I want to start by addressing a question I'm starting to see more and more around Blazer Nation: What's Wrong With the Blazers?
The short answer: Nothing.
Or at least nothing that wasn't always going to be "wrong"...or better put a natural part of the struggling a young team endures while finding its way in the NBA.
Why have we lost three straight, getting blown out in the last two? The simplest answer is that we've been playing very...good...teams. The Spurs are the reigning champs. Houston is considered a serious contender this year. New Orleans is a playoff-caliber team. Yes we have talent but everybody has talent. We do not suit up a single player with one-tenth the résumé of Tim Duncan or one quarter the proven track record of Yao Ming, Chris Paul, Tracy McGrady, or Tony Parker. If playoff-level teams with those type of players can't beat a team that's still getting used to each other...a team whose stars are entering their second season overall and their first with prime-player responsibility...a team which features exactly one regular rotation player over the age of 25...that means something's wrong with them and they've got serious issues.
Everyone around the nation got excited on opening night because we played hard against the Spurs. I'm telling you flat out, we had less chance of winning that game than any of the others. New Orleans and Houston went pretty much all-out and played great ball. We knew how far we had to go to make a comeback against them...the scoreboard showed it. The Spurs played fine but they had another whole gear or two that we didn't even glimpse on opening night. Don't let appearances fool you. We've been fighting well outside our weight class every single night. That's why we're 0-3.
This won't be true of all 82 games this year and it won't remain true for long into the future in any case. If we're healthy we're going to be the heavyweights in the new decade. But to expect that to happen this year with Oden injured, with an entirely revamped playing style, and with any number of new players, new minutes, and new positions is just silly.
I've also heard a lot of people blaming Coach McMillan for various things. I'm not saying he's perfect or imperfect nor am I trying to debate his qualities here. But I will tell you this: there's no magic person or combination of people off the bench that would have won us that game tonight, or in New Orleans, or in San Antonio. You want coach to win games now? The answer is simple. Go out and make that Rashard Lewis deal that Orlando made this summer. Offer Brandon and Lamarcus to Los Angeles for Kobe Bryant. You will win games now. You don't like what that does to our salary cap, how it mortgages our future, or how it affects our "culture"? Then understand that the current roster has been put together with those three things in mind and stop complaining that it can't also handle the World Champions and two playoff teams right now. This isn't a coaching issue. It's a philosophical choice the team has made and just about every fan I know of supports. The cost of that choice is losing games like this sometimes...in streaks of three in a row.
No lineup change this week would have closed the gap enough for a win. "But what about..." No. "But when we..." No. Every player looks brilliant until he takes the court. And every player who looks brilliant for 10 minutes seems that way until he plays for 30 and all his weaknesses come out. Haven't we learned that yet watching Travis and Martell? Those two are finally in a position to contribute but it took years to get them there. Neither they nor the team benefitted in past seasons when they got thrown out there for 30 minutes when they weren't ready for it yet.
Personally I think lineup changes are going to be made. And yes, it'll be at some of the positions people are fretting and arguing about now. But if a coach followed the perception of fans he'd be changing players like underwear, especially on a team like this. When I watch game shows from back around the turn of the century every second contestant on them identified their career as "Day Trader". These guys switched stocks every ten seconds angling for the best return. See any of them around today? The folks who survived are the ones who took their time assessing the right move and then rode with the ups and downs. Good coaches are more like professional investment firms than Day Traders. I hope our coach is a good one, otherwise our team will never develop the continuity or confidence it needs to grow. This isn't a fantasy league or NBALive. We're dealing with real people and real issues. The move that seems obvious isn't always the right one. And rightness is often determined by timing as much as anything. We have to be a little patient and I don't think five days and three games qualifies.
Before we get to the specific game issues let me quote something I said just a few days ago, before the season started:
--I did not like the offense tonight at all. Credit must be given to the Rockets, who are among the best defensive teams in the league. But we made it really easy for them. Check out the Portland side of the shot chart. By my count it indicates just short of 60 of our 76 attempted shots came from outside the painted area. That is an automatic "L". And it's scary how many of those shots were contested. At no point did our two stars (or any of their subordinates) look aggressive. Decisions were poor, shots were rushed, and we almost looked relieved just to get something up.
--This may at first seem counter to the point I just made but it actually fits. There are such things as appropriate outside shots and right now almost all of our wings outside of James Jones and Martell Webster look scared to take them. I am not advocating guards and small forwards coming down the court and taking the first long shot they see. But when the ball has gone inside through the offense and comes out to you in the flow of the play and you are wide, WIDE open you must take that shot. The minute you don't it's like blood in the water for the defense. They will sag in and just invite you to try and drive. This happened multiple times this game (and some last game too). One of our guards would have a good eight feet of space between him and any defender. He'd receive the ball off of the pass. He'd hesitate, think, and then drive right into the teeth of the defense for a turnover, ineffective pass, or severely contested shot. Paradoxically this lack of appropriate outside shooting leads to the exact situation described in the above point. The sagging defense makes it impossible to go inside after a while. Also the hesitation and missed opportunities drain the shot clock, forcing you to put up a bad (and often perimeter) shot. If Roy, Jack, Travis, and Blake cannot take and hit that shot when they are wide open then we need to find somebody who can or we're going to have a lot of trouble scoring.
--Houston's 40% shooting clip seems to indicate a good defensive stand by us and after the first quarter I guess it wasn't awful. This is especially true when you consider Yao and McGrady are basically unstoppable for us. But Lord, we have a long way to go. We have players playing 21 seconds of defense in each possession and relaxing the last three. We have players letting guys dribble the wrong way or to their dominant hand. We have inappropriate doubling sometimes and not quick enough doubling others. Most of all any pick, any two passes, or any secondary or tertiary option in the opponent's playbook just seems to befuddle us. We needs us some Greg Oden badly. And again...more experience.
--We really made an effort to stay even on the boards and I appreciate that. We gave up too many offensive rebounds but Houston is big and tough and that's just life right now. They got up far more shots than we did but we were trying to get back on defense. There weren't as many "Aw geez...middle schoolers wouldn't do that" moments tonight as there were in New Orleans. However I do have a question for you: When's the last time you saw a Blazer dive down on the floor for a ball that wasn't in his possession to begin with?
--Lamarcus and Brandon are getting an education about the difference between being a good player and being a team leader and star. A casual look at the box score indicates Lamarcus scored 20 and Brandon 23 while Yao and McGrady got 20 and 21 respectively. That seems pretty good. But not all 20-point games are created equal. At no point did I get the sense that our main guys owned this game or were in control of it. For the second straight night Nate left first unit guys in well after the game was decided and the Rockets had relaxed. A lot of those points came in that part of the game. I know it's more of a team offense and I know Roy in particular likes to get other people involved first but this team also looks to these two players to set the tone and lead the way. Fourth quarter points don't matter much when the game was all but decided midway through the second. We need an earlier start from each...more good plays, more made shots, more aggression, and a higher comfort level on the floor. We need the Lamarcus from the first half of that San Antonio game and Brandon right there along with him.
--This was not Joel Przybilla's night and was never going to be. Yao Ming is the worst possible matchup for him. Yao is bigger, just as fast, and very skilled offensively. He used to eat up Theo Ratliff back in the day too. It's not Joel's fault, it's just reality. Right now this team has to play "deficit defense" with Yao, meaning forget about stopping him and just put someone out there who will score enough points that you don't get totally killed by the point gap at that position. Of course that's not Joel's game at all. Thus the 20 minutes. Joel did muscle up on the boards and really led the team resurgence in rebounding. He deserves credit for that.
--Martell had another nifty game, although I wish we would have screened for him a little more. 15 points, 8 rebounds, 2 steals, and a block isn't bad. He did commit four turnovers though. Martell is really the most reliable guy we have right now.
--Since we're talking screens we should pop Aldridge back in here and say he set some nice ones.
--Steve Blake's confidence seems to be rising. He was the best of our point guards tonight though his overall production didn't necessarily show it. I love that he fills up the box score even if the overall numbers are somewhat modest.
--I thought Channing Frye had a strong night compared to what he's shown so far. I noticed him hitting some shots and grabbing some rebounds.
--James Jones at least knows what shots to take, even though he didn't hit them tonight. I like his confidence compared to a lot of our guys. He committed 3 turnovers though, which isn't going to endear him.
--Travis Outlaw looked lost on offense, meaning the shots he took weren't the best. I think Travis suffers when the rest of the offense is in turmoil and prospers when team confidence is high.
--Taurean Green got three minutes. He wasn't able to help much defensively and missed a long shot his first possession down the court. He needs to identify where and how he can help and not just shoot.
--Right now Jarrett Jack looks like your birthday balloon about three weeks after the big day. He's just kind of bumping along the ground, mostly deflated and blowing with the wind. I've said this before, but Jarrett is at his natural best when he's scoring. Oddly enough, it seems like having plethora of scoring options on this team might be messing with him a little. Last year the decision tree was pretty simple: take ball, give to Zach, watch Zach score. If Zach gives ball back then you can shoot. This year he doesn't seem comfortable making decisions--whether to shoot or pass, where to pass and to whom. You can almost feel him looking over his shoulder when he lines up for a shot. He also is struggling on defense and committing ugly turnovers. Whatever it is that's not clicking, it appears to have sprung the whole mechanism loose at this point.
--Don't ask me why Sergio got an DNP-CD. I didn't understand it either. I thought we could have used more tempo out there, especially when we put all the scorers on the court at once. Maybe there's something more going on than what we know about. Or maybe Sergio is being asked to do something that he's just not doing out there. Either way, what I said above about it not making a difference between a win and a loss tonight still holds. Sergio wouldn't have saved us. He might have made losing slightly more exciting though.
It's late, so the Jersey Contest scoreboard will have to wait for tomorrow.