Media Row Report: Blazers 95, Jazz 106

A well-coached contender thrashed a mish-mashed pretender tonight at the Rose Garden.  The Utah Jazz dominated the Portland Trail Blazers, never trailing as they coasted to a 106-95 road victory against a major division rival.  

While the Blazers and Jazz stand virtually even in the conference standings, from the outset it felt like a meeting of two teams heading very different directions.  Utah played like a juggernaut, running over and through a Blazers team that was too busy rolling over to know what hit it.  The Jazz came out looking for a fight and executed their crisp offense to near-perfection.   They built improbable leads of 12-0 and 21-2 before finishing the quarter up 37-16 on a free throw granted due to a frustration technical foul on Jerryd Bayless.  The statistical differences in that first quarter were eye-popping. 82.4% from the field for the Jazz; 25.0% for the Blazers.  11 assists for the Jazz; 3 for the Blazers.  14 free throw attempts for the Jazz; 1 for the Blazers.

It was that foul disparity and a no-call on a truly sublime fast break dunk by Nicolas Batum over Kyle Korver that led to the technical on Bayless and the loudest, longest booing from the Rose Garden crowd this season.  During the break between the first and second quarters, the jumbotron played a video montage of various Blazers from the 1980s talking about their memories of Portland.  "It's such a special place to play because the fans are so passionate about it," Kiki Vandeweghe noted, his words barely audible above the crowd's merciless booing of the refs. I couldn't make up this stuff if I was trying.

Batum's dunk was by far the night's most memorable moment for the Blazers. As he raced out in transition Korver trailed in hot pursuit.  Korver timed his jump well and the two players met in the air with some force but Batum was stretched out high enough above the rim to flush the ball cleanly with his right hand before tumbling to the ground.  If ever there was an appropriate time for the Scottie Pippen comparisons (and I'm not sure there is), it was this play.  

After the game, Batum told me that the referee admitted to him during the second half that he had missed the call.  "The referee made a mistake. He apologized to me after. He told me he watched the tape at halftime and said 'ok, my bad, [it was a foul].' I went up and got hit.  I got up, it's not a big deal."  Asked whether he thought his finish might make SportsCenter as have his previous dunks over Pau Gasol of the Lakers, Batum smiled but said exactly what you would like to hear after a somewhat embarrasing loss, "I don't know... I don't care."  

Interestingly, on the way out of the locker room Batum told me that it was a "good thing" he was wearing a sleeve on his shoulder because it restricts him from a full range of motion.  Specifically, Batum demonstrated how the sleeve prevents him from over-cocking his shoulder back during violent dunk attempts and potentially causing himself future discomfort. Although he doesn't like the sleeve in general he clearly realizes its value in this particular situation because, you know, trying to dunk too viciously could be a reoccurring problem that he might not be able to control by himself.

If you weren't in love with this guy before you should be now.  

Unfortunately, the airborne contact from Korver wasn't even the hardest shot Batum took in the quarter.  Earlier, Jazz power forward Carlos Boozer noticeably leaned into Batum while setting a hard pick, hitting him directly on his right, recovering shoulder.  Asked if he felt the foul was intentional, Batum said, " I don't know." He was careful to note, "I was surprised [after the play] because my shoulder reacted great. I had no pain."  

No pain indeed.  Batum finished the half 7 for 7 from the field for 16 points.  "I didn't think he was ever going to miss," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan told me after the game. "We better guard him. He did a great job of coming off the baseline on the pindowns and stuff, got himself wide open. We didn't even get close to him to start the game."

On the defensive end, Batum guarded Jazz point guard Deron Williams for stretches, with mixed but mostly positive results. "He's a big, long guy," Sloan told me. "He takes up a lot of space. That's just part of basketball.  Deron was able to beat him a time or two and I think that put him back on his heels a little bit." Nate McMillan agreed, "Defensively, the second half he was able to do a pretty decent job of controlling Williams." 

True to my hope on Monday night, Batum saw his minutes ramp up nicely.  He played 26 minutes tonight, including major burn in the fourth quarter. In that time, Batum displayed the aforementioned athleticism, defensive intensity, sophistication and some next-level vision on offense, anticipating angles and hitting cutters that the average Blazer doesn't even see. Put all of that together and it's a recipe for a solid 4th quarter player.  I asked McMIllan if Batum has the fourth quarter mentality that coaches often look for, but he deflected the question.  He explained that Batum's fourth quarter minutes tonight were simply the result of his earlier play. "He was playing well defensively. He had made some shots. And I just stuck with him."  

Keep sticking with him. 

It's more than tempting to continue this post as the Nicolas Batum Propaganda Hour because so many of his teammates struggled tonight, even as they were able to fight back over the last three quarters to cut the lead to single digits.  Steve Blake played only 11 minutes and was briefly booed in the first quarter. Jeff Pendergraph played just 6 minutes, registering 3 fouls, 1 rebound and 0 points.  Rudy Fernandez received his anticipated 25 minute allotment but once again failed to make much of it, finishing with 9 points on 8 shots.  LaMarcus Aldridge put up a pretty 25 points and 9 rebounds but made a number of atrocious passing decisions and came out of the gate as lackadaisical and unmotivated as he has all season. Dante Cunningham had some great energy but couldn't stay on the court because of foul trouble.  Andre Miller sure looked like the same pouty, inefficient, ineffective Miller we saw prior to his blowup with McMillan earlier this season.  7 points on 11 shots, 4 assists, 3 steals, 3 turnovers in just 24 minutes.  Miller sat for all but 2 minutes of the fourth quarter which, while warranted, likely didn't suit him too well.

There were so many things to dislike about tonight's effort for a Blazers fan that it's probably best to just stop there.  Any more and it would be overkill.  Besides, with Houston, Dallas, Charlotte, Utah, San Antonio and the Lakers on deck, things could get a whole lot worse.

Martell Webster and Haiti

The Blazers -- both the players and the organization -- do all sorts of charity work but tonight was a bit different.  Before the game, Martell Webster announced that he would donate $1,000 for every point he scored against the Jazz to the ongoing relief effort in Haiti. Webster finished with 14 points.  After the game he told reporters that he wasn't satisfied with his scoring or his donation...  

"I should be donating a lot more right now than I am. Tonight was definitely special. Not seeing those shots going in in the first half not only hurt me but the fact that what my goal was tonight, which was to score as many points as I could. To start to help the people over in Haiti. Fell a little short, wish I could have knocked down a couple more shots."  

So you're not done donating?

"No, no. I might not be. I might do it again."

How did you come up with the idea?

"My agency had talked about it. At first I just wanted to do it through my foundation. I didn't want anybody to know about it. Actually that's what I did. People in my foundation, people on the board, we all came up to do it with the Utah game. Just wish I could have had some more points." 

It's a well-known fact that NBA players get hit up for money by family members, long-lost friends and groupies on a regular basis.  But thanks to their big-dollar contracts, they are regular targets for potential charity donations as well.  I asked Webster what made Haiti stand out as the cause for him.  

"It's a time of crisis over there right now. It has nothing to do with me. It has to do with the situation. I'm fortunate to be in a situation to be able to give some relief and what better way to incorporate it into my profession. That's the reason why I came up with the idea."

Did you hear about it on television or read about it online?

"Yeah. Yeah. I heard about it online quite a bit. It's sad, man. It's sad. We have to be there to aid. Us guys that are in that position. Why not?" 

So you've talked with your teammates about donating as well?

"Yeah. Definitely. Juwan is giving some money. LA [too]. I haven't really asked around except for those two people. It's for a great cause, man, it's for a great cause."

January continues to be the best month of Webster's career.

Random Game Notes

  • The Blazers sent out the following notice about Brandon Roy: "He will miss the next two games and will not travel with the team to Texas. He will be re-evaluated Monday." The Blazers play Houston on Friday and Dallas on Saturday. They also play Monday night at home against Charlotte before going to Utah on Wednesday. Roy will know Thursday whether or not he made the All Star game. 
  • Backlash against the Willamette Week writer who chose to inform Greg Oden during his Tuesday press conference that his genitals had "impressed" a lot of people has been fast and furious, both on the internet today and at the Rose Garden tonight.  Multiple media members labeled the question "sexual harassment" and one suggested that the paper issue an apology in addition to the not clever at all "apology" already issued by the writer. "Pathetic" and "Disgusting" were terms thrown out at various points tonight and media members who have been around the team far, far, far longer than I said they had never seen or heard anything like it.  Perhaps the most interesting voice to comment about the question was Kristen Blake, Steve's wife, who let me know on twitter that she found it "inappropriate and unprofessional."  
  • Karma reared its head this afternoon as the Willamette Week's website crashed, temporarily preventing people from reading the writer's take on last night's press conference. Unfortunately, it is believed that the site crash was caused by too much traffic generated by that story.  Hopefully, WW doesn't interpret this as a potential new business model and manages to successfully resist the temptation to send a writer to every Blazers press conference to compliment players on their genitals. Hopefully.
  • Jerryd Bayless went straight to the locker room after fouling out in the game's final moments, favoring the ankle he injured on the team's most recent road trip.  After the game, Bayless told me that the ankle is "fine" and that he expects to practice tomorrow and play on Friday night in Houston.  He said he would "have to ice it" but that was the extent of the treatment it would receive.  He was in a cross mood tonight as he often is after losses. 
  • Tonight was "80s Night" at the Rose Garden, continuing the tradition of celebrating each decade of the organization's existence.  At halftime, the Blazers brought out Bill Schonely to interview various personalties from that decade including Bucky Buckwalter, the team's former Vice President of Basketball Operations. Schonely led the interview with this incredible tidbit: Buckwalter was responsible for drafting Terry Porter, Clyde Drexler, Arvydas Sabonis, Cliff Robinson and Jerome Kersey.  Wow. Just wow. I can't wait for the team's 65th anniversary season when they trot out Kevin Pritchard and list off his accomplishments -- acquiring Roy, Aldridge, Oden, Bayless, Fernandez and Batum on their respective draft nights -- and ask him for his reflection on the era.  "It was a great, great time," I imagine Pritchard saying, "except for that whole World Star Hip Hop Thing."  
  • In possibly related news, Juwan Howard had six visible pairs of Jordans at his locker tonight.   One pair to celebrate each decade of his existence?
  • The following sign made it on the jumbotron: "Gregory Wayne Oden: What would your mother think?"
Nate's Post Game Comments

First half defense

It wasn't much defense. We gave up a 37 point quarter. Our starts the last two games have been bad and to give up a 37 point quarter, they basically just dominated that quarter. Points in the paint. They just attacked us. We had no answer for that.  Offensively, we missed our shots and I thought that probably affected us on the defensive end of the floor. You start thinking about that and... they were just aggressive tonight.

How frustrated are you?

Hey, it's a loss. It was a bad start. I thought they fought for three quarters. To dig a hole and try to fight out of that... it's tough.

One of the worst starts that you can recall?

You have bad starts but a 37 point quarter. 16 quarter scoring. It's just tough to fight out of that. I thought the next three quarters we fought but we just ran out of gas.

New rotations causing problems? 

Nah, I think this was the real deal. We played a very good team tonight. We didn't knock down shots. We had 92 attempts at the basket tonight. We didn't shoot the ball well. Some of those shots that Martel has been shooting didn't fall tonight. Miller, all of our guys early weren't knocking down shots. And defensively they attacked the paint in transition, early, and that was the difference. We came off of our bench, some of our guys on the bench wasn't knocking down shots. We dug ourselves a deep hole.

Getting the shots you wanted?

I thought we got some shots. We did have some open looks that we normally knock down. Execution, setting screens, we didn't get to that until the second half. Setting screens and really freeing each other up and playing together. I thought when we got deep, when we dug ourselves that deep hole, we tried to get it back by ourselves at times. Then the second half, we kind of settled down and played better basketball.

Batum

I thought he was good. He made his shots. He was the one guy that had something going in that first half. Defensively, the second half he was able to do a pretty decent job of controlling Williams and he was the one spark in the first half for us. 

Surprised by Batum?

He's playing good. Tonight I was able to increase his minutes, give him more minutes, he was the one guy... I think he was 5 for 5 in the first half [note: he was 7 for 7 at halftime]. His shots, I think he may have been one of the first guys to score off that bench. He really helped us get back into the game. He made a difference tonight.

Team is tired?

Well, you know, the thing is we knew it was going to be tough. We did some good things the last month. But we're coming up against some tough teams and we're not at full strength, but even at full strength these will be tough games. I thought Utah came out and played like they've been playing. They've been playing good basketball.

Do you feel progress slipping away?

No. We've gotten off to a slow start. I thought there was fight in this team. This team fought tonight. But that slow start tonight hurt us bad. 

Bayless

No, I haven't talked to Jay about that.

Utah's offensive execution

They were just attacking. We didn't grab. We knew we needed to be physical defensively. They cut freely, they drove past us without us being able to contain the ball, it was just too easy in that first quarter.

First half defense

It looked like we were reacting as opposed to being the aggressor. Getting up and playing these guys. They just put their head down, flew by us and that's just simple. Keep the guy in front of you, keep your body between the man and the basket. And from what I remember or recall we didn't do that at all in the first quarter.

Batum in the fourth

Well, tonight, he was playing well defensively. He had made some shots. And I just stuck with him.

-- Ben Golliver | benjamin.golliver@gmail.com | Twitter

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