Well, this one was a little harder to take than last night's game because it appeared the Blazers had a strong chance to win and just kind of fumbled away the late fourth quarter after staging a spirited comeback. You hate to see a loss come out of an effort like that but it takes execution and consistency as well as heart to win a game and Portland only managed average marks in the latter two areas, ranging to outright failure late. But I'm getting ahead of myself...
The game again started well for the Blazers. You could tell that Andre Miller and Martell Webster had the energy level dialed to "high" from the get-go. Miller was posting, hitting jumpers, and passing on a tight line. Martell was cutting on offense even when the ball didn't come to him and was moving quickly on defense as well. Best of all, he was splashing threes. The Blazers knew that Memphis didn't have strong interior defenders and they looked to score at the rim instead of settling for jumpers. Very few of Portland's shots came from outside without the lane being explored first. Memphis also knew that Portland's interior defense wasn't up to snuff and they, too, went to the cup. It made for an entertaining, hard-fought quarter which the Blazers took 25-24. The only downside to the opening period for Portland was that Brandon Roy again appeared more passive than usual. He wasn't running from shots like he was in the Clippers game but he was certainly looking to get others involved, which might not be the best strategy right now.
Jerryd Bayless had come in at the end of the first period and struggled again, but instead of settling for that both he and the team got their heads together and did something about it. The bigs started throwing picks to free him. Following a fast-break conversion he found the confidence to score off of those picks and all of a sudden the Bayless Spark was in full force. With him distracting the already-mediocre defense other guys started getting free and the offense started clicking. When the offense clicked the hustle picked up. Portland ran the ball down the court. They moved and flashed, cut and ducked, drove and dished. It became an offensive tour de force. Unfortunately, as with the first quarter, the Grizzlies were quick to exploit the natural weaknesses of the sizzling offensive lineup. Once guards got a first step on their defenders Portland had no shot blocking to shut them down. The rotations were there but they were ineffective because the second guy didn't often bother the scorer. Memphis was getting offensive rebounds as well, plus plenty of foul shots. Fortunately they were missing a lot of the latter so they didn't run away with it. As the quarter wound down, though, the Blazers did as well. You could visibly see the energy draining out of them. They walked the ball up the court. The Grizzlies got even more rebounds. Portland gave up the 9-point margin it had built in the first 7 minutes of the quarter, compromising with Memphis for a 33-33 tie in the period and a slim 1-point margin going into the half.
At that point you were afraid this game would be a carbon copy of last night's, with the energy loss coming earlier by 12 minutes but the result being the same. And sure enough the third quarter was limp for the Blazers. The Blazers would score only 21 with Brandon Roy notching a dozen of those himself. The good news about that was Roy coming alive. The bad news was the offense grinding to a halt...almost literally, as the team was barely even walking it up anymore. They looked like they needed one of those ridey-carts from Wal-Mart to get around. And even at the slower pace the Blazers were still turning over the ball because even the Memphis defense knows what to do if you give them 14 seconds to set up. Unsurprisingly Portland's defense got caught standing and looking a lot as well. You could just feel the surrender coming. The pinnacle moment came with 4:03 left in the third as Marc Gasol was in the lead on yet another fast break with Juwan Howard the only guy in pursuit. Howard expended the last of his energy getting back to take a wide swipe at Gasol in a "I'm beat just get me out of here" foul which the refs ended up calling a Flagrant 1. Memphis turned a 1-point deficit into an 8-point advantage heading into the fourth and the game looked to be over.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Grizzlies' celebration. Portland went with an energy lineup of Bayless, Roy, Webster, Howard, and Pendergraph...a lineup with which they would stick through most of the period with the exception of LaMarcus Aldridge replacing Pendergraph midway through. The lineup started clicking. Webster starting hitting jumpers like crazy. Howard did his part in that vein as well. Pendergraph kept offensive rebounds alive. Roy and Bayless added a couple of drives. Meanwhile the Grizzlies were reduced to firing long-range. They hit some of those shots but not as many as the sizzling Webster was putting in. All of a sudden that lead is down to 6, then 3, then Portland is ahead. Memphis isn't scoring anywhere but deep or at the foul line. Portland keeps the pressure on. When Jerryd Bayless makes a straight-line drive for a layup with 3:45 left the Blazers are up by 8 and firmly in control.
But this is where it starts to fall apart.
On the next possession LaMarcus fouls Marc Gasol, who makes the first free throw and misses the second. But the Blazers fail to gain the rebound and Zach puts it back for a three-point trip. Blazers up 5. Then we get a Bayless turnover, a Mayo missed three, and a missed jumper from Howard before Mike Conley drives and misses a layup but again Zach rebounds and puts it back. Blazers up 3.
Now...all of you who have been waiting for some coaching talk in these recaps, this is your night. Because we had a decision here, with 2:20 left and Portland up three, that I wasn't fond of. Portland went into the delay game, playing a 1-4 offense with Brandon dribbling out most of the clock before initiating a play. Roy missed a jumper the first time but Aldridge rebounded and kicked it out and the Blazers reset...into the same offense. Howard got a jumper on the second attempt and again Aldridge rebounded and kicked out so Portland could reset...into the same offense. The third try ended in a Bayless three which also missed and Memphis had the ball back. Portland had taken 1:24 off of the clock but hadn't scored a point. Obviously this was a planned decision, likely from the bench, possibly called by Roy I suppose.
I can understand the philosophical argument here. The fewer possessions you give the opponent the fewer attempts they're going to have to make up the difference. But in a one-possession game with over 2 minutes left it doesn't make sense to me. First you've taken yourself out of your own offense which has been performing admirably to this point. Second you've sapped your energy, trying not to lose the game rather than win it. Third, the Grizzlies don't need or want much time to score anyway. You could milk them down to the last 10 seconds of the game and they'd still have a great chance. The key to beating them in that situation is points, not time. (I don't like this decision against any opponent, but especially not one like this.) Most importantly of all, in a one-possession game you don't know who you're taking opportunities from by stalling the clock away. If they hit a three on the next possession it's a whole new situation. It's even worse if they hit on consecutive trips. At that point you're down 1 and you need the time and the extra attempts. I can understand if you're up 6 or more. I can understand if you're down to one possession a side. But this decision really didn't make sense to me in this situation.
So...disaster ensues. The Blazers come up empty in three attempts and Zach hits a free throw on Memphis' next trip. Blazers up 2 and sweating. Unfortunately the sweat must have dripped onto the ball because the next two Portland trips were turnovers, leading to an O.J. Mayo layup and then a free throw make. Blazers are down 1. After Martell missed a long jumper it became a free throw contest...a contest which the Grizzlies looked happy to lose. Marc Gasol hit 1 of 2 with 9 seconds left but Jerryd Bayless could convert only 1 of 2 on the other end when he was fouled on a drive. Then in the final bungle of the evening O.J. Mayo missed 1 of 2 as well, leaving the Blazers only down 2 with 3 seconds left, but again Portland couldn't get the board as Gasol tipped it and Roy tipped it again as it was going out of bounds. Zach Randolph calmly sank both free throws on the ensuing foul and the final margin was set: Memphis 109, Portland 105.
Portland let Memphis do a lot of things they wanted tonight. The Grizzlies shot well, got a bunch of offensive rebounds, got to the line 12 more times than the Blazers, scored 54 points in the paint, and make it to 109 overall. On the other hand the Blazers also shot well, scored at the rim, rebounded hard for stretches, saw every player save Pendergraph reach double-figure scoring, and scored in the mid-100's themselves. It was a game the Blazers could have easily been out of. Nobody would have been surprised if they had folded the tents after the third and let Memphis walk away with it. Fatigue and the roster certainly would have been plausible reasons for the loss. Instead the Blazers fought back hard enough to make the loss a heartache rather than a surrender. Fatigue and the roster probably did play in to the shoddy late game execution, but Portland had gotten ahead well before that, so it seems like they shouldn't matter as much. In the end this feels like the shortstop who makes a great effort but ends up having the ball glance off the tip of his glove and is credited with an error because of it. A lesser effort would have made it a base hit, as the official scorer would have assumed he couldn't get there. But because he did get there but just missed it looks much worse. The Blazers probably should have won this game. They didn't. Credit for what they did do right and let's apply that to games to come.
This was a huge, huge team effort where, offensively anyway, everybody played to their strengths. More to the point the team helped each other play to their strengths by setting picks, clearing out appropriately, and not being selfish about their shots. Not a single Blazer shot below 50% tonight...not the starters, not the scrubs, not the volume scorers, not the occasional shooters. They made each other look good and as such this should go down as an applause-worthy team effort rather than just a collection of individual brilliance. Granted Memphis' defense helped but the Blazers have faced easy defenses before tonight and not managed this kind of overall effort.
I will mention a few individual numbers. Martell Webster hit 5-11 from three-point range and really kept the team in it. They looked for him and when they do he tends to produce. I loved his sparkle tonight. Jerryd Bayless also had the mojo back on both ends, netting 5 assists and 4 rebounds to go along with his 13 points. The staff made him the QB for most of the fourth period until Roy took over the offense late. It was the perfect kind of contribution from him. Andre Miller had 10 rebounds to go along with his driving, posting, jump-shooting 16 points. He was on tonight. Howard hit 6 of his 12 shots and was giving effort everywhere. Roy was 9-18 from the field, 8-10 from the foul line, and had 9 assists with his 27 points. Pendergraph gave us some key rebounds even when overmatched. LaMarcus Aldridge didn't do bad but he was quiet, taking only 8 shots in 41 minutes. The team probably could have looked for him more. But then again everybody else was hitting. He had 7 boards and 3 assists.
The individual defense wasn't horrible all things considered. Like every team that faces the Blazers now Memphis had a bunch of natural height, weight, and quickness advantages. I thought Brandon Roy looked more active than usual as the game picked up. Webster was also pretty energized as were Bayless and Howard. It wasn't a work of art, but sub-par defensive efforts from individuals weren't what killed us. It was the break-downs followed by our inability to police up the mess because of a lack of quickness and shot-blocking. You can't bag on third-string guys (and gimpy first-string guys) for not looking like vintage Spurs teams.
The L*kers are coming up on Friday, which should be one heck of an interesting outing. The Jersey Contest form for that game is here. Note that this is a special form. There's only one bonus question, asked four times over: "Will the Blazers win?" Obviously the eventual answer to that will be either "Yes" or "No" on all four questions. This is a chance for you to go big or hedge your bets. If you're confident Portland will win or lose, respond the same way to all four questions. But if you want to take the safe 20 points and answer two each way, that's up to you.
If you want to see your score from tonight's game click here. (Note that everybody got 10 points on the rebounding question because Pendergraph was one of the answers but he wasn't on the form.)
Check out the victory impressions at StraightOuttaVancouver.