The story for the Portland Trail Blazers over the last few weeks (read it here, here and here) and for the next few weeks (or until Brandon Roy is back to being Brandon Roy) is late-game execution. With a roster that is once again deep and disciplined enough to stick around with any team in the league, games are being won and lost in the last six minutes, time and again. Guys like LaMarcus Aldridge, Andre Miller, Martell Webster and Jerryd Bayless are either making plays or they are not. Tonight's 98-97 home loss to the New Orleans Hornets was an emphatic "not" as the Blazers were out-scored 12-3 in the game's final 3:06.
Much like their loss to the Memphis Grizzlies earlier this month, the Blazers suffered a near total meltdown when it mattered most. Their only points in the last 3:26 came on 2 free throws by Rudy Fernandez -- awarded for a debatable but probably correct flagrant foul on Marcus Thornton for bumrushing a pick with his elbow -- and a free throw by Miller. Otherwise, the Blazers missed two jumpers, committed a 24 second shot clock violation, missed two more jumpers and then put the game in Jerryd Bayless's hands. Bayless missed one final contested off-the-dribble jumper as the horn sounded. That's 0-5 from the field total. "We definitely miss having that go-to player," Martell Webster said after the game. No kidding.
What made that cold stretch even more frustrating for the Rose Garden crowd was the electric offensive play that directly preceded it. The middle stretch of the fourth quarter saw a fantastic alleyoop from Miller to Aldridge, an even more beautiful give-and-go with Rudy Fernandez and Miller and 6 points from that old oak tree Juwan Howard.
How did things go from one extreme to another? It will be very interesting to hear Nate McMillan's explanation after looking at the game tape. A lot of confusion, a lot of tight play, a lot of miscommunication, a lot of hoping that someone else would step up. Hard to watch and tough to stomach.
On the defensive side of things, it wasn't magic that caused the breakdowns but it was the Nearly Magic Chris Paul. The Blazers point guards were pretty much helpless against Paul on both ends as he ended up tallying 24 points, 12 assists, 7 rebounds, and 5 steals against just 2 turnovers in 42 minutes. All of that while his team traded away two of his teammates -- Devin Brown and Bobby Brown -- on the same day. All told it was the best all-around performance by a Blazer opponent in the Rose Garden this year aside from LeBron James. And the gap between those two was closer than you might think. Paul's highlights included a gorgeous backdoor pass through traffic to a cutting Marcus Thornton for an easy finish and, of course, the game-winning jumper with less than 4 seconds to play.
Nate McMillan admitted that he didn't know exactly how Paul found himself so open for that relatively short game-deciding shot. It was a busted play to some degree, with Paul initially slipping to the floor and then bouncing up just in time to receive the pass, which caused the Blazers rotation to miss him. Despite the confusion, losing Paul at the worst possible moment was an inexcusable execution error, one that immediately led to a 20,000 person group desperation SIGH and, seconds later, a loss.
If there was a bright side to tonight's game for the Blazers it was the triumphant return of French forward Nicolas Batum, who is the greatest player in the history of basketball. Batum was met with a standing ovation when he checked into the game after missing the entire season to this point as he recovered from shoulder surgery. Batum promptly rewarded the home crowd with a swooping lay-in and, soon after, a great off-ball steal and coast-to-coast driving finish. "Three months is long," Batum said after the game, clearly excited to be back. "45 games is very long."
Batum admitted to feeling nerves as he stepped back onto the court but said the standing ovation helped focus his thoughts. "I was really nervous," he admitted. "[The ovation] gave me confidence, it put me in the game." I couldn't help but notice that Blazers General Manager Kevin Pritchard was one of the people standing and clapping as Batum checked in. I asked Batum if he had noticed, as he was standing only 15 or 20 feet from Pritchard when he took his position on his first possession. "Really?" Batum replied, breaking into an ear-to-ear smile. "I didn't see [him]. I was [telling myself to] focus, focus and be ready."
Batum, like his teammates, was disappointed by the loss but called his first run this year "very exciting" and a "great feeling." He also noted that his "condition is good" and that his shoulder is giving him "no problem." Sounds good to me. Start playing him 48 36 25 minutes a night starting Wednesday. Please?
Random Game Notes
- A great honor for the Portland Trail Blazers organization was announced during the game. Turns out the Rose Garden is the first major league venue to be awarded LEED Gold certification for buildings and organizations that deliver "best practices for a building's energy, water and natural resource performance." The Blazers' many efforts to earn this award included upgrading to energy efficient lighting, installing low-flow plumbing fixtures and recycling Juwan Howard. Here's the Press Release.
- Nate McMillan is stuck between a rock and a hard place right now when it comes to his rotation of bigs. After watching the Blazers go down 31-23 after one (including a 16 point deficit at one point!), give up 16 first quarter points in the paint and allow a combined 17 first quarter points to David West and Emeka Okafor, McMillan must be reconsidering the idea of starting Jeff Pendergraph. While SNAKE SNAKE SNAKE SNAKE has provided highlights plays on both ends, his consistency play-to-play just isn't there yet. He's a second round rookie and it's important to keep that context. But, to be frank, he's getting killed out there. I was going to save this stat for a forthcoming mid-year evaluation post but through the first 41 games of this season, opponents are shooting 57.5% against him. Compare that to 41.3% for Juwan Howard and 39.4% for LaMarcus Aldridge. Pendergraph also fouled on 24.2% of his 1 on 1 defensive possessions, compared to 7.2% for Howard and 8.9% for Aldridge. Now these numbers are surely subject to a "sample size" warning label given that Pendergraph missed the first 1/3 of the season due to injury. But still. Those are gaping disparities that are impossible to sustain.
- McMillan's theory, as explained to Joe Freeman of The Oregonian, was to separate Dante Cunningham and Pendergraph so the two rookies weren't playing defense together in the second unit. With Nicolas Batum looking and talking like he is ready for his minutes to ramp up relatively quickly, I would leave him in the second unit and play him alongside the two rookies. By definition, second string centers will exploit Pendergraph less than first string centers. And with Batum out there setting a tone defensively, I think you can get away with playing those 3 together for stretches, despite their youth.
- Have you heard about the new cocktail named Juwan Howard's Goatee? It's one part Glidden paint, one part Just For Men and one part formaldehyde... stirred vigorously. I'll stop now. Howard went for 16 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists and looked like the most comfortable Blazer during the fourth quarter. Remarkable.
- The Hornets locker room vibe was nice and light, befitting their down-to-the-last-second road win in a tough building. Perhaps the most notable feature was a table covered with Chris Paul jerseys laid out waiting to be autographed. The recipient? An auction for Tom Penn's charity, Hoops for St. Jude. +1 Chris Paul.
- The Blazers took 84 field goal attempts to 68 for the Hornets and made 5 more field goals than New Orleans, yet still lost. How? David West made more free throws (10) than Portland's entire team (9).
- It was great to see Dave and Dave's father take their seats in the very last row of the 300 level, surrounded by Blazers fans -- rows and rows of kids... LOUD, early arriving kids -- in every direction. During the fourth quarter the Jumbotron briefly flashed a sign that read, "Thanks Blazersedge!" I had a nice moment of pride as another writer pointed that out to me. "Hey! That's OUR site!" To those that helped make Blazersedge night possible please allow a single tear to trickle down your face. Grab the hankie. Dab. Dab. You did it. And they loved it. Surely Dave will have more on the entire evening. Before the fourth quarter started, I asked him whether he had spoken with many members of the BE community during the game. Using the exact same tone, emphasis and words as Nate McMillan did when I asked whether Batum could play Power Forward, Dave replied, "Oh yeah." With a big smile. Bravo, Dave, your vision became a great reality.
Nate's Post Game Comments
Had some technical problems with the recorder tonight. Apologies. Check out a partial transcript of Nate McMillan's comments here.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter