OK, so here we go.
First, a disclaimer. As you'll read in the post just above this one, I did not personally get to see the first half of this game because of the network coverage of the Boston-Chicago triple-overtime affair. Co-writer Ben Golliver provided much of the first half game flow. Thanks to Ben for steppin' in with the knowledge.
This game was somewhat disappointing, but not entirely surprising. It crystallized certain lessons we've learned about the team and the playoff process, for good or ill.
The very first thing to say about it is, "Congratulations to the Rockets." Throughout the series they remained the team that was more in control, better able to take advantage of matchups, better defensively, and more of a cohesive, steady unit. They had bigger contributions from their supporting cast. They had more direction and in most spots more intensity. The Blazers played basketball. The Rockets played playoff basketball. This win was no fluke and no mistake. They were the superior team on more possessions and in more games. That's why they won. Good luck against the L*kers.
As far as tonight's game, I'm told the Blazers started out fairly assertively. LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy were hitting early, which was a positive sign. The Blazers emphasized upping the tempo, especially after made buckets. They pushed the Rockets to move their feet defensively and gave themselves the maximum amount of clock and wiggle room to work with. Joel Przybilla provided great energy on defense.
On the other side of the ball Yao Ming struggled to guard LaMarcus Aldridge, an interesting decision by the Rockets and not a profitable one. Shane Battier and Luis Scola also looked off early. However Ron Artest made up for all of it. The Blazers started Rudy Fernandez in place of Nicolas Batum, presumably to add speed, motion, and shooting to the offense. The reciprocal difficulty was that either Rudy or Roy had to watch Artest. As soon as Ron-Ron identified this his decisions were easy. He drove and bullied his way inside, basically demolishing defenders.
All-in-all the first quarter was a plus for the Blazers. They ended it down 21-19...not optimal but certainly a better performance than seen in some of the prior losses.
The one nagging difficulty in the quarter, visible even to those only watching the boxscore update, was that nobody besides LaMarcus and Brandon was connecting for Portland. In the pre-game chatter we identified Fernandez, Steve Blake, and Travis Outlaw, saying two of those three had to connect on their shots for us to win. One of three might have kept us afloat. None of them? Whatever that first quarter went like you knew that was going to catch up to us sooner or later.
As it turned out, it was sooner. The second quarter, in fact.
The Blazer reserves started the second period and promptly got blown off of the floor. The first seven minutes of the quarter was a litany of Blake, Outlaw, and Fernandez misses. Meanwhile you saw LaMarcus and Brandon turning the ball, committing offensive fouls, and getting forced into jumpers. The Houston defense clamped down on our main guys and nobody made them let go. Portland also started turning the ball over and Houston outhustled them to the toss-up plays. The Rockets continued to get to the rim. The sum total was a 31-18 disaster that all but put the game out of reach.
If Portland had any chance it was in a strong comeback early in the third period but that never happened. The Blazers faced the same problem of having to put their small scorers on larger Houston players who could also score. Artest continued to rough us up. Compensating put us in single coverage against Yao which led to him going off. Then the dam broke for Scola and Brooks as well. The Rockets actually won the third period as well, 22-19. Down 18 going into the fourth, the game was finished.
Portland made some good defensive stands in the final period as the Rockets eased up ever so slightly but the Blazers still couldn't connect on enough shots to matter. Everybody on the Blazers' side looked tired and beat up as the game wore on. Portland went out with a whimper and the Rockets walked away with a 16-point win and their tickets punched for L.A.
The Blazers scored 20 points in a quarter only once, that being the final period. The Rockets actually attempted more field goals than the Blazers...a rarity in this series and certainly not what Portland had in mind when pushing tempo. The Rockets also hit a higher percentage overall and from the three-point arc. The extra points that the Blazers so badly needed never materialized as Portland hit only 4 threes and 12 free throws. Portland also turned the ball over 15 times. That's not a huge number unless compared to Houston's 8. There was simply no purchase...no place to grab hold in order to take control of this game. The Rockets left no openings. The Blazers were trying to break down a reinforced steel door with their bare hands.
LaMarcus Aldridge shot 12-21 in this contest and scored 26 with 5 rebounds. Brandon Roy went 8-17 for 22 with 4 rebounds and 4 assists. Joel Przybilla had 8 boards and 5 blocks in 27 minutes but those blocks are as much an indictment of Portland's perimeter containment as they are a reinforcement of Joel's great timing. Greg Oden had 6 rebounds and 3 blocks in 16 minutes but also 4 fouls and 4 turnovers.
The three guys we needed to step up offensively--Rudy, Travis, and Blake--were a combined 4-20 from the field, 1-7 from distance, and had 13 points total between them. That right there would be the ballgame even if everything else went right. Aaron Brooks alone had 13 for the Rockets. Artest had 27. Rudy and Steve rebounded well with 8 and 5 respectively. Blake had 5 assists but 4 turnovers.
Much to everybody's relief I'm sure, the officiating had nothing to do with this loss. There wasn't even a hint of a ghost of a scandal. No Blazer had more than 4 personals for the game. The Rockets attempted 14 free throws, the Blazers 16. I didn't see any controversial calls in the second half at all.
We're going to talk extensively about the lessons learned from this season in the days to come, but there are some things we learned specifically from these playoffs.
1. The Blazers, while absolutely ready to play in this post-season, weren't ready to win in this post-season. There's a difference. Houston's intensity, drive, commitment, cohesion, will, and experience all overmatched the Blazers. They knew how to consistently take advantage of matchups while still having the non-featured players active and contributing. They knew how to use their physical advantages. They knew they needed to jump on the opponent early in order to be successful. They knew how to execute to their strengths, banking on them to compensate for their weaknesses. They knew how to take what the defense gave them. These are all things Portland does intermittently and did intermittently in this series. Houston did them with consistency. They knew how to play playoff basketball. Portland didn't. That's what this year was for. Now the Blazers know. It's up to them to be prepared next year.
This is not something you can really knock the Blazers for. They have not been here before and certain things you can only learn by experiencing them. The coaching staff can describe the experience all they want just like I can describe the experience of being on the radio or driving a car. Until you've done it you don't get it.
2. The Blazers need more help, more size, and more experience in their supporting cast. All of our rotation players have talent. All of them can affect a game. Few of them do affect every game. There's no forgiveness in a playoff series. You can't come one game in three and get it done. These guys have to grow individually and as a team. We also probably need some veteran help. We had no back-up point guard in this series. We had no consistent small forward in this series. Those are huge holes. The whole series was like blowing into a balloon with a leak in it. You can get it inflated, but not for long. In the end you just go flat.
3. Fans probably learned tonight that improving the team is not as easy as just inserting Player X who is playing well. All year we've been hearing things like, "Why doesn't Nate just play Rudy or Sergio or Bayless or Batum???" There are almost always reasons you're not seeing certain guys. Part of it may be unfamiliarity with the situation or with teammates. We saw a little of that tonight with Rudy. Part of it may be holes in a guy's game you don't see in more limited minutes or particular situations. Part of it may also be matchups. We saw both of those tonight as well. Rudy got in there and neither he nor Roy could contain Artest. Ron broke open the game entirely. It didn't work. It's not...that...easy.
4. Fans and the team both learned a little bit about the harshness of the playoffs. A win is a win and a loss is a loss and that's all that matters. We heard a lot from the team and each other about only losing by 1 and 3 in Houston. Every playoff team worth its salt has some games like that. 1 and 3 don't matter. The loss matters. Understand this: 1 and 3 point losses don't usually become wins. 1 and 3 point wins become bigger wins. The winning team is winning for a reason. It may be by the skin of its teeth but that team still found a way to win and THAT'S what matters. Unless you find a way to correct the reasons you lost you're just going to lose again...be it by 3 or 33. The Blazers didn't really have correctable faults here. So they lost.
I'm not sure the talent disparity was all that great here. The Rockets had some matchups in their favor as the Blazers did in theirs. The disparity of understanding, experience, and will was huge, however. The playoffs involve a great deal of all three.
The Blazers made a good go of it. They learned something and they'll almost certainly grow from it. We'll have all summer to speculate how. For now, good season, good fight...well done.
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