The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Philadelphia 76ers, 107-103, in their season opener at the Rose Garden on Monday night.
It's no secret by now: This is a generally fun-to-watch and ego-free group that has established immediate rapport off the court. The striking takeaway from their first official performance is how quickly both strengths and weaknesses were revealed. This first date was tight clothes, a bubbly personality and a few of those "I probably shouldn't admit this to a total stranger, but..." moments with the potential to pendulum swing between endearing and insufferable as the relationship progresses.
The up-tempo potential is certainly there, particularly after forced turnovers. 28 points off 20 turnovers doesn't lie. Passing lane deflections morph fairly seamlessly into transition opportunities and there were regularly finishing options -- both at the rim and spotting up -- galore. The night's most inspired play came with some back and court passing between guards Jamal Crawford and Wesley Matthews in an advantage situation. Loose and confident, how basketball was meant to be played.
The balance between that increased pace and an engaged alpha dog LaMarcus Aldridge was also shown to be achievable. Given the collective post-Brandon Roy attack, it's unlikely we'll find ourselves writing or thinking that Aldridge "took too many shots" on a given night. Tonight he took 25, going 0-for-5 in the fourth quarter, and he wasn't approaching my comfort limit. Raymond Felton's to-the-basket activity and Aldridge's subsequent mobility in halfcourt sets should ensure a shot chart with sufficient diversity and efficiency.
The rotation jigsaw puzzle pieces generally fit nicely with the exception of the Nicolas Batum / Gerald Wallace misfit, one that will only be resolved by going small or by trade. The rest of the top-8 parts don't leave many questions and guys 9-12 are able to contribute in small roles (for now) that minimize their relative importance in the grander scheme. Aldridge finished with 25, Wallace chipped in an active 21 and the four other Blazers who are expected to score (Matthews, Felton, Crawford, Batum) all hit double figures. That's the basic game plan with a touch extra added by Wallace.
But while the theoretical fit is essentially in place, late-game certainty couldn't be a more open question.
"I probably shouldn't admit this to a total stranger but I experience serious, embarrasing stomach problems watching a starting point guard sprawled on the ground after a behind-the-back pass backfires in his hand like a defective gun with less than a minute to play and the game still in doubt."
In Game 1, Blazers coach Nate McMillan leaned on Aldridge, Wallace, Felton, Matthews and center Marcus Camby late at the expense of Crawford, who wound up being used in offense/defense situations towards the very end, and Batum, who simply sat. As the season progresses Camby's closing role will likely diminish but, even then, the Blazers will still be left with six players to play five closing spots.
"Tonight was about trying to figure out the rotation and look at the combinations," McMillan said. "It's still a work in progress here."
Monday's late-game question mark was clearly Felton.
In the final four minutes, a stretch that saw Philadelphia close on a 19-9 run, Felton shot 1-for-3 from the field, missed two free throws and committed one of the most dumbfounding turnovers you will ever see.
With less than a minute remaining, Felton attempted a behind-the-back pass outside the three-point line to an on-the-move Wallace. The pass made it roughly 25 percent of the way to its target. Felton was called for a foul in the ensuing mix-up giving Philadelphia a critical possession with Portland clinging to a 103-97 lead. Here's the video. It's spellbinding. What is happening?
I wouldn't have the foggiest clue what to compare this to except NBA referee Bill Kennedy attempted an equally horrible behind-the-back pass during a Christmas Day game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Orlando Magic. Here's the video via YouTube user ahoylaxers.
Of course, there are two key differences between these plays. One: Kennedy's pass was made during a dead ball situation while Felton's was made during a critical fourth quarter possession. Two: Kennedy is a referee while Felton is a player.
Then, less than thirty second later, Felton aggressively charged the basket only to have the foray wind up with the ball out of bounds. The ref signaled that it was off of him and gave Philadelphia the ball back with another chance to climb back into the game. Afterwards, Felton disputed that call but owned up to the stranger-than-fiction behind-the-back pass.
"Second one didn't go off on me but the referee made the call. Can't argue with the referees," Felton said. "The first one was on me."
That sequence of sloppy play was followed by two missed free throws in the final 15 seconds -- each which would have iced the game -- before he secured a final rebound and knocked down a last free throw to provide the winning margin.
Camby said Felton sought him out for a unique brand of support in those trying moments.
"He was a little bit down on himself at the end when he missed those free throws," Camby said. "He came over and he told me to curse him out and get on him." Instead, Respect These Years told Felton to Trust His Abilities.
"You get frustrated with yourself," Felton said. "It's always good to have a teammate that's like, 'Don't worry about it. Knock this one down.' I'm my biggest critic. I'm always tough on myself."
His coach avoided any hint of direct public criticism.
"I thought we did a good job of controlling that game for the most part," McMillan said, when asked about the nervous final minutes. "They started to make some shots late. We needed to finish and execute down the stretch. Make some free throws and we did that. We're going to be in games like that, there's a lot of room for improvement for us but we got this win and it's best to learn off of a win than a loss."
Looping back to the original thought: Portland's lack of familiarity and go-to 5-man unit for crunch time has emerged, from the opening bell, as the first season-defining question. Felton will either rise to the challenge -- aided by continually improving chemistry and better team conditioning -- or he won't. If he doesn't, there are readily available options, including a Crawford/Matthews/Batum/Wallace/Aldridge lineup that is big (in the backcourt), balanced, experienced, versatile, dynamic and athletic. But you get the sense that the Blazers really, really hope Felton becomes their reliable halfcourt guy just as he has already made a fairly grand entrance as the pace-changer. Desperately hope. Contract extension as soon as possible hope.
Games, as they have for decades, slow down at the end, buckets become harder to come by, turnovers become increasingly inexcuseable and, everyone together, you've got to make your free throws. McMillan showed excellent patience and a loose leash on Monday but, like any veteran coach, those maxims are ingrained permanently into his synapses.
Raymond Felton doesn't need to be Brandon Roy, but he'll need to do better than that if this is going to be a match.
Random Game Notes
- Jason Quick of The Oregonian reports that -- to no one's surprise -- forward LaMarcus Aldridge and center Marcus Camby have been voted team captains. If this is anything like the lockout and NBPA team representative gig, look for Luke Babbitt to get a giant "C" stitched on his jersey any day now.
- Prior to tip off, the Blazers ran a video tribute to former guard Brandon Roy with the title, "He saved the best for last." The video included highlights from Game 4 against Dallas and drew a standing ovation from the Rose Garden crowd.
- Many fans wore Roy jerseys and held signs to honor Roy, including a few who went with the slogan "Never Forget." Those words are best known as a reference to the Holocaust and 9/11. Maybe it would be prudent if everyone agreed to medically retire and/or amnesty those signs.
- The pregame montage also specifically called out LaMarcus Aldridge ("Portland's All-Star"), Wesley Matthews ("Rising Star") and Nicolas Batum ("Secret Weapon").
- The players did not enter the court from individual aisles as they have in previous season openers but instead emerged one-by-one through a smoke-filled tunnel set up by the team's bench. LaMarcus Aldridge was introduced last.
- New Blazers guard Jamal Crawford took a mic to midcourt to address the crowd before the game. He thanked everyone for sticking with the team through the long lockout and said something to the effect of: "The NBA might have started yesterday (Christmas) but it didn't begin in front of the best fans in the NBA." Excellent energy in the building throughout the game.
- Blazers rookie guard Nolan Smith took the court first for warm-ups, all by himself initially. Raymond Felton said that he and Marcus Camby pranked the rookie by telling him to run out while the rest of the team held back. Smith is the ultimate good-natured guy and didn't seem to mind the ribbing one bit. "Just a little initiation," Felton said.
- Smith managed to fit the entire life cycle of a young Blazers back-up point guard into his three minutes of playing time. Stage one: raise expectations through the ceiling by confidently knocking down a three-pointer to the surprise of everyone. Stage two: ill-advised jump pass turnover. Stage three: rushed, contested shot in traffic. Stage four: back to the bench. Stage five: Never return to the game.
- A jumbotron video informed the crowd that Felton prefers the following foods (in comparison to other foods): Cake, chips, sausage, hot docks, pasta, French fries.
- The NBA has changed the roster set-up this year allowing teams to have 13 of their 15 players "active" for any given night. It used to be 12. With center Greg Oden out indefinitely with his knee issues, that leaves just one spot for an inactive player (barring any other injuries). Basically it's a duck-duck-goose, short straw, odd man out doghouse. Second-year guard Armon Johnson filled the spot on Monday. Someone please come up with a good, snappy nickname for this inactive spot.
- MockSession.com noted that the CSNPhilly broadcast ran an Oden "games played" graphic with the headline "Not So One-Derful" in reference to his selection as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft.
- That awkward moment when a young woman holds up a "Nicolas, I saved some mistletoe" sign.
- World-renowned basketball thinker Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus thought it was hilarious that I was under the mistaken impression that the Ace of Base song The Sign was actually called The Sun. "But why is opening up your eyes so important if it's not to see the sun," I asked? "What is this song even about?" That wound up being a metaphysical question too large for media row. Also, Pelton was choking on his tongue because he was laughing so hard. Worth noting: the song only plays when the jumbotron pans the crowd for signs (not suns). Also worth noting: this is the first KP2 story in four years that ends with me and not him being the butt of the joke.
- The Rose Garden suffered a massive wireless outage throughout much of the game. After the game, the circuit boards admitted to opening night jitters.
- During a timeout, the Blazers honored community leader Rob Ingram, who recently passed away.
Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments
I thought we were up and down. We get to our tempo and then we started to walk it down and I think that's due to conditioning. I thought our defense was pretty good the first half. We held them to 38% shooting. The second half they started to put their head down and penetrate and they were able to get to the rim and get second opportunities. Williams and Iguodala made big shots down the stretch. It was a lot of good in the game but there's a lot of room for improvement. We've got to shoot the ball better. I thought we were hesitant on some of our shots offensively and we've got to convert our second chance points. We had 17 offensive boards but only 12 second chance points.
Crawford exploded a bit in second half. You expecting that from him going forward?
I hope so. I hope so. Tonight was about trying to figure out the rotation and look at the combinations and we thought about leaving Crawford in there and maybe some nights where we do that. He had a rhythm going. We brought Raymond back in and finish this game. It's still a work in progress here.
You going to ride the hot hand late in games?
Not necessarily. Some nights you will go with that rotation. Tonight we went back with Raymond and went back with Wesley and tried to get Crawford a breather. I thought about going with a three guard rotation but Nic started to get something going, Gerald was doing some good things, Camby was defending well so we kind of went offense/defense those last few minutes.
97 field goal attempts
It's offensive rebounds. I thought it was the pace. I think we can play faster. I thought we started to walk the ball down the floor and got stagnant late in the game. I think that's due to conditioning. We have to play ourselves into shape.
Only 12 turnovers
It's not bad at all. Our three keys every night are to win the free throw line and be the aggressors, control the boards and take care of the ball. Tonight we won all three of those. That's what we want to do. We want to run and push but we want to execute and make sure we take care of the ball.
A matter of execution down the stretch?
I thought Williams hit one of those shots I thought he shot from the jump ball circle. Iguodala pulled up and we got a hand in his face. You want to contest. They made some big shots. You have to give them credit.
LaMarcus Aldridge quiet in the fourth: conditioning or coincidence?
I think it's both. Conditioning, Crawford started to knock down some shots in that fourth quarter. Nicolas was able to knock down some shots. We started to get stagnant, they started to double team a little bit. I thought conditioning definitely played a part with us stopping running.
Aldridge in the first three quarters
He was good. We want to play through him. We want him to get deep in the post and play through him. I thought he established that early.
Nerve-wracking at the end?
I thought we did a good job of controlling that game for the most part. They started to make some shots late. We needed to finish and execute down the stretch. Make some free throws and we did that. We're going to be in games like that, there's a lot of room for improvement for us but we got this win and it's best to learn off of a win than a loss.
First win big emotionally
It's always important to defend homecourt but with this season and everything compressed and the number of games, you're going to be playing a lot of games on back-to-backs. Your crowd, you can ride your crowd and play off of those emotions and the energy. It's important that you take care of homecourt.
8-man rotation in the second half. Can you play that way the whole game?
We're going to need guys to play. Tonight we shortened that rotation. We've got some guys over there that can play.
Camby was big
No question. I thought he kind of anchored both the offense and defense. He was knocking down some of his shots but his assists, I think he had four assists at the half and he ended up with six. He anchored that defense, clogging the middle, blocking shots, rebounding the ball. Big, big key to tonight's game.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter