Playoff Perspective: The Final Bow

Coming soon to the Oregon State Fair midway! Toss a wrapper through the hole, win a prize! (One good thing about the year being over...no more dealing with this guy.)

The Portland Trail Blazers have been eliminated from the first round of the playoffs for the third year straight now, each time 4-2, each time by a more experienced, driven, and capable (if not more talented) team.  

Consider:

  1. Two years ago the Houston Rockets taught the Blazers that the playoffs are about physicality, will, and being willing to do anything necessary to get the win.
  2. Last year the Phoenix Suns taught the Blazers that the playoffs are about adjustments, playing smart, and exploiting what you've got to your best ability every game of the series.
  3. This year the Dallas Mavericks taught the Blazers that they have not yet learned Lesson #1 or #2

Click through for more analysis, a semi-statistical look at what went right and wrong, and an assessment of where the team needs to go from here.

The Blazers are also finding out that they cannot win to the level desired when they're not healthy, period.  For all the excitement surrounding Portland's supporting cast in the last five years the truth is revealing itself.  These guys aren't capable of carrying the team anywhere near the highest success levels in the absence (or half-absence) of the players drafted to be stars:  Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Greg Oden.  While there's hope for the future in Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum (both young) plus Gerald Wallace (new to the team and not yet fully integrated) for the most part judgment has been passed:  Portland's "depth" was overstated and overrated.  The supporting cast players who have left have not prospered.  The supporting cast players who remain are not playing at a consistent enough level, let alone becoming new stars.  It's amazing that the team won 48 games a year when once again they were ravaged by injuries.  But absent the return of the A-level players, that 48-52 win zone and modest (if any) playoff success appears to be Portland's destiny.  Portland's great hope remains vested in a healthy Roy and Oden playing alongside the emergent Aldridge and Wallace.  Only a revolutionary trade (unlikely) will change that in the near future.  Then again, analyzing this series in terms of health is an exercise in futility.  It could have been done before Game 1 tipped.  The asterisk may matter someday when the team is fully recovered, but today's reality must suffice for now.  

The reality of this series was that Portland always occupied the back seat while Dallas drove.  The Blazers came in as a 6th seed with 48 wins.  They played like a 6th seed with 48 wins.  If there's a critique to be offered it's that, aside from 13 magical minutes in one of the most improbable finishes in league history, they couldn't rise above themselves.  Portland lost on the road against good teams during the regular season.  They did in the playoffs too.  Portland went through offensive dry spells in the regular season. Ditto here.  Portland had trouble handling the pick and roll during the regular season, also in the playoffs.  If anything, Portland appeared to play much of the last two weeks as if the games were a series of regular season matchups.  Dallas, on the other hand, brought intensity, fire, timing, and extra guts to go along with their skill.  The result?  Portland's normal advantages barely applied whereas Dallas excelled at theirs.

  • Portland relies on a turnover-based defense.  During the regular season they forced 15.5 per game from opponents.  Dallas committed 13.8 per game in the regular season.  The Blazers forced only 12.0 per game from the Mavs during this series.  Dallas actually forced more than Portland at 12.4 per game.
  • Portland feasted on offensive rebounds during the year, Dallas did not.  Averaging 12.1 per game during the year Portland managed only 8.0 during this series.  Dallas averaged 9.6 during the year but got 11.3 per game against Portland in these playoffs.
  • Portland looked to clean up in the paint against the Mavericks.  The Blazers scored 40.8 in the paint during the year while Dallas allowed 41.7.  Dallas scored only 36.7 themselves.  Portland only exceeded 40 points in the paint in 3 of the 6 games and only took Dallas by more than 6 twice.
  • Dallas, meanwhile, looked to dominate in three-point shooting.   Dallas shot 36.4% from beyond the arc for the year while the Blazers allowed 36.6%.  Dallas shot 38% for the series. The Blazers shot 34.3% for the year and Dallas allowed exactly that 34.3% as well.  Portland shot 31.6% for the series.
  • Free throws were an oft-debated topic during the course of the series.  Portland attempted 22.3 per game for the year while Dallas allowed 22.4.  The Blazers attempted only 20.6 free throws per game in the playoffs.  Dallas attempted 22.4 per game during the regular season and Portland allowed 22.9.  Dallas attempted 24.2 during the series.
  • Field goal percentage was another Dallas bastion during the year.  They hit 47.4% of their shots while Portland allowed 46.6%.  Dallas shot only 45.5% for the series.  Portland shot 44.9% on the year while Dallas allowed 45.1%.  Portland shot 45.6%.
  • The Nowitzki/Aldridge matchup was considered a huge key.  Nowitzki averaged 23.0 ppg during the year.  He averaged 27.3 in this series, exceeding his season average in 5 out of 6 games.  Aldridge averaged 21.8 ppg during the year.  He averaged 20.2 during this series, exceeding his season average in 3 out of 6 games.  Number of times Aldridge outscored Nowitzki in the series?  Zero.

Summing up:  

The Blazers live by turnovers and offensive rebounds.  They also wanted to dominate in points in the paint against this team.  They utterly failed--got reversed even--in the first two and won a marginal victory in points in the paint.  

Dallas wanted three point shooting and field goal percentage.  They got the first and tied in the second.  But Portland's gains from keeping Dallas' overall percentage low were cut short by extra points Dallas scored from the arc and at the line plus Portland's own lack of extra shot attempts by failing in the turnover and offensive rebound departments.  

Plus Dallas' star outperformed Portland's star in every game.  

Under these conditions the only vague hope the Blazers had of coming away with the series would have been some kind of voodoo among the supporting casts.  When Jason Terry and Jason Kidd performed well Dallas shut the last possible escape hatch.  Portland was trapped with no way out.

The curious part is not that the series transpired this way, but that the Blazers seemed rather, well, blasé about the whole thing.  We saw blazing intensity from Gerald Wallace in Game 6, up to and including him frustrated, throwing the ball off of the basket support when it became apparent Portland was going down.  We saw the terrific eruption from Brandon Roy in Game 4.  We saw some hard-headed, big-hearted moments from Andre Miller and a brief standoff between LaMarcus Aldridge and Tyson Chandler.  But that was it.  Portland's players had spectacular moments, productive games, but you never got the burning desire.  You never had the sense that the Blazers were assuming control over even a single match, let alone the series...or even wanted or knew how to get that control.  Terry, Kidd, and Nowitzki had an answer for everything.  The Blazers didn't even understand the question.  That is the epitaph on their 2010-11 tombstone.

The burning question:  Where does the team go from here?  How does this get better?

  1. Health.  There's no substitute for it.
  2. Portland's stars have got to decide they want to be stars, then have the guts and drive and confidence to be stars and show it.  The Blazers can't live with 20 points from Brandon Roy every seventh game and public wondering about playing time in the interim.  Either he can cut on those knees or he can't.  To the extent that his inconsistency is mental he's got to resolve it.  The Blazers can't live with LaMarcus Aldridge playing shrinking violet at the foul line in crunch time and either running away or madly rushing forward when the game's on him and more than an open jumper is required.  The Blazers can't live with Greg Oden just blithely taking the game as it comes either, which has tended to be his approach.  Being pinned as a star doesn't make you one.  It comes from your play in situations just like this.  Dirk Nowitzki?  Star.  Jason Terry?  Star.  Anyone in a Portland uniform right now?  Not so much.
  3. Experience will help, as several of Portland's players are still young, but you have to learn from that experience.  What did Dallas do this year?  They prepared from Game 1 of the regular season to earn homecourt advantage.  When they got it they didn't let anything get in their way of winning that first round series.  They got physical before the Blazers.  They made big shots before the Blazers.  They counter-punched after every Portland jab.  They treated it like the PLAYOFFS.  You play above yourself, not the same or (God forbid) below.  Whatever was needed to win, Dallas did.  They learned that by getting kicked in the face in past years.  How many times will the Blazers get kicked before they get tired of it and start to do something about it?  Is three enough?  The closest thing we saw to the right walk this year was Wallace in Game 6 but the do-or-die game is too late and one player is too few by eleven or so.  This loss better burn in them all summer.  They better decide they don't like it.  They have to come ready next season to do whatever they need to make somebody else feel that way.
  4. Portland's bench players have got to mature and perform or the Blazers need some people with less name value/versatility and more experience and dependable production to come off the pines.
  5. Portland's deep shooters have got to hit or this team won't go anywhere even with a healthy Roy and Oden because the middle will be so clogged nobody will score.
  6. Portland needs a different way of dealing with screens:  better scheme maybe, more commitment, effort, and communication certainly. 

What are the chances of all of this happening?  

Blazer fans pray for #1, obviously.  At some point you hope the franchise can field the team it actually intended to.  That's not in anybody's control, though.  

Numbers 2 and 3 are up to the players.  They have to get their heads straight and work together, or at least not be so easy to split apart on the court.  Off-court chemistry means nothing if you're not committed to, selling out for, and succeeding at the same cause.  It's like the friendliest chorus in the world that keeps going off key.  You hope that Gerald Wallace's attitude will filter through to some of his teammates and some of the prime players.  That's the best hope at this point.  

Numbers 4-6 are up to management and the coaching staff.  It's doubtful they can make big moves to transform this team without blowing it apart and starting over.  With the salaries in question they probably couldn't blow it apart even if they wanted to.  So they're looking at rearranging what they have and adding around the margins.  Where's next year's Juwan Howard?  How many of these issues is Patty Mills an answer to?  How long will Andre Miller be with this team?  These are the kinds of things management will be dealing with.  But if the star power and commitment to not losing don't come through among the current players it's not going to matter much.  

Still, everybody has a part to work on.  With some effort and a little help from the injury gods, the Blazers could see a brighter tomorrow.  The West is still wide open and will only become more so in the next couple of years.  Portland is still hoping to get on the train.  This playoff loss doesn't change that.  Realistically it saved them from a more dramatic one in the next series.  The train would have derailed this year no matter what.  Their true success always was in the future.

Where do Portland's fans go from here?  There are plenty of reasons to support and be optimistic about this team.  This past year has been one of the best ever in terms of fan energy-to-victory ratio and there's no reason for that to subside.  Portland's future is still worth getting excited about.  The problems are better defined now than they were three years ago when everything was guesswork and optimism.  Being better defined makes those problems more scary but they're also more resolvable.  At least the franchise can see the hurdles they need to jump.  Some of those may prove too high, but it'll be an honest attempt and worth watching.  In the end that's all you can ask for.

Here at Blazersedge we'll continue right on.  We'll have our 2010-11 season wrap including everything interesting, indicative, or just unusual about the year...and there was plenty!  Over the next couple weeks we'll run down individual performances and look how the future of Portland's players might develop (or not).  We'll soldier on through the summer as well with draft, Summer League, and whatnot.

Let's be honest here.  There's going to be a lockout soon.  The season may start late.  In a nightmare world it could be quite late.  But the next season will start at some point.  In the meantime I'm still going to be a Blazer fan and so are you.  Let's be honest about something else.  This blog was born out of--and grew to be huge in--the era of the Jailblazers and 20-win seasons.  You are riding with the king of digging deep and never running out of things to talk about no matter what the external stimulus.  Some folks have a nose for finding and compiling useful information like our good friend and co-editor Ben.  Some folks have a knack for getting inside folks to talk and coming up with stuff you never dreamed of like another good friend Henry Abbott of TrueHoop.  Some folks do stats like Hollinger and Pelton, others do shock and awe like Deadspin.  My gift is to keep things interesting and keep the conversation going no matter what else is happening, the middle of August the same as the middle of the playoffs (just with slightly fewer posts per day).  This is what I do.  This is what I teach other people to do around our network.  And that makes Blazersedge as lockout-proof of a place as you're going to find.  So don't despair.  No matter what you can always get your Blazers fix here.

Are you a Blazers fan?  Wear your colors proudly tomorrow and come and see us.  The faith is alive and the conversation is just beginning.  A new year is upon us and all things are possible!

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

P.S.  Got an end-of-season Mailbag Question?  Now would be a great time to send it to blazersub@yahoo.com.  Put "Mailbag" in the subject line.

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