Tonight's game could serve as exhibit 1A for those who dismiss the preseason as meaningless.
Many things we saw during the preseason -- offense from Greg Oden, dominant stretches from LaMarcus Aldridge, a passive Brandon Roy, a clueless Travis Outlaw -- disappeared into thin air. Other things missing during the preseason -- team defensive effort, cohesive play from the second unit, an under-control Martell Webster -- suddenly appeared. Other than reports of problems with the Blazers.com online stream -- with multiple fans demanding a refund due to choppy video play, lack of audio and a host of other problems -- it was a positive opening night for the Blazers thanks to solid game plan execution on both ends.
A 20 point second half lead withered to single digits thanks to a hot-shooting 4th quarter from the Rockets, but Portland wound up victorious over Houston 96 to 87 in the Rose Garden.
The Blazers weren't truly tested. To put it bluntly: the Rockets are not an overly talented or overly deep group. They compete hard because they have to. Tonight they competed hard and still got drilled. The Rockets looked like exactly what they are, a team missing three dependable scoring options. The Blazers did a much-better-than-expected job of containing Luis Scola and, despite giving up regular penetration to Aaron Brooks, made life difficult by committing to their defensive rotations and helping aggressively from the weakside. With no real, hot shooters to spread the floor for the Rockets, seven Blazers managed a blocked shot, many coming from behind the play on shooters who thought they were single-covered.
The team defense tonight roughly resembled what Nate McMillan promised at the beginning of training camp, guards looking to pinch angles when the ball was moved out to the wings and quickly closing out when the ball was swung from side to side. It wasn't perfect, but it was leaps and bounds above anything the Blazers showed during the preseason. The Blazers held the Rockets to 37 percent shooting, just 28 percent from distance, and won the rebounding differential by nearly 20 (51-33), grabbing 39 defensive rebounds. All numbers Nate will be happy with.
The obvious red flag: 26 turnovers. Last year's high for the entire year was 23 in a February loss to the Golden State Warriros. All 9 Blazers that played committed at least one turnover; Greg Oden led the way with 7. Oden's miscues were so regular in the second half that Kevin Pelton took to databasing games looking for a similar combination of scoring impotence, rebounding prowess and ball-handling sloppiness. Needless to say, there weren't many comparables.
As Nate commented succintly during his post-game session: "That's probably the last game we win with 26 turnovers." In theory, yes, but this group has every characteristic that you need to overcome that kind of night: a significant talent advantage, outside shooters, offensive rebounders, good ball movement (23 assists on 33 field goals), etc. For most teams, on most nights, 26 turnovers is a deal breaker. For the Blazers tonight, it was an after-thought. Kind of crazy to write that.
A few of the major storylines and post-game conversations...
With the Rose Garden (nearly) full, the television cameras rolling, all four local television stations in the house, and the games counting, Greg Oden played nervously. Period. Frustratingly so. He got called for offensive fouls, had the ball poked out of his hands, threw a bad pass, traveled, the list goes on. It was unfortunate to see because, in most people's minds, his solid preseason offensively (which no one saw) gets wiped away just like that.
But after the game, Greg "Giggles" Oden seemed more concerned about whether fashion paragon Jerryd Bayless approved of Oden's unusual aviator-esque sport coat than he did about his offensive struggles. For the record, Bayless didn't approve, prompting LaMarcus Aldridge to jump to Greg's defense, joking that Oden's one-of-a-kind jacket was "Changing the game!" This cut everybody up, Oden included.
When asked, Oden admitted that he was subject to opening night jitters. "But it's the first game of the season, everybody has nerves." As if to remind himself, he continued, "You can't get nervous every game, you have to go out there and play and be ready." Oden went on to describe feeling differently on offense and defense. "Tonight it was a lot easier [to play with confidence] on defense." His reason for playing with confidence on defense surprised me. "I thought it was all of us playing help side, playing with a lot of energy," Oden told me. "Helping each other. It was good for all of us. One guy comes over, gets a help side block, you know all those guys see how excited everyone gets, how it brings up the energy of the team."
That answer was quite revealing. First, it reinforces that Oden grasps the team's defensive principles and buys in. I hadn't questioned that but, in a mess of fouls and weird mismatches against smaller players, that can get lost. Second it seemed to hint that Oden feels like he's part of a unit on defense whereas he might not have been part of a unit on offense. Indeed, it felt like the Blazers forced it awkwardly to Oden when posting him up and his catches were further from the basket than you would like (Credit Houston's defense). The ball moved for the Blazers but it didn't seem to move to Oden, he wasn't making catches on the move, he wasn't making catches in space, the easy finishes that were prevalent all preseason (and so necessary to get him going) were simply not there. Rather than find new ways to get Oden involved, the team reverted to what it's more comfortable with: hitting jumpshots, getting Brandon Roy to the free throw line, and allowing Travis Outlaw to get his own shot. Those things worked tonight swimmingly and Oden's offensive struggles were rendered irrelevant.
Over the course of 82 games, it will be interesting to see if the team continues with this strategy. Oden seemed perfectly fine finishing with 2 points, 12 rebounds and 5 blocks. And for that, despite the sloppy play, you've got to love him if you are Blazers coach or management.
Roy, Miller and Blake
Nate McMillan acknowledged during the post-game session that he more or less was winging it when it came to his rotation. A number of factors influenced this: Nic Batum's absence, Martell Webster's first regular season game back, Travis Outlaw's strong play on both ends, and Rudy Fernandez's fatigue after coming back from some time off due to back spasms. That left the Blazers playing some interesting lineups: Blake, Roy and Miller saw time together, even late in the fourth quarter. Roy's response to the question about that trio, a group I can't remember seeing together during the preseason, was also quite interesting. Roy told me, "It worked fine for me. I'll play just about anywhere. The biggest adjustment is probably going to come from [Blake and Miller] a little bit, just when I have the basketball [they're] playing off the ball. Two point guards off the ball. We'll learn it. We'll figure it out."
The sense from Roy when discussing his playing with Miller seems to be a one way street. Things revolve around Roy. The ball is in Roy's hands. Other players need to know their spacing in relation to Roy. Ballhandlers will not handle the ball and will instead play off the ball. Roy speaks honestly about these things and I believe his statements reflect not only his own point of view, but Nate McMillan's as well. McMillan has also stated repeatedly that the ball goes to Roy late in games and everyone else works off of that.
It's funny, though, that Roy seems to have a blind spot in relation to how that strategy worked (or failed to work) in the playoffs. Stagnant, ugly, forced play was often the result.
For the time being, expecting other players to "play off him" protects Roy's status quo: he likely continues to be paired with Blake, he continues to get maximum touches, and he continues to do what he does best, score and create. But is sticking so firmly to this philosophy the best long-term and post-season strategy? Is there a better, hybrid approach that more actively includes Miller late in games?
That's a top question I'll track as the season develops.
The Lineup Who Finishes
The saying has been, "It's not who starts but who finishes," right? Well, guess who finished the game?
Steve Blake not Andre Miller.
McMillan subbed Miller out with roughly 2 minutes to play putting Oden in for a slightly bigger closing lineup. Aside from the positive sign of getting Oden some run during late-game minutes that really counted (Oden responded with his only bucket of the game in the final minute), the move showed a continued comfort level with the game in Blake's hands. When asked about the move to keep Blake over Miller, Roy told me, "I think Coach wanted to go that last two minutes with the lineup he was comfortable with, the lineup he felt we were comfortable with, just trying to secure the win."
Indeed, one can make a strong case for playing Steve Blake over Andre Miller when protecting a lead. Blake shoots the ball better and he is a less risky player. Generally speaking, he can hit his free throws too (tonight he missed one of two when fouled late). Roy did go out of his way not to exclude Miller from late-game scenarios, though, telling me, "Dre came in and gave us some big baskets, especially in that fourth quarter. He's going to be a big part of what we do." The answer was generic -- and accurate -- but nice to hear from Roy as it seems to signal an open mind about how the closing lineups might come together. It appears from both his substitutions and his post-game comments that McMillan has not yet made any firm decisions on this front. Another very interesting thing to track. For example, will McMillan opt for Miller over Blake when trying to mount a late-game comeback?
Hats off to Travis Outlaw. The shot was falling. The effort was there on defense. The mental mistakes were reduced. If any single player flipped a switch tonight, it was Outlaw. After enduring a bunch of criticism from fans during the preseason, Outlaw had his night tonight. Batum's absence requires much more from Outlaw and, as we know from his "get paid like out of this world" summer declaration, he's on board with that.
Positive indicators across the board tonight. Consistency is the name of the game.
Tonight's Random Interaction with an NBA Player
On the way to the team bus after the loss, Trevor Ariza was moving arduously, taking slow step after slow step, as if weighted down by the road loss.
He looked over as I rushed by and, to break the silence, I offered the first thought that came into my head, "Nice Dre Headphones!"
Ariza replied, quietly, "Thank you."
You can now forgive him for fouling Rudy Fernandez last year.
The Line of the Night
Grabbing a Gatorade from the locker room fridge, Hersey Hawkins smiled and said aloud, "We're tied for first place."
Indeed. We shared a chuckle. What's next, Hawk, "82-0!!!!"
It's nice to have the first one out of the way, for everybody.
Nate's Postgame Comments
I saw some good stuff. We did a good job of running our offense and defensively trying to control this team. Other than the turnovers, we fouled early, which they marched to the free throw line in that first quarter. After that we made our adjustments, we kept them off the line, 26 turnovers, you're not going to win... that's probably the last game we win with 26 turnovers. We had control of the game and we lost the ball and turned it over and they were able to create some points off of that.
Defense in first half
It's still a work in progress with our guys. That's a commitment. Defensively, getting involved in the game on the defensive end of the floor, not the offensive end of the floor. Some teams have a tendency, offensive players want to see that ball go in the basket before they get into the game. We want to change that thought process this year and get into the game on the defensive end of the floor. I thought our guys did that. Early we got into foul trouble. That second group came in, made some adjustments, didn't turn the ball over and was able to create some points off some misses.
Thought it was good. I wanted to get him in at that four position, he had his shot going tonight. Defensively I thought he did some good things, working hard on the defensive end of the floor. Playing the 3 and the 4. We'll be able to use him like that. We'll be able to score as long as we play defense. I thought that group came in and forced some misses and was able to get out and get some easy baskets.
We have a lot of guys that we'll rotate. Tonight I didn't know exactly how that rotation would go. A couple of times we had Blake and Miller and Brandon on the floor and that wasn't a bad lineup. Miller and Rudy and Travis and Martell on the floor was a pretty good lineup. We just want to go in and outwork teams. Keep the pressure on for 48 minutes.
Rudy handling the ball
He wasn't at point, we just move him around. We move him around and give him the ball some. Miller was at the point when he was in the game. We will mix it up and give him some opportunities to handle the ball. He was a little fatigued, his wind, his conditioning, he h asn't played in over a week, he got winded, turned the ball over once or twice but I like what I saw today.
He got in foul trouble. Those guys are small but they are good defenders. They are smart defenders. Hayes, Scola, Landry, they do a nice job, they baited our bigs. Our bigs I thought rushed at times, turned the ball over. That will come. We got a good opportunity to look at some film tomorrow, look at how that team played us and a lot of our turnovers came on our bigs. They'll learn.
We'll see. I didn't know exactly how I was going to rotate tonight. [Andre] came in and I thought the tempo was exactly what I was hoping for with that group. Rudy, Travis, Joel, I got Martell back in the lineup with that group. They forced some turnovers, some quick shots, got some steals, were able to turn that into points. That was a 31 point quarter and it started when that group came into the game.
You have some options. Tonight we let Miller run the group when he was out there. Rudy had the ball a little bit. Brandon. We couldn't get anything going in the paint so we ran Martell off some screens. He was able to make Battier work. We have some options, as long as we defend, we'll find a way to score. Because we have some guys that we can go to. We just gotta commit to defending this year and we'll eventually find a way to score.
I thought it was ok. Brooks is quick, does a good job. They pounded us in the paint, a lot of that came from turnovers. Other than that we did a good job of recovering, getting out to their shooters, they didn't hurt us there and we take care of the ball. 26 turnovers is a lot of turnovers. My goodness. We take care of the ball I think the score is a lot different.
-- Ben (email@example.com)