Wow. It's not a good night to be a Trail Blazers fan.
I'm not sure what's worse: that this was the 6th loss in a row for Portland, that the Blazers' home record now stands at a relatively pedestrian 13-8, that the game was lost on a buzzer-beater for the opponent, or that it was the WASHINGTON WIZARDS.
The Blazers can now claim to have been swept by the Wizards in Washington's worst season in memory. They have provided the Wizards 2/9ths of their total wins. For the sake of the advanced statisticians among us, that's the equivalent of having lost to the Spurs 7.3 teams already and it's only mid-January.
You have to give the Blazers credit, though. They never fell behind by 20 in this one, as has been their wont lately. Portland actually led 51-50 at the half. The first quarter was a near-disaster as the Wizards' big men bullied the Blazers, controlling the paint at will. A huge offensive quarter by LaMarcus Aldridge staved off disaster but Washington still led 34-31 after one.
The second period was a mess of mistakes by both teams but Washington ended up committing more costly turnovers than did Portland and when the back-and-forth runs were all tallied, the Blazers came out ahead.
Still, the home fans had plenty of cause to worry. Not only were Nene and Emeka Okafor constant threats, Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum were missing in action. Portland's jumpers came long and a frightening number of them included twisting, drifting, fading, and/or just funky releases. It's like the whole team collectively forgot how to square up. Washington dunks and offensive rebounds were higher percentage shots than crazy Portland jumpers.
That theme continued in the third quarter which began with a Wizards dunk-fest (four different Washington players jamming the ball for their first four makes of the period) and continued with more bizarre Portland offense. Nobody for the Blazers moved without the ball. A two-man game for Portland looked like a sharing circle comparatively. When the off-ball players all stand Portland's "trust" offense quickly becomes a "pray" offense...not exactly the idea. Washington put cake under the icing by getting physical near the end of the quarter and Portland couldn't respond. Nor could Portland's second unit score or do anything on defense but foul as the quarter wound down. Fortunately the Wizards missed plenty of foul shots and only scored 19 in the period. But that looked prodigious next to Portland's 13. Once again the Blazers trailed going into the fourth, this time by 5.
This being Portland, the fourth-quarter comeback was stirring. Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum rediscovered their shooting form. Lillard poured in 12 in the final period, Batum 6 more. Portland still couldn't handle Washington's bigs, though, and in an attempt to avoid being slaughtered in the paint they left three-point shooters open. It was a reasonable gamble. Paint scoring had been killing the Blazers all night and Washington's distance shooters were off. Well, they were off until the fourth period, when they added a "went" before it. The Wizards hit 5 threes in the final stanza. The first four of those kept the Blazers from surging ahead even when their own shots were falling. The final one came with the game tied in the final possession. Wesley Matthews got hung up in the mid-court stack on the inbounds play, spending a second trying to stop one of Washington's bigs from diving to the hoop. This allowed Jordan Crawford to come free up high towards the inbounder. Crawford took the ball, went left, barely eluded Matthews' recovery defense, and fired in the split-second allowed to him by the clock and Wesley's outstretched hand. When the ball swished through the net Crawford's teammates mobbed him. Washington wins, 98-95.
If you check the aggregate stats the story will not look too bad. Portland scored 40 in the paint, for instance, while the Wizards scored only 44. Shooting percentages were close from the field, Portland made only 1 fewer threes than the Wizards did, offensive rebounds and turnovers were all but tied. In this case, though, the aggregate stats are lying. The score was close and the overall numbers were close, but if you ask which team executed, followed the game plan correctly, it's not close at all. Washington's big mistake was too many turnovers. That's part of their package right now...they do it every night. Portland, on the other hand, got systematically pounded inside and broke down defensively.
Nene and Okafor combined for 28 field goal attempts, 57% shooting, 8 offensive rebounds, 22 total rebounds, 8 assists, 4 steals, and 37 points in this game. That is not a normal Washington outing. Up and down the line that's double their normal combined production. That allowed the least efficient--some would say worst--offense in the league to keep up with the Blazers and more.
Do you remember at the beginning of the season when everybody was saying Portland's advantage at the big positions was going to be their center and power forward being down the floor way before their counterparts. Nene routinely beat everybody down the floor tonight in both directions. Okafor even beat his man a couple times, adding salt to the wounds.
Portland's lackluster offensive execution helped the defeat along, of course. Don't let that aggregate 46% shooting rate fool you either. The Blazers' offensive success tonight was due to staggered, heroic individual efforts. This game showcased some of the best individual moments by Blazers: Aldridge's torrential first quarter, Lillard's echo in the fourth, Wesley Matthew's huge game-tying three with 7 seconds remaining off of a Nicolas Batum assist. But trading off the scoring mantle isn't going to get it done for this team. They're not talented enough overall to make that work, even against teams like the Wizards. Without the base of solid team execution underlying, those big individual moments are just a 48-minute tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing...but heavy on the "fury" at the end.
Though the boxscore for this game did a poor job of telling the overall story of how poorly it was played, it actually does an admirable job of chronicling individual accomplishments. This seems counter-intuitive, but less so when you figure that this game was mostly about a bunch of individuals playing on the same court rather than a cohesive team effort. What you see in each individual line is pretty much what you get. Portland wins this season have always been about way more than the numbers. Tonight the whole was no greater than the sum of its parts. Things to pay attention to:
--Check the lines for Washington's bigs as you evaluate the performance of Portland's. Also see Martell Webster's excellent performance.
--Nicolas Batum's 11 assists are worthy of note, as he was just about the only guy finding people on the rare occasions that they moved or (just as likely) he drew the defense to him.
--On the other end of the spectrum you have J.J. Hickson's 6 rebounds. He had his hands full and more tonight.
--I have no idea why Victor Claver's shots don't go in. He's taking good ones and he looks good taking them. He didn't have a forced shot in the bunch tonight. In fact nobody was within 6 feet of him on his outside attempts (or between him and the rim on his inside ones). Yet he's 1-5 on the evening.
--Luke Babbitt's 1-5, 1-4 from distance is continuing a trend that's making him less playable as the season progresses.
--Meyers Leonard was the ONE Blazer moving around appropriately with his eyes open, hands out, ready to receive and shoot the ball. He went 3-3 for 6 points with 4 rebounds in 12 minutes upon his return. He didn't stop Washington's big-man domination but at least he had an unabashed good game given his level of expectation.
--And Damian Lillard did THIS during that fantastic display in the fourth period.
I don't know that there's much more to say about this game other than...
1. If you leave yourself open to stuff happening at the end of games, stuff will eventually happen at the end of games. One night it'll be the refs, another a turnover, another a game-winner from the opponent. Actually, the Blazers might have had all three at once tonight.
2. The Blazers better find a way to close that door, because the list of opponents for the next month reads: Indiana, Clippers, @Clippers, Dallas, @Utah, Utah, @Minnesota, @Dallas, @Houston, @Orlando, @Miami, @New Orleans, Phoenix, @Lakers, Boston, Denver. That's the rest of January and all of February and there's only 1.5 solid wins in the bunch. If the Blazers don't re-learn how to play hard, together, and focused the Ides of March will be way too late for bewaring. The soothsayer's going to show up and say, "Beware the Ide...oh. Sorry. I didn't see you lying...and all the...uhhh...I'll just leave you alone now. Sorry again. My bad."
3. It's 2012-13, a brand new season with a wholly different roster. I thought we were done getting beaten by Crawfords. (sigh)
Bullets Forever gets to gloat...again!