Well...we got our answers.
This was a close game, to be sure. The Blazers played better than they did on Friday night. They played a more complete game. They played more Blazer basketball. But they still did not control this game for 48 minutes or anything close. They still did not rip this game off of its hinges and make it their own no matter what happened. They still could not put together a complete effort. Too many holes, too many mistakes, too many lost opportunities...that's the storyline here. Any one of them could have won the game. Any ONE. But collectively they ended up costing us.
There's a way to sum this up neatly. This team is talented. This team is putting up a fight. But this team is in over its collective heads right now and it shows. The Blazers aren't collapsing or giving up, but they're hesitating in areas that are usually second nature to them. They're not comfortable on the court against the Rockets. They're not playing strong.
The Rockets are comfortable. They may not always be successful, but they're not rattled. The Blazers are rattled by Yao Ming, by the refs, by the rebounds and threes given up, by the fortunate bounces on Houston shots, by the whole situation. After all is said and done the epitaph on this series will almost certainly be that the Blazers were just too young and inexperienced to take advantage of an opportunity that was right there before them.
The first quarter of this game looked eerily similar to first quarters past in the series, which was not a good thing for Portland. It needed to be wholly different for the Blazers tonight. It only was for the first five minutes or so. Of Portland's first 11 shots, ZERO were closer than 10 feet. The difference was that the Blazers made 5 of their first 6 because they moved the ball for those jumpers instead of working just one or two men to get them. After a couple early buckets the Rockets started missing. Brooks and Scola bricked shots they had been hitting earlier. Portland got out to an 11-4 lead.
Unfortunately the lead wasn't sustainable. Halfway through the quarter with the Blazers up 13-6 Ron Artest had the ball with the shot clock expiring. He ducked under LaMarcus Aldridge and heaved a 30-footer which went through. On the next Houston play Artest missed another three but Battier grabbed the board and put it back in. Then the Blazers turned it over. The Rockets didn't score off of that turnover but you could feel the momentum shift. All of a sudden Portland's shots weren't falling anymore. They weren't getting better ones either.
Houston was dominating in two stats that have repeatedly killed the Blazers. The Rockets got offensive rebounds followed by second-chance points. The Rockets also went to the free throw line. The Blazers drew ZERO foul shots in the first quarter. For those counting, the Blazers have shot a total of 6 first-quarter free throws in this series, all coming in Game 2. This is the third time in four games that Portland has not been awarded a single foul shot in the opening period. None. Zero. I'm not sure what the probability is of that happening, or whether it's ever happened, but it's rare.
Another continuing theme was that our centers got racked up in the first quarter with fouls. Joel Przybilla is a first-quarter foul magnet in this series and quickly drew two tonight. Greg Oden followed suit. The puzzling part was that these fouls were for the most part not drawn on the inside defending the post, but on seemingly routine contact well out on the floor...the normal jostling for position. The refs have clearly sent a message to the Blazers in these games that we cannot guard Yao straight up. The Blazers have had to adjust and for the most part have done a good job. But the extra men needed have siphoned off coverage defensively and on the defensive boards. I am not suggesting that the officials cost us this game. I am explaining that this is part of the reason you're seeing an otherwise excellent rebounding team look impotent early. This is also why you're seeing the Rockets get early production, especially from their non-stars.
Again...I am not suggesting that the refs took this game away. The Blazers still could have won, as we'll see. In fact I was actually quite discouraged to hear the Rockets' fans booing every call that went against them tonight, even when most came off of Portland drives, as if the refs alone were responsible for their struggles and the Blazers had nothing to do with it. I would suggest that Portland fans not duplicate that tendency, even in the face of a loss. Save your ire for the calls that matter. You might, for instance, rewind your DVR's to 4:03 left in the first when Yao Ming was defending Greg Oden in the post and reached around to poke away a turnover. In real time it looked like an obvious foul. If you go frame-by-frame it's unclear whether Yao's hand made contact with the ball. It is quite clear that before he had a chance he wiped out Oden's elbow and arm. Four fouls on Blazer centers, none on Yao in the period. Or you might look at Luis Scola's shot with 3:09 left in the first. In real time it looked like a shot-clock violation. Frame-by-frame confirms this. The bucket was allowed in an eventual 1-point game.
In any case, experienced teams know that this is a real possibility, especially on the road, especially in the playoffs. They know how to react. They know how to adjust. They know how to intensify their game. The Blazers, on the other hand, tend to go into an extended funk. They actively avoid contact instead of seeking it on the offensive end, assuming no fouls are coming their way. The defensive end actually stays more solid, but having to jimmy lineups to compensate for the foul trouble takes its toll. The Blazers went into less of a tailspin tonight, but they still ended up stalling for the better part of 10 minutes in the late first and early second. Eventual one-point game...every one of those possessions is precious. An opportunity was lost--not by the refs, who are somewhat of a given--but by the Blazers. The road was a little longer tonight than it should have been? So what. Walk it. You don't have a choice. You need the win.
After going down by double-digits again the Blazers fought harder towards the end of the first half. They started forcing Houston turnovers, rectified the rebounding situation, and Brandon Roy started driving, hitting, and drawing fouls. Travis Outlaw came alive for a brief, glimmering moment, hitting a couple shots off of the loosened defense caused by Brandon. The Blazers also did well keeping the offense away from Yao. The edge in the quarter--two points--was more symbolic than effective, but it was a symbol the Blazers desperately needed.
It was also during the second quarter that Ron Artest mugged to the crowd, doing Hulk Hogan poses after a made layup, an act every bit as irritating as the Kevin Garnett all-fours move in the game in Boston this year. If for nothing else than that I wish the Blazers would have won the game...to remind a guy who went 5-20 on the evening that you don't show up an opponent until after you've won. I wish Portland's intensity following the move would have kept up for the remainder of the game. As it turned out it was only most of it.
The third quarter was Blazer time. The period started rough, with guys missing makeable shots. But all of a sudden Portland started forcing turnovers, pushing tempo, rebounding, and hitting. Roy, Aldridge, and Blake were the main scorers. The triple-punch had the Rockets' defense unable to set. The defense at the other end swarmed. We saw a litany of blocked shots. We saw fire, heart, and talent. A 26-14 quarter put Portland up 6 going into the fourth, an exact reversal of the halftime deficit. One more quarter would do it.
The Blazers did manage to hang on through the first half of the fourth quarter. It was good that the Rockets were not able to overwhelm them. The Blazers were still fairly aggressive on offense and were still getting to the line as well as making shots. Houston fans were still booing every call. As I said, I don't suggest that Portland fans do that, as it makes you look silly. Save your ire for the calls that matter. If you rewind your DVR to 11:32 left in the fourth where Yao is up top setting a screen for a shooter, perhaps you could tell me how what he did is not called a moving pick...or for that matter on any of the high screens he set in the quarter. (There's another one on the very next possession if you care.) He's 7'6" tall. You wouldn't think a person could miss that. But, you know, had the Rockets lost it would have been the officials' fault. Not so with the Blazers, as we are about to see.
Remember how we said that rebounding AND free throws were the keys to much of this series? Well the Blazers played the Rockets pretty equally on the free throw line in the fourth. But Portland gave up 10 (possibly 11 by the official count) offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter. Not in the game...in the fourth quarter. The scrambling, aggressive defense generated misses, but there wasn't enough support to rebound the ball. Any time there was a tie the Rockets ended up with the ball. A defense can only expend energy so long before open shots start flying and connecting. The Blazers didn't give up, they just lost their bearings on the boards. You started getting a sense of nervousness about misses instead of elation.
Then the Blazers committed some basic mistakes under pressure situations. Steve Blake, who had played a pretty solid game thus far, was responsible for two of them. He made a treacherous pass to an out-of-position Roy on the break that drew an offensive foul against Brandon because of momentum. He also got his pocket picked from behind on a Blazer break. Joel Przybilla played the hero by grabbing an offensive rebound (For Portland! Yay!) off of a Blake miss with 42 seconds to go and the Blazers down 2 needing a hoop. He immediately turned into the goat by looping an errant pass over the heads of his guards and clear into the backcourt for a violation. I point these out not to bag on these particular players, but to point out that if you're going to look for one play that makes a difference in a 1-point game you can't look at the non-called shot-clock violation against Scola alone. I also point out these plays because Blake and Przybilla are our steady veterans...the guys we rely upon to calm us and make the right plays. When these two are on edge and having head issues, you know the whole team is out of sorts.
The take-away point here may well be that it's amazing the Blazers could hang that close and make this a game while playing under that much duress and distress. You need not give up on these guys. I'm not sure they'll need another year of playoff experience to figure out what's up here. It's pretty plain that the comfort/poise factor is a big reason why the edge is going to Houston right now. It's just as plain that the Blazers won't be eager to repeat that experience. You may see an entirely different team come into next regular season than you did this year.
In any case, the turnovers and lost rebounds ended up hamstringing an otherwise valiant offensive and defensive effort for the Blazers in the quarter. After LaMarcus Aldridge hit 2 free throws to draw Portland to 85-87 with 2:15 to play the Blazers' offensive possessions looked like this:
- The aforementioned Blake turnover
- Blake misses a 22-footer
- The aforementioned Przybilla offensive rebound and sailing pass
- Brandon Roy offensive foul on the drive
- Outlaw misses a 26-footer to tie
- Rudy Fernandez hits a three to draw the Blazers within 1, the final points of the game
That's 3 turnovers and 2 missed long shots followed by a Rudy three. That's not a textbook recipe for finishing a close game.
Why did the Blazers lose this game? They weren't ready to win this game. That's the long and short of it.
This is what it looks like when a team loses in the playoffs, by the way. These are good teams. Seldom do you see a huge sign saying, "This team is not going to win it!" It often hangs on a missed shot here, a turnover there, a single rebound left unsecured. That one mistake seems like a tantalizingly close thing, but that one mistake is always there. It's just a matter of which team makes it. In this series it's been Portland consistently.
Brandon Roy had a great game, scoring 31 on 13-13 foul shots and 8-17 from the field. He had 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, 3 blocks, and 4 turnovers. LaMarcus Aldridge also went 8-17 but he only had 3 free throws for 19 total points with 10 boards. Joel Przybilla played well tonight against Yao and added 12 rebounds. Steve Blake did a good job defensively tonight and had 11 points and 8 assists and only the 1 turnover. This was his best game of the series overall I think. Travis had 14 points and some nice hustle. He missed some shots he normally hits blind and it's hard not to think about that in a close game. Rudy had 5 points and 4 rebounds and also played with energy. Greg didn't really get off the launching pad tonight, drawing 5 fouls in 11 minutes but he played solidly.
So now it's back to Portland. As improbable as winning the series seems, the 1-win team often bows out in these situations, swamped by the energy of the clinchers-to-be. It would be valuable for Portland to buck that trend precisely because the win would have as much to do with them overcoming some of the issues that have plagued them this series as with being back at home.
You can find today's Gameday Threads here.
The Jersey Contest playoff scores looked like this tonight:
- Sir-1 68, Total 204
- MavetheGreat 71, Total = 175
- FromAfar 35, Total = 168
- Tweener 50, Total = 159
We're having a special form for Game 5. The score predictions remain as usual but all four of the bonus questions are the same: Will the Blazers win, yes or no? Each question is worth 10 points. The participants are, in effect, wagering points based on how secure they are about the Blazers winning. If they're sure the Blazers will win they can put "yes" four times and try to collect all 40 points. If they're sure they will lose, the opposite. Or they can hedge and put two "yes" and two "no" answers (collecting a sure 20 points but losing the chance for more) or split it 3-1. We'll see who's confident and who is not, plus who is protecting a lead and who is trying for the miracle comeback. Any one of the games from now on could be the last game of the season. After that happens, the game-worn jersey of Rudy Fernandez will be awarded to the winner.
Cheery thoughts and good wishes for Tuesday.