We got more evidence tonight that the Blazers are entering a new season, one filled with challenges provided by motivated, talented teams who aren't going to let Portland off the hook halfway through a game and allow them to sneak back for the win. The Jazz were Exhibit A tonight. From the opening tip they knew what they wanted to do and they did it. They immediately tested Portland's interior defense, sending two, sometimes three people through the lane then pushing the dribbler through if none of those panned out. Unfortunately everything they did worked. Portland couldn't defend the dribble, couldn't stop the pass (especially on the inside...I've never seen so much successful interior passing as I did in the first half of this contest), and couldn't spare the men to rotate and catch guys at the rim without leaving another guy free at the rim. The end result was a first-quarter butchering not seen since Battle Lobster on the original Iron Chef. If a team shoots 75% on you for more than four shots you're in trouble. The Jazz shot 75% for the entire first half. Starting inside and working out they managed to hit 3 out of every 4 shots they took. That's not OK behavior. Had this been MMA the fight would have been called for Portland's lack of ability to protect itself.
Meanwhile the Jazz had a definite game plan on the defensive end as well. Every time LaMarcus Aldridge touched the ball they calmly sent a second man across the lane to double. They forced LMA to either take a turn-around over two players or give it up. The turn-arounds weren't falling and when he gave it up nobody else was hitting. Every shot looked timid. Players were twisting and putting English on 3-footers, doinking them off the rim. Don't even think about the jumpers. It was bad: 17 points in the first stanza to Utah's 36. The second unit (which because of Batum and Fernandez having come back from injuries is starting to resemble last year's first unit) provided some energy and tempo in the second quarter, with particular congratulations going to Batum and Dante Cunningham in that department. They spurred the Blazers to a 30-point period while Utah scored 26, but it was still a blowout at the half. The Blazers had been hit by a truck. By the time the driver had backed over their shuddering frame for the sixth time you started to get the idea that:
- A. This was intentional. And...
- B. They knew what they were doing.
The massacre at wounded knees had been made worse by the refs rewarding almost any kind of definitive inside move with a foul. Utah was making more definitive moves early than the Blazers did so the whistles cascaded in their favor. The already grumpy crowd (see also: scoreboard) went bonkers at the end of the first period when Nicolas Batum appeared to be fouled with a foul so foul-acious that it dwarfed many of the fouls that had been called in Utah's favor in the quarter. Batum converted the layup but no whistle blew. In short order Jerryd Bayless had earned a technical foul for protesting, which lit the fuse in the stands. In one of those "Only in Portland" moments a torrential flow of boos flooded the arena floor, reverberating so loudly that it hit the back walls of the building with force and redoubled. But these boos didn't stop after 10 seconds, or 30, or a minute. They sustained and grew through the long, long quarter break. It was like a weird, amoeba-like organism had formed out of 20,000 people which was now intent on sucking up the refs with a sticky, poisonous tongue of booing. About halfway through the break the arena staff put on film of Kiki Vandeweghe and Mychal Thompson talking about their Blazer experiences, this being 80's Remembrance Night and all. For a second the organism paused as if considering whether to take the bait and subside, lulled into submission by these fan-favorite players of yore. But the Boomoeba was angry and after that half-hesitating moment it doubled and tripled its efforts. Poor Mychal and Kiki couldn't be heard at all...and this is after the staff cranked the speaker volume way up. Anyone who's been anywhere near the Rose Garden knows those that sound system is LOUD. It was no more than a buzzing subtext rumbling impotently behind the Boomoeba's hunting call. It wanted blood and it would not be dissuaded from its target. The second quarter horn sounded and the booing was still as strong as ever. I have never heard anything like it. The refs did ease the calls from that point on. Perhaps it was the natural tendency to protect the losing team in a blowout, particularly at home. Perhaps it was the cover-your-butt thing they sometimes do to make the whistles even out. But I think the Boomoeba may have made their neck hairs stand a little. The Boomoeba is scary.
In the third quarter Portland made their obligatory Every-Team-Comes-Back run. They traded on rebounding and a little speed, LaMarcus Aldridge finally getting some breathing space and connecting on some shots, and a couple jumpers going in late in the quarter...the first time that had happened all game. The Jazz didn't look too worried despite the 7-point edge for the Blazers in the quarter. They still held an 85-75 lead.
Neither team could score to start the fourth but then Aldridge really got cranking. Portland cut the lead to 5 when he hit an 18-footer with 5:48 left. But from that point on the Blazers were pretty much Blind-Spot Passing Guy. You know that dude on the freeway who's all in a hurry to rush pass you but when you move over to let him have the lane he matches your speed right where you can't see him? Well, the Blazers took the foot off the gas when the lane was open, missing makeable shots, blowing rebounds, making bad passes, picking up silly fouls. The gap widened to 7 at 5:28, then 8 at 4:48, then 10 at 2:28. The Blazers tried to put their foot back on the accelerator but the Jazz weren't having it. A Korver three and a few free throws later Portland loses the game by 11, 95-106.
Portland grabbed an enormous number of offensive rebounds in this game, protected the ball, kept even with the Jazz in fast break points, and eventually closed an enormous points-in-the-paint gap from the first half down to a manageable 6 by the end of the game. The Blazers generated an insane 92-63 shot attempt margin by virtue of hustle and the aforementioned rebounding. But the Jazz made 5 more actual field goals than did the Blazers despite shooting 30-ish fewer shots. Utah shot 60.3% for the game. And believe me, anyone who had been following that stat was relieved to see it fall to 60. The Blazers? 35.9%. It's hard to win games like that. You either have to stroke a lot of threes (the Blazers were 5-24 and the Jazz hit 6) or dominate on the foul line (Portland was 24-28, Utah 24-35). In the end, single-digit margin or no, Portland never was in position to win this game. The Jazz simply wouldn't allow it and the Blazers didn't bring enough to dispute their ruling.
LaMarcus Aldridge's brutal first half was a conspiracy between him, the defense, and his teammates. Naturally the double-teams bothered him. The inability of anyone else to make the Jazz pay for doubling...or tripling...or at one point quadrupling him meant that he was locked into facing them. But the attempts just didn't look good. In the second half he banged defenders more. One time he made his customary swing across the lane but then reversed direction with a spin, drawing contact and points. It was a strong move. It was one time. He has to expect that being the only guy left with real NBA scoring credentials he's going to be the focus of the defense. He has to react stronger more often. 10-24 shooting, 9 rebounds, 3 steals, 25 points.
If this game had a star, it was Nicolas Batum. He spearheaded that second-unit run, grabbed his usual tough defensive assignments, weathered the Jazz trying to beat him up, and became the only Blazer in the first half to look at the rim aggressively. This is not your father's Nicolas Batum. He obviously used his off-time in preparation, not only skill-wise but mental. That stand-in-the-corner guy on offense is gone. This guy looks ready to dominate. 7-9 shooting, 4 rebounds, 16 points.
Jerryd Bayless started but didn't get many touches early. When he did have the ball he went to the hole, which was good. He drew 7 foul shots in 27 minutes, tying LaMarcus for the team high. (LMA played 43 minutes.) Bayless was no match for Deron Williams on defense, but that's hardly a crime. 16 points on 5-12 shooting, 4 assists, and some much-needed fire.
They announced before the game that Martell Webster was donating $1000 to Haitian Earthquake Relief for every point he scored tonight. In the first half it looked like he was saving up for a new Bentley. He couldn't connect on anything. He had a nice run in the third quarter but it was barely enough to save his night. 14 points on 4-14 shooting, 2-9 from three, 2 rebounds, 2 steals. If he's looking over his shoulder at Nic he needs to stop it. Not only is it ruining his play, Nic isn't behind him anymore.
Andre Miller had another poor game defensively, shooting, setting the offense...just about everything. He tried to bail Aldridge out in the first half and seemed to lose confidence through the rest of the game when it didn't happen. 2-11 shooting, 7 points, 4 assists, 3 turnovers, and 3 steals.
Juwan Howard gave us 11 rebounds tonight but couldn't get a shot off well against the quick Utah defense and couldn't protect the paint from three guys at once. 2 points on 1-4 shooting to go with those 11 boards.
Rudy Fernandez struggled with the shot like most of his compatriots. We needed him as a release valve on offense and he couldn't release right. He did bring that Rudy energy to the game. He's almost never still. He's also more compact on defense than he used to be and does a good job helping out on the boards in these trying times. 2-8 shooting, 1-5 from distance, 9 points, 4 rebounds.
Jeff Pendergraph never got off the launching pad tonight, playing 6 largely-ineffective minutes in which he collected 1 rebounds and 3 fouls. Teams aren't surprised by him now. They just refuse to back down and they put pressure on him to make a play. Time for him to adjust.
Dante Cunningham, on the other hand, had 12 quite effective minutes. He moved well around the court, grabbed 5 rebounds, and scored 6 points. He did collect 5 fouls though. He's adjusting as well.
You have to give credit to Steve Blake. When he has a bad night he goes all out. He did a couple of things well. He really tried to push the pace in the halfcourt, moving quickly and penetrating. He also dished 3 assists in his 11 minutes. But he was 0-6 from the field including one layup that barely drew backboard. (This is why you don't see "Steve Blake" and "penetrating" in the same sentence too often.) He was just off...no way around it.
The storm is blowing and the ship is at its mercy now. The Texas road games will be tough. Even at 1-1 it leaves this stretch a little south of mediocre. And 1-1 would be a nice record in the next 2 games. If the Blazers have any hope of winning they better stop getting down by double digits in the first quarter because comebacks won't be so accessible on the road.
Check out Utah's estimation of their hot, hot team at SLCDunk.
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