One of the nicest things about playing the dregs of the NBA is that you often only need to play one solid quarter, at the right time, to escape with a win that you wouldn't usually deserve. That's exactly what happened in the Rose Garden on Saturday night, as the Portland Trail Blazers tightened the clamps and the New Jersey Nets tightened up in the fourth quarter, with the Blazers squeezing out a 96-89 win to end a three-game losing streak.
Insufficient would be the polite way to describe New Jersey's overall talent level, but Portland's defense played with such little effort and togetherness during the first half that talent never factored into it. Tall athletic men can dunk when uncontested, and that happened repeatedly during the first half, as New Jersey tallied a ridiculous 32 points in the paint on 16/22 shooting, making 60% of their shots as a team on the half. Nets center Brook Lopez led the rim parade, scoring in every conceivable manner from five feet and in as Blazer defenders waived at him, or watched him, or fouled him in the act of shooting, or moved out of his way. Lopez finished the game 32 points and just one offensive rebound; put-backs aren't necessary when the defenders are invisible.
The Blazers opened the second half on a 17-2 run but then promptly allowed a 19-4 New Jersey run, so that was pretty much a wash. In the fourth quarter, though, the Blazers pulled it together, and in a big way. Tipped passes led to run outs, Wesley Matthews drew a crucial charge, the Nets shot just 5-16 (0-5 from deep) and Portland did enough on offense to pull it out, thanks in large part to a season-high 23 points from Nicolas Batum -- including six points and four shot attempts in the fourth quarter -- that made up for a quiet night from Wesley Matthews.
After the game, Blazers center Marcus Camby pointed the finger at Portland's perimeter defense for the easy buckets in the first half and said that coach Nate McMillan emphasized the team's weakside defensive principles at halftime. "Coach talked about our weakside, and we got tired of them getting easy buckets. We stepped up going down the stretch. I think it started on the perimeter, usually our perimeter breaks down a lot and we get a lot of guards driving our lane and it puts us bigs in a tough position, either help or stay with our man."
Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldride who finished with 27 points, nine rebounds and five assists, echoed McMillan's thoughts. "I think our weakside was kind of spread out, we just played better defense [in the second half], started playing tight.".
Camby has a point, of course. Rudy Fernandez has real difficulties staying with players laterally, Patty Mills falls to the ground while playing on-ball defense at least once a game, and Andre Miller struggles to stay with the quicker guards in the league.
Minutes and fouls are a big part of the issue here too. The Blazers are using essentially a three-man frontcourt rotation, Aldridge got dinged early against the New York Knicks last week, and Camby finished with five fouls tonight. A few of the first half dunks, though, screamed for a hard foul, and while tough man Joel Przybilla did see the court, he played just five minutes and avoided registering a trillion by grabbing a single defensive rebound.
In his post-game comments, McMillan mentioned off-handedly that, "Joel [Przybilla] is not moving as well as we would like."
It's been another big factor, and not one often addressed in this space. Przybilla's lateral quickness has simply not recovered since his knee surgeries last season and his defensive radius has shrunk demonstrably. Told that McMillan had made a comment about his movement, Przybilla acknowledged to me that he's still working through the rehabilitation process. "I'm still not 100%. It's coming. I'm getting a little better."
Interestingly, Przybilla told me that he didn't have a target in mind for his minutes come playoff time and that his immediate focus was simply making it through the balance of the season without re-injuring himself. "I just want to get through this year, have a good summer, I just want to be injury-free, that's my goal for this year. It's a long haul, I'm not moving the way I want to, it's going to take time. The fact that I'm even out there [is big to me], people told me I would never play again."
Asked to put a percentage on his current health, which he had dodged a bit in the past, Przybilla said, "percentage-wise, I don't know, 75 or 80 percent? still a little ways to go... A lot of it is just timing. I've been away from the game of basketball for so long. Almost a year, that's a long time being away from something."
While a fully healthy Przybilla isn't the same kind of season-changer that a fully healthy Brandon Roy or Greg Oden would be, it would be extremely useful, especially on nights like this, when a more talented team should dispose of an also-ran without real difficulty.
Random Game Notes
- Briefly on Brandon Roy's knee surgeries since there were some questions at the arena tonight. The scopes announced this week are essentially a sideways step. Arthroscopic surgeries are, generally speaking, minor procedures with short recovery times that often provide pain relief very quickly. Low risk and, in this case, likely a low reward as in Roy's condition it's unlikely the scopes will measurably improve his ability to manage the demands of an 82 game season or his overall long-term mobility. As Dwight Jaynes noted recently, one big auxiliary benefit of the surgeries will be a better look under the hood than an MRI can provide. What will it reveal? Probably what the Blazers expect to be there, as Roy has had multiple surgeries in the past and therefore multiple opportunities to assess what's there.
- Given that this course of action has been undertaken, it's certainly possible that Roy will be fully rehabbed from the surgeries, in as good of a condition as he can manage, by the time the playoffs come around. At that point the coaching staff and management will have a difficult decision to make regarding whether or not to activate him and how to go about re-incorporating him into the lineup. Could he be effective playing 15-20 minutes a night for the seven games in April plus a first round series? It's definitely possible. But there are obvious costs to chemistry and cohesion in attempting to work him back in. That decision will be influenced by how fast Roy can get back into game shape, and he alluded to that in his interview with Mike Barrett on Blazers.com. From the team's perspective, there's probably no rush. From Roy's perspective, you know he'll be pushing himself, as any athlete would. (Just as Przybilla did this past summer.)
- Would you believe me if I told you the pre-game entertainment tonight was sorority alumni competing to see who could speed-read a children's book the fastest? It was.
- Here's a disturbing question that came up during the first half: If you were a GM building over the next few seasons, would you rather have New Jersey's roster, cap situation and future or Portland's roster, cap situation and future? (Toss aside the Carmelo Anthony trade rumors for the time being.) New Jersey's core: Harris, Lopez, Favors, 2011 top five pick plus a bunch of additional picks. Portland's core: Aldridge, Batum, Matthews, two 2011 picks. New Jersey's aging players that represent big holes in the future: none. Portland's aging players that represent big holes in the future: Miller and Camby. New Jersey's contracts weighing down immediate short-term flexibility: absurd money for Outlaw. Portland's contract commitments weighing down immediate short-term flexibility: Roy, and likely Oden. Paul Allen's billions and Mikhail Prokhorov's billions cancel each other out. Brooklyn as a market draw for free agents is huge, but not yet a real factor. As of today, I would probably still take Portland's situation because Aldridge is the best player on both rosters, but I think it's a lot closer than you might expect. If Harris was the player that his strongest advocates think he is, I would lean towards New Jersey's because I do like Favors' upside a lot and it's hard to commit such a large percentage of your cap space on Roy/Oden without feeling that the risk is superseding the reward. You?
- Tip some to the curb for Sean Marks' playing time.
- Jay Allen of 95.5 FM reports on Twitter that Nicolas Batum said after the game that he has been assured by GM Rich Cho that he will not be traded. The sentiment is not surprising but that dialogue between management and player is good news, especially considering the circumstances and timing with respect to the trade deadline.
Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments
Pulled it out in fourth quarter
That's what we are talking about. You've got to make plays and make success happen. We talked about this before the game. Those hustle plays, loose balls, you've got to come up with them. You've got to make something happen down the stretch. Certainly in the fourth quarter when a game is close like that, you need to come up with stops and score and tonight we did that. We came up with some big stops, a number of guys did that. Made some big shots. I thought that tip that Camby had to LaMarcus, those are the type of things you must do in the fourth quarter to win ballgames.
Defensive plays down the stretch
Right. That's what we are talking about. We've been in this situation a lot this season. We've been on the other end of that. It comes down to you getting stops, you making things happen. You can't wait or assume that someone else is going to do it for you. As you mentioned we had a couple of charges, we came up with some big boards, Lopez was a nightmare all night long. LaMarcus did a nice job on him. We had some guys battling some injuries. Wesley, all of a sudden he's chasing Harris around. Miller I thought was big all night long for us tonight. A team effort but we made the plays.
I feel we should be better than a game above .500. But we are about a game above .500. You take where you are and you try to build off of that. This home stretch we've got here, one game at a time, Minnesota coming in next, let's take care of business there.
Hard to win in second half on second night of back-to-back
Hey, they played last night too. When we got in, we saw their plane. The luggage truck was just leaving. So they got here probably a few minutes before we did last night. Both teams are coming off of a loss, that's a tough team. They have some players. They're young players and it's a new team, but Lopez is a nightmare. Harris -- we've had trouble controlling speed. I thought our guards did a nice job tonight when they went to their small lineup. I thought our defense, as far as mixing up our coverages on Lopez, wasn't bad. We had to gut it out. LaMarcus was running on fumes tonight, but made some big plays.
Big minutes for all five starters
Hey, we're playing to win. Those were the guys who were getting it done. The guys who are getting it done out there, you keep them out there. We were trying to manage time, Dre played big minutes last night, had a good game going tonight, wanted to get him back out there. Joel is not moving as well as we would like. So Camby, LaMarcus and Dante had to play minutes tonight.
Hot shooting for New Jersey to start the game
It was them and our D. They were hot, shooting 60% in that first half. The thing we did tonight is what we talked about before the game, and what we've been talking about. We did it. You've got to make plays. Being down, that team having control of the game, we didn't give in. We fought and made the plays to win.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter