Media Row Report: Rockets 103, Blazers 96

The Houston Rockets defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 103-96, at the Rose Garden on Wednesday night, dropping Portland's record to 14-12.

"It was all good just a week ago," Jay-Z famously lamented in 1996, and while it wasn't quite all good for Portland last week, those days were certainly better than Wednesday night's demoralizing loss to the Rockets, the Blazers' third defeat in four games. This game came packaged with enough extenuating circumstances -- a heartbreaking, controversial loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday, plus four key players dealing with minor injuries or illness -- to prevent this from being a true crossroads game, but it's fair to say that Bone Thugs N Harmony are beginning to warm up their vocal chords just offstage.

In December, the generally-accepted premise was that it would take roughly 20 games to get a read on a team. 26 games in -- now that Portland has been exposed as mortal at home -- the book is fully out on the Blazers, who currently sit in the Western Conference's No. 9 position. This is a team with one excellent player, slightly above-average talent, average heart, and slightly below-average situational intelligence. That's a pretty good blueprint for producing both crushing victories and crushing defeats, exactly what's played out this season and during the last week in particular.

There are endless places that can be -- and have been -- pointed to for potential, hypothetical improvement. It's a bit of a boring exercise, but here's a short list. Gerald Wallace could bring more consistent energy and make more shots at the rim; Raymond Felton could shoot the ball better and protect the ball better; Wesley Matthews could get back to the comfort zone he felt during portions of last season; Jamal Crawford could exercise better shot selection; Nicolas Batum could play more minutes or produce more in his reserve role, chiefly by "becoming more aggressive"; LaMarcus Aldridge could grow into a go-to scorer down the stretch; Rhino could grow wings and learn how to fly; Portland could get back to pushing tempo more often to create more high percentage looks; Portland quit playing from behind so much so that Marcus Camby could play more late in games; and Portland could extend its flashes of intense team defense, making that its calling card instead of just an unpredictable very pleasant surprise.

Again, marginal improvements can be found virtually everywhere. That's life when you're under-performing high internal expectations and playing maddeningly up-and-down basketball. Anyone can list the weak areas. The trick is devising a framework that will actually create the desired improvements. The time for roster decisions is now one month away, which means the Blazers have entered open season for implementing that framework or living with the potentially harsh consequences.

On Wednesday, Blazers coach Nate McMillan didn't sound like a man who felt confident that he has that trick hiding in his top hat.

His confusion, right now, is in finding the right player groupings to reliably kick the machine into gear.

"To figure out the combinations of players," McMillan said, addressing his biggest frustration. "Motivating these guys. Getting them to play both ways and getting that right combination out there that can and will do that. We've just, we've played in spurts."

During five minutes of post-game comments, he name-checked three media members, showing an extra, unusual degree of courtesy, perhaps hoping for the same in return when it came to press time.

Who could blame him? McMillan's team had just finished playing its flattest home game of the season, the type of play it has reserved for the Detroits and Sacramentos of the NBA world, not the Rose Garden, where the crowd worked harder than the team all night, except for an eight-minute stretch of the third quarter when Wallace decided to fly around for old time's sake. Turnovers everywhere (19 for the game); killed on the glass (-10 differential and just 6 offensive rebounds as a team). In locker room vernacular, this was a b***s*** effort, the kind of game where each player self-incriminatingly looks at his feet during the halftime and post-game tirades because he can't hold eye contact or honestly feel pride in the effort.

Camby was feeling the effects of bronchitis, McMillan said, and that's why he played just 17 minutes. Aldridge reported feeling sick when he woke up Wednesday morning and said he couldn't shake it off during a "lethargic" night in which he scored just 13 points and took just 14 shots. Felton said his sprained left foot was troubling him to the point where he had to get it re-taped at halftime. And Batum still looks limited by his recent knee contusion, as he finished with 10 points, 2 rebounds and 1 assist.

On top of those injuries and illness, the painful Thunder loss hung in the air. Asked the obvious question -- Did you team let down after a tough one? -- McMillan non-answered.

"That game, we've got to put behind us," he said, before dodging. "Shouldn't be. Shouldn't be a letdown."

On the yes to no spectrum, "shouldn't be" is 99 percent of the way to affirmative. Portland played like a team that expected karma to reach down and hand it a win as an apology for Scott Foster.

"We started off basically scrapping the game plan from the start," McMillan said, using "scrapping" to mean that his team didn't follow the prepared instructions at all. "We never defended them right from the start."

That was surely true. Houston left the Rose Garden with chest puffed out, enjoying what Houston Chronicle beat writer Jonathan Feigen called the team's "best win of the season." The Rockets passed Portland's flat-footed defense to death early and then attacked the paint mercilessly late. Six Rockets finished in double figures despite the fact that starting two guard Kevin Martin played just 15 minutes and starting point guard Kyle Lowry left the game early with an arm injury and did not return. Chase Budinger hit for a game-high 22 points and four threes, Courtney Lee chipped in 16 points on just nine shots and Goran Dragic added 10 points in the fourth quarter to finish it off.

"Those guys have been playing really well," Rockets coach Kevin McHale said of his bench. "They've had great practices. They've taken it right to the first team many days in practice."

The Rockets bench took it right to the Blazers' first team, and McHale wisely chose to ride them to the finish despite Portland mounting a comeback that erased a 19-point third quarter lead. The final damage: Houston's reserves outscored Portland's starters, 66-59, and they held the fourth quarter even in delivering the victory. The Rockets are not world-beaters, they are just 15-11 on the season. Those numbers can't happen.

The recent night-after-night struggles of guards Felton (4-for-11 shooting and five turnovers) and Matthews (4-10 and 1-for-5 from deep) prompted open questions to McMillan if perhaps the solution to finding the right "combinations" was a new starting lineup. McMillan shook off the questions, seeming to indicate that nothing was imminent.

"Somebody has to step out," he said. "I think all of our guys right now are doing some good things some nights and then some nights we're not. In order to look at something like that, you've got to have somebody who has stepped out and been consistent, so you've earned the right to make a move like that."

When it comes to the combinations, his hands are mostly tied with the current personnel. Playing Felton and Matthews together is tough because, well, because. Felton ranks No. 43 among point guards in PER and Matthews is No. 32 among shooting guards. PER isn't a magic potion but you have a very good idea of what to expect from those two given those rankings. They are collectively losing their match-ups on most nights.

Flopping Crawford in for Felton means that the early offense likely doesn't go through Aldridge and Wallace as much as it should, a winning feature of Portland's best play this season. Playing Crawford and Matthews together also gets tricky because neither is a natural facilitator.

Flopping Crawford in for Matthews at the start diminishes the effectiveness of whichever guard (Felton or Crawford) doesn't get the early touches. Playing Crawford and Felton together also doesn't make much sense, especially late in games, given how teams completely ignore Felton when he doesn't have the ball in his hands.

Flopping Batum in for Matthews to start leaves Matthews and Crawford together in the second unit, a less than ideal situation. It also means that Batum and Wallace, Portland's two impact perimeter defenders, would be playing concurrently. Overlap -- even lots of overlap -- between their shifts is a good thing. Total overlap probably isn't.

McMillan's best recent rotation solution had been to bring in Batum early for Matthews. All parts being healthy, that's the way to go. It gets the most out of the Batum/Wallace combination without overly front-loading it, it balances the skillsets of Felton, Matthews and Crawford, and it keeps the ball in the hands of Aldridge and Wallace early. That move, plus hiding Felton on the bench during crunch time, are the two adjustments that make sense after Wednesday night's game, which saw Batum sit for longer early and saw Felton once again being a liability on both ends late. If this team is going to go down, it should go down with Batum playing bigger minutes every night and Felton watching when the game is on the line.

This group's early season swagger was replaced in Wednesday's locker room by a lot of empty quotes about playing better, and a slowly increasing level of verbal urgency. Felton, for example, said that Portland's upcoming 2-game road trip, with games against the New Orleans Hornets and Dallas Mavericks, are officially must-wins. Strong words for early February.

"We've got to get this thing together," Felton said. "It's not that we're out here trashing the game, throwing the game away, it's just that we're not playing with energy... We've got to get these next two wins, without a doubt. We've got to have these next games... These two games are a must-win for us."

It doesn't get more adamant than that, at least not now.

"I'm not really thinking about the standings," he continued, "it's the way we've been playing."

The night ended on that note, bemoaning the loss, wanting to give improved energy and hoping for better results, without anything close to a definite plan or any stated adjustments.

If your first stop after Wednesday night's loss was the Trade Machine, no one could blame you. If your first stop after reading this post was to head back to the Trade Machine, no one could blame you. Management's stated plan for this season was to test out the various pieces, maintain flexibility and sort out the decisions come summertime. After Wednesday, that plan is starting to look more and more like the ultimate test of patience for owner Paul Allen.

And tests of patience aren't exactly his specialty.

Random Game Notes

  • I'm very much looking forward to a forthcoming Kurt Thomas feature from Matt Calkins of The Columbian. In looking at some numbers on HoopData.com pre-game, we noticed that Thomas, the mid-range jump shooting extraordinaire, is hitting his 16-23 foot shots at a higher percentage than every other NBA player, except Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry and Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash (minimum 2 attempts in that range per game, minimum 5 games played). That is the definition of being in pure shooter elite company.
  • Of course as soon as Kevin Pelton and I start lauding Aldridge for his amazing scoring consistency he follows up his season-high performance (39) on Monday night by tying his season-low (13) on Wednesday night. Pretty solid jinx on that one. Aldridge did look ill afterwards, with the empty eyes that come with being drained and wanting to hit the sack as soon as possible.
  • The winner of the Portland Trail Blazers' blogging contest -- the man who wrote about his irritable bowel syndrome -- does not live in the Portland area so he was unable to attend on Wednesday. Here's the link to the piece that won second prize by Timothy Lu. It includes a reference to Luke Babbitt as Chalupa Man, so that's what's up. Lu was granted the grand prize media credential in place of the out-of-stater, and seemed to enjoy himself thoroughly.
  • If, for some reason, you were thinking of investing in an Armon Johnson jersey, don't do it.
  • Great observation from KGW's Katherine Cook: "No one's in the Block Party tonight! Think maybe Monday's goaltending call scared them away.." The block party is a group ticket section where fans keep track of Portland's block shot tally and are regularly shown on the jumbotron.
  • Jason Quick of The Oregonian reports that Blazers trainer Jay Jensen will be in Orlando, serving as the trainer for the Western Conference All-Star team. If he's lucky, Magic forward Hedo Turkoglu will meet him at the airport playing some Turkish music.
  • That was a three year old call back. Props if you remember the good old days of "Jay Jensen showed up at the airport wearing [blank] and listening to [blank] music" joke trains. Good times.
  • The Blazers held military appreciation night on Wednesday, with video messages of thanks from the players displayed on the jumbotron and a moment where all military personnel were called to stand to receive an ovation from the rest of the crowd. Members of the team purchased tickets for military members and their families.
  • Thanks to KXL radio for helping promote Blazersedge Night this week.
  • A prominent member of the Blazers family (who wishes to remain anonymous) made a sizable donation to the event on Wednesday night, enough to send an entire class full of children. Please consider following that example and helping the cause.

Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments

Opening Thoughts

It's just, really, the whole game, we started off basically scrapping the game plan from the start. We never defended them right from the start. That team was scoring pretty easily, 60 points in the first half, 30 both quarters. So the first unit, their pick and rolls, they pretty much got what they wanted. We've got to work harder defensively. And at the start of the game you establish yourself both offensively and defensively and we never did that.

Made a push in the third quarter

Now we're scrambling. It's almost like flipping a switch and for our guys we've got to play the sam way regardless of which unit is on the floor. We've got to have an offensive unit and a defensive unit and they've got to play both ways. I think what we're doing is, getting a team out there that at times we can't score and at times we need defense. You can't play that way. You've got to be able to play both ends of the floor.

Players ignored the game plan?

I thought they came out very aggressive, we weren't aggressive defensively, and they ran their offense hard. Both units. Their second unit scored 60+ points in this game. It was both units that were scoring. We basically went to a small unit for offense in the second half, was able to get ourselves back in the game, try to scramble and get scoring.

Let down after Monday?

We've got a game. That game, we've got to put behind us. We knew that Houston was playing good basketball. Shouldn't be. Shouldn't be a letdown. You've got to put it behind you and get yourselves ready before going out on the road.

Rebounding disparity

Rebounding to me is a hustle part of the game. That ball is free, anybody can go get it and we've got to go get it. I think sometimes we assume that someone else is going to get the board and we start to go the other way. We have to get everybody into the paint to help on the boards.

Biggest frustration trying to figure out this team

That's part of the challenge. To figure out the combinations of players. Motivating these guys. Getting them to play both ways and getting that right combination out there that can and will do that. We've just, we've played in spurts. You're basically trying to make the moves as the game goes.

Tinker more with lineups?

Tinkering? It was both units tonight. I think I said this before, somebody has to step out. I think all of our guys right now are doing some good things some nights and then some nights we're not. In order to look at something like that, you've got to have somebody who has stepped out and been consistent, so you've earned the right to make a move like that.

Other teams in NBA having similar struggles?

You hear some things about scoring is down, the number of games, but my focus has been on our guys and where we are. We just haven't found that rhythm as of yet.

Any changes to starting lineup?

Who are you guys trying to take out of the lineup?

Jamal Crawford has been playing well and point guard has been struggling

No, nothing.

How would you describe your fast breaks?

They've been bad. Tonight I had to smile at a couple of them because it was just... the fact that we're having numbers on the breaks and not converting. It's not good. I think we talked about it before the game, sometimes the guys who are handling the ball, I think one of the breaks tonight was our guards who had the ball and we're not converting. You've got numbers like that you have to convert.

Camby's playing time was tactical or health-related?

He wasn't feeling good. He wasn't moving well.

-- Ben Golliver | benjamin.golliver@gmail.com | Twitter

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