The Portland Trail Blazers' 2013-14 season got off to a disheartening start tonight with a 104-91 loss to the Phoenix Suns. For those new to Blazer's Edge, our post-game coverage is multi-pronged. You can get a quick and dirty recap of the game in the Post-Game Recap provided by Timmay or Chris Lucia. That's where you go for quarter-by-quarter recaps, the bird's eye view. I target significant trends and put the game in perspective here. For home games, Ben Golliver provides the Media Row Report with on-site observations and quotes from players, coaches, and management.
The first thing to remember about this game is that it was just one game. That would have been true if the Blazers won. It's still true even though they lost. This season will be an experiment, a perpetual work in progress. Neither the vulture of doom nor the penguin of ultimate glory make a home on your porch after just 48 minutes of basketball. Some nights the experiment will go well, other nights not so much. This was one of the "other" nights.
The fantastic parts of this game can be boiled down to a couple of facts Blazer fans already knew:
1. LaMarcus Aldridge is an amazing player. The dude was near unstoppable tonight. He started out with a rare face-up jumper from the right side of the floor, added some more from his usual side, and then started scoring inside and out whenever he touched the ball. As Portland's offense sputtered and the defense declined you could hear LMA's teammates crying, "Save us, LaMarcus!" He pretty much did. Or at least he did as much as he could. Neither hesitation nor doubt cast a shadow on his shot anymore. He knows that puppy is going in and it does. Aldridge went 12-22 for 28 points tonight.
2. Damian Lillard is an amazing offensive player. Lillard got off to a shaky start tonight, forcing mid-range jumpers and watching them spray every direction but in. Then he twisted the dimmer switch on both brain and conscience, leaving a single flickering flame to center around. Bereft of second thoughts, zenned out to the max, he went into Classic Damian mode and started draining three-pointer after three-pointer. Portland was down big before Lillard connected but you'd be amazed how quickly those treys can bring you back. Once in the flow, Lillard never stepped out of it. He ended the night with 32 points on 10-20 shooting, 6-12 from the arc, and 6-8 from the foul line. Flip a coin as to whether 50% shooting from distance or drawing 8 foul shots was a better sign. Personally I like the foul shots. Those will sustain him even when the sniper rifle isn't zeroed in.
The Blazers showed some acceptable results in other categories. They committed only 13 turnovers, though many of those led to Phoenix buckets. They weren't of the offensive foul variety as much as the Pick Six kind. Portland scored 19 fast break points, a healthy amount for this lineup. Despite scoring only 9 points on 3-9 shooting Wesley Matthews tried to keep the energy up even when the Blazers were the sheep and the Suns the lasso cowboys. Nicolas Batum did yeoman's work on the boards, saving the Blazers with 13 total when everybody else but Matthews and Joel Freeland went MIA on the glass. Portland's three-point shooting percentage was good for most of the game (ending at 31% because of some rushed bombs late). Every three-pointer they bothered to set up via an actual play looked good.
But then you get to the problems. And there were plenty, as should be obvious from the whole "loss to the Suns" thing.
Though the Blazers scored 19 fast break points they gave up 31...an astonishing figure. That kind of deficit makes it hard to win games.
Even worse, the points in the paint ran 52 for Phoenix, 24 for the Blazers. Add that in and "hard" becomes "impossible". You can't shoot accurately enough from the arc to overcome that.
Neither of these things was a fluke. They looked just as bad in real time as they do in the boxscore.
The advent of the Robin Lopez Era will have to wait one more game at least. Lopez spent the first period making Miles Plumlee look like Thognor the Demigod of the Paint. Plumlee scored six kinds of ways and Lopez couldn't stop a single one. Plumlee also rebounded the cover off the ball, finishing the first half with 16 points and 10 rebounds. Lopez' second shift looked better and his second half play was the best of all but by that time Portland's guard defense had broken down like Cream O' Wheat in a blender. It was soft and totally unpalatable. With Suns coming in the lane with impunity, Lopez had three choices: stay with his man and let them score unopposed, come over soft to half distract them but not commit too hard, or sell out completely and get tagged with multiple fouls. He chose the second course as wisest. He didn't get whistled on his rotations but neither did he stop anybody. Transition we shouldn't even talk about. Nor should we mention the rare times the Blazers toss the ball to Lopez to score in the paint. Plumlee ended up with 18 points, 15 rebounds, and 3 blocks. Lopez had 3 points, 2 blocks, 2 steals, 2 assists, and 2 rebounds in 34 minutes.
Mo Williams also struggled tonight. Like Lillard, he appeared to be forcing his shot. Unlike Lillard this is a semi-chronic condition for Mo. It never stopped tonight. Williams went 1-9 for 2 points and 3 assists in 22 minutes.
The backcourt defense was gruesome enough that it should go around the neighborhood knocking on doors. It would get multiple handfuls of candy plus all the dropped bags of the kids who ran from it screaming. Goran Dragic went 12-21 for 26 points, 6 rebounds, and 9 assists. Eric Bledsoe shot 7-12 for 22 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists. And this was with the two combining for a 1-7 clip from the arc. Had they hit a reasonable amount of three-pointers heads would be rolling instead of just drooping. Lillard, Williams, a little Matthews (though at least he was trying...really the leak was at the point), big man rotations...anything that could go wrong went worse than wrong.
Other than the rebounds, where was Nicolas Batum? I don't know. His game awareness didn't look much improved from his roller-coaster season last year. It frustrates you when a veteran with a really nice three-point shot double clutches on a wide-open three when he's passed the ball at the exact moment you need a three to get back in the game--when other people have sold out to get him that three--and then misses when the defense closes.
Joel Freeland and Thomas Robinson both had moments but lacked impact. Robinson appeared to cheese off Williams on their first connection together when Mo passed T-Rob the ball and wanted it right back but Robinson held it for a while instead, doing nothing with it and then tossing it back. You could hear the demerit being entered into the logbook.
Dorrell Wright played 12 minutes. He was OK but I'd like to see more of him.
Of course the kicker to all this was the Suns' status as presumed tankers, the Philly of the West. They ditched their starting center for an injured guy just so they could bag another protected pick. Yet the Blazers got no rebounding advantage, couldn't stop anyone in the paint, and never came close to controlling the game, needing a superhuman flurry of three-pointers from Lillard and Aldridge acting untouchable all night just to keep from going down 20. If they do these things in the green wood, what will happen in the dry?
Nevertheless, both the Blazers and their fans will need to put this game aside and start anew. Mostly it was useful for showing that this team does have serious systemic issues to face, chief of which is how to stop the steady drain of easy buckets which robs even their best offensive runs of lasting effectiveness. The second would be extending those runs by finding more variety in scoring, being able to use the three without depending on it as the only inflated ring in the storm.
Bright Side of the Sun will wonder whether that was a mirage or if Miles Plumlee and a couple point guards can singlehandedly scuttle their tanking plans. (Hint, guys: The Blazers made centers and point guards look great all throughout the pre-season too.)
For those wondering, the Jersey Contest will start soon. Let's let the season get some legs under it first. We'll have a jersey for November.
ATTENTION ALL BLAZERS FANS IN PHOENIX: You will want to check out THIS FANPOST. It involves a wonderful offer of the kind that warms our hearts at Blazer's Edge.