the keywords for Oden's development into next year are going to be mobility and recognition.
Both Batum and Sergio got overwhelmed out there. The problem with inexperience isn't necessarily that you cause breakdowns (though that did happen, particularly in Sergio's case). It's that when breakdowns happen they take you unaware and leave you paralyzed like one more domino in the line.
Both Travis Outlaw and Jerryd Bayless had great scoring nights off the bench. The isolation-style offense favored each and Bayless showed some blistering speed and fantastic finishes tonight. Jerryd also had a couple of really nice assists on his way to 4 total but also had 4 turnovers and 5 fouls. He played 34 minutes, shot 6-9, and ended up with 14 points and 4 rebounds. Travis played 33, shot 5-10, had 4 rebounds and 4 assists, and finished with 13 points.
Joel Przybilla covered for Oden with 6 rebounds and 3 blocks, two of them show-stopping. He got left out on the perimeter against guards too but he recovered better.
Rudy did well enough, hitting 2-3 threes and 4-5 free throws for 12 points in 25 minutes. He wasn't having any more defensive luck than the rest of the team but that's the way it goes.
The Blazers weren't quite ready to step up tonight, which is understandable and expected I suppose. It's hard to see a game that was open to plundering go by like that. This kind of night won't keep them out of the playoffs, but it does show why they're not yet ready to be a threat in the playoffs yet. There's a difference between good and excellent which this team has yet to learn.
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