The alarm signifying the end of the week-long All-Star break rang tonight, summoning most of the NBA back to action. The Utah Jazz responded with verve...homework done, pocket protectors in place, extra credit work bursting out of their backpacks. The Portland Trail Blazers hit snooze, yelled, "Five more minutes, ma!" and proceeded to sleepwalk their way through 40 lackluster minutes of a 48-minute game. The Blazers are more talented than the Jazz. The Blazers have more experience. The Blazers are on their way to the playoffs, the Jazz to the lottery. None of that matters when a prepared, motivated team plays an emotionless one. While Arron Afflalo wrote about bringing the Larry O'Brien trophy to Portland. his teammates' performance was closer to "Hello Larry".
The Blazers played the first 8-10 minutes of this game in acceptable style. "Acceptable" in this case means "LaMarcus Aldridge scores like a madman and Damian Lillard drains a couple threes." Portland's All-Star duo would account for 16 of their 24 points in the period. But the scoring barrage masked a general lack of...something. The Jazz scored only 18 in the period but when they did convert, their points came off of poor Portland passes and run-outs. Utah also rebounded many of their own misses. Portland's defense was good as far as it went, but it only went about 2 steps. Fortunately Utah didn't push much farther than that unless they had a fast break.
Then the bench came in. To simulate their performance tonight, dive off a balcony into an elephant-sized pile of kangaroo crap searching for a small stud earring that you actually left back on your dresser.
Oh yeah, it was that bad.
Portland's reserves must have spent their week off rummaging through the Trunk of Bad Habits, because we saw the return of several behaviors that had all but disappeared from their repertoire in the last month. These included Meyers Leonard hesitating forever on his shots, C.J. McCollum shooting like nobody else was wearing his colors, Chris Kaman rotating at roughly the same rate as the moon, and Steve Blake losing containment on the regular. Whatever momentum the Blazers had coming out of the first quarter came to a screeching halt. The Jazz made up their deficit quickly in the second. 7 points from Wesley Matthews kept the Blazers afloat and the starters righted the ship near the end of the half, but giving up offensive rebounds, committing turnovers, and a whole bunch of standing around defined the stanza more than any heroism. Portland led 43-39 at the break.
Normally this is where we'd share the story of Portland's halftime adjustments plus Aldridge's customary tour de force during the third period to put the other team on its heels. The Jazz sent Rudy Gobert and/or baseline double-teams to slow down Aldridge. His grand march never materialized. And Portland's big halftime adjustment turned out to be, "Let us forget this night ever happened and never speak of it again."
The huge second-half culprit was defensive rotation. To be fair, Utah managed to get rolling from mid-range, thanks in large part to Trey Burke and his jump-shooting friends. Whenever the Blazers laid back, Utah drained one. So Portland had to play up tight, which allowed dribblers to get around them, which caused Portland's defenders to rotate. So far, so good. Except once help came, everybody stopped for tea and crumpets instead of recovering. The Jazz were 1 pass--maybe 2 on a good possession--away from a layup or a ridiculously easy jumper. They slow-roasted the Blazers in the third then started draining three-pointers in the fourth, turning the fire up high. Utah only scored 26 and 27 in those periods respectively but the Blazers responded with a feeble 16 and 17. The anemic performance was half Utah defense (which was good) and half lack of serious effort (which was bad).
When the Blazers went down 21 on an easy Jeremy Evans dunk with 8:45 left in the game, you kind of got the feeling they weren't coming back. And they didn't. Utah cruised to a 92-76 win.
So what happened?
1. First and foremost, I blame a lack of Will Barton. 0 wins in the post-Barton era. Just sayin'.
2. Rust after the time off probably played in. It's hard to start with a single, weird road game against a mostly-not-inspiring opponent.
3. Perhaps some emotional letdown from the turmoil of the trade deadline plus the tragic news this week. Everybody's anticipating the arrival of Arron Afflalo but he's not here yet. Everybody's still collecting themselves from Jerome's passing.
4. Utah played a great game, especially on defense. The Blazers never responded with more than token passes, preferring to go straight at the Jazz instead of moving them side to side. Against Rudy Gobert that's a horrendous idea.
5. Other than that, it's all in the Game Flow section. We can talk about certain schemes and decisions but the reality is, when one side plays with serious effort and the other doesn't, schemes cease to matter. Maybe the Blazers thought that they could "talent" their way to a win. That's not Portland's way. How they play is as critical as who takes the shots. The third man in the rotation is as important as the quality of the main defender. You wouldn't have known it by the way they played tonight.
It's tempting to contrast talk about, "We're preparing for a serious playoff run!" with this performance and start making sarcastic jokes. If the Blazers are self-assessing as contenders, this was a heck of a way to show it. On the other hand, such talk may be dangerous in itself for a team like this. Portland isn't San Antonio. These players don't know what it takes to contend other than tackling each opponent head on, keeping their focus on each step until they've made them all. You can't earn titles without wins. You can't earn wins without effort. You can't get effort unless you keep your mind in the now and do your job. For whatever reason, the Blazers didn't do that tonight.
This is just one game, though...and a weird one at that. The big caution is not to assume either way. I've been on the radio a few times this year and heard, "The Blazers have got the division sewn up." They're ahead of Oklahoma City by 7 games right now. That could be 4 in a week if they're not careful. At that point the division starts looking different. It's on the Blazers not to let that happen. Then again, they've not shown a huge propensity to let things slip. They've lost in bunches, but mostly due to injury. There's no reason to think this loss is more than a single-game phenomenon until the Blazers have shown differently.
For now the correct course of action is to do what we jokingly suggested above: forget this game ever happened. Memphis, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City will show no mercy in the coming weeks. The Blazers need to absorb Afflalo and use that juice to restart their engines. If they manage that, nobody will remember a February 20th loss.
LaMarcus Aldridge tried to work his magic but Gobert and company made life hard, as did Aldridge's teammates. They weren't moving to provide good outlets when he got stuck. They weren't hitting threes to free up space for him. LaMarcus scored 14 on 5-16 shooting with 8 rebounds.
Damian Lillard looked like he was going to have a phenomenal game early but ended up with just "pretty darn good". He shot 3-9 from range, 7-15 overall and scored 19. Lillard's big problem was passing. You know that scene in Robocop where he gets his helmet blown to heck and he needs Nancy Allen's help to adjust his target reticle again? Well, Nancy Allen was nowhere in the building for Dame tonight. His shot was fine but his passing was bent sideways. Dame earned 5 turnovers against 2 assists. It was that kind of night.
Wesley Matthews scored 7 points in 57 seconds at the end of the second quarter. He ended up with 13 total on the night, hitting only 1-5 threes. That makes 6 points in the other 47 minutes, 3 seconds. Between Matthews' 1-5 and the bench shooting 0-7, the Blazers ended up 4-22, 18%, from the arc. Ouch.
Robin Lopez looked small next to Gobert, which was pretty amazing to see.
Nicolas Batum didn't look that much better after his week of rest.
I'm not sure we want to talk about anybody else in a Portland uniform tonight. It's a non-profanity site.
Our Instant Recap covers post-game reaction from around the web, which mostly consists of nose holding and air fanning.
You know who's really happy tonight? The folks at SLCDunk are really happy tonight. They're screaming Rudy and they don't mean the Notre Dame kind. Or Fernandez.
Stay tuned. We'll have a special road In-Arena Report soon to brighten up your evening.
I guarantee the Blazers will have fewer performances like this if you help us send 1000 underprivileged kids to the March 30th game against the Phoenix Suns!
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