In a Nutshell
The Blazers come out slow, tired, not covering for each other on defense, and rotating about as fast as Venus on Valium. (Obscure astronomy facts FTW!) As a result the Magic score in their predictable places: deep inside and deep outside. The constant hail of threes dents Portland into near-oblivion. A fourth-quarter turnover and dash flurry brings the Blazers back within three late but small mistakes prevent the miracle comeback.
The Blazers announced their intentions to lose this game immediately after the ball tipped. Jason Richardson missed a three to open the proceedings for Orlando but Ryan Anderson grabbed the offensive rebound and converted at the rim. The next play Jameer Nelson drove and converted at the rim. Right after Nelson drove again and converted at the rim. Then Jason Richardson dunked. Two minutes gone, Orlando leads 8-0, timeout, Portland. The Blazers made a better effort stopping penetration and collapsing on the ball after that. So the Magic responded by hitting 6 threes in the final 10 minutes of the period. Many opponents don't hit 6 threes against Portland in a game. Portland, meanwhile, took mostly jumpers and missed out on all the rebounds. Score: 36-22 after one.
The second period saw the lead open to a full 20 as did the third. The story remained the same. The willing help that so typifies Portland's defense was absent, perhaps because of fatigue and perhaps because of their fear of Dwight Howard. Big men did not help the small guys contain penetration. Small guys dropped down on Howard and other Orlando bigs--a move necessitated by Marcus Camby's early foul trouble trying to guard Dwight--but then they didn't close out on shooters at all. Nobody got around Orlando screens, period. With the exception of a late flurry at the end of the first half it was just slop. The only things saving the Blazers were Jamal Crawford lighting up the room like a hot stewardess and the occasional pick and pop from LaMarcus Aldridge or drive from Gerald Wallace. Orlando went 11-18 on three-pointers in the first half. Portland shot 5-7 on their own threes and still ended up down a dozen at halftime. The Magic went to Dwight Howard more in the third. He either bulldozed his way to the bucket or passed for yet another open three. Orlando led 85-68 at the end of the third.
Then all of a sudden the Blazers found the life that had eluded them earlier. Their comeback was built on three pillars: force turnovers, get out to shooters, and run a two-man game with the smoking-hot Crawford and always-ready Aldridge on offense. Lo and behold, it worked. The normally sure-handed Orlando passers and dribblers bowed before Portland's swarming athletes. Three-pointers that had gone in with such ease for the visitors now looked choked. Before you could say, "Trade for a point guard!" the lead was down to single digits and then low single digits.
As former Blazers commentator and all-around guru Steve Jones used to say, though, in order for this kind of comeback to work everything has to go right. It didn't quite. The first turn-around came at the 7:40 mark of the fourth when the Blazers had just cut the lead to 10, basically in half from their nadir. The Magic went inside to Howard and he converted. Then J.J. Reddick hit a jumper, the kind that had been missing for the Magic in the fourth. Suddenly the lead was 14 again. You wondered if that was it. The frantic Blazers battled back with some key jumpers followed by nice drives and incredibly got the lead down to 3 with 2:40 left. Then in succession Hedo Turkoglu drove by Gerald Wallace unopposed and made a layup followed by a three-pointer. At 1:40 the lead was 8 again. But the Blazers went Admiral Ackbar on Jameer Nelson and any other Magic player who put more than two consecutive dribbles together. The Magic had 2 turnovers in 4 possessions and could only manage a single free throw for scoring. Meanwhile Wallace, Crawford, and Matthews all made layups. With 32 seconds left the Blazers were down only 3. This is when the final error occurred.
Had the Blazers played good defense they would have had the chance to tie the game with 8 seconds or so left on the clock. Instead Nicolas Batum fouled Jason Richardson with 28 seconds remaining as the Blazers attempted yet another trap. On the one hand you have to dance with the girl that brung you and that trap was clearly the reason the Blazers pulled within striking distance late. Had they abandoned it and Orlando scored we would be second-guessing the decision. On the other hand the trap is inherently risky for a couple of reasons. First, if it doesn't succeed you often allow an easier shot than had you just played straight-up "D". Second, you risk the foul. Richardson made 1 of his 2 free throws but that was enough to put the Blazers behind the 8-ball. Crawford scored on the ensuing play but the Blazers were forced to foul J.J. Redick, a great foul shooter. He sunk both to put the Magic up 4 with 16 seconds left. The next missed three (which came 5 seconds later) effectively ended the game. Orlando walks away with a 3-point victory on a night when Portland fought hard for approximately 1/3 of the game.
We said going in that this was a stylistic and matchup nightmare for the Blazers and it showed. The Magic's game just dumbfounded Portland. The Blazers had to do something about Howard and their only option was to commit extra men. As soon as they did so they were dead on the perimeter. On a night where feet weren't moving that fast it was just an impossible quandary to solve. Furthermore, every time the Magic got threatened until that furious fourth-quarter flurry they simply chucked the ball inside to Howard and let him stuff it down Portland's throat. He was the argument-ender for most of this game. Every time the Blazers got out on shooters it was like, "Oooh! Shame on you! Wait until your Daddy gets home..." Howard only scored 13 but then again he only took 9 shots. Besides, Glen Davis had a similar effect. The Magic broke Portland's inside defense and then shot over the crumbled remains. The only real success the Blazers had in this regard was late in the game when Aldridge slapped a couple low catches away from Howard. Those were good plays but not reliable enough to depend on. In short, the first reaction to this game is respect towards the Magic for being who they are.
You also have to give respect to the Blazers for getting the game back close after this was going to be a demoralizing blowout. But that respect comes with a caveat that this team stunk it up for much of the game, especially early. Again, much of that came down to mismatches beyond their control. But some of it was either fatigue or effort.
People want to cite back-to-backs as a problem. And indeed the Blazers have suffered on the second night a couple times now. But in this 2011-12 season you're going to have to choose one of two truths and abandon the other:
1. The Blazers do not or cannot perform well on the second night of back-to-backs or when the schedule fatigues them either because of a short rotation or their energy-intensive style.
2. The Blazers are going to be in or near the top tier of this league.
Even if you don't chalk this up to style or any weakness of the team besides tired legs, you can still only have one or the other of those two, but not both. The schedule is simply going to be brutal this year. The Blazers deal with it well or the record suffers. That's it.
The elephant in the closet, the unacknowledged skeleton in the room, is that the Blazers are succeeding in part because they are only playing 8 guys. I've heard people blame this on Coach McMillan but what do you do? Part of the story of this roster is that the bench is either marginal or outright stinks past position #8 when you compare these players to most teams' second-units. It's not like you can hand the ball to Nolan Smith right now, nor play Luke Babbitt or either Johnson for 20 minutes. Craig Smith is the closest thing to an NBA-ready player after Kurt Thomas sits down and even he's mostly only good for rebounding. Yet the Blazers are going to have to make a choice of their own: either get these guys minutes, see if they can do anything, and take the losses while you find out (perhaps getting a "no" answer at the end for your trouble) or try to keep the rotation to 7.5 guys and suffer multiple nights like this one, again taking losses along the way. I guess Option C is trying to make a deal to get more live bodies...or at least one more.
This is not an easy puzzle to work out but the Blazers will have to come up with a pretty good answer if the record is to remain shiny. We're only 3.5 weeks into this season. The issue will only get more pressing as the year marches on.
LaMarcus Aldridge exploded late in this game, teaming up with Crawford and Wallace to put the screws to the Magic and make them sweat. He finished the game 10-17 for 23 points with 8 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals. His late-game defense on Howard was opportune and helped (almost) save the game for Portland.
Jamal Crawford had his game of the season so far tonight. He was hitting everything from everywhere and not apologizing a bit for it. It's sad that the effort had to come on a night when the Blazers were down double-digits for most of the game. Perhaps he'll stay on a roll for the next few days. The Blazers need it. Like Aldridge he went 10-17 with 3 of 6 three-pointers made for a game-high 24 points. He also had 5 assists and 3 rebounds. At times he made the Orlando commentators physically ill tonight.
Gerald Wallace played well in spurts, his main crimes being the same semi-slowness that affected his teammates on defense and missing a few painfully-open three-pointers. He was as devastating as usual when he was on, though. He made the most of several drives to the bucket and helped key that late-game trapping defense. 6-12 shooting, 4 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals.
Wesley Matthews also helped in the late trap and shot well tonight, going 7-13 (2-7 on threes) for 17 points. Ditto the defensive comments for everyone else.
If everybody else looked slow early on, Raymond Felton looked like a glacier. His shot was off, his layups were off, his defense was off...you name it. People say he's "back in shape" but I don't know...at least not in back-to-back kind of shape. On the up side he did have 8 assists. Otherwise 2-11 shooting, 7 points, 2 rebounds.
Marcus Camby picked up 2 quick fouls trying to guard Howard, picked up a third not long after being re-inserted, and mostly looked like he'd rather be anywhere but here tonight. That's not a knock on him. He's older than Methuselah, this was a back-to-back, he played 35 minutes last night, and that's Dwight Howard over there. Camby had 13 minutes, 3 fouls, 2 turnovers, 4 rebounds, and an assist.
Nicolas Batum was the only Blazer besides Crawford who had a good, active game even before the fourth-quarter rally. He looked fresh as a daisy and at least moderately effective. He played 35 minutes, went 4-8 from the field, 2-3 from the arc, scored 14, and added 3 offensive rebounds and 2 assists.
Kurt Thomas played 12 minutes and provided 3 rebounds. Neither trying to keep huge men out of the post by himself nor chasing after agile three-point shooters describes his game at this point.
Both Craig Smith and Luke Babbit got a short look. Smith 0-fered the stat line in 3 minutes save for a missed shot and a foul. Babbitt managed 3 rebounds and missed a very long three from up top in his 4 minutes.
Fun With Numbers
- The Blazers won't often shoot 40% from three-point range and lose. That's what they did tonight. They went 10-25. The thing was, the Magic went 16-27 for 59% shooting. Yes, that's from the three...point...arc. Most post guys don't shoot that well from point blank range. The Blazers were like a good high school pianist giving a recital at a Liberace concert. They had the notes but the Magic brought those AND the candelabra AND the sequined robes AND plenty of pinkie rings.
- After a bad start the Blazers ended up with an impressive 48% shooting percentage. Again, though, the Magic trumped them, approaching 59%.
- Only 6 fast break points for Portland tonight. Orlando won that battle.
- Only 13 free throws for the Blazers too. But the Magic shot only 19 and some of those were end-game intentional.
- The Blazers did win the turnover battle, forcing 18 and committing only 7. That was a large part of the narrow margin.
- The Magic limited the Blazers to only 7 offensive rebound though. That's one more category that just wasn't quite enough.
A loss tonight wasn't surprising, nor was the fashion in which it came. The bright spot, of course, will be the comeback. But that won't mean anything if the Blazers can't back up the hope with wins on the road. They got the Clippers win for insurance. They spent it before they even got on the plane by losing to the Magic. Now they need to prove they can win at a good rate away from home. That's one thing about this season...the next test is just around the corner and they never stop.
Orlando Pinstriped Post will let you know what it was like to win this game six times and then almost lose it.