The Blazers followed a familiar script in their 97-91 stumble against the Hawks tonight. Let's call it their version of Hamlet, circa 2009-2010.
"This is the very ecstasy of love"
The first quarter started well, as if the team had put its woes behind. Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge carried the scoring, the latter looking as good as we've seen this season. The Hawks had no real answer for either. Greg Oden, meanwhile, looked like he was about three feet taller than the nearest Atlanta player on every rebound. The Blazers controlled the ball and the game. On the defensive end they worked hard to keep the Hawks away from the hoop, forcing them to settle for jumpers. They made sure Atlanta collected no second chances. Few and far between were layups or free throws for the Hawks until the final dregs of the quarter. And by then it looked to be too late. Portland was up 25-15 at home, apparently demonstrating that athletic and skilled beats just athletic.
"A little more than kin, and less than kind"
The Hawks announced their presence quickly in the second period, showing that they were every bit as skilled and determined as the Blazers. Their made buckets to start the quarter read like this: three-pointer, 3 free throws off of a three-point foul, assisted dunk, assisted layup, 2 free throws. Most of their makes for the rest of the quarter were assisted and they continued to get to the line. The Blazers weren't doing poorly on offense themselves. LaMarcus Aldridge continued hot with Oden bulling his way inside and Travis hitting Trout-like jumpers. But the Atlanta attack was more focused, more energetic, and produced better looks and more extra points consistently. At the end of the half Portland found itself up by only 1. Once again a hot start had faded under a lack of sustained energy and concentration.
"What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!"
Indeed, but man still has to rebound if man wants to win a basketball game and the Blazers just didn't. Greg Oden, pinned with three fouls from the first half, started the period on the bench in favor of Joel Przybilla. Joel played with energy but he couldn't keep Al Horford from scoring or the Hawks from offensive rebounding. Atlanta collected 5 of their 11 offensive boards in this period. Their team offense wasn't as productive or penetrating as it had been in the second quarter but Joe Johnson made up for it by finally coming alive after a lackluster first half. The Blazers offense stalled under a barrage of non-passes and lofted jumpers. Martell Webster was the only guy who could claim a reasonably hot hand in the period and his outburst was brief. Having scored 21 in the period the Blazers found themselves down 3 entering the fourth.
"To D, or not to D: that is the question"
By this time it was becoming quite apparent that the game was going to be a slugfest with the more intense, physical team winning. Atlanta began to push the Blazers around. Portland responded to being pushed by running their turtle formation: one guy gets the ball, makes a move, and heaves a jumper. Much of the time that guy was Brandon Roy. To Brandon's credit he did break the mold a little and try to drive, but seeing that the Blazers were passing like your grandma in a Smart Car, the Hawks simply swarmed him every time he put the ball on the floor. This led to a lot of bobbles and tough shots. Travis Outlaw, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Andre Miller all tried their hands at going one-on-one but their success was minimal. Be that as it may, the game was still up for grabs had the Blazers been able to match Atlanta's intensity on defense. They couldn't. The Hawks made 6 layups or dunks in the period, some in transition, some off of bad rotations. Greg Oden looked tentative playing with four fouls and trying not to pick up his fifth. He did anyway. Because Portland needed offense to catch up Joel Przybilla wasn't a good option so they went small. This led to disaster, as that small unit played defense like they had never seen the hardwood or each other before. When you're playing LaMarcus at center and he gets stuck out above the three-point line defending the opposing point guard you did something wrong. It happened twice. Watching your shooting guards try and stop their power forward from scoring at the rim makes your eyes hurt. Oden re-entered the game with 3:03 remaining and put a stop to most of the inside scoring but by then the game was balanced on a precipice. Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford pushed it over the edge by hitting jumpers and drawing fouls, neither of which Portland could have really stopped at that point. End result? 97-91 Hawks and the Blazers leave the court with their heads down, 2-3 on the season, 1-2 on their supposedly invincible home court.
"That it should come to this!"
Once again there were few glaring weaknesses evident for the Blazers. (We'll get to those few in a moment.) The team simply bowed to an opponent's superior, sustained energy and failed to execute in a way that covered for, rather than exacerbated, its mistakes. You could see the talent evident on this team. Four different guys got red hot on the offensive end at different times. The Blazers dominated the boards and the interior for stretches. They found favorable matchups throughout the game. But that talent couldn't pull together for 48 minutes nor could any individual carry the team on both ends for that long. Too many holes appeared. Too many minutes went by without quality looks. Too many opponent drives went through too easily. Most importantly of all, the team didn't step up to the same level Atlanta did when the game was on the line. The parts were there. They didn't come together as a whole.
"Though this be madness, yet there is method in it."
You can see what the Blazers are trying to do offensively. They feel they have matchup advantages and they're trying to exploit them. And they're correct! Brandon Roy can take most anybody in the league. LaMarcus Aldridge, Greg Oden, Travis Outlaw, and Rudy Fernandez all create trouble for their opponents. Despite that the offense isn't really succeeding because though the Blazers often field five dangerous players on a given offensive set they only end up using two. On the plays where the ball goes to a third guy it's usually an open shot or drive, both yielding a high rate of success. But most of the time the opponent is reading Portland's intent, giving help, and forcing the Blazers to make decisions they don't appear ready for. Those decisions too often default to a forced shot off the dribble.
If a play runs by design the Blazers score. After a play breaks down they look lost. Part of it may be players trying to do too much. I suspect part of it is that the Blazers are trying to run a flex offense that creates many options off of simple sets like the high screen and roll. But only the players near the ball seem to be reading the offense and they're the ones being bothered most by defenders and thus able to do the least. Guys off the ball look clueless much of the time. Thus the offense stalls.
"Do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?"
Game after game the Blazers are dealing with shortcomings in the point guard department. Part of the offensive confusion just mentioned can be laid at their feet even though Portland does put the ball in the scorers' hands as often as the distributors. In addition you can look at the utter lack of conversions (Blake and Miller combined for a 3-16 shooting night tonight) as part of the reason the Blazers aren't finding better options when the first thrust is blunted. But the biggest issue of all is that team are starting to intentionally run plays at the Blazer point guards. In my game preview I said that Portland couldn't let Mike Bibby go off and they didn't. He scored only 7 points on 3-10 shooting with 5 assists. Jamal Crawford, however, destroyed the Blazers with 27 points and 7 assists. Granted with Portland's switching, rotating defense no individual gets credited with stopping or allowing the production of any given opponent. Nevertheless, these are guards running at our guards and our guards aren't handling them. Blake isn't. Miller isn't. Rudy isn't when he's in there. Brandon isn't either. But Brandon and Rudy at least provide (or potentially provide) strengths which counterbalance the deficits. Combine defense with the pathetic shooting and lack of coordination amongst our point guards right now and there aren't enough assists in the world to fill that hole. It's turning into a net loss on the Blazers' ledger most every night and that's a problem.
"When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions"
The Blazers probably don't need a major facelift. The issue here isn't personnel...or it's not just personnel anyway. Portland is letting small mistakes evolve into larger problems, partially through repetition but also through distraction and not dealing well with things going wrong. The team that couldn't lose last year all of a sudden can't keep from tripping over itself. You could read it on the faces of the players as they left the court tonight. That confidence is gone. The good news is that it's a mental fix which theoretically just takes some commitment followed by positive feedback on the court. The bad news is that mental fixes are hard to identify, let alone enact. More trust in each other, more focus, more hustle, more confidence...until the Blazers show these things to each other and the teams they face it won't matter who you shuffle in there or how hot they get. The road will be uphill all the way.
"This above all: to thine own self be true"
The good news is that it's early and we know the Blazers can do this. They haven't hit their spark in the first five games of the season. They have 77 more in which to find it. When they do the Blazers you're used to are going to come back. I'll repeat something I said during last week's podcast: this team is going to go on a couple of whopping winning jags this season, the kind that let you dream way above their heads. But those winning streaks alone won't be enough to take them where they want to go. The season will be decided by what happens in between on the nights when they're off and have to fight and claw. We know this team can do it. They just need to rediscover who they are.
Individual Notes (briefly)
Greg Oden did pretty much what he was supposed to, bowling over and through the smaller Atlanta centers on his way to 8 points and 9 rebounds in 16 minutes. That said, he only played 16 minutes on a night when we needed 30 and Atlanta had a far easier time when he was out.
LaMarcus Aldridge had a fantastic game with 20 points and 14 rebounds in 40 minutes. His battle with Josh Smith was fun to watch. He was one of the Blazers giving effort tonight.
Brandon Roy had a hard time keeping his hands on the ball and despite hitting some great shots early he was handcuffed most of the second half. Atlanta basically threw everything at him and dared the Blazers to beat them with somebody else. The strategy worked. 19 points and 6 assists but only 3 free throws.
Travis Outlaw tied Roy's production with 19 points in 23 minutes on 7-15 shooting and also appeared to enjoy playing the Atlanta forwards. It was a good offensive game for him but he'll also be remembered for a possession late in the fourth wherein the Blazers desperately needed a three-point shot, got it to Travis wide open, and with two seconds left on the shot clock he passed up the three, drove, and had to force a shot against the buzzer missing badly. It wasn't the only mistake of the evening by a Blazer but it was a painful one.
Speaking of painful, Rudy Fernandez had a painful night. He shot 1 of 5 and had the Atlanta commentators remarking that he was "just running around with a lot of energy but not really going anywhere". Between questionable decisions and risky defense you wonder some nights if he gives up as many as he scores. When he's on life is fantastic, but the Blazers haven't been able to rely on him yet.
We won't belabor the point guard issue. Everybody else had an in-between night with flashes of good and bad. Enough said.
Only one: Time to man up against San Antonio.
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