The Blazers faced a pretty tough test at the Rose Garden tonight. They didn't exactly fail it but much as in Game 1 they showed they still have things to learn. I can think of at least three things they can pick up from the experienced division rivals who defeated them tonight.
1. You keep playing your game for 48 minutes. The Blazers had some torrid spurts tonight but they also had some serious dead zones, first offensively and later defensively. The Nuggets just kept pounding away at it. In the end that pounding was enough to overcome the hot streaks.
2. Sometimes a superstar really can beat a team. Both Brandon Roy and Rudy Fernandez had great offensive games tonight. But when the game got tight in the fourth the Blazers ended up going in multiple directions. The Nuggets, on the other hand, just kept at it with Anthony, Anthony, Anthony. He was that good. Also Denver did a better job bothering Roy than the Blazers did bothering Carmelo. At some point you adopt their strategy and make anyone else beat you no matter what the cost.
3. Never lose track of your drink in the tattoo parlor.
The Blazers were active on both ends of the floor to start this game. They looked confident. On offense they were either feeding the ball to Oden or letting Roy set up on the wing. Denver doubled either way and Portland did a fantastic job of finding the open man. The shots were mostly jumpers but enough of them fell to make things comfortable. On defense Oden patrolled the middle and Denver didn't see much inside success. Then Greg's shift was up (he looked a little winded) and Joel Przybilla entered. Joel played gamely but he doesn't have the same effect Greg does, particularly on the offensive end. Now Denver defenders could stick with their men. Now their shots started coming farther in. The Blazer offense stalled in the last part of the first quarter and Denver streaked out to a 24-17 lead. The first dead zone took its toll.
The Blazers zoomed back behind Miller and Fernandez to retake the lead at the start of the second. Oden and Przybilla both took the floor to start the period which cut down on Denver's inside attempts again. Unfortunately it also increased the potential for fouls on both men. Przybilla picked up one early and Oden had two more by the six-minute mark. Przy would pick up another before the quarter was done and all of a sudden the Blazers were vulnerable in the middle. The issue was masked somewhat by the energy that Fernandez and Martell Webster put out. It was a shaky period for both teams but the Blazers went into the locker room up 1.
By halftime certain things were becoming evident. The most obvious was that the Blazers were owning the glass, making up for their relatively poor, perimeter-oriented shooting. Denver would never sniff an offensive rebound, let alone a second-chance point, until late in the game. The Blazers were collecting offensive rebounds like Halloween candy. ("Open the bag, guys! What have you got? Whoa! 12 offensive rebounds? Don't eat those all tonight. You'll get sick!") On the other hand Denver was staying in the game by driving the ball. They weren't so much getting up shots as drawing fouls...like they were Halloween candy. The refs made it pretty clear during the course of the game that aggressiveness was going to be rewarded. The Nuggets responded, Portland didn't. The two effects pretty much cancelled each other out. The Blazers basically doubled up the Nuggets on shot attempts but they couldn't get a lead bigger than one point. That's not good.
The third quarter saw more perimeter shooting and rebounding by the Blazers and more driving and free throws for Denver. Portland seemed to fall in love with the three-point attempt in particular. It was a bad relationship. Greg Oden and Martell Webster had a couple of manly moments inside and Brandon Roy started driving, but there was way too much over the top shooting. Despite still owning the glass and actually bumping the Nuggets around inside Portland only gained three points on Denver in the quarter.
Then came the fourth.
The period started with Chauncey Billups doing a little scoring to bring Denver back. Then they decided to guard Rudy Fernandez with the smaller Ty Lawson. Rudy basically did a tap dance on his head...spinning, floating, firing, bombing, connecting from everywhere. Denver decided two could play that game and set Carmelo Anthony loose on whoever was guarding him. After ‘Melo scored approximately a billion points Brandon Roy came in and tapped Rudy on the shoulder, cutting in on the dance. All of a sudden Roy was driving and dazzling. Then ‘Melo got serious and started penetrating in earnest, drawing foul shots galore. Then Roy got serious and started driving too, drawing foul shots galore. It looked like this one was going to go down to the wire.
In the end the Blazers lost the game because in the midst of all of this Denver started outhustling them. Denver's defense got more active. After not having a single offensive board the entire game they started corralling their own misses. The Blazers looked like the team coming off a back-to-back late in the fourth while the Nuggets looked fresh. As the clock dwindled the Blazers also missed some critical free throws, with Roy, Miller, Aldridge, and Oden all contributing to the charity stripe leakage. All totaled it was probably only a half-dozen point difference between the hustle and the foul shots, but then again the Blazers only lost by three.
At no time did the Blazers look awful. At no time did they look out of it. But at no time did they put together a sustained, complete game on both ends either. They looked dominant in certain areas (rebounding, ball movement) and had flashes of brilliance in others (individual scoring) but there were too many gaps. Denver tried to hit those gaps and eventually they got through. In short, it was an October-type game for Portland against an opponent they needed to play April ball against.
Brandon Roy had a rough shooting night early but really stepped up his offensive game as the night progressed. Among all of the Blazers he was the one who most consistently put the ball on the floor and made Denver defend him. He was rewarded with 18 free throws, of which he made 16. This turned his 6-16 shooting night into a 30-point affair. It wasn't the perfect game from him but he did get into the flow nicely and he did step forward to take over, as he should.
Rudy Fernandez had a nice game. We already mentioned how he slapped the Nuggets upside the head early in the fourth. He also showed hustle on the boards and was generally alert and active. He shot 6-9, 2-5 from the arc, and made 8 of 8 free throws...the only Blazer besides Brandon who drew a significant number of free throw attempts. He finished with 22 points and 4 rebounds.
Martell Webster provided some nice energy and a little punch, in particular showing emotion after a dunk-then-block sequence in the second quarter. He remained active even when he wasn't able to control Carmelo. Actually he and Anthony were busting each others' chops until the fourth when Anthony finished the argument by scoring 82 bazillion points and leading his team to victory. But Martell proved valuable out there again. The Blazers aren't missing Nicolas Batum nearly so much as we feared. 10 points, 4 rebounds, 2 blocks.
Greg Oden only played 22 minutes because of foul trouble. He'll also be remembered for (and is probably remembering himself as we speak) missing two foul shots late that could have put the Blazers ahead. But everybody can forget those, including him. That's not what he's in there for. He played solidly otherwise. He grabbed rebounds. He patrolled the middle. He really made life tough on the Nugget bigs. Nene and Martin combined for 13 points tonight because neither one of them could get inside. They're good offensive rebounders and they got goose-egged for most of the game. This is what you want out of Greg. He also looked more confident setting himself and calling for the ball in the post. He still can't gain a single inch of space after he catches it unless the defender is out of position to one side or the other, but that will come. Baby steps. 6 points, 9 rebounds, 2 blocks.
Joel Przybilla got 6 rebounds in 12 minutes spelling Oden but also picked up 5 fouls. Perhaps he's been watching Oden tapes from last season? You can visibly tell the difference in the offense when Joel subs in for Greg. The defense has an easier time and is able to put more pressure everywhere else. Joel could help this by remembering how to catch the ball. If the pass is perfect he'll get it but anything else and it's dropped. Joel has fought this problem on and off throughout his career. He needs to remember the good times when he was getting his mitts on it.
I almost forgot LaMarcus Aldridge in the rush. I thought he did a decent job defensively. He didn't back down from any of the Denver big guys even when he spent minutes at center because Joel and Greg were unavailable. He grabbed 7 rebounds in 40 minutes but it's not like he was letting them slip by him. The effort looked like it took its toll on his offensive game, however. He ended up 4-15. Some shots were difficult, some were just misses that are usually makes. He notched 9 points. 13 would have been perfect.
Travis Outlaw followed up his sterling offensive night against Houston with a 1-8 effort in 16 minutes tonight. In a way this was OK because tonight the part of Travis Outlaw was played by Rudy Fernandez. To Travis' credit he got 7 rebounds in those same 16 minutes and kept at it defensively. It wasn't an ideal game for him but it's not like he sunk us.
It was a rough night for both point guards. On the bright side Chauncey Billups only shot 5-14. On the not-so-bright side he drew 12 free throw attempts and ended up with 22 points because our guys couldn't stay with him. Worse, that's 14 more points than Blake and Miller produced combined. (Perspective: Ty Lawson all but matched their scoring in 17 minutes and they played 47.) At least they generated 8 assists to Chauncey's 6. Miller went 3-11 from the field. The most damaging part of it was that he went 0-3 on some ugly three-pointers and only got 3 foul shots. When Andre is firing as many threes as free throws he's not in his element. Blake didn't connect with anything, though in his defense he was forced into some bad shots by his own team. But he never really generated anything besides those. Nate subbed him in for Miller midway through the fourth, unfortunately just as Miller looked like he might cause Denver some trouble. Blake responded with a turnover and was out 90 seconds later. It was not his evening.
Don't take this game too much to heart. Games in October don't really decide anything. (And for those who might not have read me much, yes, I would have said that had the Blazers won as well. You can ask any long-term reader, half of whom get really mad when I temper the significance of a Blazer win that looks better than its effect ultimately turns out to be.) If the Blazers and Nuggets end up tied again we might look back on this and rue the day. And of course it would have been nicer to win. But the way the Blazers are playing right now a loss was coming somewhere. I had it pegged for Saturday at Houston. But maybe this one will wake up the team and take the place of that one. If so, 2-1 is 2-1.
Go ahead and have a peek at DenverStiffs.com if you wish.
Remember the Jersey Contest starts next week. If you don't know what I'm talking about, explanations soon.