The Houston Rockets vaporized the Portland Trail Blazers, 103-87, on Tuesday night, winning all four quarters and every meaningful statistical category while putting on an easy buckets clinic.
As we speak, Houston's video editors are hard at work cutting together clips for Kyle Lowry's Hall of Fame application tape and Rockets coach Rick Adelman is staring in the mirror thinking, "That game looked as awesome as this gold chain over my chest hair."
The Rockets scored 52 points in the paint. They shot an absurd 36/54 (66.7%) on two-point field goals for the game. They shared the ball more effectively and they took care of the ball better than the Blazers. They even managed to out-rebound Portland despite shooting so well. This comparative list could go on forever. Let's agree to not dwell on the specifics.
If Blazers coach Nate McMillan didn't want to go into the gory details after Sunday's similarly defeating loss to the Atlanta Hawks, tonight it felt like he couldn't go into the details because he hadn't processed what the heck had happened. I'm struggling to remember another game after which McMillan gave such choppy, convoluted and circular answers to the same questions he hears every night.
"There's way too much thinking going on as far as ... I think it's me now," McMillan said, apparently pinning the team's lack of aggressiveness on his own shoulders. "I think we're thinking about me as opposed to ... you go out there and you play and you do the things you've been doing. That team ... I don't recognize that team."
Later, McMillan decided that Portland's out-of-sync play was a byproduct of individual players relaxing and/or forcing the issue during the roster transition period that has seen center Marcus Camby and guard Brandon Roy return from injury and forward Gerald Wallace come over via trade. Here's that train of thought from McMillan: "I can't say. I just know that what I saw tonight, the way we're playing, we know we're better than that. For whatever reason, if you feel like you've been rescued because guys are returning and you can relax, or if you think you need to get a lot done in the minutes that you're playing. I can't say. I think it's mental. I think it's more mental than anything."
The players weren't much help either. Multiple players seemed to be purposefully eluding questions so as to avoid the perception of assigning blame to any specific factor. There are vague answers and then there are just total non-answers. The Blazers don't often play this poorly at home and their answers afterwards leaned strongly towards total non-answers. It was if they lost the game and were playing to avoid losing the post-game too.
"Maybe that's what it is," Roy said when told McMillan had prescribed it as a mental problem. "If we knew what it was we would try to correct it. I think coach may be on to something because some of its mental. We've got to just figure it out. We can't point fingers."
LaMarcus Aldridge, who was harassed by double-teams and struggled with his reads, scoring just 14 points on 11 shots while committing four turnovers in 41 minutes, seemed to agree with the roster turnover hypothesis. "It's a lot happening," Aldridge said. "We're getting guys back, guys are taking on different roles, it's just different right now. Through everything we need to go play hard, grind it out, we kind of gave in to it, not really grinding it out."
Later, though, he said that he didn't feel like he wasn't one of the players forced to take on a different role with the new pieces in the mix. "It really hasn't changed things for me," Aldridge said. "I feel like I'm playing the same way, I think guys are playing the same way ... You can't just go to a park and pick up five guys and know where that guy is going to be."
Even though I spent the better part of the last month harping on the idea that "I don't envy Nate McMillan" for the spot he's in trying to re-incorporate Roy into the team's rotation, I can't honestly say I thought things would turn this ugly this quickly. If I were to strap on a stethoscope in search of a prescription, I would tend to agree most with Aldridge's point about the timing of the turnover and its impact on chemistry, for a few reasons.
First, Camby's presence fundamentally changes what this team looks like on offense and the defensive attention Aldridge receives, prompting a fairly major adjustment for Portland's No. 1 scoring option, even if he didn't want to admit it tonight. That's happening at the same time that Wallace, Portland's second best overall player, is learning the playbook and being worked in off the bench, a role he hasn't been asked to play in years. On top of that, Roy, Portland's highest usage player during previous incarnations of this team, is only showing the ability to play at roughly 75% on offense and 50% on defense, was supposed to on a minutes limit and will be in and out of the lineup on back-to-backs.
Tonight, even though the match-ups weren't favorable for Camby and Roy was supposed to be on a minutes limit, Portland's three new pieces combined to play more than 70 minutes. Not to hit you over the head with the obvious, but during Portland's recent six-game winning streak, those three combined to play zero minutes. Going from 0 to 70 on the court is just as disorienting as it is in a convertible. Expecting a smooth process wasn't realistic. Whether more should have been done to anticipate the rockiness is a more than fair question.
To complicated matters further, starting small forward Nicolas Batum was probably was the most effective Blazer on offense tonight, scoring 22 points on 12 shots. He's also the most likely casualty of a "lineup change" that McMillan mentions below. What do you lose from him if he returns to the bench to make room for Wallace? Is it worth considering a small ball lineup with Matthews, Batum and Wallace to maintain Batum's production as Camby continues to work back from his injury, or does that throw off the starters/reserves balance too much? Those are big variables weighing on any adjustment McMillan might be contemplating.
While you don't want to see Portland's coaching staff panic here, there's not much time to waste. Decisions that might have taken a week or two to play out in the fall might only get a day or two this time of the year.
Some snap judgment fixes: More shots for Aldridge even if it requires force-feeding, Wallace in place of Batum the starting lineup, less minutes for Roy, a solid pep talk for both Wesley Matthews and Batum about what is needed from them and where McMillan sees them fitting in now that Roy is (kind of) back, and a healthy Rudy Fernandez to make sure there's no lull when the first unit transitions into the second.
The problem, which I suspect is what had McMillan so flustered: Almost all of those fixes are much more easily said than done. If I had to prioritize just one of them it would be reassuring Matthews and Batum, especially because McMillan stated that he thinks guys might be looking over their shoulders. Matthews and Batum are the tone-setters that create easy offense, they are the floor-spacers that help make Aldridge more effective and they are the heavy-minute, versatile defenders who will be so valuable come playoff time. They need to be solid again before this team can hope to return to playing as effectively as it has been.
As I continue to marinate on this, I think letting Matthews, in particular, know exactly where he stands would be my highest priority. He's earned that peace of mind, but he's still just a second-year player with a three-time All-Star getting shots up once he goes to the bench. Full speed ahead Wesley is a game-changing momentum shift waiting to happen. Tentative 2-10 in 37 minutes Wesley is a loss waiting to happen. Even his personality seems to have shrunk a bit now that Roy is back.
Getting Matthews back is where I would start, but, much like McMillan, I kind of rambled tonight. Your thoughts?
Random Game Notes
- Please donate to Blazersedge Night.
- I had the distinct pleasure of finally meeting Nate Jones, who works for Goodwin Sports, agents for Patty Mills, Kevin Durant and a bunch of other NBAers. Follow Nate on Twitter here. I think I've written this before, but he's a top 10 NBA industry must-follow.
- DeMarre Carroll was just draining three-pointers during a little shooting contest with Goran Dragic during warm-ups. His efficiency and comfort shooting from deep led me to check his season stats, as I wasn't aware he had such range. Carroll has attempted zero three-pointers this season.
- Dwight Jaynes has a Gerald Wallace / Barry White mash up on his blog that's pretty funny.
- With McMillan's blessing, Wallace wore a white headband tonight.
- McMIllan said he didn't know whether or not Rudy Fernandez would travel to Sacramento for Wednesday night's game but said that Brandon Roy "won't play regardless."
- The Sean Marks Memorial Highlight of the Night goes to Jarron Collins, who narrowly avoided a trillion in his Blazers debut by grabbing one offensive rebound in his 2:20 of action.
- Aldridge said his knee feels fine.
- A few programming notes...
- I will be on TrailBlazers.TV's "Up and Adam" show with Adam Bjaranson on Wednesday morning at 9 AM if you're interested. Go to Blazers.com to watch. Ask some questions in the chat or something.
- Apologies in advance: No Media Row Report for Saturday night's game. I'm headed to the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference on Thursday and will be there through Sunday. Hopefully the conference will provide plenty of food for thought again this year. And, if not, I'll just spend four days coming up with Kevin Pelton cat jokes.
Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments
Not much to like
No. No. I mean, really this is a repeat of the last game. I don't know where our swagger, our spirit ... we look like we're not having fun. There's no connection out there on that floor. There's way too much thinking going on as far as ... I think it's me now, I think we're thinking about me as opposed to ... you go out there and you play and you do the things you've been doing. That team ... I don't recognize that team. What we did tonight and what we did in our last game.
Disconnect in practice or shootaround too?
I mean we have played harder than that. Defensively we didn't guard anybody. They scored 52 points in the paint without really posting up. Offensively we're missing shots. Spacing, the execution is not sharp. It was almost lifeless out there. That's not the team I've seen.
Did the trade do it?
Well, who knows. I'm trying to figure out what or why but I know the last two games have felt the same and we've been a team that's scrapped and movement and energy and hustle and our last two games, we haven't been even close to that.
How to turn it around?
Part of it is communicating, talking about it, we may have to look at a lineup change to try and get some scrappiness out on the floor, reward effort. But what we saw tonight, we can't ... we're not even close with what we saw tonight. We know we're better than that.
A lot of moving pieces with Roy and Camby coming back?
It could be a combination of things. I can't say. I just know that what I saw tonight, the way we're playing, we know we're better than that. For whatever reason, if you feel like you've been rescued because guys are returning and you can relax, or if you think you need to get a lot done in the minutes that you're playing. I can't say. I think it's mental. I think it's more mental than anything. We have to focus on team and what we need to do out on that floor whether we are starting or coming off the bench, however we're playing to help the team win, make sacrifices.
LaMarcus only had 11 shots. Needs more looks?
Totally agree. He had 14 last game. Part of that is - tonight I thought he needed to demand the ball more but they were double-teaming and you're not going to force it, you've got to kick it out and shoot the ball from the perimeter. As I said last game, as long as we're not knocking down shots consistently on the perimeter, teams are going to continue to double-team so when he gets the ball he's forced to pass because he has 2 or 3 guys on him.
Post-game message to players
Yeah, I mean, 'hey, that's not us. We've gotten to this point with scrappy play and being connected and that wasn't good out there.'
You said it's about you?
Well again you can mentally think about ... I'm trying to figure this out. I don't know if that is about me but I know that spirit that we were playing with a week ago I haven't seen that in the last two games. Why? Are we thinking too much? Do we feel that everybody's back. We don't have to do as much. That becomes mental.
Rudy Fernandez going to Sacramento?
He might. I haven't heard from Jay.
52 points in the paint
Lowry was penetrating. Guys were penetrating, transition and penetration.
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