Long Story Short: The Blazers can't get out of their own way for long enough to get a significant lead on the motivated Nuggets. Despite hanging around in the first half Portland fizzles down the stretch, ending the game with a whimper. Andre Miller dominates the ball and the scoreboard but Brandon Roy and several of the youngsters never get off the launching pad.
Both the Blazers and the Nuggets started this game in scoring mode. The Nuggets began with a Chauncey Billups three and then started working Nene Hilario inside and out, using his body and speed to break down the Blazers defense and make them worry about the paint. The Blazers, meanwhile, fed Marcus Camby for jump shots and followed up with LaMarcus Aldridge hitting a couple as well. If you notice a difference between those two approaches, give yourself a cookie. Denver's offensive approach was sustainable. Portland's wasn't. Though the Blazers led 15-13 with 5 minutes to go in the period it was an uneasy lead. Shockingly the Camby offensive well went dry. After that Portland was getting blocked at the rim and turning the ball over off the dribble. When they did get a free shot it was always a jumper. Meanwhile Denver got a Nene dunk, two Nene free throws, a Johan Petro dunk, a couple of mid-range Carmelo Anthony jumpers, a J.R. Smith layup, and an Anthony tip-in. It was either a dunk or Carmelo. The former were undefended, the latter un-defendable. Portland had to save the quarter with a couple points from Howard, a last Camby "J", and a Rudy three. The scoreboard said 27-24 Denver after one. The writing on the wall said, "Uh oh."
That's when the bench hit. We'll just kill the suspense right away and say it wasn't good. Martell Webster turned the offense way up, scoring 7 in the first 4 minutes of the period. That's the good news. The bad news is that Portland needed all of that plus a couple buckets from LaMarcus Aldridge just to keep the margin under double-digits. Portland continued to turn the ball over. Worse they never got back on defense. Denver just ran the Portland reserves into the ground, getting back on the break proper or for quick threats. The Nuggets' offense actually stalled when they couldn't set up quickly but it didn't matter because they beat Portland's defense down the floor plenty. Portland was up by 3 with 9:51 in the quarter. (Thank you Martell!) 164 seconds later they were calling a timeout, down by 8. Webster was the only bench player remaining after. Portland's offense stalled at that point but at least they got back and stopped the Nuggets. With 3:30 left and still trailing by 7 Andre Miller took matters into his own hands, driving again and again. He scored a few times, shot free throws, and collapsed the defense. Webster hit another three and some free throws, completing his patented Super Quarter. Nene and Carmelo temporarily went cold. By the time the halftime horn sounded the Blazers' offense had turned into a bona fide run, more than matching Denver's earlier. Portland trailed by 1, 55-56, going into the break.
The third quarter was make-or-break time for both teams. Denver started out the period looking like they were going to give the game away. They tried to get the ball inside but Portland swarmed and swatted. The second option seemed to be hilarious jumpers. The door was open for the Blazers. Unfortunately Portland tripped on the threshold. Andre Miller missed half of a duo of clear path foul shots. After that the Portland offense was jumpers, missed tips, and turnovers. All of these led to Denver being able to run again...the only offense that was working. Their next possessions went three-dunk-layup. They followed with extra threes, layups, and jumpers off of penetration. Brandon Roy showed up briefly (remember that, as that's the last time you'll hear his name) and Portland manufactured a hodge-podge of points from Miller and Aldridge. But everything was slow, against defenders, almost forced. Nobody moved much. Guards tattooed the court with the dribble. When the period ended Denver had scored 31 and the Blazers but 21. Nobody looked comfortable. Denver wasn't dominating the game. But they were up 9 and that's what mattered.
Any hope of a comeback went out the window when Carmelo Anthony started the period with 5 quick points. The Blazers were still scoring at that point. Webster hit another long jumper. Miller would get a half dozen off of a couple drives and a short jumper. But it was still Miller and Webster. Meanwhile Denver went to Anthony, Billups, and Nene. Shockingly the latter trio produced more than the former duo. It's not like Portland didn't get their main guys shots. The shots just weren't set up well. Roy had 2 points in the period off of free throws. Aldridge had 2 points off of a jumper. And that was it. Carmelo had outscored both Blazer stars in the first three minutes of the quarter. Denver didn't even need to run to extend their lead. Portland just never threatened it. The Nuggets trotted off with a 109-92 victory.
It's hard to pinpoint a single cause for this game going south. The lapses in transition defense were significant, especially since those easy buckets were the only thing giving the Nuggets confidence for much of the game. You could see that this team was a far cry from the dominating squad before the Kenyon Martin injury. But getting 18 fast break points will buoy anybody's spirits. The Blazers didn't allow that many in the last four games combined. Denver also finished with a 52-36 edge in the paint. Portland's individual defense was spotty but they did a nice job closing down the middle when Denver wasn't on the run. This left some perimeter shooters open but that storm could have been weathered. The lightly-opposed buckets drove Denver's overall percentage up to 49.4%. Portland, without the same running opportunities, languished at 41.3%. The Blazers couldn't generate enough advantages anywhere else to make up that difference. Free throws were even. Rebounds were even. Turnovers were even at 11 but Denver scored 18 off of Portland's but the Blazers scored only 7 off of Denvers...likely because Denver's came in the form of charges while Portland's came by tossing passes to opponents. Whether it was fatigue, getting shaken, or just getting overmatched the Blazers never developed a viable way to make a dent in this game. It was individual heroics or nothing. And we didn't see enough individual heroics to come close.
Shooting 3-13 with 3 rebounds and 3 assists Brandon Roy will want to forget this game soon. The only thing that saved him was his 7-7 foul line clip but even that was good for only 14 points. He'd have needed a superstar night to hit the shots he was attempting though. He's had those, so you can't fault him entirely for thinking he could make them. But he was covered on all of them and couldn't hit any.
The Nuggets decided to live with whatever LaMarcus Aldridge could do to them on the perimeter, preferring to swarm Brandon and swamp Andre Miller when he drove. LaMarcus responded with a nice enough 7-15 night and 16 points. He also had 3 assists. He got 7 rebounds, which was so-so. He also had 4 blocks, which was stellar. It looks like he's discovered the power of the come-from-behind help block in the last few games. It's something I've been waiting to see from a guy who is 6'11" with wingspan and speed. You saw him swat away those attempts like a hawk swooping in to snag a rabbit. Now imagine what he could do when Greg Oden is in the middle creating an enormous obstacle for everyone who drives down the lane. This is one of the ways LMA could be effective, perhaps devastating, on defense without being a prime defender himself.
Shooting 8-18 and 8-12 from the foul line, Andre Miller tried to take over this game offensively. Somebody had to, I suppose. He scored a game-high 24. He had but 1 assist. As it is so often with Roy when he tries to put the team on his back, it's chicken and egg whether the lack of motion forced ‘Dre to handle matters himself or whether ‘Dre handling matters himself helped kill any motion in the offense. I think it's one of those nights where things just weren't going to move and Miller did his best to save us. At least he was bull-headed about driving instead of shooting jumpers like his teammates. But most nights when ‘Dre tries to save us by being a scorer first it's not going to work precisely because nobody else touches the ball in good position to score. It's not his fault, but games like this are a symptom of the offense going wrong.
Marcus Camby shot 6-7 on a steady diet of jumpers early, ending with 12 points, 8 rebounds, and 2 blocks. He had trouble with Nene and didn't get much help. His fouled hampered his aggressiveness as well as his playing time. He ended the game with 5. His second half wasn't anything to write home about.
Martell Webster shot 6-9, 2-3 from distance, and scored 17 in 28 minutes. He got extra time because of foul trouble and because this wasn't Nicolas Batum's night. Most of his scoring came in the second quarter and (predictably) he was quiet after. He did what he could defending Carmelo Anthony...mostly well, occasionally not. He fouled out in the process. I've seen ‘Melo do worse things to us though. He shot 10-21 for 25 points with 9 turnovers.
Nicolas Batum, on the other hand, had a headache-inducing game. He played 20 minutes, shot 0-4, and turned the ball over twice. His defense was pedestrian. This was not vintage Batum.
Rudy Fernandez went 1-8 in 18 minutes for 3 points, 2 assists, and 2 rebounds. Nate went with the Rudy-Roy-Nic and Rudy-Roy-Webster lineups in the middle of the second half. It didn't work. The offense never got close to being on track. On the other hand the offense wasn't really on track for the entire half no matter who was in there. But this was not vintage Rudy either.
Nate went with that lineup in the second half, second-unit phase because Jerryd Bayless had another rough outing. His 3 assists didn't speak as loud as his 2 turnovers in his 7 minutes of play. He didn't attempt a shot. There was little or no offense to set. Neither he nor anyone else around him got back on "D". Except for brief moments Jerryd seems lost out there. Laying it on the line, right now he doesn't look like he can be trusted with minutes in these key games, or at least not in the role he's trying to play.
Juwan Howard played 24 minutes, had 5 rebounds and 3 assists, but didn't do anything to stem the tide. When things are going bad he's not going to save you.
Pendergraph, Cunningham, and Diener got 2 minutes each.
Even though this wasn't the game of our dreams, it's probably not a big deal. Not being able to win a game against a wounded and sinking opponent when you're on a roll and a victory would speak volumes about your playoff drive doesn't bode well for your chances of pulling off an amazing seeding leap or playoff performance. Nights like this show that the 2009-10 Blazers are a good team but not a great one. It's going to take a miraculous set of performances (and maybe circumstances) for Portland to make a major statement in or around the post-season. But even being a good team and making the playoffs could be considered a miracle given how this season has gone. And this game was definitely a luxury rather than a necessity in the seeding battle the Blazers are currently involved in. It was penciled in as a loss and a loss it was. The critical swing games are still ahead: Saturday on the road versus the Kings, next against the Clippers, and above all at home against the Thunder. (Though OKC did take down the Celtics tonight to put more pressure on.) Win those and you almost certainly won't be in 8th place no matter what the standings and the loss column say tonight.
Check out the relief at DenverStiffs.
P.S. Confidential to Chris "Birdman" Andersen: Unless you live in a rusted pickup up on blocks in the back of someone else's house you need to shave. You look like you're auditioning to be the replacement bassist for C.C.R. I didn't think it was possible for you to get more creepy but dude, you're like the Picasso of Creep. State Fair pitchmen, carnies, and little girl beauty pageant judges everywhere are going, "I wish I had his mojo."