Pressure busts pipes.
It's the nightmare scenario basketball players of all ages fear. Step to the foul line in the final seconds with a chance to put your team over the top in a tight, hard-fought game against a bitter rival. Miss the first, miss the second, ballgame.
That was Greg Oden's nightmare Thursday night, as Carmelo Anthony of the Denver Nuggets rebounded the second miss, drew a foul, and calmly sunk two free throws on the other end to give the Nuggets a 97-94 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers in the Rose Garden. A desperation heave by Brandon Roy as the clock expired was well wide.
After the game, Oden dressed slowly in a quiet locker room, his back turned to the media throng. Once dressed, he spoke softly and didn't smile. His first words: "I stepped up there with confidence thinking I was going to hit them and it didn't go that way. I put this loss on me. I need to step up to make those."
It was exactly the statement and attitude that you want to hear from Oden in that situation but there were plenty of forks in the road over the course of evening, alternate paths that could have prevented his nightmare scenario, a situation he said he couldn't remember facing previously during his career.
Oden found himself on the line (down 95-94 with roughly five seconds left) thanks to a quick shuttle pass from Brandon Roy, who had been doubled by Chauncey Billups and Chris Andersen. Oden was in the key when he received the pass, somewhat awkwardly positioned with his back to the basket, and immediately looked to kick the ball to a wide open Rudy Fernandez at the three point line. The whistle blew and initially there was confusion from both sides. Did Oden shuffle his feet? Nope. The Nuggets bench reacted in disbelief as Kenyon Martin was whistled for his sixth foul, a call that wasn't clearly evident in real time or on the replays. Martin. who had been teed up earlier in the game, returned to the Nuggets bench shaking his head in disbelief -- the lips that are tattooed on his neck appearing to do the "twist and shout" -- and was met by members of the Nuggets coaching staff who could be seen mouthing, "I can't believe that."
That Roy passed the ball in that situation was something of a surprise although it was absolutely the right play. Feeding Oden in such a pressure situation showed a reactive, reflexive trust in his center that we haven't often seen before. That the foul was called before Oden could pass the ball was unfortunate because Fernandez -- who loves big moments and was 6 of 9 for the game, 2 of 5 from distance and 8 of 8 from the stripe, for 22 points -- was absolutely licking his chops, hoping to deliver.
The pass couldn't get there. It wasn't meant to be.
The takeaway sentiment from the loss seemed to be: this game was winnable, the opportunities were there. The Blazers limited all of the Nuggets' role players on the offensive end and succeeded in making Carmelo Anthony work for each and every one of his 41 points, 18 of which he accumulated by bulling to the basket time and again and getting whistle after whistle. Chauncey Billups added 22 points (11 of his from the line as well) but the eight other Nuggets combined for just 34 points.
If anything did the Blazers in, it was their own poor shooting. Just 31 percent from the field in the first half and 34 percent for the game. Otherwise, they won the rebounding margin substantially (44 to 36), limited their turnovers (just 7), got to the foul line themselves (41 attempts), attempted 20 more field goals than their opponent (81 to 61) and did a nice job managing their foul trouble (10 fouls between Joel and Greg) getting some solid minutes from Juwan Howard at the 5.
All of those positive were negated by the poor shooting. That's how poorly they shot the ball. Indeed, outside of Fernandez, no Blazer shot the ball well. Roy (6 for 16, including a remarkable banked-in thirty footer at the third quarter horn), Aldridge (4 of 15, settling for outside shot after outside shot), Outlaw (1 for 8, a non-factor), Blake (0 for 3, also a non-factor) and Miller (3 for 11, his 5 assists made him more of a factor, but not really) all struggled.
A few brief thoughts...
No question about it, the Blazers were much more proactive in getting Oden involved in the offense early. The ball movement was better, the passes sharper.
Denver possesses a tough, physical front line -- Nene, Birdman, Martin -- which made life difficult for Oden. He battled hard, challenged many shots, blocked 2, had a steal and struggled to stay in the game thanks to fouls. His free throw struggles and his final line -- 6 points and 9 rebounds -- don't do justice to his impact on the game.
One or two more rebounds down the stretch and he goes from goat to hero. Funny how those things work.
As the game got chippy in the first half the Blazers did a nice job of remaining composed and playing tough. Martell Webster was a big part of that.
Anthony's response -- 21 second half points, despite foul trouble of his own -- proved why Anthony is the All Star and Team USA member. Hats off to him.
Would look great in a Blazers uniform. 7 points, 1 assist, 2 steals, 0 turnovers on 3-5 shooting in 17 minutes.
If you know anything about me at this point you know I love watching pre-game warm-ups for hours on end. Tonight Nuggets reserve Renaldo Balkman came out with his legs in crazy bandages covering pads that extended all the way up to his knees. Here's a picture.
About halfway through his personal warmup Balkman took the pads off and continued shooting without them. He was working with an assistant coach and was required to make 5 shots from a number of different positions. Once he had made 4 shots, the coach would motivate him by yelling "money ball" as he passed the ball out. When Balkman worked his way to the right baseline, the coached yelled this again and Balkman responded by shooting an airball roughly 5 feet over the hoop, completely clearing the weakside ball girl. The ball continued bouncing until it interrupted a conversation between Blazers VP of Basketball Operations Tom Penn and Nuggets VP Player Personnel Rex Chapman that was taking place off the court entirely, next to the Nuggets bench. Chapman returned the ball to the ball girl who returned it to the assistant coach. Undaunted, the coach passed the ball to Balkman saying simply, again, "money ball."
Arguably the best focus from a coach during pre-game warmups I've ever witnessed. And, start to finish, one of the more memorable pre-game routines from a player.
Nate's Postgame Comments
What do you pin the loss on tonight?
A few things. First, the free throw line - 49 free throws is a ton of free throws. We knew this would be a team that was attacking our paint, getting to the free throw line. And they did. We needed to do a better job of keeping them out of the paint, rotating early, but keeping them off the free throw line. You should 49 free throws it's going to be hard to win those types of games.
A few possessions where we didn't get the rebound, the board. We forced them to miss. Those are plays you've got to make those plays, make those breaks. I thought offensively they tried to take away the inside. We didn't shoot the ball. 81 attempts, we shoot 34 percent from the floor. We had some open looks that we need to knock down. But just playing off of what the defense gives you. I thought we settled early and we didn't knock our shots down.
What was the final play?
Basically just get shooters on the floor and try to get their big Nene into a pick and roll. Give Brandon an opportunity to try to get to the basket. But bring the big and spread the floor with 3 shooters.
It wasn't clean. I thought we kind of rushed it a little bit. We had enough time. Greg goes to the free throw line, has that opportunity.
Did you see the toughness you were looking for?
Again, they won the battle in the paint. The fact that they were able to get into that paint, get to the free throw line, still areas for us to improve.
I thought our guys, I thought Martell did a pretty decent job of just trying to make Carmelo work. This guy showed tonight what he's all about. They basically gave him the ball and rode him.
Well, you know, both of them are very good players. They do a good job of playing off of each other, taking turns, when Carmelo didn't have it then Billups was making plays.
Rudy's game and the late-game substitutions
The tough part going down the stretch, Rudy had a rhythm, Martell was playing pretty decent defense, and making the decision who to go with late. I thought Rudy was able to knock down some shots and keep it close and get us back in the game.
Well, you know what, it's an opportunity for me to learn, to learn about my team. You look at situations going down the stretch, guys that we can play with, combinations that we can put together. It's a game that felt like we shoulda had.
What do you take from this game?
The main thing is we've got an opportunity. I haven't said anything to Greg but I'm sure he'll get many more opportunities like that.
-- Ben Golliver | (firstname.lastname@example.org) | Twitter