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Portland's first-half defense, bench production, perimeter shooting, and Wesley Matthews' ankle all fail at once, leading the Blazers down the road of defeat once again.
If you watched the Portland Trail Blazers take on the Utah Jazz Friday night in Salt Lake City you were treated to 3 minutes of good basketball, 12 minutes of fantastic run by Damian Lillard, and a whole bunch of kludge.
The Blazers performed well out of the gate. They switched up their usual habit of going to J.J. Hickson early, instead attacking Utah's relatively weak guards. Badda-bing badda-boom, Portland leads 6-2. There's your three minutes of good, smart basketball.
Then the Jazz countered by going to Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. One look at Utah's injured lineup coming into this game should have revealed that this tactic was all but predestined. The Jazz might as well have left a note in the visiting locker room saying, "Dear Blazers, it is our intention to score through Jefferson and Millsap tonight. We wanted to be sporting and let you know in the interest of fair play." And yet somehow the Blazers thought it would be prudent to let J.J. Hickson and LaMarcus Aldridge cover their counterparts without aid. I don't usually quote directly from the notes I take during games, but in this case it might be helpful for you to see what I jotted down. It looked something like...
Except the font was, like, 698% bigger.
Utah's big duo proceeded to rattle off 14 points in less than 4 minutes and the Blazers never led again. Granted, Millsap and Jefferson couldn't guard Aldridge and Hickson either. Portland made some hay in the paint and stayed close. But they inevitably fell into the pattern of jump shooting and were already starting to tail off even before the bench players came in. Once the reserves hit the floor it was all over. Scoring, already thin, evaporated entirely. Rebounding went out the window too. Portland's bench got slaughtered.
The second quarter told much the same story, although Portland sprinkled in some double-team action against those pesky big scorers. Lo and behold, almost every time they put an extra man on Jefferson or Millsap Utah turnover over the ball or missed a jump shot badly. But the Blazers still weren't hitting shots, still weren't rebounding, and ended up with only 36 points in the half to Utah's 51.
Finally...FINALLY in the third period the Blazers committed to doubling down every time Jefferson or Millsap touched the ball. They'd continue doing so throughout the second half. You could count on one hand the number of times they did it in the first two quarters. You could count on less than one hand the number of times they didn't in the final two. Now, Randy Foye ended up hitting some three pointers. But Utah finished the game with only 86 points. 51 of those came in the double-team free first half. The Jazz scored only 35 after the Blazers started sending wings down low.
Unfortunately the Blazers couldn't muster much more scoring. Aldridge got swarmed every time he got inside, missing multiple shots at point blank range. Portland's jump shooters were off...some very badly. They couldn't draw attention outside as Utah mimicked Portland's master plan defensively. Damian Lillard provided the illusion of a run by taking over the ball, running only isos and two-man high screens with Aldridge through most of his second-half tenure. He scored a ton but this wasn't the archetypal team-inspired comeback on both ends we've seen from Portland several times this year. Instead it was a, "We're behind, we're probably going to lose, and I'm more or less in home territory here so why not?" series of shots which happened to fall. At no point were the Jazz seriously threatened. They were still beating the Blazers to loose balls, keeping Portland from offensive rebounds and second-chance points, not letting Portland have anything easy. Under those conditions their five players found a way to outscore Portland's one.
Adding injury to insult, Wesley Matthews went down in the third period with a nasty looking sprained ankle off of an awkward drive. X-rays were negative but he didn't return and his status is up in the air at this point. Best guess is that he won't be playing tomorrow and possible not for a while. Whatever you think of his game--and opinions vary--we're about to see how crucial he is to this year's team.
[Update: Matthews left the arena on crutches with a walking boot to protect his rolled right ankle. Video via CSNNW.com here. -- Ben ]
Ronnie Price also rolled his ankle in the fourth period. He did not head back to the locker room and his injury seemed less severe.
Obviously these injuries are bad news for Portland, seeing that these same two teams meet tomorrow night and the Blazers are about to encounter a game-crammed stretch of their schedule, including an extended road trip. Coach Stotts tried to keep his starters fresh for their next game by playing his reserves extra minutes tonight, a departure from routine on back-to-backs. The Blazers have usually gone all-out to win the first game and let the chips fall where they may in the second. The experiment was an utter failure tonight. Portland's bench players combined for 70 minutes of play tonight. They shot 4-18 from the field, 2-7 from the arc, attempted no free throws, grabbed 12 rebounds collectively, and notched 3 assists, 2 steals, and 11 personal fouls to go along with 10 points.
If you distill those numbers into a single per-36-minute production rate it would equate to around 5 points, 6 rebounds, and 5.5 fouls per 36 minutes played with a 22% average from the field , 28% from the arc. That, friends, would get you fired.
LaMarcus Aldridge struggled from the perimeter and inside tonight, shooting 6-17 for 16 points. He also got taken when left in single coverage. His length and quickness made him a good-looking defender with help, however. He also managed 10 rebounds, though 5 were offensive and didn't lead to much.
Damian Lillard ended up firing 23 shots, hitting 10 for 26 points. He went 3-8 from distance and had 5 assists, though he also committed 4 turnovers. Basically the Jazz harried him early, he played ineffectively, and then said, "Awwww...forget this" in the second half and started doing his Damian strut. News Flash: This guy is a really good scorer. Also evident tonight, though: half a season on he still lacks a reliable finish off of his dribble. That's got to be among his highest priorities over the summer. He's great when no help comes but in traffic it's often "ouch" time.
Speaking of "ouch", losing Wesley Matthews hurt because even though his stats of 9 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 blocks on 3-8 shooting in 27 minutes didn't look impressive, he was one of the guys actually trying to be aggressive when nobody else was. Being in Utah no doubt helped that. It's not like his dribble attacks were works of art, but at least he was driving and getting the ball somewhere near the rim on his finish.
Nicolas Batum had 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, and 2 blocks in 38 minutes. Those are not bad numbers except he had another one of those games where he appeared afraid of his own shot. When he was open he passed. When he wasn't open he didn't really get open. Tack 18 points onto the above numbers and you go, "WOOOOO!" 5 points makes it more like...sigh.
J.J. Hickson is a momentum/continuity guy. When things are going well for him they tend to go well in almost all ways, almost everywhere. But when one part of his game breaks down seriously--in this case individual defense--it seems like the rest of his game goes with it. It's easy to say he was overmatched tonight, as he has been several times this season by true centers. But Utah doesn't field that true of a center and the Jefferson/Millsap duo can be scored on and moved around. Hickson couldn't manage any of that. finishing with 11 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 turnovers.
You already know about the bench so we won't belabor the point. In addition to the stats Luke Babbitt got destroyed on defense, Victor Claver's shot looked awful (and he didn't fare well defensively either), and rebounds seemed to evaporate the second Meyers Leonard checked into the game.
Same teams tomorrow, sans Matthews and maybe Price. At least the Blazers can take comfort from being home...though this is the last time they'll be able to say that for a while.
Also...the Jazz are unlikely to change their overall game plan overnight. Unless Mo Williams and/or Gordon Hayward return (Hayward maybe could, Williams no) the Blazers might want to consider doubling those scorers a wee...bit...sooner?
SLC Dunk has the Jazz side of this game covered.
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