Ladies and gentlemen, before tonight's game begins we would like to announce that the part of the Portland Trail Blazers will be played by the San Antonio Spurs. Please enjoy the show!
Portland didn't play a flawless game but they played better tonight than they have the last couple games. San Antonio, on the other hand, adopted most of Portland's nasty early-season habits. They didn't get back in transition, they turned the ball over, they got outhustled, they settled for jumpers and one-on-one moves, they fouled rather than defend. It was like looking in the mirror for the Blazers...and having Ruth Buzzi's face stare back. Fortunately the Blazers made more like Goldie Hawn. And there you go.
The game started with a surprise twist. Coach McMillan stuck Andre Miller into the starting lineup as he had been hinting at all day. That wasn't the twist though. Miller replaced Martell Webster with Brandon Roy sliding to small forward and Steve Blake playing off-guard. Miller had primary responsibility for setting the offense, Roy took his share of plays, and Blake played the facilitator on the wing, getting the ball to attackers and being available for the kickback three. Along with the smaller lineup came an emphasis on foot movement on defense and vertical speed on offense. Against a plodding Spurs effort it worked wonders in the first quarter. The Blazers played the passing lanes, close-guarded dribblers, shut down the interior with their big men, rebounded the ball, and ran. San Antonio couldn't keep up with the early offense. Portland was still jumper-heavy but they worked for shots off of the pass and spiced up the attack with some drives. Caught flat-footed the Spurs spotted the Blazers a 29-14 lead after the first quarter. The only thing that marred the period was Greg Oden getting two fouls in the first four minutes, stopping what was looking to be a dominant night.
Portland's second unit tried to keep the parade going in the second quarter. They got some decent looks for Travis Outlaw but they couldn't stop Richard Jefferson on the other end. Drifting along with an offense that was slowly drifting farther outside, the reserves started losing ground. The starters rotated back into the game as the period progressed and Aldridge, Miller, and Oden provided some make-good points. But the Spurs outscored the Blazers by 4 in the quarter. The most significant development of the period was Tony Parker twisting his ankle and leaving the game at the 2:35 mark. He would not return, which make a Spurs comeback highly unlikely.
The third period was an offensive nightmare for both teams. The Blazers had a two-minute stretch of attacking basketball around the 8 minute mark. Other than that the Blazers started holding the ball, dribbling in place, walking up the court, going one-on-one, and shooting jumpers...the tragic litany that has brought so much offensive woe this season. Fortunately for Portland the Spurs were no better. Like chicks everywhere they seemed to fall in love with the long ball. Though they were open for most of the attempts, they whiffed worse than a tee ball team facing Mariano Rivera, missing 7 shots of 20 feet or longer in the quarter. Their unbridled optimism kept their point total for the period at 18...a significant relief to the Blazers who scored only 17 themselves.
The Blazers were treading water offensively for much of the fourth while the Spurs re-discovered the rim. The tattered remains of Portland's lead shrunk like a sweater in the dryer, fading to just three points with 5:37 remaining following two Spurs layups and four Spurs free throws. You could hear the Rose Garden muttering and Johnsonville Brats being flung at high-def screens everywhere. (Note for future self: that cheese filling is really hard to scrape off of tiny pixels.) That's about the time Brandon Roy said, "Huh-uh." And the Spurs said, "Whaaat?" Then Brandon hit a tough 20-footer followed by a 50% conversion at the free throw line the next possession. And San Antonio was all like, "You best step back!" And Brandon was all, "Maybe I will!" But instead of dropping back for the three he drove the lane and when the Spurs swarmed him he lofted it to Greg Oden for an easy layup. And the Spurs said, "Oh no you didn't!" And Brandon was like, "Heck yeah I did! I did it, I filmed it, I got it on America's Funniest Home Videos, I won the $10,000, I took a trip to Jamaica, I got me a souvenir, I came back, washed my clothes, hung ‘em out to dry, put them back on, shined my shoes, walked back here, got all up in your face, and I did it again!" Meanwhile as they were having this dialogue Steve Blake hit an open three to put the Blazers up by 6 again with 2:38 left. At that point, with the Blazers keeping their late-game heads screwed on straight, it was all over but the catch-up foul shooting.
Despite the regression late in the game after the hot start the Blazers did several things well in this game. They hit the boards hard and didn't concede misses to the Spurs. They defended the interior strongly for almost all of the game, particularly when Oden was in. They matched the Spurs free throw for free throw, shooting them better to end up +7 on the night from the stripe. They eschewed the three in favor of working for better shots. Only 17 of 74 attempts came from distance...about 22% as opposed to the near 33% we've seen in some of their games. Overall they held the Spurs to 38% by taking away most of their easy looks. As we said, Portland pushed the tempo for a sustained stretch of the first period, the first time we've really seen that this year. Most of all the spacing was better at both ends of the floor tonight than we've seen it all season. That alone made the team look at least 50% better.
The question will arise, "Is this version of the three-guard lineup the answer?" Tonight it was, but this was a good opponent against whom to employ it. I don't foresee Miller-Blake-Roy being a permanent starting lineup. Even though the defense looked better and everyone was devoting more energy we still saw Miller and Blake get beat a bunch. It didn't lead to points because of the combination of Blazer interior defense and the Spurs packing a couple of non-scoring guards, but it was there. When the Blazers run up against teams that field shooting guards more dangerous than Keith Bogans--which is pretty close to everybody in the league--that lineup isn't going to hold. Whoever guards the point will get broken down and whoever guards the shooting guard will get run over. Even tonight that lineup didn't last long when Manu Ginobili entered the game. It's a decent situational look but not more.
On the other hand the smaller, centerless lineup did a much better defensive job tonight than we saw in the last couple of games. They packed the middle and dared the Spurs to shoot deep. That's pretty much what you want.
Those who complain about Nate being controlling and never wanting the team to run will be happy to know that ESPN put a microphone on the huddles tonight...microphones which clearly caught him imploring the team to keep the flow going and the tempo up. The network also interviewed Nate after the third period and he was discouraged that the team had resumed, as he put it, "pounding the ball". This isn't the first time that the huddle cam has caught him asking the guys to move more either.
Good effort and victory aside, it doesn't feel like the Blazers are out of the woods yet. Key players had sub-standard games. Portland couldn't retain the lead or its energy. The offense fell apart as quickly as it had come together and Brandon Roy had to bail us out again. The win is what matters, of course, but the team hasn't arrived yet. A lesson to take from the Spurs' performance is that they, too, are struggling integrating new players. If the consummate veteran, system-oriented, clockwork team looks choppy in that situation you can perhaps understand the Blazers appearing likewise. These are going to be spring teams more than fall teams. It happens.
Greg Oden had his best game of the season, scoring 14 on 6 of 9 shooting, hitting hooks and spin moves, hustling for rebounds, blocking 4 shots, shutting down the interior, and making Tim Duncan look small and somewhat slow. Best of all he played 25 minutes and only drew his 5th foul late. The ESPN announcers couldn't say enough about him. Great job.
LaMarcus Aldridge didn't seem to be able to take smaller defenders, posting infrequently even when Oden was out of the game. His turn-around jumper wasn't falling and he shot 3-10 for 8 points and 5 rebounds in 34 minutes. You don't mind LaMarcus feeling his way against the league's elite, but when he has a 6'7" guy on his back you want him to score.
Brandon Roy shot well, going 9-15 for 24 points with 5 rebounds. He looked more confident in his teammates and more relaxed in his own offense as well. The Spurs couldn't stop him any more than they could stop Oden. He's too gifted and they don't have that kind of perimeter defender anymore. Good, solid Brandon game.
Andre Miller responded to his starting role with zest and assurance. He was barking at some teammates, directing traffic, and spreading the ball around. He got a couple of steals but don't let that fool you about his overall defense. Had the interior guys not been so stalwart tonight the San Antonio guards would have lit us up. Contrast this to the defense the San Antonio guards played on our guards, especially in the first half, and you'll see the difference between defense and offensive point guards. On the other hand Andre's 4 assists don't tell the story of what he did for the offense. He really engineered the Portland energy out there tonight, which was something the Spurs guards couldn't match. Miller shot 2-9. That was only a concern once the Spurs caught on to the fact that in a Blake-Miller-Roy-Big Guy lineup for Portland they want Blake or Miller attempting the shot. That didn't happen until the second half and by then it was too late. Overall it was a great performance by Andre...the kind of thing the Blazers were looking for with this signing.
Steve Blake shot 3-5 from the three-point arc and finished with 15 overall plus 6 rebounds, 2 assists, and a steal of his own. He looked completely comfortable in his shooting guard role...maybe more so than as the initiator. He was great as the next-to-the-last man in the setup cycle. His job was to make a pass and then set up for the return if it came. Those tasks are solidly within the parameters his résumé. Copy and paste what we said about Miller's defense into Blake's category, but then the Blazers weren't looking to ratchet up the defense with this lineup. A nice game from Blake.
Joel Przybilla did what he was supposed to: spell Oden, collect 13 rebounds in 18 minutes, guard the interior. OK...that 13 rebounds in 18 minutes was above and beyond the call. Joel brought nice energy tonight too. It seemed like he knew the team needed a lift and he was one of the cadre of players who brought it. Applause all around.
Travis Outlaw played 24 minutes, played some suspect defense, but stayed within himself with 4-9 shots (and the misses were mostly good attempts) for 9 points. I liked his offensive game tonight better than some games where he's scored 15. He was mostly compact and aggressive, which is good Travis.
Martell Webster only got 13 minutes tonight and looked somewhat lost except for the bright, shining moment when he rammed home a Rudy Fernandez missed three at the end of the first quarter. It was a beautiful dunking put-back that would make Jerome Kersey proud and the timing was everything you envision while counting down to yourself at your backyard hoop. Let's hope Martell doesn't wander too far into the wilderness.
If Martell looks lost, perhaps it's because he's setting out to find what happened to Rudy Fernandez. Rudy couldn't get any farther lost if he jumped onboard a moon base after a freak nuclear explosion sent it hurtling from orbit and out into space to meet a bunch of mind-messing aliens who always appear in small, dark rooms with horrific makeup. Rudy was 1-5 tonight with 1 glorious assist and a block but no continuity at either end. He only got 12 minutes. Come back, Rudy! Come back!
Jerryd Bayless got 5 minutes tonight straddling the first and second quarter line. There were a couple of impressive hues to his game. For one, he was actually able to stay in front of the offensive player he was assigned to most of the time. Second he was aggressive on offense and drew some foul shots, moving quickly and decisively without over-thinking his moves. However he still didn't evidence much point-guardedness, making a couple of glaring mistakes in his short tenure. He may be a partial answer to the Blazers' difficulties but he can't be the only point guard out there, which seriously hampers his potential for us right now. Still learning though.
Juwan Howard got the infamous quintillion stat line tonight. 1 minute followed by 15 zeros.
The most important thing about this win is not the victory itself (though that was important enough) but the chance the victory gives to do something really nice on Sunday against Minnesota. With a two-game winning streak in hand the Blazers are free to go 3-2 on the upcoming road trip while still winning 5 of their last 7. 4-1 would be even more special and would certainly herald a pronounced upswing of the kind we are seeking. Follow this up and everything's good. Minnesota's a team against which you can use some funky backcourt lineups as well...
Oh, and those retro "Rip City" unis look pretty cool.
Be sure and check out the San Antonio recap at PoundingtheRock.com
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