Trail Blazers fans can take some comfort tonight. The guys in red and black played pretty good basketball in L.A. against the home-courting Los Angeles Lakers. That's been a rarity in Staples Center over the years. It's also been a rarity over the last couple weeks. Compared to horrendous efforts in New Orleans and Orlando, for instance, this game was darn near a work of art.
Portland carried significant disadvantages into this game. Dwight Howard might as well be invincible for all the center-less Blazers can do with him. Kobe Bryant's mastery needs no explanation. Half of L.A.'s starters have as much experience as Portland's entire starting lineup combined.
The Blazers also carried advantages: energy, raw athleticism, quickness. For every edge the Lakers exploited in this game the Blazers came back with their own. The result was a back-and-forth game down to the final minute...almost everything you'd wish an NBA game to be.
The early first quarter belonged to Howard and Nicolas Batum. Dwight was active around the rim and on the glass. When the Blazers defended behind him he posted four feet from the bucket and converted easy shots. When the Blazers fronted him he was one looping pass away from an undefended layup or alley-oop. But Portland's hidden hero, Batum, hit a couple shots early to announce that he was into this game. That and a pretty good clip from Portland's other perimeter shooters left the middle open save for Howard. J.J. Hickson hit an outside shot or two but also made a living diving to the hoop for catches and conversions against the slower giant. This rim attack propelled Portland to 50% shooting and 28 points. Howard led the Lakers to 30.
Portland's bench started the second period in typical fashion, combining turnovers with poor shots. But something happened on the way to the predictable blowout. Guys like Meyers Leonard and Will Barton learned from the starters and exploited their quickness advantage to at least get to the right spot even if they didn't always make the right play. The result wasn't stunning...a rebound here, a block there, a steal somewhere else. There were also plenty of fouls. But even though the Lakers took their shot at Portland's reserves, somehow the Blazers held on. Those little plays added up. The bench guys didn't win the game, they just managed not to lose it.
The Blazers also stuck to another facet of their game plan through every minute of the first half: ball movement on offense. Other than the occasional Damian Lillard foray--which almost counts as ball movement in itself because he's so quick--the Blazers eschewed isolation plays entirely. They whipped around passes in every set, forcing the Lakers to move their feet more than they wanted to. At best L.A. looked slow on defense, at worst just plain old and disinterested. But credit Portland for making them look that way. The Lakers would have been perfectly happy to have LaMarcus Aldridge go 1-on-1 in 10-second, clock-eating moves all night. Aldridge would have hurt them but they would have won that battle eventually as Kobe and Dwight would have trumped him. Instead the Blazers dared the Lakers to catch up and they just couldn't. Portland took the second period by 4, 27-23, and led 55-53 going into the half. They were still shooting 50% and the Lakers still weren't.
At this point the contest resembled many Portland games against lesser opponents just with the roles reversed. The Blazers were the hot, hungry, upset-minded team in need of a win. The Lakers were either fatigued or too confident or just not focused. This should be an eye-opener for Portland...how easy it is to win against anyone who approaches a game that way.
Incredibly the third period started with all of the same trends in force, only more pronounced. The Lakers played slow, iso basketball. By this time they were so predictable that the Blazers were starting to poke away steals. Portland struck with Nicolas Batum early, started running, kept the ball moving in the halfcourt. For the first time you got the feeling that Portland could win this one. What a nightmare that would have been for the Lakers as they begin their push to the playoffs. Two things still stood in Portland's way, however.
Factor #1: As the quarter progressed and then all through the fourth, the Lakers decided to forget everybody else but Kobe in the offense. I supposed they figured if they're just going to iso, do it with the best. Nobody else but Kobe scored in the third period until the 4:20 mark. He had 18 points in the third and finished the game with 40. The Blazers took a loooong time adjusting to this change. At first they defended him straight up, only faking the double-team. That didn't work at all. After that they sent help for Wesley Matthews, who was getting eaten alive. But Matthews couldn't contain Bryant long enough to let the help arrive (and frankly assistance was still rather tentative). It wasn't until late in the fourth that the Blazers finally switched Batum on Bryant. Nic didn't stop him, but at least he slowed him down long enough for the double team to take effect. And with Bryant approaching his age in scoring, there was no doubt anymore. Help came swift and hard and Kobe's roll was done.
Bryant hurt the Blazers badly, mostly through his excellence but also through their ineffective response. But Portland could have overcome that. Damian Lillard had an amazing close to the game (though his confidence lasted a shot or two too long, perhaps, as will happen with a rookie). Matthews hit some huge shots and Batum chimed in as well. Aldridge wasn't his usual self on offense but he was drawing enough attention to keep everybody else free. And the bench players were still doing their darnedest and coming up with much-needed relief plays...bless their hearts. At minimum this game was right there for the Blazers and I'd rate the odds 50-50 at worse that they walk away with the upset win if it weren't for...
Factor #2: As the game progressed the referee crew of Pat Fraher, Mark Lindsay, and Mike Callahan made strange call after strange call and then flat out started blowing the game. Remember how earlier in the year the league issued a post-game statement saying that a charge drawn by Ronnie Price--a judgment call that was fairly close on the hardest decision to make in the sport--was erroneous? If they're going to do that for this game they'll need to employ Saturday Night Live's Fox News Sketch errata scroll.
We got a little bit of the "Kobe throwing himself into a defender on the drive and getting the whistle while the Blazers don't get a call on legit contact" stuff, but you have to let that go. It's home cooking, the star system, stuff that's been going on since the Showtime days and really peaked in the Shaq era. For a little bit I wondered if the refs were in a Y2K time warp, maybe remembering the old Lakers who approached 60 wins every year instead of looking at the actual Old Lakers who move like molasses and owned a 26-29 record heading into this game. But no matter how frustrating that is, you let it go.
Phantom calls on LaMarcus Aldridge--Portland's All-Star, most bankable and best player--bringing him to 5 fouls and forcing him to sit go beyond the pale. It's like they had a target on him all night. Aldridge drew his first technical foul in living memory arguing in frustration. But even that doesn't compare to the horror of the last 2:35 of the game. At no time during that stretch did the margin exceed 4 points...the same margin the game would finish with. Most of the time the edge was 2, a single bucket.
With the Blazers down 2 and 2:35 left Dwight Howard raked Matthews across the arm on a shot for what would have been his 5th foul and Wesley's chance to even the game at the foul line. There was no call. Matthews got his first technical in recent memory protesting. The Lakers missed the tech free throw, Lillard made a great layup to tie the game, then Steve Nash burned him with a pull-up jumper in the lane to put the Lakers up 2 again.
With 51 seconds remaining Nicolas Batum drove the baseline left and Metta World Peace took a stab at the ball from the side. It flew out of bounds. The ref awarded the ball to the Blazers in what I assume was one of those all-too-common non-calls where there's a foul but the official doesn't want to call it so he just gives the offended team possession. The problem with that here: with so little time remaining on the clock a replay to determine who actually knocked the ball out is all but mandatory. One can only imagine the embarrassment of the officials as they reviewed the tape and saw that the ball actually left Batum's hands as it flew out of bounds. World Peace never touched it...because World Peace hit nothing but Batum's dribbling arm and torso. Again...MWP came up under Batum's arm, hit his arm hard to prevent the dribble, and the ball sprayed out of bounds as a result. However in these situations the referees can only rule on out-of-bounds possession. They cannot retroactively call a foul. Since Batum clearly touched the ball last, as the defender never touched it, they awarded the ball to the Lakers.
Now...it was bad that the refs blew the call and got trapped in a no-win instant replay situation. I understand that after the fact they could not call the foul that should have been called and that they couldn't have awarded the ball to the Blazers when the replay showed only Batum touched it. But I lost all respect for the refs when the camera caught Batum explaining what had happened to an official after the replay ruling was finished. Batum duplicated how World Peace had hit him and dislodged the ball. I could have lived with a quick nod. I could have lived with an explanation that the refs had missed the initial call. I could have lived with the ref quickly saying, "We can't review that." But after having seen the replay--about which there can be no mistake and in which there is no room for interpretation because it wasn't even close...the play went exactly as Batum described--the ref simply shot a semi-disgusted looked at Batum and shook his head "No" as if they had made the right call all along. No...you...didn't.
The officials saved the best trick for last, however. The pièce de résistance came with 10 seconds remaining. After an intentional foul to regain possession the Blazers found themselves down 105-109. They called a 20-second timeout and then found Batum on the sideline for one of his patented miracle twisting three-pointers to cut the lead to 1. Another intentional foul and try to tie it with a three, right? Providing L.A. makes both the free throws.
Batum caught the ball with his foot sideways along the three-point arc, just a hair over it. When he twisted and squared up his foot moved behind the line...the smallest bit but the replay showed the daylight. By that time one supposes the ref had moved his gaze upward to look for fouls or what have you, because he ruled it a 2-pointer. They reviewed this as well, of course. I assume the ruling was that video evidence was inconclusive? (Which makes one ask why they didn't rule it a three to begin with, so that inconclusive gave the Blazers the extra point. I'm not sure there's a right answer to that, but it's worth pointing out that the game turned on that decision.) One shot was too far away to tell clearly but the second showed the three. They ruled it a two. A couple of Laker free throws iced it and provided the final margin of 111-107 instead of allowing the Blazers a chance to tie.
Would the Blazers have won this game if one or more of those calls went the other way? Who knows? All we know is that they would have had a chance...maybe half a dozen times over.
The usual defense in these situations is that bad calls go both ways. I say that myself, publicly, when whistles go against the Blazers because usually it's true. Tonight for whatever reason it was not. As long-time readers know I am the last one to point fingers at officials. I believe that you have to overcome them...that bad officiating is part of the game sometimes like injury or fatigue or a hundred other things. I also wince at complaints and exaggerations that get repeated. The description of Damian Lillard "getting run over" while hoisting a long three in the fourth tonight was not accurate, for instance. He got clipped at best and it was probably a decent no-call. But that doesn't change the fact that the referees either marred a close game tonight or kept a game close that should not have been. Whatever "bad calls" went against the Lakers were dwarfed by unusual, inequitable, and in some cases inexplicable calls that went against the Blazers most of the second half, including and especially in the crucial closing minutes.
Had this game been played in Charlotte I'm not sure I'd be taking such pains to explain this. But I'm keenly aware that this happened in Los Angeles, with the Lakers, in a game that--if not exactly "must win"--was important in their burgeoning push for the playoffs. If I'm a Rockets fan, a Mavericks fan, a Jazz fan, or really anybody in the playoff picture I'm not happy about this either. Memo to the NBA: we've seen things like this happen too many times for the Lakers to accept or pass over this. After the referee scandal in which specific accusations were made that officials conspired to help this specific team you promised that the league was clean. Review those fouls against LaMarcus Aldridge. Review those calls in the last couple of minutes...THREE of them at minimum. Now come back and tell us that again. The only way you can do that is admit some sky-high-level incompetence here, which should earn its own reward. And while you're trying to determine an appropriate response, review the reaction of these refs to the Blazers when they were questioned. Apparently one of your officials thinks Metta World Peace didn't touch Nicolas Batum on that baseline play after having seen the replay multiple times. Go figure that out.
The Blazers did plenty of things right in this game. They got outrebounded slightly but they put up a pretty good fight against Howard while still maintaining some semblance of defense. They shot 49%, got up 94 shots to L.A.'s 85, hit 40% from distance, scored 17 on the break, Hickson outscored Howard. Two glaring gaps: L.A. 56-38 in the paint (expected) and Lakers 34 free throw attempts to Portland's 12. (*cough*) Even if you factor out a dozen free throws for Dwight, calling every one intentional, L.A. still leads 22-12 in foul shots.
We're already at 2500 words so this will be brief. Check the Boxscore for numbers.
Despite facing up against Earl Clark, LaMarcus Aldridge had a rough night. The Lakers pretty much decided to make anybody else beat them, sending help early and often. Plus the ball-movement style employed through most of the game didn't do LMA any favors. He had few post looks until Portland went iso in the early fourth quarter, which did not necessarily improve their offense. Aldridge's defense was hampered by fouls, some legit and some ghost. Either way, they kept his minutes lower than usual and aggression out of the package.
Nicolas Batum, on the other hand, came out aggressively and stayed that way. Maybe he likes playing the Lakers? The coaching staff helped by calling plays for him. If that's what it takes to light his fire they need to do it more. I loved his looks, his shot, and his decision-making, though I could have done with a couple more shot attempts overall. Still, this was Batum's best game in weeks and better than his second triple-double night a while back.
Could J.J. Hickson handle Dwight Howard? Not even close. Howard dominated inside whenever he got near the ball. He was stopped only by the Kobe-tization of L.A.'s offense. But could Dwight Howard handle J.J. Hickson? Not even close...at least not tonight. I'm not suggesting the two are equal in any way. That's ridiculous. But tonight Hickson exemplified Portland's approach by not letting his weaknesses tell the tale without getting some of his strong points across as well. His attack on the move was a thing of beauty...an amazing counter to the L.A. style. 22 points on 11-15 shooting and 11 rebounds. I had to get that in because Howard went for 19 and 16. J.J. was overmatched but not outclassed. Amazing game.
Wesley Matthews started strong but then seemed to lose confidence in the middle quarters as his shots stopped falling. But lo and behold in the fourth quarter when the Blazers didn't have anybody else free, guess who started canning threes? Matthews was totally over his head guarding Bryant tonight...part ankle probably, but also part Kobe. As mentioned above, he was left out there way too many times. Still, his night was pretty good.
Damian Lillard hit a few jumpers and then just shish-kabobed the Lakers with drive after drive under and through outstretched arms. Man, when he got rolling he was dazzling and had the L.A. crowd going, "Oh!" His defense wasn't so hot in the crucial moments but the Blazer kept him guarding guys named Steve so it turned out OK.
Meyers Leonard showed up tonight. He wasn't making the right plays all the time but he was making a play all the time...no more standing and watching. As a result he made enough good things happen to make the Blazers bench look credible-ish. It was clearly his best game post-injury. If you keep the motor running eventually you'll get somewhere good.
Will Barton went all "Will B. Krazy" in the first half but calmed down to have a nice second half. He also figured out an ingenious way to extend his minutes. When his sub came to the scorer's table with 6 gone in the fourth quarter he promptly drove and hit a gorgeous and-one layup...one of his 2 makes out of 7 shots tonight. You can't go to the bench when you're supposed to shoot a free throw, right? Hey, as long as he makes them...
Victor Claver had a hard time keeping up with the game and drew 5 fouls in 14 minutes.
The coaching staff pushed a lot of the right buttons tonight. The game plan was great, energy high, resiliency good. Take this criticism in that light. The Blazers don't get many technical fouls. I can hardly remember the last one before tonight, let alone the last time they drew two in the same game. Given the situation, though, Coach Stotts probably should have taken one in defense of his players. I understand the need to stay cool, keeping the team focused on the game and not the referees. But this team isn't full of rookies and second year players anymore. They'll keep composure just fine. If anything Portland players are too nice. Somebody on the Portland side was getting a technical in this one. The head coach probably needs to step up for his guys in this kind of situation. If he gets tossed, so be it. Maybe that changes the course of the game. The job of the players is to make sure the guys in purple and gold don't take this game away from them. The job of the guy in the suit is to make sure the guys in gray and black don't take it away from them.
Cabby's Recap, in which there is probably much moaning.
If you want to go over to Silver Screen and Roll, just put that in the search bar. I'm not linking it tonight because I'm guessing the two fan bases shouldn't mix right now. It's a great blog. Check it out...sometime.