The Houston Rockets defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 94-89, at the Rose Garden on Monday night, dropping Portland's record to 27-31 on the season. The Blazers are 4.5 games out of the playoffs with eight games to play.
One member of the Blazers played to the final whistle on Monday night. That man was interim coach Kaleb Canales, who did his job with urgency and passion all the way to the buzzer. He called a timeout with 16 seconds left and his team down eight, ordered his team to pressure and foul, and then called another timeout with five seconds left and his team down seven. All this in a game where the Blazers never bothered to hit third gear energy-wise and came up empty on back-to-back-to-back possessions during crunch time, blowing a long shot to get back into the game as Houston went an astonishing seven straight possessions from the 5 minute mark to the 1:07 mark without scoring a single point.
The first timeout came after all five Blazers stood and watched as Luis Scola collected an uncontested offensive rebound and finished an unmolested putback.
If sure looked like a "You guys won't quit on me without me calling you out on it" timeout. A "We're not just going to jog to the locker room after taking another loss without stewing for a few extra minutes as a team to think about what we just did and didn't do" timeout. The locker room took awhile to open after the game and Canales came out hot when it was finally time for his post-game comments.
"If we can get a three, then it's a five point game," is how he explained playing out the game's finally 15 seconds to the max. "Then another three and a steal. I didn't think it was a big lead at all."
Guard Raymond Felton, who finished with 14 points on 11 shots, 8 assists and 3 turnovers, revealed a more detailed version of the truth: "Just a message to say we're going to always finish games, that's all."
It's a message this Blazers team never really took to heart this season, a spectacular -- and spectacularly fortunate -- road win over the Dallas Mavericks on Friday notwithstanding. The close-game failures have been beaten into the ground over and over and there wasn't much new in this one. There were some bad bounces (an unlucky close-in miss by LaMarcus Aldridge), some poor shot selection (every shot attempted by Jamal Crawford), some lazy defense and a general malaise on both ends that just screams, "Let this clock tick down to zero and let's get out of here."
The season has been over for weeks now but Monday marked the official start of the countdown campaign. You couldn't turn a corner or walk through a hallway without hearing a media member, Rose Garden staffer, fan or whomever mentally checking off the number of home games left, the number of total games left, or the number of days left until the 2011-2012 season finally ends. It was a common post-game question posed to the players too.
"It's getting closer and closer, but we have to keep working, keep getting better and keep trying to build," Aldridge said, after finishing with 20 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks. "This is not for us to throw in the towel."
Sure, whatever. We don't believe you, you need more people. If you hate your life, watch the game tape and focus only on how Portland defended Houston's 19 three-point attempts. On this night, the group apparently agreed that the hard work wasn't worth doing. Terrible close-outs. Terrible rotations. Visible indifference. Wide open shooters. 10-for-19 for Houston from deep.
"A very hard lesson for us to learn but a very valuable one," Canales said. "We have to understand and get it on the defensive end of the floor and not the offensive end... Any time we're disappointed when we give up 10 threes. They shoot 10-for-19 and hit 53 percent. We didn't play consistent defense for 48 minutes tonight."
Reigning Western Conference Player of the Week Goran Dragic led the way for the Rockets with 22 points, 7 assists, 2 rebounds and 3 steals. He hit from deep, he weaved in and out of traffic, he got out in the open floor and he kept the pressure on. It was a commanding, complete performance.
"Goran had what I've grown to expect out of him over the last five or six weeks," Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. "He goes out there and gets 22 and 7 and you go, 'Solid game, Goran.'"
"I told the guys, I think he's kind of playing a little bit like Ginobili," Canales said. High praise indeed.
Portland's lack of intensity was compounded by some sloppy perimeter turnovers on offense. Portland got lazy there, too, attempting to pass over the top rather than create real lanes. Houston capitalized to the tune of 19 fast break points on 8-for-8 shooting and the Blazers reserves, in particular, looked helpless when it came to transition defense. Poor Luke Babbitt is going to be in hours of highlight reel footage and Nolan Smith could use a good "stop ball" reminder after letting one Rockets break get to the rim uncontested as he was spinning around backwards.
"We can't give up 19 fast break points," Canales said. "You have to give them credit. 14 turnovers is not too bad but we want to get it to 12. A lot of those turnovers equal to 16 points. A lot of that is transition d where we have no set defense coming back. So that's difficult. You kind of mix in the fast break points with the 10 threes, that's difficult."
The offense was difficult too but no one really cares any more -- except for Canales. (You have to give him credit. Lots of credit. He has absolutely followed through on his promise not to change his personality or approach whatsoever since stepping into the interim coaching role. His ability to deliver on his word is unmatched in this locker room.) There's another game on Wedneday. Maybe there will be increased intensity and focus and better shot selection; maybe not. Either way, just about everyone will be watching with one eye on the court and one eye on his or her wristwatch, the countdown clock mercifully ticking off one second at a time.
Random Game Notes
- This game was announced as a sellout.
- Joe Freeman of The Oregonian reports: "The Blazers would like to pay tribute to retired G Brandon Roy - with him in attendance - before final home game against Jazz on April 18. But the Blazers aren't sure the timing is going to work out. It's looks like Roy might have a conflict that night."
- Rockets center Marcus Camby hit a three-pointer and flashed the three goggles during his first game back at the Rose Garden after the trade deadline move that sent him to the Rockets. As Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus noted: "Marcus Camby has made more 3s in the last week than in 10 complete seasons during his career." Respect these years.
- Camby received a nice but not overwhelming ovation from the somewhat thin crowd upon his introduction. A few post-game quotes. "The ovation I got during the starting lineups felt great. It felt good to be back here and definitely see all of my guys... We're definitely two teams going in two different directions right now."
- Camby's post-deadline energy rush has been hilariously predictable. Playing through injury, averaging 10+ rebounds per game over the last six games, and hitting the floor and sliding like a jet propulsion hovercraft to track down a loose ball near midcourt in a recent game. Few players understand the game outside of the game better than Camby.
- Credit the Rockets for a great "foul to give" to close the third quarter. Their disruption of Portland's final possession led the Blazers to inbound the ball to J.J. Hickson, who wound up jacking a 3-pointer despite the fact that he's never made a 3-pointer during his NBA career. Any time you force an opponent to do something it hasn't succeeding in doing in four years, that's quality execution.
- The Blazers closed the second quarter on a similarly dreary note, allowing Rockets forward Chandler Parson to waltz to the hoop to draw a foul after maneuvering through at least three Blazers defenders. He made both free throws for his only points of the game.
- Former Blazers forward Cliff Robinson was in attendance on Monday.
- Nolan Smith played very poorly: 0-for 3 with 1 assist and 2 turnovers. His level of play does not justify the 16 minutes that he played. He earned himself a DNP-CD for the next game if these were normal circumstances. Of course, these are not normal circumstances, so his struggles should serve as an eye-opening moment. Smith can either get thrown to the real fire over the next two weeks or he can be expected to continue to produce mediocre results in mediocre playing time and his rookie year will have been essentially wasted. During Goran Dragic's rookie campaign, I remember telling Phoenix Stan of Bright Side of the Sun fame that he should take the rook aside to explain the basic rules of basketball. You know, how over-and-back works and why it's a good idea to pass to players with the same color jersey. Well, Dragic has certainly come a long way. Closing on a big minutes, high note for Smith seems vastly better than the same-old, same-old alternative. Either way, hopefully Summer League is already penciled into his calendar. He needs it.
- So lightning struck twice when there was another girl-asks-guy marriage proposal on the jumbotron. I got incredibly excited because no one could forget the amazing love story of Amber and Jeremy from back in January. Well, I initially thought that Jessica and Elias had made the magic happen for a second time but some incredibly timely and hard-hitting reporting by Matt Calkins of The Columbian revealed that the proposal was actually a sham. According to a source sitting close to Jessica at the game, she was already wearing an engagement ring and openly admitted that she had previously been proposed to by Elias. The jumbotron proposal, then, was apparently some sort of sadistic revenge play.
- Nate McMillan once (OK, 10,000 times) said: "Don't play with the game or the game will play with you." So I say to all of you considering your copy-cat, insincere jumbotron proposals: "Don't play with the jumbotron because the jumbotron will play with you." I'm struggling to come up with a better way to tempt fate than by staging a mock proposal at a sporting event. How will karma not rear its ugly head in response?
- A sham marriage proposal simply makes a mockery out of the institution of marriage and a mockery out of the jumbotron. The jumbotron is supposed to be a conduit of genuine surprise, a high-definition earnest knee-to-the-ground during a picnic in a field of roses. You can't torch the field with gasoline canisters for everyone just because you think it's all one big giant joke. This. Is. Serious. Once you taint the sanctity of the jumbotron marriage proposal, we're one giant step closer to letting Facebook/Instagram match up the world's 6 billion humans into pairs using facial recognition software algorithms. Am I the last jumbotron purist?
- I wrote this profile of 17-year-old Canadian sensation Andrew Wiggins -- one of the stars of the 2012 Hoop Summit -- for SB Nation. Also, here's a rundown of the top 5 Hoop Summit prospects. Also, here's an SB Nation video discussing the Dallas Mavericks' decision to send Lamar Odom packing.
Kaleb Canales' Post-Game Comments
A very hard lesson for us to learn but a very valuable one: we have to understand and get it on the defensive end of the floor and not the offensive end.
Defending the three point line
Any time we're disappointed when we give up 10 threes. They shoot 10-for-19 and hit 53 percent. We didn't play consistent defense for 48 minutes tonight.
Game plan on Goran Dragic
We wanted to push him to his right hand. He did a good job in transition. In terms of the pick and roll coverage I don't think he hurt us as much as he did in the open court.
Goran Dragic's game
I told the guys, I think he's kind of playing a little bit like Ginobili.
Team looked lost without Raymond Felton?
We believe in the guys that are coming in off our bench. I thought we had some empty possessions there to close out the third quarter. Didn't make enough shots tonight.
Playing time to guys who deserve it or evaluating younger guys
We're playing the players who deserve to play.
Aldridge slow start
Well, LaMarcus is our All-Star so he's going to be a point of emphasis every night. Scouting reports, game plans. They did a good job early but we got into a rhythm there in the second half. We went to our pick and rolls. We got some open looks. But it's not offense for us, it's defense.
He did a good job tonight getting ot hte free throw line. Shot nine free throws. He had a heave towards the end of a quarter, a shot clock, two or three of those. He got to the free throw line nine times which is nice to see.
Anyone talk to you about player rotations with playoffs getting less likely
Last two timeouts
If we can get a three then it's a five point game. Then another three and a steal. I didn't think it was a big lead at all.
What particularly stood out about the defense
We can't give up 19 fast break points. You have to give them credit. 14 turnovers is not too bad but we want to get it to 12. A lot of those turnovers equal to 16 points. A lot of that is transition d where we have no set defense coming back. So that's difficult. You kind of mix in the fast break points with the 10 threes that's difficult. I liked our aggression, we went to the line 19 times, but our defense has got to keep improving and getting better.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter