Let's get to a few Mailbag questions before we focus in on tonight's Cleveland-Portland matchup.
Gotta be honest. I didn't expect to be 1-2 heading into a game with Cleveland. How concerned are you with the bad start?
Not very. This is still within the fat part of the probability bell curve...certainly more so than 31-9 was last season. (We should also remember that the 31-9 record was built upon a 2-2 entrance.) Sacramento and Golden State have both been playing well. The Blazers will be good this year but if you think they can't be beat by any given team, that seems an overly-high estimation of their prowess. This is the joy of playing in the Western Conference, circa 2015. It's impossible to predict the outcome when any of the top two-thirds teams play any of their peers.
I suppose losing to Sacramento was a mild surprise based on record and reputation but we already know DeMarcus Cousins makes hash out of the Blazers on a regular basis. Last year the Blazer survived (3-1 haed-to-head) by suffering through Cousins' outbursts and containing everybody else. This time "everybody else" included a quick, motivated, and intelligent Darren Collison pressing the Blazers' point guard defense button while Cousins continued to hammer at the center position. Cracks in the dam established, Lake Rudy Gay poured through and broke it all down.
Matchups between the Blazers and Warriors are always epic and always close. You never chalk up a win before it's earned between those two teams.
In short, two losses may be disappointing but they're not entirely surprising.
I am mildly concerned with how the Blazers are losing (as opposed to that they're losing). Come to think of it, I was concerned with how they beat the Oklahoma City Thunder as well, so I suppose my concerns are outcome-independent.
During stretches--the fourth period against the Thunder and a couple of streaks against the Warriors--the Blazers have clicked. The offense looked crisp, the defense coherent. Effort and energy flowed, chemistry reigned. Whether the latter factors cause the former or vice-versa doesn't matter. You may recall this mantra from last season: either everything goes right for the Blazers or nothing does. They're a set of dominoes, one falling into the next. Whether they tip to the good or the bad, they're all going together.
Every once in a while the stars--LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard--provide a stopper when things are falling apart. You see the defense fade, the offense fizzle, and suddenly the Blazers are tossing the ball to one of those two and letting them carry everybody else. Sometimes it works, but it's not a recipe for sustained winning.
The dominoes have not dropped favorably for the Blazers this season. They've been falling apart more than coming together. Each game has required bail-out moments from Aldridge and Lillard. Aldridge has been successful, Lillard has been one more domino in the chain.
The best solution would be to need less bailing out. Guys aren't moving, covering for each other. Sustained energy is lacking on both ends of the floor. It feels like the players are looking at each other more than playing for each other...or maybe as a group they're expecting to be given what the actually have to go out and earn. Three guys working hard and two guys checking out won't bring success for this team. Their talent base isn't that far above their peers. They win through intelligence and execution. If plays don't get sharper, rebounding more consistent, defense more cohesive, the Blazers better pray both Aldridge and Lillard come through every night.
It's hard to come through every night when you've got a bullseye on your back though. Aldridge is used to that by now. Lillard's new to it. Between The Shot, the shoe deal, and the TV exposure he's not sneaking up on anybody anymore. Opponents are invested in breaking him down on one end, shutting him down on the other. So far it's working. We'll see how he adjusts.
Portland's weaknesses aren't going away. That's been evident in the first three games. The question becomes how--or if--they will compensate for them. It'll either be through team-wide sacrifice and attention to detail, through blazing star power, or not at all. Portland's answer to that riddle concerns me far more than record at this point. 1-2 is fine. Does that mean the Blazers fine, though? We'll have to see.
WHY DIDNT STOTTS CALL A TIMEOUT WHEN WES HAD THE BALL SWIPED FROM HIM? WHAT ARE TIMEOUTS FOR? OR COACHES?
(For the uninitiated, Ziggyb is describing the final moments of the fourth period in the recent Blazers-Golden State Warriors game chronicled here.)
I'm sure if Coach Stotts had it to do over again, knowing what we now know, he would have called timeout. But let's flash back to the real-time decision-making process.
Stotts has drawn up the inbounds play. He has a single timeout remaining in a close game. His team is up by 1 with 26-ish seconds remaining. The standard pattern here is simple: ball goes in, player gets fouled, player makes free throws, other team gets possession with a chance to tie or go ahead (depending on the outcome of the free throws). Stotts' responsibility is to get his best free throw shooters in the game so when the opponent does foul, his team has the maximum chance of making both foul shots. He did that. Under normal circumstances he also wants to preserve a timeout in case the opponent ties the game on the ensuing possession, leaving his side a chance to win it in regulation. That was the plan going in.
To outward appearances the play did not unfold all that abnormally. Wesley Matthews, a career 83% foul shooter, received the inbounds pass. Yes, he was trapped on the sideline but keep in mind that the Blazers did not need a shot to go ahead at this juncture. They already had the lead with the final horn just around the corner. The pressure was on Golden State to foul and get the ball back, not on the Blazers to score. Had Matthews simply held the ball and thrown it high in the air as the shot clock hit zero, the Warriors would not have had time for another attempt. That would have been an acceptable outcome. Had Matthews been fouled by the two defenders he could have scored at the line. That was the expected outcome.
In this situation you wouldn't want to call timeout. What happens if you call it just before the refs were going to call the foul that you were anticipating...the foul that comes on the vast majority of these plays? What if you call timeout and the ensuing inbounds play goes to a poorer free-throw shooter than Matthews, or worse, gets stolen on the inbounds?
The only point at which you know you want a timeout is when you know the ball is going to get stolen. But how is Coach Stotts supposed to know that? He's standing 100 feet away on the opposite side of the court, screened from the play by the same trap that's hassling Matthews. He has no direct line of sight. There's no way he can tell whether Matthews is in danger or whether he's just covering up the ball and waiting to take the foul as a player normally would.
In pinning the timeout on the coach you're asking him to perceive something he can't see, interpret that this situation is outside of the norm, forecast that the officials will not call a foul, make a judgment call that burning the last timeout is worth it, and get the attention of the refs who are all across the court from him, all before the ball comes loose. That's a lot to demand.
If you're going to ask for a timeout from anyone (and I'm not sure you should, because stuff happens) you'd probably look to Matthews himself. He felt pressure. After stalling he spun in an attempt to get free because he was uncomfortable, fearful of losing the ball. If he had called timeout instead of trying to spin away, or if one of his nearby teammates had sensed the situation and bailed him out by calling time, we might not be having this conversation.
A coach can prepare players and manage the game, but there are limits. In critical moments, the players are responsible for reading situations correctly and making the right decisions. Veteran squads know this. Whatever plays were drawn up, the Blazers got flustered and didn't execute like veterans in the final moments of that Warriors game. No amount of moment-by-moment coaching was going to change that.
That said, I imagine the Blazers have gone over this in film and practice so they're better prepared next time this situation arises. Coaches can do that. But reading a player's situation (and really, his mind) when you can't see his face, the ball, or a play which appears to be going fairly normally until the second it doesn't...that's beyond the ability of any coach.
No, that's not a typo.
I know you have some connection to a number of individuals in the Blazers media coverage community. Does one of them happen to be the Comcast SportsNet Blazers promo voiceover guy? Could you kindly explain to him that the pronunciation of 'Blazers' uses a long 'a' sound for the first vowel and not a short 'i'? He has been making this mistake for years. Further, I have heard him say words with a proper long 'a' so I know it is not caused by a speech impediment. Please note that the first draft of this email was written in much angrier tone and with far more words which would not get through the filters of Blazersedge.
Okiy, we're telling them. But I've got to siy, this probably pilles in compirison to todiy's griyt problems: the lack of spiss explorition, riys from the sun hitting the ozone, Rudy Giy scoring 40 on Dimian Lillard and the Blizzers' defense. You miy want to give the guy a brik.
Keep those Milbag...uh...Mailbag questions coming to email@example.com. We'll get to them as soon as we're ibble.
Dang you, Ryan.