And in case you're wondering, that's not a lusty, pirate argh. That's a "sometimes I wish I had pit bull jaws so I could clamp down on something just to hear it snap" argh.
It's about the same "argh" that was written all over the face of assistant coach Dean Demopoulos as he walked towards the tunnel at the end of the game. If you have a recording still (provided you have a TV still after all of the objects thrown in its general direction tonight) you can check it out and see exactly what I mean.
The Blazers looked like they were coming out of the gates strong in this game. For 3-4 possessions we played the Rockets with guts and skill and passion. The Blazers played as physically as I have ever seen them, in this incarnation anyway. This looked like a FIGHT. It was perfect for a road game. Then some difficult stuff happened--a little Houston aggressiveness, a weird tech on Joel, a couple of missed shots--and all of a sudden the bottom fell out. We let Houston off the hook completely. Then we let Houston get ahead. The rest of the game was simply a fight for survival after that.
There will be a lot of ink spent on the last few plays of this game but the bigger point to me was the first half. There's a technical basketball term for the way the Blazers played offense through the first 30 minutes of this game. The first word is "chicken". I'm not going to tell you what the second one is. Depending on your regional dialect you may replace that first word with "horse" and still not lose the meaning. It was like buying a ticket for Frost/Nixon, making a wrong turn somewhere, and ending up at a Pauly Shore film festival.
The typical possession started with Steve Blake dribbling the ball for an extended period, atypical of him and certainly a bad initial sign for the offense. Then Blake, perhaps having made progress inside, perhaps not, would dump it to somebody twenty feet from the hoop.
--Sometimes it was LaMarcus, who would hesitate for a couple seconds and then choose between making a move to get five feet closer before shooting or just outright shooting from there. Either way he was covered. Either way more bounced out than in.
--Sometimes it was Brandon. He would drive a little bit more but Houston flat-out committed three guys to clogging the lane anytime the Blazers got inside, especially so with Roy. So Roy would get stuck and have to bail out to somebody else who then shot against the clock, long and covered. Or Roy would sometimes skip the drive and just shoot.
--Sometimes the pass recipient got a screen. Sometimes Blake even got a screen before he passed off. Few of them went anywhere.
The sum total of all of the work, effort, and passing was a contested 20-footer more often than not. The Blazers didn't just lack aggression, they were anti-aggressive. At one point it got so bad that I pretty much assumed the team had given up. It was just plain pathetic.
On the defensive end the Blazers did a good job of fronting and doubling Yao from the start. They managed to keep him mostly out of the game except on the boards. However doing this left their defense teetering on the edge. The Rockets forced the issue by going through Aaron Brooks. The Blazers never got comfortable defending him all night. They didn't look like they trusted Blake so they'd shade over consistently, flat-out sending help as soon as Brooks started to drive. The help often came from the power forward position, no doubt a plan of the Rockets. As soon as Luis Scola's man (later Carl Landry's) left Brooks flipped one neat pass and the Rockets had an open look. Combined the Houston power forwards ended up 13-22 for 29 points. That wasn't our power forwards getting beat straight up. It was our defense getting stretched beyond its limit, crumbling, and them picking it over.
The Blazers also got pounded on the boards early. No hope of controlling tempo there.
Naturally Houston took more trips to the line. With Portland hucking and chucking there was no hope of drawing extra points the easy way.
The one guy who seemed to have it going early was Rudy Fernandez, who kept us within (distant) shouting distance with his three-point shooting. Other than that, the first half and the opening of the third quarter were pretty much a waste.
You may think I'm being harsh here but honestly, it was just as described. Houston did a couple of things extremely well. They shut down the first option on all of our plays and they did a good job of getting a man back to cover the recipient of the bail-out pass. That's all they had to do. We seldom saw a third pass made even though the Rockets were vulnerable to it. We seldom saw anybody moving except the guy with the ball and whoever set a screen for him. On the other end we saw guys making the right moves more or less, but without confidence or aggression. Everything was slower and more tentative than it should have been. The Blazers were watching and thinking as much as they were playing.
And the thing was, the Rockets finally had a Houston-like offensive effort themselves. Other than the times we made it easy for them they didn't take fantastic shots. They didn't bowl us over in this game. Any defense at all brought misses. But we couldn't take advantage nor could we keep from overbalancing every third play and letting them free for the shot, drive, or offensive rebound.
After writing the textbook "How to Lose a Playoff Game Without Even Trying" for the first part of the game we finally got a spark with around 9:00 to go in the third. By this time the Rockets had a 17-point lead and looked to be roasting us over a spit. It started with Greg Oden, who came in, established position inside on offense, and started playing some of the best defense on Yao Ming I've seen. Though he got tagged with fouls, some of them foolish, Greg really played amazingly tonight. With him occupying space in the middle all of a sudden the outside opened up. Blake hit a three with 8:00 to go in the period. Brandon Roy made a jumper in the next possession. Then LaMarcus hit as well. Houston called a timeout to adjust but the next four possessions were Greg dunking, Greg dunking again, LaMarcus dunking, and Travis hitting a
three 20-footer...all of them off of Steve Blake assists in one of the few bright runs for Blake tonight. As the offense got rolling the defense also became more energetic. Pretty soon we're making one of those famous Blazer runs.
The energy stayed high through the end of the third and the fourth quarters. The Rockets hit shots to stave us off, but those were isolated events. The overall momentum swung seriously Portland's way. The offense still wasn't perfect. We still saw bad shots, this time coupled with turnovers. The jumpers were a little more open, though. Plus Brandon Roy, having suffered through a difficult game, started coming alive inside. At that point you thought we had a legitimate shot.
Portland managed to cut it to four with a Steve Blake three-pointer with 5 minutes left. Houston responded with a three and a couple made free throws, pushing the lead back to 9 and prompting a Blazer timeout with 3:19 left. Things looked to be lost when the resulting play finished in a shot clock violation for Portland but Luis Scola coughed up the ball on the ensuing play, ending in a Roy layup. After a free throw and a brilliant tip by Brandon the Blazers were back within 4 and Houston was the team in need of a timeout with 1:25 left.
After running down the clock some Scola hit a dagger jumper for the Rockets with 1:02 remaining. Portland was now down by 6 and in need of quick scoring.
This is where the game fell apart.
The Blazers ran 17 seconds off the clock to get Brandon Roy a contested jumper from 8 feet, which missed. Roy got his own rebound and dished it to Travis for a long jumper, which also missed. Greg Oden rebounded that miss and the Blazers called timeout. 32 seconds remained in a 6-point game. 30 full seconds had run off the clock while Portland tried to get the ball through the hoop and it still hadn't happened. The biggest problem was the leisurely pace on the initial shot...time which would end up costing the Blazers dearly.
The Blazers took 9 more seconds to get up their next shot. It was a three by LaMarcus and it went directly in. It was now a one-possession game. But with a hair less than 24 seconds on the clock Portland could no longer think about playing good defense and getting the ball back to tie. They were forced to foul. This was a bad situation, as Houston is stocked with excellent free throw shooters.
In this case Aaron Brooks was the guy. The Blazers got lucky as he missed 1 of 2, leaving them down 4. They got even luckier when Rudy Fernandez, the early hero, came through again, hitting a lightning-quick, leaning sideline three with Kyle Lowry's hand in his face. Blazers down 1, 17 seconds left. Brooks was again fouled, making both this time. But because of the consecutive threes, the Rockets were now up only 3 and the Blazers had 16 full seconds to work with.
Portland had no timeouts left at this point, but with a full 16 on the clock there was plenty of time to get up a decent look.
Or so you'd think.
Instead Steve Blake came down alone and with a full 11 seconds remaining lofted an extremely long, angle-shot 27-footer that sailed in the air like a dying quail and came down like a dead one. The ball may have been tipped or he may have been touched. I couldn't tell. Either way, it was an awful looking shot...more so with that much time left from that distance and tightly covered. I can only think that maybe he thought he got fouled and was shooting in order to draw the free throws. Otherwise...ugh.
The Blazers were forced to foul immediately. They got Shane Battier, who made both. Now they were down by 5. Blake quick-dribbled up and this time found himself in the clear as he shot and he drained a three. Portland was back within 2. They fouled Aaron Brooks with 2.7 seconds left. He stepped to the line and drained the first. He shot the second and...
HE MISSED! HE MISSED! HE...GRABBED HIS OWN OFFENSIVE REBOUND?!? Granted it was a weird miss off the bracket and to the side, but this was the final insult to all of the self-inflicted injury for Portland. After all of that...the tragedy of the early game effort, the hard-fought comeback, the blown chances late...the Blazers finally had one, last long-shot gasp. But they couldn't secure a free throw rebound.
Game Over. 86-83, Houston.
You have to give credit to Houston for doing what they did. They controlled the boards. They were more aggressive and got more calls. They made it hard on Portland defensively. But for all of that Portland pretty much blew this game. Three more minutes of focused basketball anywhere within the 48 and we could have walked away with it. Houston was the bar. They set themselves pretty high and they didn't move or lower. But they weren't going to raise tonight either. Portland could have jumped that bar. Instead we tripped.
And that's why the "Argh."
Individually Greg Oden and Rudy Fernandez deserve major, major props in this game. They gave everything they could. Oden even directed traffic out there for a brief moment. He came to play and looks like he's in charge...an attribute few Blazers are carrying right now. LaMarcus Aldridge had some nice defensive moments but never got rolling offensively. Brandon Roy had some defensive lapses and didn't play aggressively early but eventually got into the swing of things. As predicted Houston really shut him down and it took him a while to get past that. Steve Blake had a good statistical night with 16 points and 10 assists but I worry about the offense and defense both. After watching the game I was frankly surprised he had that much of an impact. Channing Frye had 6 points in 10 minutes. Travis Outlaw went 2-11, missed all 4 threes he took, and ended up with 4 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 assists in 31 minutes. Joel Przybilla had foul trouble and Yao trouble and ended up with 6 rebounds and 2 blocks in 20 minutes.
The coaching philosophy tonight was to save the centers for Yao time, which makes some sense. It was certainly proven wise in the second half by Greg. I wonder, though, how we can fail to press an advantage when Yao goes out with foul trouble or for rest. There's a risk of Greg collecting non-Yao fouls and thus not being ready when we need him, but we have to find a clear edge somewhere and that seems one of the few obvious ones in this series. I would seriously consider playing Oden against Houston's reserve "centers" next game. Frye and Aldridge together just aren't as intimidating, don't rebound or defend as well, and don't provide the unique post threat that Greg does.
So...onward. The Blazers are down 2-1, again having fallen short in an attempt to seize control and now finding themselves in dire need of a win to keep reasonable hope alive. The good news is that the Blazers have won in these situations all year, just as surely as they have lost in the situations in which they found themselves tonight. This is all going in a predictable pattern if you've watched the Blazers this year and the pattern says Game 4 win. The bad news is that this is a risky way to do business. You can only tread the precipice so many times before you slip and fall in. Houston has the chops to make the Blazers do exactly that. Pull out the win Sunday and it's a three-game race to the finish, two of those being in Portland. Lose on Sunday and you've fallen off of the cliff and are now scrambling to grab any root or branch within reach, hoping beyond hope that it's anchored.
Interesting times. Tough series.
You can find the Gameday Threads for this game here.
Jersey Contest Playoff scores for the night:
- Sir-1 59 Total = 136
- FromAfar 51, Total = 133
- MavetheGreat 40, Total = 104
- Tweener 55, Total = 109
Those who want to see what the playoff participants have to face on Sunday can click here. Remember only the four remaining players should actually enter though.