The Houston Rockets defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 116-98, at the Rose Garden on Friday night, dropping Portland's record to 33-43.
The pretenses got dropped following Wednesday's loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, but Blazers guard Wesley Matthews stooped over to pick them up after this one, then grabbed a shovel and proceeded to bury them six feet deep in response to Portland losing its seventh consecutive game by double-digits. After allowing Rockets All-Star guard James Harden to outscore him 17-0 in the first quarter and after shooting one-for-11 from deep one game after shooting two-for-10 from deep against the Grizzlies, Matthews unloaded a full clip in his post-game locker room comments.
By the time the dust settled, Matthews had called out the Blazers' pride, heart, defense, toughness, professionalism, manhood and work ethic, vowing to address the team during Saturday's practice in the same manner as he addressed the media on Friday night.
"The fans are sick of it, we're sick of it," Matthews told Blazersedge. "We've got to give them something to cheer about. Losing seven straight isn't it. We're playing a little bit harder, but not up to our standards, not what we're capable of. It doesn't matter that we're mathematically out [of the playoffs], this is the best job in the damn world. We've got to treat it as such. We've got to be men. We've got to play, we've got to come to work, until this is over with. We're not doing that."
He was just getting started, this was rolling fury.
"We need to play with some pride, man, we need to play with some pride," he continued. "I'm trying not to cuss right now. We have to play with some damn heart, this is crazy, this is ridiculous. ... We've got to play like this is the blessing that it is. We're over here taking this for granted. We need to check our hearts at the door. We've got six games left. We lost seven [straight], come on, man, we're better than that. We've got to play with some damn heart."
The rant pierced an otherwise flat locker room, and Matthews said that it would be repeated -- without the cameras and microphones -- the next day to his teammates.
"It's definitely going to be known tomorrow," he told Blazersedge. "We're not getting beat by 20 for the rest of the season. There's no excuse. We've beaten these teams before. ... It's stupid right now."
Matthews' venom was left hanging, lonely, by All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who didn't share the assessment and didn't feel the need to make a point of pulling the players together.
"He's one of those guys that leads," Aldridge responded, when told by Blazersedge of Matthews' comments. "That's fine. Anybody talking right now is fine."
Back in action after missing four games with an ankle injury, Aldridge was Portland's clear bright spot, looking re-energized after the time off, going for 32 points (on 12-for-19 shooting), 13 rebounds and three assists in 40 minutes. Perhaps watching the most recent losses provided Aldridge with a different perspective on the outcomes; perhaps he simply has different expectations at this point of his career; perhaps he was simply glad to get back on the court and play well through the injury; perhaps there's another explanation. Whatever the reason, his read on the loss -- and his calm demeanor -- was the polar opposite of Matthews.
"I think guys are trying to play hard, I think guys just need to play smarter," Aldridge told Blazersedge. "I don't think tonight I question anyone playing hard. I definitely want guys to play smarter. We made some mistakes tonight that they didn't and they won the game."
The split opinion between Portland's two most important veterans couldn't have been clearer. Rookie guard Damian Lillard, who finished with 11 points (on four-for-12 shooting), seven assists and three rebounds, played it mostly down the middle.
"I think we're playing hard," he told Blazersedge. "I just think our urgency and -- I don't want to say heart, the word is probably desire to finish strong -- isn't where it should be. Our playoff hopes went down the drain and now it seems like we're just trying to get to the end of the season."
Blazers coach Terry Stotts has been preaching the importance of finishing the right way but the Blazers are in the midst of a losing streak in which they've lost the seven games by an average of 17.3 points, with four of those losses coming at home. After sticking with it for most of the night, portions of the Rose Garden booed the Blazers off the court after Joel Freeland failed to hit a mid-range jumper in the game's closing seconds, a basket that would have pushed Portland to 100 points and provided the all-important free Chalupas.
"Sometimes, people confuse lack of effort and not playing well as being the same thing," Stotts said. "Fans have a right to do what they want, but I can't say I was displeased with the effort."
What a rough feeling it must be, to get soundly whipped by Harden, Jeremy Lin and Greg Smith, only to have that tar feathered by fans upset at a lack of free drive-thru fare.
"I don't think it's a slap in the face from them," Lillard told Blazersedge, in response to the crowd booing the home team because there were no Chalupas. "We're down 17 or 18 points and they're still cheering like it's a two-point game. They paid their money to show up here to see us compete and give them their best show. ... I don't think they should have booed us but they've got every right to be disappointed. We just needed two more points to get them those Chalupas and we didn't. It is what it is."
Minutes after Wednesday's loss, multiple Blazers had already turned their attention to an after-party set for a downtown Portland club. There wasn't much dwelling after this one either, Matthews and Lillard excepted.
"We had to play smarter," Aldridge said. "We had a lot of brain farts tonight, a lot of miscommunication, a lot of moments where we had it down and then we had a turnover, or we'll make a boneheaded play. [The Rockets] always capitalize really well off turnovers."
Turnovers were an issue -- Portland committed 13 -- but the halfcourt defense wasn't any more effective than the transition defense, which was lacking as always. Houston moves the ball well around the perimeter, positioning shooters brilliantly, and they shot the lights out, especially early, hitting six three-pointers in the first quarter, triple Portland's nightly total of two.
"James shot the ball well from the three, that opened up the rest of his game," Matthews said. "We didn't offer much resistance as a whole, as a team, and that's got to stop."
Matthews finished with 18 points on six-for-19 shooting and he didn't dodge his brick-laying.
"I'll take the blame for most of that [two-for-20 as a team from three]," he said. "I'm supposed to be able to knock down threes, I've been off a little bit. We can't give up 11 [threes], or however we gave up to the other team [it was 12]. We've got to knock down the shots that are there. We've got to play some damn defense, we've got to play with some heart, some toughness."
The "lack of effort versus lack of intelligence" debate hung unresolved, in part, because Stotts elected to play Aldridge, Matthews and Lillard 38+ minutes a piece despite the major deficit and the fact that playoff hopes were conceded last week. Is this development time or isn't it?
Does it make sense to find just five garbage time minutes for Freeland, who made it clear on Wednesday he's only hoping for the chance to prove he's not a liability? Does it make sense to move Leonard back into a reserve role when his developing comfort level is a top organizational priority, far more significant than J.J. Hickson? As bad as Eric Maynor played -- and it was truly bad -- does it make sense to pin him to the bench throughout the second half until garbage time? Even the two rookie wings that saw solid minutes -- Victor Claver and Will Barton -- mainly did so because Nicolas Batum is out injured.
"I wanted to win the game and I think our best lineup is with J.J.," Stotts said, explaining his decision to move Leonard back into a reserve role with Aldridge re-entering the starting lineup. "I think he's deserved to start. Meyers is still going, whether he starts or doesn't start, I don't think that's a big issue. But I think J.J. has given it his all all season. Not to say I won't start Meyers one of these games down the stretch but I didn't think tonight was the night to do that."
Leonard finished with six points (on two-for-six shooting) and six rebounds in 25 minutes off the bench, this after hitting double figures in points in four straight starts and averaging 14 points and 6.8 rebounds during Aldridge's absence. At 21, Leonard remains a bit emotional, maybe even fragile, and he certainly holds himself to a high standard. He's worked hard, he's made progress and, most importantly, he matters a ton to the growth arc of this franchise. "What's best for Meyers Leonard?" wasn't an important question to ask in December but it's a very important question to ask in April.
What's best would seem to be: stability, trust, positive reinforcement, and endless video tape review. Asking a rookie whether he should be starting -- when he's not already a full-time starter -- is a fruitless task. In chatting about his role Friday, Leonard was careful not to cross any lines and just a touch hesitant to express the depths of his opinions. Here's what he did say.
"It's sometimes tough mentally," Leonard told Blazersedge, in assessing what it's like to shift from reserve to starter to reserve. "I still have to do my thing when I'm out there. Generally whenever I play, when I come off, I think about what I did in my last segment on the court. My first one was not good. I missed a couple of rebounds, I wasn't the aggressor, that kind of got me out to a slow start. My second and third segments were all right.
"It's different. I've got to learn to do both. For the entire season I was a reserve, then I was starting, now L.A.'s back. Obviously he's going to be in there and so is J.J. I've got to just keep my head up and play hard."
But isn't there an added comfort level in starting?
"[It] just depends," he said. "If you catch a groove in a game, regardless, you're going to stay in if you start or not. I don't know man. I guess you might be a little less scared, or down on myself for making mistakes, no one likes to come out."
So you feel like you have a longer leash if you're starting?
"I didn't mean it like that," he clarified. "I just felt like I was in a good flow [when I was starting], it's just different. I've had games where I've come off the bench and been productive right away, so I've just got to learn and find my groove quicker. It seemed like when I was starting, I did find it quicker. There's something to it, I've just got to be aggressive and move forward."
Leonard finding his groove, and quickly, would seem to be at the top of the organization's objectives. With six games left, there's no downside to starting him and there is -- as he laid out, albeit delicately -- some real upside.
"Not necessarily," Leonard said, when asked if he thought starting down the stretch would be beneficial to him in future years. "I have the rest of this season to either start or reserve. Hopefully in the future they have confidence in me to be the starting center, and I have confidence in myself that I'll be able to accomplish that. I'm just going to do whatever Coach Stotts tells me to do."
This was an impressive and thoughtful series of responses to direct questions about a potentially inflammatory subject, following another tough loss no less. Taken in sum, he didn't second-guess his superiors, he didn't campaign for a shift and he downplayed the significance of the issue.
But didn't he also provide enough of a window into his mind to make this decision a no-brainer?
Random Game Notes
- The attendance was announced as a sellout. I need to find a good synonym for generous.
- A great sign: "I liked Batum before it was cool."
- Aldridge said his ankle felt "a little tender" but generally "good."
- Harden finished with a game-high 33 points (on 11-for-21 shooting), seven rebounds and six assists. He just gets better and better. Who remembers when the Blazers picked him apart as an off-ball defender back in 2010? He's a game-changing machine these days.
- Aldridge with high praise for Harden: "He's great. Really good in pick-and-rolls, in transition, he makes that team go. What makes him good is that he loves to pass the ball. Him and LeBron [James] -- I'm not trying to say he's LeBron -- but those are the guys in pick-and-rolls with their teams, they're just hard to guard because they can pass the ball."
- Lillard took a blow to his left hip right before halftime. "I got elbowed in my hip," he explained. "When I jumped in the air, somebody on their team tried to stop my momentum because I was jumping into him. He put his forearm up, elbowed me in the hip. ... I'm fine now." He said he plans to practice/play with no issues.
- Lillard is also wearing a sleeve on his shooting arm. "It's a pad to protect it from getting hit again," he said. "Right shoulder. Any time I raise my arm above my waist, I can feel it. It's nothing serious, it's one of those things, I need to rest, after the season it will go away. I'll have to live with it." He clarified that he's feeling soreness, not pain, after landing on a camera in Atlanta. "It's just sore, I'll live."
- Lillard on winning his fifth straight Rookie of the Month award: "It's a great thing individually. A lot of it came from our success as a team. I was able to have an impact on it. It's a great thing but hopefully I can keep it up."
- Maynor finished with zero points (on zero-for-four shooting), one assist and three turnovers. His back-up point guard counterpart, Patrick Beverley, had seven points, six assists and zero turnovers. Beverley, plucked from Europe during the middle of the season, is a great case study for why the Blazers shouldn't fall all over themselves to overpay Maynor and why they should be exploring all options at the position.
- Will Barton had a few flashes on his way to nine points (on four-for-nine shooting), six rebounds and four assists. His lack of range and Victor Claver's lack of range are just crippling to Portland's attack. Not a new observation, but it flared up again in this one.
- Leonard was called for a foul a few seconds into the fourth quarter. It happened so fast public address announcer Mark Mason still hadn't finished getting the crowd hyped up. The whistle blew as Mason belted out "Let's Go Blazers!" Can't win them all.
- Sasha Pavlovic checked in for two minutes, the first time he's played since Feb. 22. Hi. Bye.
- Wouldn't be surprised at all if Portland wins on Sunday.
- Standings watch: the Blazers have been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs with six games to go. They now sit seven games behind the Los Angeles Lakers for the No. 8 seed and can play the role of major spoilers when the two teams face off next week. The Blazers are now 1.5 games behind the Philadelphia 76ers for the No. 11 spot in the 2013 Draft order and four games up on the Dallas Mavericks for the No. 12 spot.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
He showed why he's an All-Star. Why he's made a big difference with the franchise. He can score a lot of different ways, he's a tough guard. Shoot threes, get to the free throw line. When they get the threes going, it's especially difficult.
What disturbed you?
Just in general. It's not one thing. You hate to come away with a loss. You hate to give up 62 points, 63 points in the first half. You hate to have mental breakdowns at the end of the third quarter. You can't have mental mistakes. We should be past some of these things.
Getting booed off the court
I thought we played hard. I don't think it was necessarily a lack of effort. I don't think we necessarily played well. Sometimes, people confuse lack of effort and not playing well as being the same thing. When you give up lay-ups in transition, it's as much a mental mistake. Guy takes a shot, one or two guys have to get back. You've got to go after balls, get loose balls, that's part of it. We've got a lot of young guys, L.A. played very well, Dame was getting beat up. Fans have a right to do what they want. But I can't say i was displeased with the effort.
Meyers Leonard not starting?
I wanted to win the game and I think our best lineup is with J.J. I think he's deserved to start. Meyers is still going, whether he starts or doesn't start, I don't think that's a big issue. But I think J.J. has given it his all all season. Not to say I won't start Meyers one of these games down the stretch but I didn't think tonight was the night to do that.
Psyche of the team after losing seven straight?
It's definitely a downer to have a losing streak at this time of the year, playing against playoff teams, it's a difficult task. In general I've found most players bounce back pretty well, and we'll bounce back on Sunday.
I was glad to see him, glad to have him. I think he showed why he's so important to our team. I was glad he didn't show any ill effects from the ankle. I was very pleased not only that he came back but that he played as well as he did.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter