Blazersedge Mailbag: Playoff Edition

In the physical and emotional battle one of these guys has come through, the other not so much. Read more about that in this special playoff edition of the Blazersedge Mailbag.

The questions have been collecting in the inbox, so let's have it out.  As always, questions may be combined and/or edited for comprehensiveness or clarity.  If the question you submitted looks sort of like this, consider it yours.

Are the referees costing the Blazers this series?  Seriously Dave, you can't believe they're having no effect!

They're not helping, that's for sure.  But it's not their job to help the Blazers.  It's the Blazers' job to help the Blazers and they're not doing that on the road, nor are they making it easy for the refs to get behind them.

People often accuse the officials of leading (determining) the play in a given game.  Most of the time it's the other way around:  they're following it.  When a team looks aggressive, in control, and competent they'll tend to get calls.  When a team looks lost, is fumbling around, and the offense is constipated they'll have a harder time earning whistles.  The Blazers have looked far better at home than in Dallas.  They've gotten more (and better) calls in the Rose Garden.  The times when the refs have turned on Portland have generally been times when Dallas' offense looked great and Portland's defense mediocre or when Portland's offense looked bad and Dallas' defense opportunistic and hungry.  In an ideal world a foul is a foul is a foul but so many of these calls are judgments....charge versus block, call versus no-call, what kind of contact materially affects the play.  There's a reason stars tend to get more calls:  they look like stars.  Less heralded teams and players can also sway the referees' judgment by looking like stars.  The Blazers haven't looked like stars much in this series though.  Or at least the Mavs have looked more like it, particularly Dirk Nowitzki.

The thing is, referees determining the game and referees being swayed by the game look the same in the stat sheet:  the team that won usually got the most calls.  But is that because the refs favored them to begin with or because they were already playing well and the referees noticed?

I would argue that in the vast majority of the cases in this series the officials have confirmed what is already happening rather than altering the course of games.  I have noted some really odd calls...a few against Portland, a few against Dallas.  If I had to guess I'd say those awful calls went a little more Dallas' way than Portland's.  But in no instance has that cost Portland the game.  The 50/50 calls going towards the Mavs in Dallas have been far more hurtful to Portland's chances, but the Mavericks have, in a sense, earned that edge not only by winning home court advantage to begin with but by playing better than the Blazers in their building.

Click through for plenty of discussion about screens (offensive and defensive), shot-making, alley-oops, Brian Cardinal, more ref conspiracies, why this series hasn't been easier, a final prediction of the series outcome, and much more!

There's a conspiracy here.  Your refusal to accuse the referees only helps the league cover up its plan.  Donaghy!  2000 Western Conference Finals!  Thank God we're not all league-worshiping sheep like you!  Etc. Etc. Etc.

Oops!  I probably shortened that a little too much and with a little too much sarcasm, considering the original e-mail was four...pages...long.

Sorry, but this is ridiculous.  Let's say the league was evil and was fixing series.  This is a major sport with major investments behind it.  What they'd be doing is flat-out illegal.  Even the hint of game fixing is a P.R. nightmare.  Evidence of it would bring jail time and the death of the league and all the millions the owners have put in.  Therefore it stands to reason that incidences of tampering would be reserved for only the most important times and places.  The more you do it, the bigger the chance of being accused and/or caught.  You want no evidence.  You want to be able to point to weird outcomes as aberrations, not annual occurrences. 

So now, why in the name of Peter, Paul, and Mary would the league EVER fix a Portland-Dallas series?  If the league were orchestrating outcomes either one would simply be cannon fodder for the Lakers in the next round.  Who cares who L.A. mows down?  It's not like they're lacking attention this year anyway, as these playoffs are being heralded as the best in years.  It would make no sense.  I guess you could argue that the league wants a Game 7 but in that case you'd have to attribute Portland's big Saturday comeback to them as well, right?  And besides, that would mean the refs would be working for Portland now, so relax.  It's unlikely that they'll care who wins once that Game 7 happens, so they'd actually be giving the Blazers a better shot than it appears they already have.

If I suspected shenanigans I would surely call them.  We've got a big enough national footprint that it would get attention and anyone who knows how I operate would also know that I wasn't shooting from the hip or reacting to a loss.  I wasn't public, but I screamed bloody murder about L.A.-Sacramento Game 6 in 2002.  I am also willing to state on the record that Shaquille O'Neal's eventual shrine in the Hall of Fame should have a big, fat asterisk mural hanging alongside it, as a solid half of him was a league creation.  His forearm clear-out shove was responsible for an obnoxious number of points and it was as illegal as heck.  His career took a serious downward plunge the exact minute the referees started calling him for offensive fouls and has never recovered.  THOSE are shenanigans.  Nothing we've seen here even comes close.

What's going wrong for the Blazers?  Why can't they put a complete game together on the road, or even at home?

  1. Guard Dirk Nowitzki
  2. Guard the rest of the Mavs
  3. Rebound the ball

So far the Blazers can only do two of those three things at once.  It's been a different two every game, sometimes switching from quarter to quarter, but until they can do all three they'll have a hard time excelling.

A couple of other things are problematic, both endemic to Portland's season.  First, the Blazers trade on turnovers.  That's great when you can get them, but you're playing an accomplished, veteran team with a great record this year.  They didn't get where they are by making mistakes.  Portland is good at forcing mistakes but even the best turnover-generators only affect a few plays per game.  The Blazers need the Mavericks to give the ball away, if not the game, and that's not likely to happen.  Take away the turnovers and Portland's defense becomes pedestrian.  Also the Blazers' shooting woes have returned with a vengeance.  No jumpers equals no open lane space.  No open lane space cuts out half of LaMarcus Aldridge's offense--the half that creates the most pressure on the defense--and all of the easy alley-oops that were the Blazers' crown jewels in the halfcourt offense.  Now every attempt comes hard and defended.  Now you're drifting further outside, compounding the initial problem.  Salt in the lack of rebounding and running attempts and you have just the kind of disasters that have unfolded in Portland's worst quarters.

Isn't Brian Cardinal a [jerk-]hole for setting that pick on Patty Mills?  Pretty classless to rub in the victory like that.

I was playing Candy Land with my three-year-old son today.  I shuffled the cards and BOOM!  On card one he drew the chocolate drop, that special card that puts you up within a few spaces of the finishing castle.  Instead of picking up his little gingerbread man and placing it on the chocolate drop space the way most of us would do, he did the home-run trot all the way up, hitting every space on the track until he got to the top, smiling all the way.  THAT is rubbing it in.  Brian Cardinal wasn't rubbing in anything.  

Two things are going on here.  First, he made a hard play just like Patty Mills was making a hard play with his pressure defense in the last seconds.  Was it cheap?  A little.  Was it unnecessary?  Obviously.  But Patty was somehow trying to prove his worth and energy and never-give-upped-ness with the defensive display, maybe to encourage his team, maybe to send a message to the opponents, maybe to get more time on the floor in the next game.  Cardinal was doing the same thing the other way around.  In addition, I don't guess the Mavericks like the Blazers much right now.  When you see a guy in a uniform you don't like and you have a chance to hit him, you do it.  Good!  It's the playoffs!  That's part of the deal.  The problem is not that Cardinal did it, the problem is how the Blazers will respond.  Will there be a lot of talk and no action?  Or will the action be stupid and out of control and play into the Mavs' mind games?  If so, Portland loses that battle.  But if this spurs the Blazers to stand up for themselves in the right way, I'm all for it. 

The pick and roll... several times a game the Mavs run this play and the ball handler goes unobstructed through the lane. Usually the Blazers are slow to make the necessary rotation, with neither of the primary defenders sliding into place and no weak side help arriving to protect the rim. How can the Blazers defend this as well as the Mavs have been?    

Several things are going on.

1.  The Blazers' guards don't have the physicality and determination to fight through screens or even to go hard at them.  (Wesley Matthews is somewhat of an exception.)  They often get hung up, often go under.  Some of this is schematic.  Portland has several like-sized players who are supposed to switch when a pick comes up.  But even so, they should be playing tighter and harder. 

2.  Some of the Blazers' bigs aren't good at jumping out.  With the guards not coming through hard they don't get a clear opportunity to retreat even when they do jump out.  So they basically get hung out to dry on an island against the dribbler on a bad switch that they contributed to.

3.  The weak side lane help is partially clueless, but even more than that it's non-existent because the Blazers have one big on the floor at a time.  Absent other centers or power forwards the guy coming to help is 6'7" and not a serious threat to block a shot from in front.  This may contribute to 1. and 2. above as guys know that nobody has their back right now and they have to prevent penetration instead of to bother the dribbler.

4.  Portland doesn't communicate well nor react to each other well.  Part of it is experience, part experience together.  This is one of the prices of playing so many different lineups due to versatility and injury.

As far as a solution, the only one I think has a chance of working at this point is to take advantage of Portland's strengths--length and agility--and have both the guard and the "big" man trap the dribbler as much as possible.  If you can keep your arms up and prevent the obvious pass to the roll guy it should slow the attack.  For the most part Portland has players quick enough to recover from the commitment too, especially if you can get Dallas to make a lateral pass out of it.

When the Blazers run the pick and roll, if the ball handler drives it seems there's a swarm of bodies around him and often times no clear passing lane. Are the picks not getting set right? Is the spacing bad? I get the need of hitting 3 pointers to alleviate this, but the last two games we hit 5 and 7 3s... and it still seems to be an issue. What gives?    

Technique is at issue here.  Portland's bigs don't set picks that well and Portland's guards don't rub off of them.  Plus you don't have the same kind of threat from Andre Miller or Brandon Roy to pull up and hit the "J" off of the screen that a Jason Kidd or Jason Terry give you, so the defense has more possible options to deal with them.  Other than the pick and pop the Blazers just don't see a lot of great opportunities from direct screens.  They do manage a fair amount of down screens and cross screens, effective because of traffic and because the defenders aren't quite as aware/prepared off-ball.  In general, though, this is one of those areas where you pray for a healthy and well-schooled Greg Oden setting huge screens and diving towards the rim for alley-oops off of the roll.

The Blazers don't seem able to run a simple pick and roll when JJBarea is on the court to have Wallace, Batum, or Aldridge posted on him. It's obvious Carlisle sees the fits he gives the Blazers and gives him 4th quarter burn because of it. Shouldn't this be easy to set up? Is there a reason we don't run this 4 or 5 times in a row to get him off the floor?    

Portland has preferred to post-up Barea directly in isolation rather than to get others involved.  The bigger problem to me is that when Portland does have a post-up mismatch opportunity either they don't get the ball to the guy with the advantage or that guy seems clueless when he does get it.  Andre Miller knows what to do.  Nicolas Batum tries but it's a coin flip.  Gerald Wallace hasn't been able to finish from the post.  LaMarcus Aldridge has been inconsistent too.  I forget exactly who was guarding him but Aldridge ended up with a much smaller player on him with his back to the basket the other day.  He actually waited until the defenders had switched back before making his move.  Post play is about technique as much as size, I suppose, with a little mentality thrown in.  The Blazers just seem to be lacking in some of these categories.  Who thought backing down a guy would be so complicated?

Where have the alley-oops gone that we saw in the 1st game? Have the Mavs adjusted to take it away or are the Blazers not looking for it, or both? If it's the Mavs, couldn't the Blazers just add a wrinkle to their offense to set this up for Wallace, Batum, Rudy, and Camby?    

I'm pretty sure that after the first two games Rick Carlisle threatened to have Brian Cardinal set a blind pick on the next guy that got backdoored or didn't follow a cutter.  Also see the post-up issue just above.  Plenty of alley-oops come when the defense is concerned about ball-denial, therefore edging in to interfere with the entry pass or flat-out fronting to deny the ball.  I don't think Dallas is scared of Portland's post game right now, which means they have no incentive to front or deny, which means they're always playing behind the potential alley-oop recipient.  They're making the Blazers beat them with strength, size, determination, and technique instead of fiery sparks and athleticism.  So far that looks like a good gamble on their part.

Nate McMillan seems so controversial this time of year. Is he in over his head, or does he just not have the horses? His favorite response is "you gotta make your shots"... isn't part of it designing plays to get easier shots? Though the Blazers seem to get more than they used to, they still don't get many. 

As to the last part, teams don't make the playoffs--let alone in high seeds--by allowing opponents easy shots.  Before we even knew Portland's playoff opponent one of the things I talked about was how a seven-game series allows a defense to key in on not just easy shots in general but your easy shots.  Winning in the playoffs isn't about having fancier plays as much as having your best plays be unstoppable.  Name me one facet of Portland's offense that's even close to unstoppable right now.  LaMarcus Aldridge's pick and pop 18-footer might be.  Andre Miller posting up against Barea.  I'm hard-pressed to think of anything else.  Until Portland gets money-in-the-bank players it doesn't matter what kind of plays you come up with.

That said, Dallas is getting a surprising amount of pressure on most Portland attempts.  The only truly open shots are the threes.  That's a risk Portland opponents have been willing to live with all year.  I can't for the life of me figure out why form and confidence fall apart for Portland's should-be-good distance shooters, but they do.  You can tell immediately whether a Portland player's shot is going to go in just by looking at the way they're shooting it.  There's a demonstrable difference between true and false there and the choice between them often seems random.  When they're on Nicolas Batum and Rudy Fernandez and Wesley Matthews look so pure but they look just as horrible when they blow it.  And it's not the shot falling apart, it's the shooter.

A side example, not directly related to threes but illustrative:  When Rudy Fernandez lined up to take that first half illegal defense technical shot in Game 5 he was destined to miss the thing from the start.  He started the process by looking around, as if to make sure he was the one who was supposed to make the attempt and not someone else.  Then he lined up a good six inches behind the free throw line.  Then he appeared to rush the shot.  The moment he cued up half a foot distance I said, "He's going to miss this" and he did.  I don't understand that lack of concentration, form, attention to detail.  But it plagues all of Portland's shooters.  How can you be a professional and have a jumper as a major part of your arsenal and go up for that jumper half the time with your legs kicking out at weird angles and your body twisted sideways?

I'm not sure you could design better plays for these particular players than the Blazers have right now...not consistently anyway.  If there's a coaching critique it probably comes on the defensive end.  But let's face it, you're not going to hold the Mavericks to 80 points four times in a seven-game series.  The Blazers can't win scoring 82 and 84 per game.  Portland's topped 90 only once and never gotten near 100.  Dallas' defense is stepping up, but the Blazers are also rushing and flat-out missing their shots.  We saw these "Bad Blazers" plenty of times during the season against good teams, particularly on the road, and they're showing up now.  If it is coaching, it's not coaching alone.  Portland's players don't execute the same plays the same way with the same authority every time and it costs them in situations like this where the opponent has the ability to tip you towards the lower end of your consistency scale.

What's your biggest disappointment in the series so far?

From a team perspective it was folding in the fourth quarter of Game 2.  That game was there to be taken and Portland came out flat, uninspired, like overcooked pasta. 

From an individual perspective I expected more team-inspiring confidence and swagger from Gerald Wallace.  I expected him to be the first one to break down the door.  Instead he appears to be back in the crowd going, "Now?  Wait, no...now?"

From a statistical perspective it's got to be Tyson Chandler with 13 offensive rebounds in Game 5.  The Blazers can't live with that no matter what else they do well.

Who wins this series?

This question was submitted prior to Game 5 but even with the loss I'll give you the same version I gave in interviews at that time, as my opinion hasn't changed.

Game 6 is a trap game if there ever was one.  Portland is liable to expect the win, trusting in the false sanctity of homecourt advantage which has appeared to guide this series.  Dallas will passionately want to avoid a Game 7.  The Blazers are quite capable of losing Thursday's game.  BUT if the Blazers do win it, remember they trade on emotion and back-to-the-wall moments.  They'll also have plenty of pent up frustration stored up.  Even getting to a Game 7 will put them roughly on par with the Mavericks, by default if nothing else, in the eyes of the viewing audience and the refs.  Therefore when forced to a prediction I said this:

Either Dallas in 6 or Portland in 7.

 

Thanks for all your questions.  I won't do another one of these before the series is over but if you'd like to send in more general/futuristic questions (or if you're optimistic, second round related questions), the e-mail is blazersub@yahoo.com  Please put "Mailbag" in the subject line so I can sort accordingly.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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