The pre-season slugged along tonight as the Nuggets and Blazers combined to commit 67 fouls and shoot 90 free throws in a flowless game that saw the Blazers wind up on top, 98-96. Kudos to most of the Rose Garden fans for sitting through it all. The fans were rewarded with a 4th quarter comeback sparked by a dominating stretch from Greg Oden and some off-the-dribble assertiveness from Brandon Roy. It was an unexpected late-game turnaround keyed by two players who battled foul trouble all night: Oden ended up fouling out in just 15 minutes of play while Roy just missed fouling out in 21 minutes.
Much of the turnaround can be credited to differing late-game strategies: Nate McMIllan opted to go for the win while George Karl gave Carmelo Anthony the fourth quarter off. Anthony's absence was the difference-maker, as he approached the exhibition game like a playoff game, going for 21 points, 7 rebounds, and a technical foul for punting the ball the length of the court, in 28 minutes of action. Credit goes to Nic Batum, Martell Webster and Travis Outlaw for making him work for his points.
Oden looked like the Oden of the past for the first three quarters, getting whistled for foul after foul as the Nuggets aggressively attacked his body and the refs didn't give him the benefit of the doubt. In the fourth quarter, though, Oden came alive on both ends, scoring 12 points in just under 7 minutes, dunking over a hopeless Birdman and swatting away two shots in perhaps the best six minute stretch we've ever seen from him.
Oden got the start tonight which was a surprise, as Nate McMillan had earlier told reporters that Joel Przybilla would be starting. Indeed, Nate didn't notify Oden until "just right before [afternoon] shootaround," according to Oden, that he would be starting. Oden called the last-minute switch "a game changing thing" and admitted that his mental approach to a game is different depending on whether he starts or comes off the bench. "I was just, you know, I had to prepare myself a little bit differently," Oden told me after the game, "When you start you have to be ready at the start of the game, when you come off the bench you can kinda see the flow of the game already...that was something that Nate came up with and I just had to be ready to play."
Through 3 quarters, Greg had 4 points, 1 rebound and 4 fouls in 7:32. How'd that game-changer work out?
I'm not big on armchair coaching but I will say this: waffling on who starts at center runs counter to Nate's other coaching principles. It prevents an important player from establishing his mental rhythm. It doesn't appear to reflect any on-court performance: starting Joel would not be a decision made on the merits of their respective play to this point. It also confuses the rest of the team and changes their mental approaches, as playing with Greg is vastly different than playing with Joel.
The time for going back and forth, testing various combinations, might not yet be over. But the time for yo-yoing Oden's role should be finished. Start him. Continue to start him. Work to develop him as your starter. The message you send to a relatively fragile player like Oden by not starting him (or even considering not starting him) is a message, at this point, that should be avoided at all costs. Don't force him to over-think or to prepare himself in two different ways over the course of a single day. Recognize the progress, appreciate the progress and build off of the progress; don't jeopardize the progress.
Roy's shot continues to be off, way off. He started unbelievably slow, managing to hit just 1 of his first 7 shots. The one he did hit was the most difficult, fading away and falling to the ground after getting fouled. Roy seemed hesitant at times, rushed at others, regularly not in sync. Without his usual running mate, LaMarcus Aldridge, I think Roy caught himself looking around for help offensievely, particularly early in the game. Good that Juwan Howard stepped up and provided some much-needed offense or it could have been ugly.
In the fourth quarter, we saw what we've come to expect from Roy down the stretch, nifty ball-domination, foul-drawing drives and smart decisions under pressure. Roy shot 8 free throws in the final period (but only made 5) and finished with 12 points.
After the game, Roy lamented that the officiating was "just different" from last year, and I think he continues to be the Blazer most frustrated by the replacement refs. He doesn't seem to be getting the "star calls" that he got last year, nor many of the calls he expects when initiating contact while driving to the hoop. Fall to the floor, flail the arms, yell out loud: nothing is having much effect so far during the pre-season.
The new refs are causing every player to adjust but Roy seems more miffed than most.
Well, Dre (18 points, 4 assists) sure looks to get his own shot. 5 for 18 probably has a few eyebrows raised and his shot-selection, especially down the stretch, was cringe-inducing at times. Memorably, he chucked up a contested 3 on one possession and went one-on-one against Billups, only to throw up a contested mid-range jumper that badly missed on another possession.
With that being said, Nate didn't have any better alternatives: Blake was ice cold all night, Brandon was in foul trouble, Rudy was out of action due to injury and Nate still doesn't really trust Bayless. Andre had 4 assists and pushed the tempo at the right time to get some easy buckets and, perhaps more impressively, he did a nice job matched up against a number of bigger players when Nate went to Blake/Miller and Bayless/Miller backcourts.
Most impressively, Miller didn't commit a single turnover in 38 minutes of play, something that I didn't think I would be able to write this season.
At first glance, Nate's comment below that "Andre was in a rhythm so we stuck with him" seemed very strange. How much of a rhythm can you be going 5 for 18? What I think Nate meant to say was "Blake wasn't in a rhythm at all so I stuck with Andre." It was unfortunate we weren't able to watch Blake shoot the lights out in Utah because the Blake we saw tonight (8 points, 1 assist, 3 turnovers) didn't give Nate any real reason to play him over Miller. If Blake's shot isn't falling -- and tonight it wasn't, as he missed a number of wide-open looks as Denver's defense failed to rotate -- the argument for him to see the court dwindles incredibly quickly.
Tonight, an energetic Jerryd Bayless brought more to the table as he worked hard on defense and attacked the basket repeatedly, doing a reasonably good job in making decisions and drawing fouls. Bayless's 11 points, 0 assists and 1 turnover did nothing to quell the notion that he's not a "true point guard." But he worked well in tandem with Miller and he exploited Anthony Carter's old age repeatedly and showed a fearlessness in attacking the Birdman.
While Brandon fails to get the "Superstar Calls," Jerryd seems to be benefitting from a lack of the "rookie treatment." He didn't get dinged for any touch fouls on the perimeter and he got to the line 7 times by employing his specialty: hurtling at the rim full blast. In the end, he only got his opportunity to shine because of Rudy's absence and Roy's foul trouble. Which is pretty depressing.
As mentioned, Batum, Webster and Outlaw combined to successfully throw different looks at an inspired Carmelo Anthony. At one point, Travis even swung a pretty vicious elbow which surprised just about everyone, including Anthony. Batum continues to do the little things -- play the passing lines well, poke away loose balls, hit an open 3 -- while not contributing to any wasted possessions on offense.
He also made his teammates laugh while he slammed the ball and screamed after a foul call, which drew a technical. After the game, Roy told reporters that Przybilla told one of the officials that Batum couldn't be whistled for a technical because "he can't speak English." Roy also said the referee admitted that he hadn't understood what Batum was yelling. Nevertheless, the aggressive ball slap and accompanying glare is a technical foul in any language.
Martell had a quiet night (3 for 5 for 7 points in 20 minutes) and again did nothing to make me think Nate would switch things up and start him over Batum. Travis continued his rough preseason, going 1 for 7 with 3 turnovers, and drew some second half boos from sections of the Rose Garden crowd. While he did manage to have an impressive stuff of Carmelo at the rim (and a total of 3 blocks?!), his offensive decision-making is not where it needs to be. Settling for contested shots, shooting early in the shot clock, taking wild shots off the dribble, missing opportunities to dump the ball in the post, the list goes on.
In particular, the combination of Webster and Outlaw on the court at the same time seems to be a problem combination for the Blazers. Both have struggled to create points for themselves and both find themselves needing to do just that when they are playing next to Przybilla. If neither one is hot, and Andre Miller is in the game, you can see a light go off in Dre's head: "I need to do the scoring because none of these other guys can do it." No doubt Miller has found himself playing alongside units in the past where that was the case, where taking over offensively was the best option. WIth this team, you'd hope that Miller would look to consistently get these other guys going and that one of them -- Webster, Outlaw, somebody -- would be able to rise to the occasion.
Howard was 4 of 6 for 10 points and stuffed his line with 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals in 35 minutes. He out-played Kenyon Martin head to head, if you can believe that. His passing, which has drawn so much attention, was again on point tonight and he created a number of easy buckets simply by dumping it to guys who had point-blank lay-ups.
Given how reliable his mid-range jumper is -- and how intelligent his shot-selection is -- one could easily envision a future where Howard plays a fair number of minutes in the backup 4 role and Nate runs Martell and Travis at the 3, going with whomever appears hotter or matches up better with the opponent on any given night. You don't want to rush to conclusions on something like this -- particularly because the rotation was scrambled with LaMarcus out completely tonight -- but it needs to be raised as a possibility.
On the Blazers' last possession -- up 2 with less than 10 seconds to play and the ball on the side out of bounds -- Howard got whistled for a push off foul that nearly cost the Blazers the game. Blake was the inbounder, with Martell all the way in the backcourt to drag Ty Lawson away from the play, and Miller and Roy breaking towards the ball. Neither Roy nor Miller was able to get open and Blake's view was obstructed by Kenyon Martin. Why Batum isn't the inbounder we'll never know. In any case, Blake was up against the 5 second count and threw a lame duck pass in Howard's direction and Howard pushed off in the process of receiving the pass. After the game, Nate would only say that he thought Howard was fouled prior to the push off, which seemed to sidestep the larger issue of the team's poor end-of-game situational execution.
Hopefully when the coaching staff looks at the tape tonight, they start with that play.
Przybilla had a signature night, blocking 4 shots, gathering 11 rebounds (6 offensive) and flagrantly shoulder checking J.R. Smith to the ground for no apparent reason with 8 seconds left in the third quarter. He had a quiet night offensively (2 of 4 for 6 points) despite filling in big minutes with Greg in foul trouble. His presence and attitude against the Nuggets is crucial but it seemed like he wasn't alone tonight in playing with a little ferocity. This team is older, wiser and maybe a little bit tougher than it was six months ago. Joel continues to set that tone.
Nate's Postgame Comments
Did you flip a switch in the fourth quarter?
I thought the entire game we were better. We picked up our intensity. The focus was there. The defensive pressure, working, was better. Offensively we were running some plays and getting a little better execution so from the start it was there. What I really liked from our guys was we were down 10 in the fourth and I remembered during the timeout, 'get your heads up,' and we come back and win that game. We've been in that situation before, last year, it's something to build off of, we're never out of a game, seven minutes to go in that game, we're down 10, momentum had swung, we started to get stops and started to score and came back and we won that game.
Greg's play during the fourth quarter.
I thought it was good. I thought he played, he remained aggressive, he played smart down the stretch with five fouls. That last foul could have gone either way. But he got us going. He got us in the penalty. They were killing us at the free throw line and we were able to get back into the ball game as far as getting to the free throw line. A lot of that was going inside to Greg and attacking the basket.
How much progress did you make in coming to a conclusion about the rotation?
I'm ready. I'm pretty much ready for the start of the season. I won't talk about who we are going to go with but those guys that played tonight -- we went back and forth with combinations, I was rotating according to the game -- Andre ended up playing 30+ minutes tonight, he had somewhat of a rhythm tonight going so he stayed there. Different nights we could change. I thought Bayless gave us something good coming off the bench. Joel coming off the bench. I thought that second group, Nicolas's defense on Carmelo, staying solid, making him earn it. The combination of those 10 guys -- we were missing of course Rudy and LaMarcus -- but it will be a combination of those type guys playing.
Are Bayless and Howard pushing for rotation minutes?
I like what both of them did. I thought both of them came in. Howard has played well throughout preseason. Bayless has played well. We know we've got those guys. That opportunity --whether they're in the rotation or not -- that opportunity could come somewhere during the month of November. We know we've got them. If they continue to play like that, of course they're going to play. I thought Bayless did a nice job of being aggressive, pressuring the ball and Howard was just solid.
How much stock do you put in Travis's play this season?
I'm looking, right now, I'm looking at everybody's play.
I'm asking about Travis's.
And I'm telling you about everybody. I'm looking at everybody's play. We know some things that Travis can do. Preseason, he's trying to get a rhythm. I'm looking at everybody's play.
How would you characterize Travis's play?
He hasn't found his rhythm. Part of that is finding that rhythm, it is still training camp, but we know what he's capable of doing also.
Did you see more scrappy play tonight like you've been looking for?
I thought we started out that way. I thought the game we played that way. As I said, that Utah game kind of saw that, and we wanted to build off of that. We had a solid practice yesterday and then tonight we brought that intensity into the game. That level of play is what we've got to get to to give ourselves a chance to win. We've got to get better than that, we've got to get sharper, our turnovers were down a little bit tonight, 15 for 10 points, we've been around 20 turnovers for 30 some points, a little better there, transition we didn't give up a lot of fast break points. A little better tonight. We want to continue to build on this.
Are you almost ready for the regular season?
We'll take it from tonight's game, we'll look at tape, and go into practice to work and sharpen up on both ends of the floor. Regardless of where we are, or how many games we've played, each night we want to improve. I thought tonight we did show some improvement from our last game. And tomorrow we'll go in and work on those areas where we need to work on.
How did playing two point guards together work?
Again, I'm always looking at my rotations and coming up with situations where we could attack -- defend and attack offensively. Andre is still trying to get a feel for the plays. We are running a lot of our stuff. He has some of it, he's such a vet that he can play off of plays, but he doesn't know all of our sets. That is something we gotta give him time to learn those sets that we are going to and the spacing with what teams are doing. It's going to take some time. I thought for the most part those combinations of guards worked out.
The game dicated it. Brandon was in foul trouble all night and no Rudy so we had to go with Bayless or Blake.
What happened on the last inbounds play? Blake had some trouble getting it in.
They put a big guy on him. He couldn't see over Martin. And they got Howard for pushing off but it should have been a grab in that situation. That's a play that they've talked about calling for the last 2 years. You can't grab guys on out of bounds plays. Both Roy and Miller need to come to the ball with Howard stepping to the ball.
-- Ben (email@example.com)