The Short Version
The Blazers jump to an 11 point lead in the first half against the Hornets, but show zero ability to step on their throat, letting New Orleans stick around through defensive lapses and lack of energy until they get hot in the fourth quarter and pull away. A few Blazers may as well have hung out listening to their MP3 player on the bus, as they didn't seem to be aware they were playing basketball. This disheartening loss drops Portland into 7th place, and considering Memphis' remaining schedule, increases the odds of a first round match-up against the number one seed.
The Long Version
The teams tip off in an intense game for playoff position in front of many excited empty seats. After a slow start for both teams, the Hornets hit 5 straight shots, offset by good starts from the dialed-in combo of LaMarcus Aldridge and Andre Miller, leading to a 12-10 Blazer lead after 6 mins. As an early sign of how slow the Blazers' defense would be, Marco Belinelli hits 3 straight wide open three-pointers to give New Orleans a 4 point lead. In return "Good Rudy" shows up early, providing a couple layups, including three point play. In fact, the short-staffed Hornets have trouble keeping the Blazers away from the hoop in general. A Brandon Roy elbow jumper gives the Blazrs a 5 point lead, then a Patty Mills three makes it 8. But even Buck Rogers didn't foresee an Aaron Gray buzzer beating tip-in that made it a 6 point lead after 1.
Nate starts the second with an unusual lineup: Patty Mills, Brandon, Rudy, LaMarcus, and Marcus Camby. It seems to work at first. Aldridge continues his run in the second, raining jumpers down upon the Big Easy. His 4 quick points give the Blazers 10 point lead. Meanwhile, Patty is on fire, hitting jumpers for 10 of the last 14 Blazer points, maintaining the 10 point lead. In fact, it's completely the Patty and LaMarcus show on offense. From 45 seconds remaining in the first, to 2:35 remaining in the second, no other Blazer scores a single point. This sounds good, but in reality, the Blazers were outscored in that stretch, 24-18. Why? Defense, of course. While going on a run, the Blazer bench racked up fouls early in the second quarter, and the Hornets took full advantage as the starters returned. NO hangs around all quarter with free throws, thanks to more Portland team fouls. Then the Blazers just went cold. In successive possessions, LaMarcus missed a jumper, a pair of FT's, and somehow even airballed a dunk. Meanwhile, Landry and Okafor bring the Hornets to within 1. Batum and Wallace bump the lead back up to 5, Blazer defensive pressure picks up.
Late in the second, the game swings on a single play. While following a struggling Chris Paul up court, Wallace cannot see a waiting Emeka Okafor, waiting to lean a shoulder in for a monster pick on Wallace, who hits the floor like a bag of wet cement. With Crash laying, the Hornets take advantage, passing to Okafor who is fouled on the arms by both Miller and Matthews. Based on those hard shots on his arms, Emeka hits the deck like there's a sniper in the third deck. In one of those magical NBA moments, the refs decide it's best to not let the game get out of control (which wasn't an issue before the Emeka shoulder), and charge Andre Miller with a flagrant foul for slapping Emeka's arm. You know, I have to give credit to Okafor for starting trouble, then finding away to get the benefit from it. A shaken and woosy Wallace leaves for the locker room. Combined with a late Okafor
goaltendblock of Miller, a thrilled Hornets team crawls back to within two at the end of the half. For both the fans and the team, this was a very tough end to the first half, and a visibly frustrated Blazer team headed to the locker room.
How important were the second quarter fouls? In the first quarter, the Hornets attempted zero FT's. In the second? 14.
Defying expectations, Wallace returns the court to start the second half. Wesley Matthews, LaMarcus and Wallace all hit shots early to spread the scoring around. However, here come more early fouls! The Blazers were called for 4 fouls before the Hornets get their first, with 7 minutes remaining. By the time Belinelli hits another three, the Hornets have taken a one point lead. The Blazers turn up the defensive pressure, and hand the ball to Crash and Aldridge to regain the lead. Okafor keeps the Hornets close at the defensive end, stopping or blocking every play in the paint. Between Okafor's defensive presence, and more Hornet free throws, New Orleans survives 7 minutes without a field goal with just a minor deficit. A Patty three swish and CP three airball helps the Blazers stretch to a 7 point lead, and...
I'd like to pause this recap to take a breath, relax, and reflect on how nice this moment was. A struggling Chris Paul airballs a three. Patty nails one at the other end. The Blazers have weathered a few storms and have come out looking good somehow. A seven point lead heading into the fourth could feasibly be maintained, and they just need to get through another minute of the third and keep the Hornets' confidence low. It would be the last happy Blazer moment in this game.
... that's where it all falls apart. In 30 seconds, Jarrett Jack makes a jumper, Patty Mills hands the ball to Chris Paul, who runs to the other end and hits a layup while being fouled by Mills. A 7 point lead is down to 2, just like that.
For the first few minutes of the fourth quarter, the teams swap the lead. But a missed Roy jumper leads to a Willie Green three pointer for a 4 point Hornet lead. In response, the Hornets put on a Sub Zero outfit and press down, forward, low punch. Just like that, the Blazers are covered in ice. With 5 minutes left, the Hornets have gone on a 21-5 run and lead by 9. The Blazers know the rim intimately, but are still asking for an introduction to the net. As the clock ticks under 4 minutes, the Blazers begin their patented late-fourth last gasp. The Blazers cut the lead to 5, but each time they score, Jarrett Jack and Chris Paul hold them at bay. With 1 minute left, a defensive stop plus an Andre Miller layup finally cuts the lead to three. The teams swap missed free throws, and the Blazers hold lead back at three with 40 seconds left, Hornets ball. If they stop NO, they have a chance to tie.
The Hornets happily run the clock down, and Jarrett Jack hands a gift to the Blazers, misses a three badly. In lieu of a timeout Andre Miller runs up court and, driving against Chris Paul, watches helplessly as the ball squirts right out of his hands, landing in the Hornets' waiting hands. It was all over but the free throws, and a late Wesley Matthews three.
Summary: This was supposed to be a game with playoff implications, and therefore high intensity. But in reality, it felt like two teams who never really caught their balance. Portland played strong stretches, followed by lulls. They were slow on defense most of the night, and it cost them with early fouls leading to a Hornet march to the free throw line. On offense, they executed like a team at the end of a late-season road trip. Less than half the field goals were from assists, and one-on-one plays ruled the day. The Hornets were ripe for a defeat, looking nothing like a team ready for a deep playoff run. Even with 12 assists, Chris Paul can't take them to the next level, and this was a game waiting for the Blazers to take. But they had nothing left in the tank, and simply could not put the Hornets away when they had the chance.
So at this point, we may drop to the 8th seed. Assuming the Spurs hold the pole position, I'm not sure this is good or bad.
LaMarcus Aldridge had a good night. As tired as he may feel, it's hard to complain about 24 points (on 19 shots) and 15 rebounds. He worked hard against Carl Landry and Emeka Okafor, and his legs looked fresh until late. I'd like more than 4 FT's from my power forward, but that didn't seem likely tonight, especially as his perimeter shot was dialed in for part of the night. Without LaMarcus, this game may have never been close. If you're into the blame game, he's not your guy.
Andre Miller was a mixed bag tonight. It's hard to complain when your PG gives you 19 points on 8-12 shooting, but he only added 5 assists. To some extent, that's not his fault. You can only pass a ball to a player who bricks a shot so many times until you get numb to it. On the other hand, Andre coughed up the ball on a big possession late. But would we have even been that close without some nice earlier shooting? Who knows.
Gerald Wallace, despite being utterly demolished late in the half, still contributed nicely. 14 points (50% shooting), 10 boards, 3 assists and a block. I have to admit he's spoiling me quickly, since I saw his line and thought "meh". But he brought the same game he brings every night: 100%.
Patty Mills would have been proud of his performance if it ended in victory. 13 points on 5-5 shooting (3 three pointers) in 10 minutes is nothing to sneeze at. On the other hand, his defense was problematic, and the offense bogged down with him as the leader, ending with 1 assist. In my last recap, I commented that Patty shouldn't be on the court, after an awful game. But on a night like this, we needed some outside shooting to open up the middle. I wouldn't have minded seeing a little more Patty tonight, perhaps a few minutes next to Andre. Nonetheless, this was a case of Patty giveth and Patty taketh away.
Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum. Sigh. Combined stats: 3-14, 9 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 block, 3 turnovers, 7 fouls. both guys were simply invisible. Batum's 23 minutes may be reflective of his quad contusion, or perhaps Nate sensed that Nic didn't have it tonight. Their main contribution was on the defensive end, but we needed more from both of them tonight. Even a combined 7-17 would have turned this game on its ear.
Rudy Fernandez was Good Rudy early, then Passive Rudy late. 7 points on 8 shots, which was mitigated a bit by 3 rebounds, 4 assists, and a block to save two points on a Hornets fast break. We desperately need Rudy's confidence, and he seems to have none to give.
Marcus Camby had 5 rebounds and 3 fouls in 17 minutes, and little else. I don't know if Marcus isn't recovering from his injury, doesn't play well off the bench, or is simply tired. But the contrast from just one year earlier is striking.
Lastly, Brandon Roy. I'm not sure where to start. 2-6 shooting for 5 points, 2 assists, and 1 turnover. It's almost physically painful to see how irrelevant Brandon has been since dominating the Dallas game. He's a defensive liability, he struggles to create space for his once-legendary elbow jumper, and he can't penetrate against mediocre defenders in one on one situations. I think my only hope is that he's conserving effort for the playoffs.
Free throws: New Orleans 22-29, Portland 12-16. The Hornets' ability to draw fouls was a key to the game, and was openly discussed by their coaching staff before halftime. Mission accomplished. How important were free throws? Let's recap all the other major stats.
Field Goals: NOH 34-73, POR 37-74
Three pointers: NOH 5-15, POR 5-14
Rebounds: NOH 35, POR 39
Assists: NOH 17, POR 18
Free throws tell the story tonight, huh? Also, thanks to Chris Paul, New Orleans also won the steal battle, 8-2, and the turnover battle, 5-10.
Dear Hornets, you're not in Charlotte anymore. I know, The "Nature Boy" Ric Flair is a legend in Charlotte, so using the "Woo!" sound effect makes complete sense. But in New Orleans? Really?
Tonight was Patrick Ewing Jr.'s first game in the NBA. Good luck Patrick, find your own niche.
Rudy and Jarrett had a small scrum in the second half, leading to a double T. The only thing that can settle this is clearly MMA.
The Blazers leave the frying pan to fly home into the fire, facing Oklahoma City Friday night. It may not be a must-win, but it's more than a "this would be kinda nice" win.
Chin up, because this year, all you need to do is reach the dance, and anything could happen. -- Tim