The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Los Angeles Clippers, 105-97, at the Rose Garden on Tuesday night to improve to 7-2 on the season.
The strong temptation after this one is to jump straight to the end, as Portland found itself in a similar place to where it ended the two season-opening wins over the Philadelphia 76ers and Sacramento Kings: holding a late lead but having an incredibly difficult time holding on to the basketball.
Indeed, Blazers coach Nate McMillan did just that.
"For the most part I thought it was a solid game until the last minute of the game," McMillan said right off the bat, calling direct attention, again, to point guard Raymond Felton, whose rollercoaster final minute was even more frenetic than his uneven, sometimes careless play against Philadelphia and Sacramento.
"You've got to be strong with the ball," McMillan lectured when asked to explain Felton's two unfortunate turnovers in the game's final 46 seconds. "You know [the Clippers are] going to gamble. They're going to reach, they're going to trap. Raymond knew that he needed to be strong with that ball. He wasn't strong with the ball down the stretch."
Both turnovers came outside the three-point line and both came under on-ball duress, with Felton not moving aggressively towards the basket or into a play. McMillan explained his preference for North-South play rather than East-West play from Felton after a win over the Denver Nuggets; watching Felton get ripped for a lay-up the other way and then squander another possession kicking the ball out of bounds without ever initiating the offense was cause for deja vu. He looked trapped out on an oar-less rowboat -- everyone knows it, sometimes -- and yet there are no rescue boats or life preservers.
Just like the Philadelphia game, though, Felton showed that he will tread water furiously rather than sink straightaway. There was an obligated urgency to his successful attempt at redemption, a "reach the shoreline, tired and wet but still alive" vibe to his clean strip of Blake Griffin on the game-clinching possession, a play that left the Clippers All-Star forward sprawling in disappointment.
"I had a couple of silly turnovers," Felton said, owning his mistakes as he did following the Sixers game. "I think I got fouled on one of them. Sometimes you don't get that call.. I made bad plays but I also made good plays down the stretch."
The desire is there, entirely, as is the self-awareness. If the true point guard's control is sometimes lacking, especially in late-game halfcourt situations, the top-down chessboard knowledge is clearly verbalized.
"I'm human. I'm not perfect. I try to be, but I'm not."
Felton's 48th minute imperfections covered up what was otherwise arguably his best game of the season.
He finished with 17 points, eight assists and three steals -- against All-Star Chris Paul, mind you -- and knocked down a momentum-driving three-pointer that gave Portland an 89-80 lead midway through the fourth quarter. It was Felton's first three in more than 15 quarters of play (seven calendar days) and it led to a jubilant scene on Portland's bench, a sign, perhaps, of his stature among his teammates.
In the first two weeks of the season we were caught off guard when forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who generally aims to be as bland as possible, declare that the Blazers can be a leading contender in the Western Conference. We've heard Wesley Matthews, not one to be speak recklessly either, say time and again that this is a "special" team. We've listened as McMillan has been more perfectionistic than relieved or satisfied after wins over talented teams like the 76ers, Nuggets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers, and, now, the Clippers.
His unrelenting tone seems motivated, in part, by the confusing schedule which still has everyone spinning sideways, constantly peering into dark alleyways, afraid of finding a flat lockout-induced performance. But McMillan's approach also seems to be a careful staking out of the highest reasonable ground for this group and for Felton in particular.
"We're still looking to put together a 48 minute game," McMillan said. "I thought we played maybe 36 or maybe 40 minutes and then we got a little careless down the stretch."
There it was again, in case you missed it the first time: poking and prodding his way to a teachable moment rather than settling, or rationalizing or taking his win and calling it good.
A breath later he was talking about taking on-ball responsibilities out of Jamal Crawford's hands, after he struggled through a 2-for-6 shooting night, hoping that a return to an off guard role might spark his stroke. That move would leave the responsibility and pressure entirely to Felton, the only ball-handler and shot-creater in McMillan's preferred late-game lineups.
Tuesday's takeaway is that Felton is somewhere he's never been during his NBA career, at the nexus of high responsibility and high expectations. In Charlotte, he had the responsibility but not the expectations. In New York, he had some of the responsibility but not the expectations. In Denver, he had the expectations but he shared the responsibility. Here, like never before, he has both.
How he performs given those circumstances -- and how McMillan responds and adjusts -- became must-see television on the first day of the season. Nothing has changed yet.
Random Game Notes
- During an in-game jumbotron video feature, Blazers forward Gerald Wallace revealed that if given the choice between Star Trek and Star Wars, he would prefer "neither." On a day that included some contract news for Wallace, he also said that he prefers cash to credit. After the video, the Rose Garden crowd cheered his name and he tried hard to pretend like he didn't notice.
- Here's Wallace's post-game exchange regarding his decision to wait until the summer to make a decision rather than negotiate an extension with the Blazers: "I'll worry about all that once the season is over." Leaning towards opting out? "I'm not thinking about it." Envision yourself here a long time? "I think so. This is my 11th year so I'm not trying to play too many more longer. I feel like I can be comfortable here."
- Wallace signs are all the rage these days. "I hope you have insurance, there's going to be a crash," read one. "I love Wallace" and "Crash the Clippers" were among the others. He finished with 17 points, 4 assists, 4 rebounds and a steal.
- One of the points of emphasis at shootaround on Tuesday was improving the first quarter play by setting the defensive tone early. The Blazers got off to a 15-7 start with Wallace picking up a key early charging call on Chris Paul. He had 9 first quarter points too.
- The fans broke out the wave during the fourth quarter of a tightly-contested game. Felt like a strain on karma but everything worked out in the end.
- I've heard multiple reports that the Chalupa coupons being given out during the games are expired and have been denied at a Taco Bell at least once. Anyone had their fourth meal squashed by the fine print this season? Updates: from season ticketholder Jakob: "Chalupa coupons given out [Tuesday] night do not expire until 12/31/13. However, they were giving out Chalupa coupons prior to January 1, 2012 that expired 12/31/11. I believe it was them just finishing off the batch of coupons they had been using for the last year. The attendants did tell us that as they were handing them out though." Another season ticketholder sent in a photo of a coupon that expired on June 30, 2010, that was given out at the Kings game. Hopefully the Chalupas aren't as old as the coupons.
- The Blazers will skip morning shootaround on Wednesday and instead will do an afternoon shootaround at the Rose Garden prior to hosting the Orlando Magic and All-Star center Dwight Howard.
- Crawford, ever polite, had a very forgettable night and was as short in his answers as he's been this season. McMillan says below that he thinks Nolan Smith could be the answer to getting Crawford back on track. The Magic have two veteran point guards in Jameer Nelson and Chris Duhon for Smith to deal with, if he does see time.
- Paul battled foul trouble all night, sitting for a long stretch of the second quarter and playing just 31 minutes when he's been averaging almost 37 minutes on the season. The great Annie Peterson of the Associated Press has Paul's post-game reaction: "There was some bogus stuff going on out there but it's part of the game. I know those guys and they flop on you but it goes like that sometimes."
- Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro called the calls on Paul "questionable" and said they made Paul play "tentative."
- Blake Griffin finished with 18 points and 12 rebounds but struggled early and never really solved Portland's team defense. The length and intensity Portland brings with its bigger lineups are a tough match-up for him. It will be interesting to see whether Howard is able to overpower Portland's bigs on the back-to-back.
- Griffin has taken a major step towards Kevin Garnett-level villainy at the Rose Garden. A late foul call after he tangled with Wallace led to vociferous booing throughout an entire timeout. There's a superstar exaggeration to everything that he does that makes him a bit more LeBron James than Kevin Durant this year. In his defense, his life has changed a little bit in the last 16 months. As recently as October 2010, I remember him enjoying an empty locker room with just one annoying writer to spoil the quiet and ask him how he felt after his knee injury. Things done changed.
- LaMarcus Aldridge found himself in early foul trouble too. He finished with 18 points but didn't score his first point until more than 19 minutes into the game. The Clippers went on a 13-4 run while he sat in the first half.
- Huge tip play by Wesley Matthews late. 18 points. One of all five Blazers starters in double figures.
- Marcus Camby had 12 points and 11 rebounds and still refuses to listen to any nonsense from reporters who suggest that he might be playing more energetically than he did at the end of last season. He broke out some of the R & B love song style finishes at the rim on Tuesday. R. Kelly on his highlights from this one, not Jeezy.
- Just when you thought things can't get more depressing for Nicolas Batum, he finally got things going on offense in the first half, scoring 9 points, including a graceful stretch-out dunk and five free throws. Then, he sat virtually the rest of the game, registering just one missed field goal and no other box score stats in the entire second half, to finish with a season-low 16 minutes.
- University of Oregon Athletic Director Rob Mullens was greeted by cheers when shown on the big screen.
- As noted by remember-robert-pack? in the FanPosts, noon-3pm host Dave Smith is out at 750 AM The Game. It was an abrupt move that caught colleagues by surprise. Former program director Brian Jennings has shifted to a consultant role at the station leaving Bernard Bokenyi in the Chad Buchanan-esque "interim" role. Bokenyi is also currently on tap to fill Smith's shoes in the afternoon. Chad Doing manned the post-game show on Tuesday night despite the Rose Garden public address announcer encouraging fans to tune in to hear Smith during the post-game game wrap for fans.
- Kevin Pelton made his Talkin' Ball debut on Tuesday night. He went way out of his way to ask me to DVR it and watch him so now I'm worried that he's trying to tell me that he's my son.
Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments
I thought we got aggressive against these guys tonight. I thought the first game they pretty much dictated the tempo and got pretty much whatever they wanted with the ball. Tonight we got more aggressive on the pick-and-roll defense, we were trapping the post-ups. We didn't let Griffin really play in the paint. I thought we did a good job there. For the most part I thought it was a solid game until the last minute of the game.
Give Felton credit for Paul's off night?
I thought we were aggressive. I told him he needed to go at him tonight. We were able to pick up some fouls on him. Chris Paul does a good job with defending, he reaches for the ball, he defends well and a couple of times early in the first half the officials caught it which really changed the tempo for them when he went out of the game.
Clippers only 8 fast break points
I was pleased with the defense. I thought our defense was pretty good. The one thing we needed to do was be aggressive, make this team shoot from the outside, finish with the rebounds. I thought we did that. I thought that would allow us to get out in transition. We were running early, the whole fourth quarter we started to walk the ball and call more sets. We're still looking to put together a 48 minute game. I thought we played maybe 36 or maybe 40 minutes and then we got a little careless down the stretch.
You were high-fiving the guys after Raymond Felton's 3
Well, you know, hey, you have to be fired up to play this game. Finishing the game. That's a very good team over there. For our guys, putting together a 48 minute game. The one thing we talked about at halftime was our three C's. Staying calm, being clear about what we want to do or needed to do in the second half and we didn't do that. We weren't calm, we got a technical, we knew that this team was going to be aggressive, the officials could probably give Paul the benefit of the doubt with them being in foul trouble. We had to play through the emotions and we didn't do that the second half. Almost dropped the game. That's something we've got to learn from.
Jamal Crawford's play
The rhythm and his shot is off. What I am thinking about doing is maybe getting a guard in there, another point guard in there, maybe giving Nolan [Smith] some minutes with him to move him around. Let him come off some screens. Right now it almost seems like he's thinking at that point position. We need him to play free. We're going to need him. Tomorrow night I may look to get him off the ball, off the point a little more and run him around and see if we can free him up.
Turnovers at the end a product of Raymond going East/West again instead of North/South or?
You've got to be strong with the ball. You know they're going to gamble. They're going to reach, they're going to trap. Raymond knew that he needed to be strong with that ball. He wasn't strong with the ball down the stretch.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter