The passing of the guards has been underway for the last few months in Portland, but Thursday night dripped with symbolism as Brandon Roy sat at his stall -- eyes welling, fiddling with his gray sweater, and doing his best to persevere through a trial, his body's betrayal, that would break just about anyone -- before Wesley Matthews went out and put up 30 points, tying a career-high. After Matthews was sing-song serenaded by the Rose Garden fans, he sat roughly 10 feet away from the spot of Roy's confession, and soaked in the questions from a media throng that was larger than the one Roy addressed before the game.
All that's left, really, is for Matthews to move into Roy's corner locker.
With President Larry Miller laughing and back-slapping before the game as if nothing was different, as if nothing was unusual about this night, the Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Utah Jazz for the second time in a week, 100-89.
The five-man chemistry that has mostly eluded this team so far this year came together in waves down the stretch. Keyed by some exceptional play-making (10 assists) by point guard Andre Miller, aggressive two-way play (30 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 4 steals) from Matthews and another nice scoring output (27 points) from LaMarcus Aldridge, the Blazers never let the Jazz make a serious second-half push.
Portland's best five worked Utah's best five -- all five Portland starters finished with double-digit positive plus/minus, four of Utah's five starters finished with double-digit negative plus/minus -- and, at times, things were really humming. Matthews attacked the paint off the dribble, Nicolas Batum showed up for an aggressive dunk and a vicious block of an Earl Watson attempt, Marcus Camby promptly bounced back from an ankle injury with a ridiculous 20 rebound effort, and Aldridge committed just two turnovers despite receiving lots of touches and defensive attention. It was a complete, coordinated attack.
That the play took place in Roy's abence was lost on no one. All of a sudden, Aldridge has enough touches to play through his slow spots. All of a sudden, Batum is moving off the ball like people have been calling for for years. All of a sudden, Miller has the ball late to make lob passes rather than standing by the three-point line and being ignored by a collapsing defender. All of a sudden, Matthews is catching-and-going, not deferring to a superstar. Only Camby hasn't been mega-impacted by Roy's absence, but he could put up 4 points and 20 rebounds playing alongside Bert, Ernie, Big Bird and the smelly green guy.
Roy's pre-game statements (read the full transcript here) weren't quite as complete and coordinated as his teammates' play. He showed up long after his expected arrival time and addressed the media alone, with no coaches or team executives present. He projected slumped sadness, perhaps hopelessness, rather than the full-chested confidence he usually displays after wins and losses alike.
What we learned from Roy's seven-minute address: surgery is "a possibility"; sitting out the entire season is "a possibility"; "no timetable" has been placed on his return to the court; rest hasn't alleviated his knee pain; and no other method for getting him back on the court has yet been found. We also learned that Roy is suffering, to a small degree, compensation pain in his right knee caused by playing on the bad left knee. Past that, his on-court absence is merely "indefinite," but don't hold your breath in the short term.
Watching Roy stroke his right arm nervously as he answered questions was as sad as sports get, a sight that will endure for longer than any of his game-winners. The player they called "The Natural" struggled to find the right phrase as he admitted that he has started to think about what this means for his future. "I think any time players get injured, we always worry about our careers. It's something in the back of my mind that I think about at times, but right now I'm just trying to focus my energy on a solution rather than thinking, 'Oh, my career...'"
His face said otherwise.
Random Game Notes
- In mid-November, Blazers rookie guard Elliot Williams had surgery on his right knee, and it was announced at the time that he would undergo surgery on his left knee within six weeks. Six weeks are up, and Williams tells me the surgery hasn't taken place yet. He expects to go under the knife sometime in January and chalked it up to a scheduling issue with the surgeon.
- Deron Williams went all Tyreke Evans to end the first quarter. Incredible to watch that in real life.
- On the jumbotron, a man wearing a LaMarcus Aldridge jersey proposed to a woman wearing a LaMarcus Aldridge jersey, who said, "yes." The man then flashed his "three goggles" to the camera to celebrate. Yes, seriously.
- Sean Marks highlight of the night: He set a high screen for Blazers point guard Armon Johnson. Once set, he remembered that Johnson was left-handed and that his dribbling ability going right was compromised by a freak shrapnel accident during the War of 1812. Marks semi-circled like an old-fashioned barn dance and re-set the pick on the proper side.
- Matt Calkins of The Columbian quotes Nate McMillan during his pre-game comments regarding the loss of Roy... "It's like a tornado almost. Things are sitting pretty, it's a sunny day, looking bright and all of a sudden something comes through and 'boom'," McMillan said. "All of a sudden you have a lot of moving parts, you've got a lot of moving pieces. That's pretty much how it is."
- Two very thoughtful DC-area Blazersedge readers brought me this awesome gift at the Rose Garden. Thanks!
Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments
Utah is always a tough team. They make it a physical game. I thought our guys responded tonight defensively. Good ball movement again. 21 assists tonight. LaMarcus and Wesley was aggressive scoring. our second group got some things going in the second half, but a total team effort.
How do you rank all-around performance?
Well, we take it one game at a time. We played them well just two games ago, and they come into our building tonight and we knew they played last night, so we wanted to up the tempo. I thought we did that the first quarter, the second quarter we started to walk the ball down the floor. In the second half, we got back to moving the ball, just really balanced scoring. Good execution on the offensive end of the floor. Defensively I thought we played them physical, 32 free throws, it showed that we were aggressive. Attacking the basket. Something we always want to do.
How does a guy go from not playing to getting 20 rebounds?
Like he did. He felt OK. The game that he played in Utah he played a half and he had 13 at the half. He does a good job of controlling the boards. He's a force on both ends of the floor, giving us second opportunities and tonight he was big. Not only rebounding but trying to defend Jefferson.
With Wesley Matthews playing well how much do you really miss Brandon Roy?
Wesley, we've felt that he was a good player when we picked him up in free agency. His role basically coming in was to come off the bench. With extended minutes he's been good. At the two and the three position. Tonight we're missing Brandon and any time you're missing guys it's an opportunity for someone else. We've had our guys over the years step up and be able to be productive in situations like that. Tonight, we talked about that. We're going to be missing Brandon for awhile and we just have to come together. We've got games to play and it's an opportunity for guys. I thought tonight he was aggressive, he played within the flow of the game. He didn't force anything and knocked down some big shots for us. He's playing both ends of the floor. This guy has been doing that all season long. He started out on Williams and had to guard him the whole night, so Wesley is not only doing it on the offensive end, defensively he's doing a good job of containing and making these guys work.
Only 9 turnovers
It's always a key. I felt we've gotten better making decisions here lately. The fourth quarter has been a nightmare at times for us, just really not understanding time/score situations. Being loose with the ball. But we're doing a better job of taking care of the ball. You want bullets. You have to have more bullets than the opponent. To give teams extra opportunities by turning the ball over or being loose, you're not going to win a lot of games like that. I'm happy we're paying attention to that.
Is this what you expect from LaMarcus now?
He's doing a better job of getting deep post position. Our guys are getting him the ball. I think everybody is starting to get a feel of how to play off of LaMarcus, as far as the spacing. When teams are double-teaming, he seems to be getting a little more comfortable playing in the post, playing against double teams. Tonight they tried to mix up their defense, put a physical guy, Fesenko, was really trying to get into his head by being physical with him. I thought, in the past, that affected him. Tonight he smiled at that. That type of play. Kenyon Martin tried to do that the other night, I saw him smile at that. He's maturing and learning how to play against different defenses.
Roy's season is in jeopardy?
We don't know. We know he's going to be out for an extended period of time. Will he be out for the year? That's a possibility.
How does strategy change without Roy?
We just have to go with our guys that are in uniform. I thought tonight those guys responded. They played well, played together, both ends of the floor, and defended home court.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter