The Utah Jazz defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 105-95, at the Rose Garden on Friday night, dropping Portland's record to 33-39.
Some meals are better eaten alone. A man, a plate, a fork and nothing else. I've been there, you've been there, everyone has, whether through frustration, sadness, moodiness, loneliness, spite, fear, or heartbreak. Sometimes dinner companions just aren't welcome; sometimes the best conversation is silence.
Maybe, just maybe, the word "stew" -- to brood -- was coined by a recently divorced linguist slogging through a lukewarm stew -- the soupy kind -- at a now empty table. I'm so angry, and this tastes like crap, and it's making me even more angry, and, OK, I admit it, I'm starting to enjoy wallowing in my anger right now, good thing it will take me like 20 minutes to eat this freaking thing, but don't get any ideas because I'm still angry.
Multiple Blazers -- some who played, some who didn't -- dined alone at their lockers on Friday, hunched over and wolfing down dinner before a flight to Oakland for a Saturday night game against the Golden State Warriors, a flight that will not include LaMarcus Aldridge, who did not play Thursday because of an ankle injury. They sat, backs turned to the room, silent, and fully content in their one-man universes. Some meals are just better eaten alone.
On Wednesday, Reggie Evans, Brook Lopez and the Brooklyn Nets pulled Portland's white flag out from the Rose Garden storage closet, out from behind those racks of unsold Raymond Felton jerseys. Aldridge's ankle injury was the unfurling and Blazers coach Terry Stotts raised it, as I wrote, at least if you read between the lines in his refusal to get after his guys following a pathetic loss.
Two days and one monster fourth-quarter collapse later, Stotts, without his All-Star, held the flag high above his head, waving it back and forth for all to see.
"The playoffs odds are slim and none right now," he said, the rest of the sentence rendered unimportant by that direct admission. "But that doesn't take away from the goals at the beginning of the season, that's to compete and get better."
A 25-6 Jazz run to close the game, three straight losses, ten games to go, and no Aldridge on the airplane. It was time to call it. Wednesday's deflated air was already a thing of the past; it was time, for coach and solo-dining players, to process the end.
"We're still playing to win, we're still planning to make the playoffs," J.J. Hickson, who finished with 17 points (on eight-for-11 shooting) and 14 rebounds, said. "I know our window is definitely smaller at this point, as long as have a chance, we're going to keep playing hard, play with some integrity."
The Blazers did that on Friday -- after failing to do so on Wednesday -- jumping out on a Jazz team that really only offered the playoff-fight intensity you would expect from a team in their position for the game's final six minutes. Nicolas Batum provided some offensive pop in the first half -- for the first time in awhile -- Meyers Leonard did just fine starting in place of Aldridge, and Victor Claver even unleashed a razzle-dazzle Rajon Rondo-esque behind-the-back fake for a lay-up. The ball moved -- 14 assists on 20 baskets in the first half -- and an undermanned Portland team held command of the game.
That sense held until midway through the fourth quarter, thanks in large part to a determined effort by Damian Lillard, who got to the free throw line 14 times and made it clear to the referees that he believed he had earned a few more trips. Lillard started slowly but finished with a team-high 24 points (on seven-for-16 shooting), seven assists and two rebounds. He did it the hard way, the "lay it all out" way. Nine of his 16 attempts came in the paint; his 14 free throw attempts tied a season-high. Lillard wasn't one of the players eating alone, but he dressed unusually quickly and made every effort to leave the locker room as soon as possible.
"I think the whole game we were in flow, everything was flowing, we weren't going too many possessions without getting a quality shot," Lillard told Blazersedge. "Down the stretch, they got their hands on some balls, sometimes we didn't get shots up, and they came down and they scored, they went on runs against us. The lead got chopped down real quick."
Chopped down real quick, indeed, like a razor to a head of hair. Mo Williams was the razor, scoring 14 of his game-high 28 points in the final 4:50, keying a strong Jazz run that was made significantly easier by a number of sloppy Blazers turnovers. Nicolas Batum forced a pass on the perimeter. Lillard forced a pass on the perimeter. Leonard tried to thread the needle to no avail. Off to the races, off to the races, off to the races.
"We made some mistakes defensively and we turned the ball over five or six out of eight possessions, and they took advantage of it," Lillard said.
"I thought we played a good game until the turnovers caught up with us in the fourth quarter," Stotts said. "They capitalized on it, Mo Williams had a great second half, we kind of shot ourselves in the foot with the turnovers, it was tough to get back into it after that."
Lack of focus? Lack of experience? Lack of Aldridge? All of the above?
"Lackadaiscal, taking our lead for granted, it came back to bite us," Hickson said.
Leonard added: "It's tough, man, I had a lot of turnovers. I had a bad one, I hesitated on a play when J.J. was open, tried to make a pass to him, turned the ball over. We had a couple of defensive breakdowns. They just made more plays than us down the stretch."
He then used the same words that fans could be heard muttering as they left the Rose Garden, the same words you might have directed towards your television set.
"Three and a half quarters," Leonard, who finished with 12 points and three rebounds in 32 minutes, said. "This one hurts."
Three and a half quarters: not nearly as good as four but significantly better than the zero from Wednesday. Not enough for a win but more than enough to pass the integrity test.
The sloppiness wasn't the only late-game vice. Wesley Matthews and Batum both disappeared on offense; Hickson and Leonard can't create legit looks for themselves on a regular basis; Lillard wasn't getting quite enough calls to keep pace with Williams' explosion on the other end.
The rookie point guard slipped in his patented up-and-under early and then pushed, prodded, and drove time after time in the game's late stages. He pounded the court after one aggressive take and had words with a referee afterwards.
"I guess no fouls happened," Lillard told Blazersedge, declining the opportunity to make an issue out of the officiating. "No fouls were called, so I guess they didn't happen."
He didn't want to elaborate and there wasn't any need for further prodding. He left shortly thereafter as a number of his teammates continued to eat. A man, a plate, a fork, and nothing else, except the realization that a lot of hard work -- six months of it -- has gone for naught. It's time for us to go now; let them eat in peace.
Random Game Notes
- The attendance was announced as 19,527 -- short of a sellout. That was good because there were a number of empty seats. I was thrown off badly by how empty it was until just minutes before tip off. Isn't this supposed to be a rivalry game? Where is everybody? The place was little over half-full. Duh. Everyone was in the concourse watching NCAA hoops.
- Excellent effort by Section 314 to get chants going throughout this one. The Blazers played hard and earned that show of support.
- In addition to Victor Claver's frisky Rondo lay-up, he also threw down a hard dunk in the second half. Did you catch him pointing to the Blazers bench afterwards? Very demonstrative, especially for him, right? I asked him what happened. "In halftime we watched the lay-up that I made in the first quarter," he explained. "Jared [Jeffries] told me that I don't have to do that, next time I have to do a dunk. He told me he was going to pay me if I dunk, so that's why."
- Claver wouldn't reveal how much a dunk was worth. Jeffries' joking bribery probably brings back some memories from your youth basketball days. There was always a parent who was convinced a dollar or two could transform the aggressiveness of his or her child. (Hi mom.)
- A humorous translation situation: Claver, meaning to say that Aldridge is the Blazers' "go-to guy" in the fourth quarter, instead called him "the man to go." Perfectly backwards but perfectly understandable. His English is very good as is his willingness to speak it. Anyway, Claver on not having Aldridge down the stretch: "If we don't know what to do, he gets something for the team. We did it most of the time [on Friday], but not at the end."
- When I wrote Wednesday that I thought it would be good for Meyers Leonard to start the rest of the way I meant in place of J.J. Hickson, not Aldridge. Alas, the effect was the same. Leonard lost his match-up but he wasn't brutalized and he had a number of nice moments on the offensive end. The play in which he slipped in along the baseline to quickly convert a basket stands outs; New Orleans Hornets rookie Anthony Davis makes a killing off similar plays. Leonard has the length and finishing ability to turn that into a regular threat.
- Paul Millsap (25 points and 10 rebounds) and Al Jefferson (22 points and eight rebounds) put up big numbers but they didn't have the same overwhelming effect as the Nets. Perhaps nobody could. The Jazz handily won the points in the paint, 62-40.
- Leonard on starting: "With an increased role sometimes there's a lot more pressure, got to go out there and make plays. I thought I did alright. [Al] Jefferson is a tough match-up. I've got to learn. It's tough guarding him, guarding weakside pick-and-rolls, when to make plays, when to hit a shot, so many things go into it. I've got to learn and grow on it."
- Leonard was down on himself hard again after this loss. Not quite as bad as on Wednesday but harder than I thought was warranted. Leonard: "Similar to what I said the other night, frustrated with myself, simple mistakes that I'm making, that I know I shouldn't make. [Assistant coach] Kim [Hughes], the rest of the coaches keep telling me, play hard, it's part of the process."
- I tweeted after the game that a one-on-one chat between Leonard and assistant coach (and positive energy guru) Kaleb Canales was needed on the flight down to Oakland.
- Who on Earth would spend money on a J.J. Hickson "Mr. Double-Double" t-shirt just 10 games before free agency? Might as well take all the money in your wallet and light it in a bonfire.
- Lillard on the Blazers' biggest growth area of the season: "I think our biggest growth has been our trust in each other. I think a lot of guys were unsure whose role was what. We didn't know what everybody was capable of bringing to the table. Over the course of the year, everybody has grown trust and confidence in the next player. It's helping us grow a lot."
- In Terry Stotts' comments below, he said he wasn't sure of Aldridge's status because of the sprained right ankle sustained against the Nets on Wednesday. Blazers PR confirmed later that Aldridge would not travel because of the injury, which also kept him out of practice on Thursday and shootaround Friday.
- Kind of a quirky game. Lots of airballs, fumbled passes, loose balls bouncing off of feet out of bounds.
- A number of signs at this game. "Use The Force, Luke" (Babbitt never had the chance, playing just one minute). Twin kids held up a sign that read: "It's our birthday." Finally, a nice one for Lillard: "Zero, my hero."
- The Blazers set a new franchise-record for made three-pointers in a season (599), breaking the record of 596 set in 2008-09.
- Multiple times this season -- particularly during the strong December -- I've called back to the 2007-08 season. As a reminder, that season ended with a 3-7 finish in the final 10.
- Thanks to Blazersedge reader Max for stopping by with some very kind words after this one. It's always great to meet the Blazersedge die-hards; it's one thing if people have heard of the site, it's quite another when someone introduces me to his girlfriend by saying, "Hey this is one of the guys that writes for that website that I'm always on." She did very, very well to restrain an eyeroll but I still felt the need to apologize if the site was ruining their relationship in any way.
- In reality, though, what an honor. Being right there alongside "not taking out the trash" and "leaving the toilet seat up" on the list of reasons for tension between a couple is a great place for Blazersedge to be. I'm sure Dave and Timmay would agree, right guys?
- One of my great fears in life is that I will forget the person's name in these situations, thus alienating them for life because I'm not properly returning their gracious kindness. Max, if your name isn't Max, I'm really sorry. I'm like ninety percent sure you said your name was Max, but I'm often not very good with names. Anyway, thanks to everyone who is still reading at this point in this season and this point of a random game notes that went pretty sideways.
- If you didn't get a chance to check out The Rip Citizens' podcast with Blazers public address announcer Mark Mason, definitely check it out.
- Stotts was asked just four questions in his post-game press conference, the fewest during a home game this season (off the top of my head). Let him eat in peace too.
- Standings watch: The Blazers fell 3.5 games behind the Jazz for the No. 8 seed. The Jazz and the Los Angeles Lakers are tied (Utah holds tie-breaker) and the Dallas Mavericks are 1.5 games back. Portland is two games up on the Mavericks for the No. 12 seed. This sure looks like a clear track.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
It was a better game than we played against Brooklyn. I wanted to come out with more aggressiveness, better focus, we did that. I thought we played a good game until the turnovers caught up with us in the fourth quarter. They capitalized on it, Mo Williams had a great second half, we kind of shot ourselves in the foot with the turnovers, it was tough to get back into it after that.
The turnovers were not good. It depends on what you mean by execution. We executed the play, but turned the ball over.
A little bit of both. We floated some passes, floated two passes, tried to sneak one in. You've got to make better decisions in those situations. They were aggressive, they had good hands, they anticipated the passes, you have to give them credit as well.
Tough loss given the opponent and time left on schedule
For any chance at the playoffs. What's important for us -- day one was to compete and get better. The playoffs odds are slim and none right now but that doesn't take away from the goals at the beginning of the season, that's to compete and get better. We competed tonight, gave good effort. Meyers and Victor were effective. Damian, Wes and Nic played a solid game. J.J. was solid. It's a long game and you have to take care of things. We've got 10 games to go and it's important we keep playing the right way and for the right reasons.
There's no update. I'm not sure if he will be traveling with us or not.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter