The Washington Wizards defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 98-95, at the Rose Garden on Monday night, dropping Portland's record to 20-21.
You can never tell exactly when a team's pride will be wounded, but there's a good chance it could happen after a home loss to the Wizards.
The Blazers laughed off a Saturday loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, their fifth straight, a reaction that could have been influenced by the fact that the Wizards, a league-worst 8-30 entering Monday, were next up. That's a "get right" game at first glance, regardless of who is glancing, especially considering the Blazers dropped one in November in Washington in embarrassing fashion. Motivated, revenge game, right?
Instead, the Blazers took damage from Nene, Martell Webster and Jordan Crawford, in that order, to drop their sixth straight game. That Crawford delivered the win on a deep, step-back, contested, low-percentage, three-pointer at the buzzer popped the "we're fine, we'll shake it off" bubble, leaving gloom in its wake. Blazers coach Terry Stotts told reporters that he only spent "10 seconds" with his team following the game before leaving them to discuss the loss among themselves.
"You just run out of the things to say," Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who had 17 points and 12 rebounds, told Blazersedge. "[We're] down. Everybody is very disappointed."
Blazers forward Nicolas Batum, who finished with 12 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds, three steals and two blocks, wasn't even going to take credit for registering his first career triple-double.
"That doesn't count," he said. "We got swept by the Wizards. We lose six games in a row, I don't care about a triple double."
It feels like I wrote three or four times in December that the other shoe was eventually going to drop, but who could have expected a drop kick to the face in the form of Crawford's three? Blazers guard Wesley Matthews shadowed Crawford, a career 29.2 percent three-point shooter with zero game-winners to his name, and yet the shot swished through perfectly as time expired, sending the Wizards bench into a mosh pit celebration.
"That's kind of like heartbreak," Blazers guard Damian Lillard said of the shot. The emotion was there, even if delivered in his unyielding monotone and via hedging simile.
"Big shot," Batum said. "Step back three, what can I say? Big shot."
Matthews added: "Frustrated, irritated, tired of this losing. We shouldn't be losing. Not taking anything away from these teams but we're better than that."
Crawford's three completed his 13-point fourth quarter scoring burst that came out of nowhere, considering he hadn't scored and had taken just one shot through three quarters. That's how this one went, though, the worst offense in the league looking for stretches like a juggernaut. Nene opened the game with 17 first quarter points, on his way to 24 points and nine rebounds, attacking Portland's big men so directly and effectively that J.J. Hickson was subbed out less than five minutes into the game and subjected to a long conversation with Stotts on the way to his seat. The Wizards scored 34 points in the first quarter and shot 14-for-21 from the field.
"They were hitting shots that typically they would make after they made a few," Matthews said of Washington's fast start. "Nene is coming down hitting one dribble pull-ups on his first shot. [Emeka] Okafor is hitting turnarounds, before getting lay-ups or dunks. They started off in a good groove. We didn't help. Our guards have to help the bigs, bigs gotta help the guards. We've got to play with a sense of urgency and play pissed off."
The stat that defined this game: the two teams combined for just four blocked shots on 165 field goal attempts. Long stretches of this one saw what amounted to dunk contests on both ends; Washington finished with 44 points in the paint while Portland had 40.
"It's the little things throughout the course of the game, the little breakdowns," Stotts said. "Every team has breakdowns, we have to shore them up so we're not necessarily in that position."
Stotts promised to "re-think" his early rotation after a series of poor starts in recent games and he made two of the adjustments predicted here. First, he cast Nolan Smith back to the DNP-CD pile. (Duh.) Second, he extended Lillard's minutes throughout the entire first and third quarters, removing the early stagger from his playing time so that the drop-off that inevitably results when he leaves the court was delayed.
Lillard struggled in the first quarter, scoring just two points on one-for-four shooting, but the Blazers managed 31 points as a team, keeping the game close through Washington's assertive start. Portland then suffered through one of its worst quarters of the season in the third, scoring just 13 points. They caught a break because Washington cooled off a bit after halftime too, with the exception of Webster, who finished with 24 points and six assists, and Crawford's surprise fourth. Stotts also turned to Luke Babbitt and Victor Claver early, but the two combined for just six points and five rebounds on two-for-10 shooting.
"Well, we didn't win the first quarter and we didn't win the third quarter," Stotts said of his line-up adjustments. "We went a stretch in the third quarter where we went 18 possessions and made one field goal. I don't know. Mixed results. The rotation, whether Damian stays in, I like having Luke on the court with him to open up the court. I thought in the first quarter we got back into it a little bit. Whether we get to that lineup at the end of the first or the beginning of the second, we're going to get to that lineup."
While the tweaks were not a smashing success in this first go-round, they did clearly beat Saturday's alternative. (Not a high bar. In fact, a subterranean bar. Still, not giving up a 17-0 run is progress.) No one seemed anxious to discuss the changes, or much of anything else for that matter, after this one.
"I'll just do whatever [Stotts] wants," Lillard told Blazersedge of his changing substitution pattern. "If he puts me out there, I'm out there. If he decides to take me out earlier, then that's what it is. I don't have a say so in that."
Aldridge told Blazersedge that he "didn't pay attention" to Lillard's minutes extension early in the game. Okay, then.
Leonard's return after missing three-plus weeks with an ankle injury counts as a legitimate silver lining. He finished with six points and four rebounds in 12 minutes despite magnetically drawing whistles in the first half. There are absolutely minutes available for him to fill.
"First half, his jump hook and his jump shot might have been the first two times all year he didn't hesitate," Stotts said. "I thought he played a little bit better than I expected he would."
Assertive moves on offense isn't exactly reliable rim protection, but it's a start. This feels like a good time for a "We need you to step up, big fella" talk with Leonard. One get the sense that a little less-than-awful interior defense would go a long way in improving the team's collective mood and performance on both ends.
The closing stretch saw another Blazers comeback, but one that displayed wide swings in effectiveness. Lillard had a true rookie moment, getting stripped clean in the open court for a cheap two on a critical possession. Shortly thereafter, he then got the points back with a very aggressive take to the hole for a quick two, something I stressed a few games ago. One possession lost when Hickson fumbled away his fourth turnover of the night. A tie game achieved when Wesley Matthews hit a dramatic game-tying three from the same spot that made him a hero against the Miami Heat. Even with excellent high points, though, inconsistency will bring a cost late in games. Crawford made sure of that.
"We took away most of their play," Stotts said, complimenting his defense on the game's final possession, which started on a sideline inbounds set-up with less than four seconds. "I thought they had two options they were looking at. Crawford catches it 28 feet from the basket, takes a dribble, shoots a contested jump shot, he made a shot. I don't think there's much we could have done to disrupt that. It's hard to deny everybody the ball. He goes up and catches it, we contest it, he makes a tough shot."
If the Blazers were consoling themselves with the thought of the Wizards after losing to the Bucks, the upcoming stretch -- which includes the Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers (twice), Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz (twice) -- all of a sudden looks even daunting. Lillard stressed that no one was "worried or panicking" but Batum pushed things a little bit past simple urgency.
"We better start winning quickly," he said. "When we [look at] the next teams we're going to play, if we don't get back on track, it could be a 10 game losing streak like that."
He snapped his fingers for emphasis and no one doubted him.
Random Game Notes
- Announced attendance was 17,336. Signs of life during yet another fourth quarter comeback but otherwise pretty flat. Sure looked like a Kekua Family Reunion up in the 300 level.
- Here's video of Jordan Crawford's game-winner via YouTube user Tawny Campbell.
- The Blazers went all out in honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. on his holiday. Blazers big man Jared Jeffries gave a pre-game speech to the crowd about how relationships have improved "not only across racial lines, but globally." He then pointed out the various international players on the Blazers. It was a cool touch. There were also a long series of jumbotron interviews with the likes of Terry Stotts, Antonio Harvey and a few players discussing what MLK means to them. A number of players on both teams wore special MLK Day colorways of their sneakers.
- Meyers Leonard got a nice ovation when he checked in after missing so many games with the ankle injury.
- Following his -17 in less than three minutes meltdown against the Bucks, Nolan Smith dropped to dead last in PER among all NBA players with at least 12 appearances.
- Not only did Lillard have that critical late-game turnover but he was sloppy with lob passes earlier in the game as well. On the plus side, there was this semi-poster dunk over Nene and two big corner threes that helped push the (failed) comeback.
- J.J. Hickson slipped a screen beautifully into a reverse piroutte for a contested hoop on a dime from Nicolas Batum.
- On a jumbotron feature, Hickson listened to Gotye's "Somebody that I used to know" and was asked to name the song. "Come on, man, you know I don't know that," he said, while taking off his headphones. Pretty funny.
- More Batum, on the state of things: "It's tough because we play so good and we're mad at ourselves because we know we're better. We're better than that, we know that."
- More Lillard, on the state of things: "We're more desperate to win. We were just 20-15 and it felt like everything was smooth and we had figured it out. Now everything is reversed, we've lost six games in a row now, we're back at square one."
- Aldridge on the state of things: "I haven't went through any stretches like this. This is new for all of us. We've got to just keep working."
- Lillard on Stotts' 10-second post-game message: "He basically said we know what's going on, we know why we're putting ourselves in these positions, we need to fix it. There's nothing we need to do about it tonight so we need to move on."
- Stotts is spreading out his post-game frustration. A few games back he took minor exception to a question I had about a Lillard/Hickson high screen-and-roll down three that ended with two missed Hickson free throws. On Saturday, he lost his patience when asked about the playing time of his starters. After this one, he gave a one-word answer ("no") when asked if he would elaborate on what he meant by the "little things" that are going wrong. In a still-developing coach/media relationship, at least everyone involves knows it's not personal.
- One thing about approaching these late-game situations and narrow outcomes with an eye towards the importance of chance and randomness: this approach is much easier to take after wins than losses. it's way easier for a young team to temper excitement after a close victory (or a series of close victories) than it is to tamp down frustration following a close loss (or a series of close losses). The Pacers, next up on Wednesday, are no joke. They boast the No. 1 defense in the league and are both disciplined and well-coached. Combine the nature of recent losses with the upcoming opponent and you've got a solid mental challenge here.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
I told my team when we're in these situations, there's been a lot of them lately, all the little things through the course of the game get you to that point. The last possession, Crawford hits a hell of a shot, Wes made a good effort to contest it. Once again we made a good effort to tie it up but it's the little things throughout the course of the game, the little breakdowns, every team has breakdowns, we have to shore them up so we're not necessarily in that position.
Jordan Crawford game-winner
We took away most of their play. I thought they had two options they were looking at. Crawford catches it 28 feet from the basket, takes a dribble, shoots a contested jump shot, he made a shot. I don't think there's much we could have done to disrupt that. It's hard to deny everybody the ball. He goes up and catches it, we contest it, he makes a tough shot.
Psyche of the team
I don't know. I'm not a psychologist one. Two, I was with them for 10 seconds. I'm sure they were a little dejected, disappointed, pissed off, whatever you want.
He made his jump shots for one. Got it on the block and stepped off. He got two run outs early. Can't let him outrun our team, whether it's our big guys or little guys. He made his 15, 17 foot jump shot. He was making stuff around the basket. He had 17 in the first quarter, first nine minutes, and had seven the rest of the way.
Can you expound on little things, little breakdowns?
Ever been through a stretch where all games felt the same?
This has been remarkable, to have this many games come down to the last 30 seconds in a row. You don't see stretches like this. The one thing that hasn't wavered is how our team has competed, you can't take anything away from them on that. I don't think anybody can fault their effort, competing and staying in games. The pendulum has swung a little bit in the close games. That's part of sports.
Did extending Damian Lillard's minutes in first and third quarter provide stability?
Well, we didn't win the first quarter and we didn't win the third quarter. We went a stretch in the third quarter where we went 18 possessions and made one field goal. I don't know. Mixed results. The rotation, whether Damian stays in, I like having Luke on the court with him to open up the court. I thought in the first quarter we got back into it a little bit. Whether we get to that lineup at the end of the first or the beginning of the second, we're going to get to that lineup
First half, his jump hook and his jump shot might have been the first two times all year he didn't hesitate, he went right to his hook and right to his jump shot, that was good to see. He got a little tired early. I thought he played a little bit better than I expected he would.
Damian Lillard in the fourth
He made the two threes in the corner. Two big ones that we needed. The one thing about Damian, whether his shot is going or not, he stays with it. He did the same thing tonight. He missed some shots, I don't know if it was adjustments, but the two threes in the corner the ball swung to him, he was ready to shoot them. It wasn't off the dribble but later he hit one off the dribble as well. He's pretty unaffected by the past.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter