Considering all of the twists and turns over the last eight months, the fact that the Portland Trail Blazers are gone fishing after 6 games in the first round of the playoffs for the second consecutive season isn't much of a surprise. As for the Phoenix Suns' 99-90 series-clinching victory in the Rose Garden, though, there were plenty of unexpected events.
First and foremost, there was a trapped Brandon Roy, a player who is normally so adept at creating space, suffocating helplessly under on-ball pressure. Slowed by a knee injury that has been written about ad nauseum over the past few weeks, Roy made his third and final valiant effort to take the court during this series. "I wanted to finish the season in uniform and playing," Roy said after the game. "I couldn't imagine being in a suit, seeing these guys get knocked out of the playoffs. I just wanted to be out there with them."
Tonight Roy languished under the pressure of double-teams, his inability to drive and cut drastically reducing his available options. His decision-making was also slower than usual and his presence seemed to sap some of Portland's offensive flow and momentum. Regularly unable to free himself for a jumper, Roy wound up making late in the shot clock passes that led to long, contested jumpers for his teammates. When he did shoot, Roy was off balance and forcing the issue. He fell to the floor multiple times without sustaining major contact. "I wasn't able to play as well as I liked. I didn't have quite the bounce that I needed to," Roy admitted. He finished with just 14 points, going 4 for 16 from the field and 1 of 8 from deep.
Even more surprising than Roy's ineffectiveness -- which was anticipated to some degree given the timeline of his recovery from knee surgery -- was the virtual nonexistence of two of Portland's key acquisitions: Andre Miller and Marcus Camby.
Miller, hailed all season as the team's floor general and as a potential X-factor in this series, saw his crunch time minutes handed over to the younger, quicker, more aggressive (but only slightly more effective) Jerryd Bayless. Unable to provide the outside shooting to help space the floor against Phoenix's trapping defense, Miller played just 18 minutes, saw only a brief glimpse of the fourth quarter and finished with just 4 points and 3 assists in the team's biggest game of the season. Miller's numbers for the series were better than Steve Blake's last year but his overall impact wasn't significantly greater.
Camby, meanwhile, was virtually invisible, playing the translucent Jarron Collins, who couldn't even make Portland's roster in September, to a draw. In recent weeks, Camby was so crucial to ensuring the Blazers made the playoffs that he earned himself a big contract extension payday. Down double-digits in the second half and looking for quick points, Nate McMillan opted for a guard-heavy small lineup and totally ignored Camby, who has been battling ankle and finger injures. Camby finished with 4 points and 4 rebounds in just 21 minutes; In his absence, Amar'e Stoudemire threw in multiple brutal dunks and the smaller Suns surprisingly won the rebounding battle 40-35.
But there were pleasant surprises for the Blazers too. The inspired play of Bayless (12 points, 4 rebounds and 7 assists) and Martell Webster (19 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists), as well as a late flourish from Rudy Fernandez (5 of 6 from deep for 16 points), kept the Blazers close. "We honestly had nothing to lose," Webster explained. "Might as well leave all the sweat on the court, blood, tears, go out there and fight." During the three previous losses to Phoenix in this series that fight had been inconsistent. In Game 6, All three bench players displayed an urgency and energy level that kept them on the court for longer than they might have expected. All three were big time questions marks coming into this series; all three, even Rudy, can build off of their positive contributions in tonight's pressure cooker.
Taking both the good and bad surprises together, we are left with a Blazers team that was, understandably, undergoing an identity crisis at the worst possible moment. Without its star healthy, without enough time playing together to develop true trust and chemistry, without much of the depth that entered training camp, Portland was forced to over-achieve and gimmick victories over the past two months or so. That worked swimmingly against weaker competition during March.
But once the playoffs hit, they ran into a brick wall of an opposing offense and promptly ran out of gimmicks. A battle-tested and hungry group of competitors was left miffed at how quickly the season had slipped away. "Last year we were frustrated but it was different," Nicolas Batum told me as he slumped in front of his locker, still wearing his game uniform and fiddling with his sore shoulder. "This year we are very frustrated."
When push came to shove against a more talented Suns team, the Blazers didn't know who they were. Phoenix was able to dictate the terms of the game and the series. Roy won't get a clean look. Aldridge will work for every single basket. Andre won't get cheap buckets. Your role players will need to beat us and they'll need to beat us with jumpers. We will force you to rotate perfectly on defense. When you don't get back in transition we will burn you over and over again. We will, finally, after 5 relatively quiet games, break you down inside with 22 points from Amar'e Stoudemire. We will, in the end, play at your pace because we know we are so much better than you that it doesn't matter.
That dominance was challenged briefly during the most exciting stretch of the game for Blazers fans, a 17-7 run that overlapped the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth. Webster hit three 3 pointers, Fernandez added another one, Bayless hit a jumper and Aldridge made a free throw. "We knew they were double-teaming quick," Nate McMillan said after the game. "And all we had to do was get the ball out and knock down our shots. Those guys are knocking down shots and we stayed with them."
But the Suns remained poised just as they did after dropping Game 1, just as they did after Roy's dramatic Game 4 return. Stoudemire responded immediately with a basket, Goran Dragic finished a pretty runner and then Jason Richardson took advantage of some pitiful Fernandez defense, scoring identical layups on back-to-back curls that pushed the lead back to 8 points. "It seemed like every time we were able to get close, we made a mistake, whether it was a turnover or a bad possession," McMillan said. "And they make you pay."
As if that wasn't enough, Richardson tossed in a three with less than 5 minutes to play. The basket gave him a team-leading 28 points on the night and stamped this series as his own. "J. Rich, hell of a series," Webster said, shaking his head, giving all due respect. It's safe to say that Richardson isn't the same player that he was two weeks ago.
Ultimately so much of the identity crisis that was Portland's undoing tonight can be traced back to the extended absence of center Greg Oden. Oden was in the Rose Garden tonight, quiet and unassuming as always, mostly avoiding the media that swarmed his teammates after the game. Roy, after dressing slowly and answering dozens of questions about tonight's game, told me that he had only spoken briefly with Oden -- "nothing too deep" -- since the center returned to Portland from Indiana to be with his teammates this week.
"[Oden] is still a big part of our team now," Roy told me. "Now it's just him going home, going to work and coming back like he did this year. You kinda gotta knock on wood and hope he stays healthy."
It's that Oden-induced, organization-wide limbo that makes tonight's loss -- and this season as a whole -- so frustrating. Like Batum pointed out, this season ended the same as last season but it's a different kind of frustrating. Last year, perhaps, was a "hang your head" frustration. This year, it has been a "look to the sky for answers" frustration.
Nate McMillan's Post Game Comments
First, congratulations to Phoenix and Alvin and those guys. I think they're a tough team to guard, they were on top of their game, and just posed a huge challenge for us. It seemed like every time we were able to get close, we made a mistake, whether it was a turnover or a bad possession. And they make you pay. Nash has had an MVP type season. Richardson was big this series. Amar'e came with his A game tonight. Those guys, Hill and the supporting cast, I hate to call them that, but they are good. If you double team or you leave them they make you pay.
He struggled to get his rhythm. He wasn't able to move like he normally does. Richardson did a good job of crowding him and getting into the ball. I thought Alvin had a pretty good game plan. Each guy we put Brandon on they basically made him run. Richardson they ran some sets where he had to chase and Hill, or Brandon, had to chase and make him work. And they just crowded him. I think he had about two rips tonight by just crowding him. He was trying to get a rhythm and just couldn't get that rhythm.
Did you consider sitting Brandon?
We thought about that. They were double-teaming and double-teaming both LaMarcus and Brandon. Mainly LaMarcus. I just tired to get some shooting out there. Martell and Rudy and Bayless, that group got us back in the game both halves. I decided to go with Brandon at the point because again every time we would get close we just needed to settle down. And make sure that we had a good possession. We kinda lost our composure and either turned the ball over or had a bad possession.
I was going to use my bench even though the first unit had been playing well, we needed the bench. We've needed those guys all series long. Rudy and Martell's shots were falling tonight. We were posting up LaMarcus. We knew they were double-teaming quick. And all we had to do was get the ball out and knock down our shots. Those guys are knocking down shots and we stayed with them. That trap had an effect the last game. We didn't knock down those shots and those shots led to transition buckets. Tonight we were able to get something out of that so we stayed with that group.
Message to the team after the game
Well, I'm proud of the guys. I thought we fought all year long. With everything they had to go through, all the injuries, we're not making excuses but they had to fight through a lot. We had guys step up and play and be productive and was able to win 50 games. Which I think is a benchmark for a team having a really good year, not just a good year when you win 50 games. With all the adversity and injuries that we had this year we were able to do that. That's not just our goal. Our goal is not to just win 50 games and get to the playoffs. We're putting this team together and signing guys and drafting players to win a championship one day.
As I told them, what are we going to do tomorrow? Sometimes you think you're tired and your body is hurting, you need a rest, you need a break. There's nothing to do tomorrow. We're putting this team together to win a championship and I hope it hurts right now, for all of us, even if we're without some guys. We have Brandon coming back, we still have a chance. This needs to hurt, we need to get a grasp on really how this feels because next year at this time we want to be moving on to the next round. Competing for a championship.
He's just nailing 3s. You make mistakes. I didn't think we were guarding the ball, controlling the ball the first half. Their guards were able to get into the paint, our defense was collapsing. And that led to 3 point ball. And if you do that they'll trade a 2 for a 3. They will give up layups just to get the ball in and get down and get a 3 point look. We knew that and we didn't do a good job of controlling the ball.
Fans gave ovation at the end
To hear the fans cheer at the end, I thought it was good for our guys. That just shows the support. They know what we've gone through. It was just proud, they were proud of this team, responding, playing hard, playing the game the right way, giving itself a chance to win games. I think they respect that and they showed that by their support at the end.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter