The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Sacramento Kings 100-99 on Wednesday night in a mostly paint-by-numbers affair punctuated by a thrilling last-second three to earn the victory. Down 97-99 with 14 seconds remaining Damian Lillard penetrated, drew coverage, and found Dorell Wright in the opposite corner. The pass was low and Wright did a masterful job corralling it and getting the shot over the closing defense. It was quite the thrill, a fantastic way to send the crowd home happy. With the win the 5th-place Blazers skip 2 games ahead of 6th seed Golden State and gain a game on 4th seed Houston, as the Rockets lost tonight.
Wonderful ending, wonderful result...happy times! Yay! Woot!
Now that we've got that out of our system, we also have to say, "Really, Blazers?" You really had to escape a game with the Sacramento Kings by the skin of your teeth, an inch on your final possession and an inch and a half on their final shot making the difference? You really couldn't protect a recurring double-digit lead? Not only could you not guard the opposing center no matter which configuration you tried, you couldn't keep yet another backcourt player from getting a season high (and almost winning the game)?
Throughout most of this contest I was thinking, "If the Kings could shoot at all, they'd be running away with this game." They couldn't and they didn't, but they made it plenty close enough. At the exact time the Blazers should be announcing their intent to hold onto their playoff spot and to make some post-season noise, they're demonstrating that they're just not ready. They have a week to fix that, 3 more games to practice with. But if something doesn't turn around before Game 1 of their first-round series, this isn't going to be pretty. To wit:
--The Blazers knew they had a major matchup issue with DeMarcus Cousins tonight, every bit as serious as they'd have against Dwight Howard or DeAndre Jordan...albeit in a different style. Admirable they tried different schemes against him: Robin Lopez single-covering, Robin Lopez with help, Thomas Robinson at center, Thomas Robinson with help, and sending the whole farm at Cousins up to and including triple-teams. The experimentation was great! The problem was, nothing worked. Not even the triple teams.
--All that extra attention in the middle left guards free. Ben McLemore and Ray McCallum had good nights compared to their norm. But they're hardly world-beaters. Those two guards should look average at best, probably much worse. They looked good tonight. Again we saw that the Blazers can only concentrate on one thing at a time on the defensive end. Sacramento couldn't take full advantage but a playoff team will.
--Not being fools, the Kings picked up a tip from recent Portland opponents and ran their offense quickly. The Blazers ended up containing them, giving up only 11 fast-break points. But the cost was offensive rebounding. The Blazers got only 5. The Kings ended up dominating them in that department with 14 of their own. Against a bad opponent it didn't end up costing, but having to choose between transition "D" or second chance points is a bad situation for this team.
--The Blazers had this game in hand several times. They led 27-20 after one. Within 4 minutes they let the Kings right back. Portland led 52-37 with 1:47 left in the second period. 7 points in the last 30 seconds put Sacramento back within 10 and gave them hope. The Kings closed to within 3 with 4:00 left in the third but the Blazers took it back to 12 points again with 1:00 remaining. By 9:15 in the fourth Sacramento had the lead down to 1 again. The Blazers got up a little then gave it right back. This game had more accordion action than the Lawrence Welk Show. Sacramento was carrying 51 losses coming into the evening. How much would it have taken to make them go away? But every time the Blazers got an edge instead of finishing the job they let the opponent right back in. A turnover, a botched play, a sorry defensive stand...the hammer just never came down on the Kings.
This has been a season-long issue. Every game is close. But the other guy in your playoff matchup won't be interested in playing close games. When he's got you down he's going to break you because he knows he better take advantage of every opportunity. How many chances will the Blazers get to put away a playoff foe? If they don't capitalize on every one they're going to be in serious trouble.
--Portland's bench had some nice individual moments tonight. As a group it was a better outing than some we've seen. But Coach Stotts limited their exposure by keeping them in with 2-3 starters and the continuity still went south. The rest of the bench makes you wish for Mo Williams. Wishing for Mo Williams might not be the best sign of health for your team.
--All this and the Kings didn't even play Rudy Gay because of back trouble.
I know folks are going to say, "Here's our parade, Dave. Why don't you just rain on it?" But as Sam and I discussed in the latest Videocast, just about the ONLY purpose of the remaining games on the schedule is to gather momentum and resolve for the post-season. There's an outside chance the Blazers could end up in a different seed, but the odds of moving up are small to the point of vanishing. The Blazers are tuning up here. Everything they were supposed to tune tonight fell flat, despite the win. It's really easy to envision the same kind of game ending up in a horrid loss against the Rockets or Clippers.
If the Blazers do have a different gear, a fresh approach, now would be the time to show it. They didn't tonight. It was business as usual. That amounts to a win against a sub-par team. Given the nearly-sealed standings and the battle ahead, that might not be good enough anymore. The lens through which we view these games has changed. The demands have changed. The Million Dollar Question: Will the Blazers get the sense of urgency and rise to that challenge or will playoff basketball catch them by surprise?
Dorell Wright did a GREAT job hitting that shot. Given the pass and the pressure, it was not easy.
Damian Lillard looked like he was making an effort to play more true point guard tonight, particularly with Mo Williams out. The result was an impressive 10 assists and a less-impressive 5 turnovers. Lillard's still at his best when he's scoring first and everything else second.
Thomas Robinson was overmatched defensively at center but he did manage 9 rebounds and 8 points in 14 minutes. (4 turnovers and 3 personal fouls too.)
Everybody else had a pretty good, not really great, up and down night...pretty much what we've come to expect.
The Blazers play the final road game of the regular season Friday night in Utah. There's not much to get up for in that matchup. Let's see if the team can find some much-needed internal motivation.
Sactown Royalty might be encouraged by the proceedings tonight. They probably wish DeMarcus Cousins could play the Blazers every night.
Your Jersey Contest scores and the form for Friday are HERE.
You can also check out the latest, hottest questions answered by Portland media folks in the Trail Blazers' Running the Break feature. Dustin Hawes does a good job eliciting responses from all of us curmudgeons.