The Portland Trail Blazers lost to the Washington Wizards, 124-109, at the Rose Garden on Tuesday night, dropping their record to 15-14 on the season.
Sometimes the symbolism is too irresistible.
Blazers forward Gerald Wallace sat at his locker after his team suffered its worst loss of the season, a double-digit doozy to one of the NBA's weakest teams. He wasn't beating himself up about the loss, he spoke matter-of-factly, and he elaborated on some key points. Then, answering one final question, Wallace attempted to slide his left foot into one of his Jordan Brand sneakers before letting out a loud yelp of pain. "Ahhhhh."
A foot cramp? A few media members still remaining in the locker room inched forward to see if he was alright. No, it wasn't a cramp. After taking a second to compose himself, Wallace stuck his hand into the sneaker, tucking deep inside it, before the big reveal: a large diamond earring.
Quite literally, a stone in his shoe. Literally. Literally.
Everyone knows that particular brand of pain from personal experience, the agonizing discomfort that necessitates an immediate change in circumstances.
I must stop walking. I can't take another step. I must take off my shoe. I must shake this shoe. I must double-check, triple-check to see if this shoe is empty. Pull the tongue there, loosen up the laces, really peer inside this thing. I must carefully put the shoe back on. I must gingerly check to test for a repetition of the pain. I must proceed carefully, doing whatever is necessary to avoid that sensation again. Alright, I'm walking now, so far, so good.
Four losses in five games. All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge lost for an undetermined amount of time with a painful left ankle injury. Five tough games over the next seven days, a schedule that Blazers center Marcus Camby dubbed, "Murderer's Row." The team's current play has turned into a debilitating stone in the shoe for anyone that's been brave enough to keep watching.
Meanwhile, Blazers coach Nate McMillan looked and sounded like he would rather be passing kidney stones than trying to explain this mess. He got a late technical foul as his team allowed uncontested basket after uncontested basket in the fourth quarter, and then he took a swipe at his players without hesitating.
"Right now, pride has to show up here, somewhere, soon," McMillan said. "Pride has to show up on faces, our body language, our effort in what we do. That wasn't there tonight."
If last week's loss to the Houston Rockets felt like an approaching crossroads for the club, this one looked like a Prius getting t-boned by an 18-wheeler. Ish just got really real, really fast.
"We just got embarrassed tonight by a team that's won six or seven games," Wallace said. "At home."
Indeed, the Blazers were picked apart by the Wizards, a franchise that has come here year after year more excited about its annual trip to the Nike Employee Store than about playing competitive basketball in the Rose Garden. Their young guys are growing up ever so slightly, but this was a team that entered the game with two road wins -- over the Charlotte Bobcats and Detroit Pistons -- and the NBA's No. 29 offense. They left the Rose Garden with a season-high 124 points (!) -- their previous high was 111 (!) -- having shot an even 60 percent (!) from the field for the game.
"That's as complete a game as we've played this year," Wizards coach Randy Wittman said. "I thought our guys were in tune."
The Blazers, though, played as out of tune as Wallace's stone-in-shoe wailing. Other than Nicolas Batum, there weren't many bright spots. Even the 33 points from Batum -- tying his career-high -- wasn't enough to provide a level of satisfaction, given that Wizards guard Nick Young went off for a game-high 35 points with John Wall adding 29 points and Jordan Crawford chipping in 21.
"I tried to shoot the ball and do something with the ball," Batum said. "That may be a good game on offense but on defense their guards scored 82 points. Nick Young got 7-for-8 from 3-point shots. Nobody did a good job tonight."
"Their confidence got going," Wallace said of Washington's guards. "If you really look at the stat sheet, they shot the hell out of the ball, excuse my language... They pretty much probably had career nights tonight. Teams are going to have that... The rim looked like the ocean to them and they just couldn't miss."
Portland's night went sideways as soon as Aldridge hit the court, holding his left ankle in severe pain after coming down on the foot of Wizards forward Trevor Booker. The team said after the game that he will not travel to Oakland and therefore will not be available for Wednesday night's game against the Golden State Warriors. His availability after that is not yet known, although X-rays were negative.
"We took a slap in the face when LaMarcus went down, it was kind of a shock for us," Wallace admitted. "To see our leader and the head of our team going down like that, screaming in pain. It put us on our heels a little bit."
Booker appeared to slide under Aldridge during his shooting motion, an act that is generally looked down upon in the NBA, where ankles are vital.
Asked twice if he had a problem with Booker's play, McMillan claimed ignorance.
"I didn't see exactly what happened with LaMarcus," he said. "I didn't really see what happened on that, as far as what happened to his foot."
Batum said he felt no ill will for the play.
"Bad luck. That happens to every guy in the NBA. Every basketball player has had that injury before one time in his life, step on the foot, sprain his ankle, that happens sometimes."
Aldridge's injury comes at a terrible time. The Blazers are clearly reeling, playing their worst stretch of the season, and must now face the Warriors in Oakland, the Los Angeles Clippers and Atlanta Hawks at home, the Lakers in Los Angeles and the San Antonio Spurs at home during the seven days that remain before the All-Star break. That's a tall task, and everyone involved realizes that this team is now without its only consistent player.
McMillan is ticked off, despite his best effort to remain mostly placid after the loss. On Monday, he vented at a small group of reporters for questioning his handling of Batum's minutes. 30 hours later, he was refusing to confirm his decision to move Batum into the starting lineup while edging forward in his office chair, shoulders tense. Another four hours after that, he was calling out his team's pride, unable to really explain what he could do to turn this thing back around.
"No defense," McMillan muttered. "There was no defense."
No rebounding either. No joy to the play. To be frank, there wasn't much heartbreak in the locker room either.
"We are frustrated and angry but all that rah rah talk and frustration and throwing chairs and all of that is not equating out there on the basketball court," Camby said. "I think it's pretty much wasted energy."
The losses don't appear to be eating away at this group like they have in recent years. There's frustration, especially from McMillan, but that wasn't much resolve, especially without Aldridge. Like a canary in a coal mine, frustration without resolve can often foreshadow a fissure in the coach/players relationship.
But both Wallace and Batum said clearly that the poor play was on the team, not McMillan.
"I don't think this has anything to do with the coach," Wallace said. "This is all the players. The coaching staff, they do a great job of drawing up the execution that they want us to do out on the court, it just comes down to us executing.
"The coaches can't get out there, they can't get the rebounds for us. They can't pinpoint the passes where they have to go. Those are some of the main things killing us. Turnovers in bad situations and at the wrong time, and rebounds. We play pretty good for 23 seconds and we give up a big rebound, second chance, that has nothing to do with the coaches."
"Of course, yes," Batum said, when asked whether McMillan was still getting through to the group. "Of course. It's on us now. We're on the court. Now we have to bring everything, bring some game. That was us, not the coach. The coach brings the message and we play, that's us."
Wallace also said that the Blazers share McMillan's dissatisfaction.
"Who isn't frustrated?," he asked rhetorically. "We're all frustrated. I think everybody is frustrated. We're one game above .500 and we're a way better team than that. I don't think it's only Nate, it's everybody, from him to the players all the way up to the front office. He knows, we know, they know and even the fans know we're a better team than that."
Even still, no one has been able to explain the improvement plan when asked time and again.
Blazers owner Paul Allen watched this loss up close and personal, and he doesn't usually dislodge stones with finesse.
Random Game Notes
- Wizards coach Randy Wittman was very classy about Aldridge's injury, going out of his way to say that he hoped Aldridge would be okay and that he hoped it wouldn't compromise his availability for his first All-Star game.
- Batum started for just the second time this season. The first time, against the Pistons in Detroit, he started in place of Wallace, who sat due to injury (which he later softly disputed). This time, Batum leapfrogged over Wesley Matthews into the two guard role and got off to a nice start offensively, with 11 points and 3 rebounds in his 10-minute first quarter shift. It was difficult to really evaluate the lineup change with Aldridge going down so early.
- Batum has been eager for more minutes and happy to play the two, but he didn't want to express satisfaction with the starting lineup change. "We lost tonight so I can't talk about my playing time. We lost anyway, so we'll see what happens."
- During last week's loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, McMillan got on Batum for attempting a lay-up on the final play of regulation rather than finishing with a dunk, a decision that allowed Thunder All-Star guard Russell Westbrook to swoop in for a game-saving block. On this third quarter play, Batum responded as desired, throwing down a slam over both Trevor Booker and JaVale McGee, while drawing the foul.
- Actors from the NBC crime drama Grimm were sitting courtside on Tuesday.
- Blazers guard Raymond Felton didn't play a second in the fourth quarter. It will be interesting to monitor that prior to the All-Star break.
- During one of the timeouts, giant inflatable mascots danced to a variety of songs and the "Titanic" theme came on. One of the mascots then went up behind one of the game's referees, who played along by spreading out his arms like wings. Happy Valentine's Day, or something.
- Speaking of Valentine's Day, I noted earlier that Maddison, a Blazers fan, proposed to Amy, another Blazers fan, on Tuesday's episode of The Basketball Jones. The happy couple was in attendance at the game; Amy did go home with a future husband and a Chalupa coupon, but, alas, not a Blazers victory. At halftime, they came by to say hello and to show off the engagement ring. Maddison said that the whole getting married thing has been in the works for some time and that Amy kept guessing all of his proposal plans, including his idea to pop the question during a karaoke session with friends. I'd say the TBJ proposal played out perfectly. Here's a picture of the happy couple. Their post-game plan was to wait in the player's garage so that Craig Smith would autograph a giant photo with the caption, "Rhino the f*** up." Like I said this afternoon, the marriage is almost certainly all downhill from here.
- Michael Lee of the Washington Post is one of my favorite writers covering the NBA and he simply could not get enough of New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin burying the Toronto Raptors with a game-winning 3-pointer in the game's final second. I had substantial egg on my face, given my (too loud) advice to Matt Calkins of The Columbian, Mike Acker of Rip City Project and others to sell their stock in Lin before his bubble burst. One of those media room moments you won't forget. Linsanity touches every corner and leaves lasting memories.
- Enjoyed the John Wall show. I've been worried about/for him.
Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments
How do you explain that?
I can't. They outworked us. Right now, pride has to show up here, somewhere, soon. This team outworked us tonight. We kind of looked like, or the feeling is that we're looking for someone to rescue us and we have to do that ourselves.
No defense. We didn't control the ball at all tonight. Their guards basically are going to end up with 80 points between Young, Wall and Crawford. There was no defense. This team got better as the game went on. We never established that we could stop these guys.
Will LaMarcus travel?
I don't know. He said he was pretty sore at halftime and I haven't spoken to him since then.
Aldridge's injury had effect on team during the game?
Sometimes teams can rally from that. In our situation that's what we needed. LaMarcus wasn't going to walk back out of that locker room so you can't wait for someone to rescue you. You've got to do it yourself. They just totally outplayed us. For us, pride has to show up on faces, our body language, our effort in what we do. That wasn't out there tonight.
What do you do as a coach?
We've got to get ready for tomorrow night. As I've said all along, opportunities will come. We're going to need some other guys to play and step up, but we know this week is going to be a challenge. We don't know if we're going to have LaMarcus tomorrow night but we have to play with some pride and some scrap and some gritty passion tomorrow night.
Felton sitting during fourth quarter?
We're just going with the lineup. Nicolas and Wesley both had their shots going, we needed to try to keep some size out there because they were dominating the boards.
Starting lineup change
Just wanted to see if we could get a spark from Nic. Get a spark from Wesley. My hope was that getting more size with the lineup with Nic and Gerald and LaMarcus and Camby would be a team that could rebound the ball better. Offensively possibly get out into transition. Wesley, bring him off the bench, maybe could give us a spark there.
We can't have one guy. Everybody who touches that floor has got to have, has got to bring it.
Who will start if LaMarcus Aldridge can go?
No I haven't. Tonight I wanted to with them starting Booker to start out with, I wanted to get Smith out there and try to get us into our normal rhythm as far as having a post player that we could go to. Tomorrow night we'll see. Look at the lineup and could possibly go with the lineup that I thought we were going to start the season with, Wesley, Nic, Gerald, Camby and Felton.
Word to describe how you're feeling?
We've got work to do. Simple as that. We're not playing good basketball. I think there's a lot of players with the confidence low right now. For us, we've got to put this game behind us. Tomorrow get ourselves ready. We don't know if we are going to have LaMarcus and we have games coming up. Whatever we're feeling now we have to put behind us and get ourselves ready for tomorrow night.
Going away from Smith
They a small unit and they were spreading the floor. We needed to match-up with them. So I went with -- that's why I started him.
Did you have a problem with Trevor Booker coming under Aldridge on his jumper?
I didn't see exactly what happened with LaMarcus.
Booker slid in way underneath Aldridge while he was shooting
I didn't really see what happened on that, as far as what happened to his foot.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter