The Milwaukee Bucks defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 110-104, at the Rose Garden on Saturday night, dropping Portland's record to 20-20.
Earlier this month, we linked up a story about the Blazers facing the league's biggest offensive drop-off when Damian Lillard checks out of the game. For those watching the team on a regular basis, the article was received as either confirmation of everything you had seen and/or so blatantly obvious that it wasn't even worth discussing, because what could possibly be worse than going from Lillard to his back-ups?
There are drop-offs and then there are D-R-O-P-O-F-F-S. Hyperbole is easily abused and my memory has been totally destroyed by Twitter, as I've written many times previously. I just can't recall ever seeing a stretch of basketball in which a substitution caused the type of swift and total destruction that Nolan Smith's entry for Lillard brought in the first quarter of this game.
The numbers are flabbergasting. In less than three minutes of action, Smith finished with zero points, zero rebounds, zero assists, zero steals, zero blocks, shot zero-for-zero from the field, committed three turnovers and was a -17. His three turnovers all were inexcusable and led directly to seven points from three lay-ups (one with an and-one). He turned blindly into a double team on one of them, his soft perimeter pass was intercepted on the second, and his pocket was picked on the third.
Blazers coach Terry Stotts even called a 20-second timeout following the first 12 points of the 17-point run. It was one of those "OK, WTF, get your head in the game, guys" timeouts that was promptly followed up by five more points being conceded in a row. If the goal was to stop the bleeding, that timeout worked about as well as putting a dinosaur band-aid on a land mine mangled leg. By halftime, the score was 62-45. In the 21:23 that Smith wasn't on the court, the score was tied 45-45. During the 2:37 that he was on the court, the Bucks won 17-0.
Just to reinforce the impact of that substitution: this stretch was the equivalent of Smith making a free throw into the Bucks' hoop every 9.2 seconds for as long as he stayed on the court with everyone else on both teams just standing around watching him.
Play this ineffective and game-altering brings with it many questions. One: Why is Smith playing? Two: Did he cross the "seriously not worth a roster spot any more" threshold? Three: Is it reasonable to expect the starters to provide max effort in huge roles on a night-to-night basis if they know everything can go kaput that quickly? Four: What exactly is the plan here?
Smith hadn't played in nearly two weeks prior to his appearance against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday. The book on Smith's prospects as an NBA player is complete. Nothing more needs to be seen or written. Managing the damage Ronnie Price causes will always be preferable to picking up the pieces after Smith. If the goal was to showcase Smith for a trade or appease his representation by giving him another shot, there can be no more of that. Too much timidity; too many turnovers.
Smith has gone from DNP-CDs, to the D-League, to first point guard off the bench in recent weeks and he said on Saturday that he's had no advance communication from the coaching staff as to his changing role.
"Nah," he told Blazersedge, when asked if he knew he would be stepping in front of Price in the rotation this week. "I haven't really had a sense of when anything is coming this year."
Smith also said that he wasn't surprised by the Bucks' pressure defense on the perimeter, as Brandon Jennings harassed him mercilessly as he brought the ball up the court.
"Not at all," he said. "He made one steal that was a good play. I should have went past him, I didn't and he poked it from behind. Other than that, they got in passing lanes, made a play on one. Just got to take care of the ball."
Perhaps he was in shock; perhaps denial. I'm not sure what the other explanations would be.
Stotts, in his post-game comments, said a "remedy" was needed to prevent Portland from falling into early deficits in games, a trend that's plagued the Blazers during this five-game losing streak, even as they've shown the ability to dig out from double-digits multiple times.
"You've got to change things up," Stotts said, when asked by Blazersedge whether it was time to alter his early substitution patterns and first quarter rotations. "I don't necessarily have a set rotation other than to try to keep a couple of the starters on the floor at the same time, a couple of our scorers. I'll re-think that."
"We definitely have had a trend of [starting slow] lately," Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge said, after finishing with 20 points and 14 rebounds. "We have to figure out how to shake it. We always start a little slow and then find a way to come back. If we have better starts then we won't have to fight so hard to come back."
Price over Smith going forward should be a given and Smith should consider himself fortunate if he isn't released immediately because of impulse frustration. Even though Lillard is already averaging 38.4 minutes per night, the next most obvious rotation tweak would be to extend his minutes. If not by playing him more overall, then by playing him deeper into the first quarter. Staggering Lillard's playing time has been very logical and successful at times but by pulling him midway through the opening period, Stotts runs the risk of Lillard not getting acclimated early or being tempted (unconsciously) to hold back until he re-enters later in the game.
One might argue that playing Lillard through the first nine or 10 minutes (or more) of the game and staggering those around him could help Portland avoid the early pitfalls. Is Stotts getting the most of out Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews late in first quarters if they are at the mercy of a lesser point guard? Could Price have an easier go of it if his minutes came exclusively against reserves?
"That's on him," Aldridge told Blazersedge, when informed that Stotts was weighing possible changes. "I don't know. He's the coach. If that's what he feels he has to do, that's fine. I've just got to focus on myself, the starting five, getting us off better."
Lillard told Blazersedge that he is open to having his role adjusted, if Stotts deems that the solution, but that it would be an oversimplification to say that his presence on or off the court accounts for the holes.
"I'm comfortable with whatever [Stotts] decides," Lillard said. "I know at the end of the game, I'll end up playing a good amount of minutes, whatever he decides to do or make happen, I'm fine with that."
He continued: "I don't think it has anything to do with me being on the floor. It's us as a group. Sometimes it's when I'm on the floor, we have spurts where we have bad defensive possessions and we're not scoring the ball, and sometimes it's when other guys are on the floor. I don't think I should be singled out. Whatever happens out there, there's always five players on the court."
Class answer, no two ways about that.
There was an explosive moment during Stotts' press conference, when he was asked, albeit somewhat unintentionally, about how many minutes he was playing Lillard, Aldridge, Matthews and Batum. Stotts quickly became animated and pledged not to answer that question ever again, repeating four times in less than a minute that the minutes load on his key players was not impacting the team's performance.
"Once again, I'm going to say this for everybody," he began, as if he was lecturing a class of second graders. "The minutes is not... we have energy in the fourth, we're coming back. I can throw numbers at you. There have been over 100 players in the last 20 years to average over 40 minutes. The minutes is not an issue. LaMarcus Aldridge averaged two more minutes per game two years ago. 16 of the last 20 Rookies of the Year have averaged over 35 minutes per game. It's been done. Nic is 24 years old. The minutes is not an issue. I'm not going to answer that question any more about heavy minutes for the starters. Minutes is not the issue."
The issue has been raised over and over and Stotts' short temper for the topic is understandable given that the bench issues were identified so early this season. He has no options, he knows it, everyone knows it, and he's reduced to juggling deck chairs when it comes to his substitutes. it wasn't just Smith who gave him nothing. Outside of Luke Babbitt, who scored 11 points in 24 minutes, the rest of his reserves combined to produce four points and six rebounds in 30 combined minutes.
Portland's second-half comeback, which included a 17-4 run to close the third quarter, capped by a buzzer-beating three from Lillard, and a 12-0 run late in the fourth quarter, came up short. After similar attempts have failed recently, this one actually felt a bit hollow.
"We won five games in a row and we lost them all back," said Lillard, who finished with 26 points, 10 assists and three rebounds.
"Too many turnovers, that's on us," Batum said, after tallying seven points, seven rebounds, five assists and four turnovers while shooting just two-for-nine. "We've got to take care of the ball, be more focused on offense, do the job on defense. We can't let a team score 60 points in the first half at home."
"We've got some games that are still at the house," Aldridge said of his team's upcoming schedule, which includes four of the next five at the Rose Garden. "Let's start there."
Random Game Notes
- The Rose Garden attendance was announced as a sellout. Generous but not insanely so. Quiet crowd until the relatively wild end to the game. Once again, the "Venga Boys" song served as a turning point in this one. The almost instantaneous response from both the crowd and the players is getting weird.
- Good sign from a young kid: "I'm only five but I love Damian and Nic."
- A clear turning point in the second half was the ejection of Larry Sanders, who left with eight points, five rebounds and three block shots. Also, roughly 2,670 shots altered. This was one of the dumbest ejections you will ever see. His team was up 15 and he was protecting the rim extremely well. One bad call and he flies off the handle, incurs back-to-back technical fouls and then unleashes a string of profanity on his way off the court. A pathetic performance from a much-improved player who owes his teammates and coaches better than that.
- The Blazers held "Mascot Night" with all sorts of pro and college mascots in the house together. The highlight of that goofiness, if you want to call it a highlight, came when the Ducks mascot and the Beavers mascot freaked out when placed side-by-side on the Kiss Cam.
- The Bucks' late-game decision-making was not good. Jacking three-pointer after three-pointer without even milking the clock. Very strange after how well they played throughout most of this game on offense.
- Brandon Jennings finished with 30 points, eight assists, three steals and five turnovers. He brutalized Smith and had some moments against Lillard and the starters too. Bucks interim coach Jim Boylan called it an "All-Star performance."
- Here's Boylan on his thought process in turning Jennings loose on Lillard when it came to pressure defense: "Damian is a very, very good young point guard and he's going to be a great player in this league. If you play soft on him, he'll kill you. The idea for us was to just stay into him and not let him feel comfortable out there at all. Brandon did a great job, as did our bigs who were showing out on all of the pick-and-rolls."
- As in previous years, a prominent member of the Blazers family made a very generous donation to Blazersedge Night. Won't you consider doing the same? Details here.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
Game got away from us at the end of the first quarter. That was a bad stretch for us. The second quarter wasn't much better. We can't give up 32 points, 30 and 32 in back to back quarters, 62 in the first half. It's kind of a Groundhog's Day. We get down, battle back, put ourselves in a position to win, then we've lost the last few games. We have to remedy it. It's collectively, players and coaches, we can't put ourselves in that position.
Remedy include rotation change or substitution pattern switch
I don't know right now. Some of it depends on the opponent. But yeah. You've got to change things up. I don't necessarily have a set rotation other than to try to keep a couple of the starters on the floor at the same time. A couple of our scorers. I'll rethink that.
Milwaukee does a great job with turnovers and blocked shots. You saw that tonight. That's what they do well. We had four turnovers in the first four minutes. We were able to withstand that stretch but it caught up with us. We had two turnovers in the second quarter but they still scored 32. You never want to turn the ball over. It was a key of the game going into the game. We remedied that in the second quarter and they still scored 32.
.500 forty games in
If you had asked me at the beginning of the season, maybe, but not right now. We've shown we can compete with a lot of good teams in this league, we've beaten a lot of good teams, it's difficult to say yes after losing five in a row.
No. Once again, I'm going to say this for everybody, the minutes is not... we have energy in the fourth, we're coming back. I can throw numbers at you. There have been over 100 players in the last 20 years to average over 40 minutes. The minutes is not an issue. LaMarcus Aldridge averaged two more minutes per game two years ago. 16 of the last 20 Rookies of the Year have averaged over 35 minutes per game. It's been done. Nic is 24 years old. The minutes is not an issue. I'm not going to answer that question any more about heavy minutes for the starters. Minutes is not the issue.
He wasn't 100 percent. He was able to go. I just felt like I wanted to give him a couple more days. Joel had been in the rotation. I gave Joel the first shot. He'll probably play in Monday's game. The way the game evolved with us getting down and having to play Luke at four and spreading the court. There really weren't any minutes for him.
No-call on LaMarcus Aldridge tripping late
He stepped on LaMarcus's foot. I thought it was a missed call. It was unfortunate because we would have been shooting two, down four with 33 seconds. We're going to get the ball back. That was unfortunate to say the least.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter