The Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz played one of those mid-season games tonight that you won't remember after the season. "We played Utah in early February? I have no memory of that game". To call it "nondescript" would be generous. The Blazers welcomed back long-lost starting center Robin Lopez, as well as the rebounding, interior defense and efficient scoring that comes with him. And they needed it, because Utah was relentless all night. They quickly closed out on three-point shooters, they worked under the basket for offensive rebounds and tip-ins, and they ran their offense efficiently to get quality looks (including 46% three-point shooting). Rudy Gobert's length gave LaMarcus Aldridge fits in a way nobody else does west of New Orleans. The Jazz made the Blazers work for every point, and they ended up needing them all.
The game opened with the Blazers trying to settle into familiar patterns, including a Batum-to-Lopez pick and roll for a dunk in the first minute. But Utah stayed close, thanks to some solid shooting from Trevor Booker. Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors used some well-run offensive possessions to keep the Jazz within two halfway into the quarter. As Lillard continued to miss jumpers, the Jazz stayed close all quarter. The Blazers strongly leaned on not only Lopez, but Aldridge, who shot 5-6 for 12 points.
The Utah Jazz aren't the most interesting team to watch, so it's probably not shocking that the second quarter was more of the same. The Blazers' bench maintained a slim lead, but the Jazz had solid offensive possessions, keeping the game close. Lillard continued to feel like a net-negative on the court, making some uncharacteristic errors in half-court offense while attempting to make something happen. His only three-point attempt in the quarter barely grazed the rim. Meanwhile, the Blazers started to have some of the weirdest yips ever: Every player tried to find someone else to shoot. Six passes in one possession, with at least three open shooters. At one point, Aldridge had an open jumper, and simply stood there, taunting the defender while waiting for someone else to get open. Nobody did. So Aldridge calmly ignored his defender and sank the jumper. The Blazers continued to have problems getting open as Utah's defenders caused problems all over, sparking a late 12-2 run to turn a 7 point Blazer lead into a 3 point halftime deficit.
It felt like the Blazers had a "what are we doing? This is Utah!" conversation in the locker room, as they came out aggressive against Utah's defense. Foul calls and free throws followed, and Portland went on a huge run, turning a 3 point deficit into a 9 point lead in around 4 minutes. They pushed the lead to 11, but they seemingly forgot what got them there, and the Jazz promptly got hot and went on a run. While Lopez went to the locker room for stitches, the Jazz wiped out the lead in 3 minutes. Lillard's jumper was still missing, but he compensated by getting inside and finding room for to squeeze in layups. Meanwhile, Aldridge struggled against Gobert's long arms, only scoring two points total in the second and third quarters. The Blazers couldn't put the Jazz away, holding just a 2 point lead after three.
Between quarters, Blazers coach Terry Stotts challenged his team to get three consecutive stops. They couldn't. Utah relied on their big guys and offensive movement to keep getting quality looks. When Trey Burke nailed a three-pointer and a mid-range jumper, Utah grabbed the lead again. But as the starters returned, Lillard and Aldridge heated up. Then it was Matthews' turn. Thanks to some nifty passing, he hit back-to-back open three-pointers to give the Blazers a 9 point lead with 3:30 left. But the Jazz shut down the Blazers and cut the lead to 5 just a minute later, then to 3 with a Gordon Hayward three-pointer, as the crowd groaned. Another Lillard layup pushed the lead to 5. After a stop, they had two full possessions (thanks to an offensive rebound), but came up empty... and promptly gave up a three-pointer mere seconds later. More crowd groaning. Utah pulled to within 2, but with 9 seconds left. They immediately fouled Aldridge, and he calmly swished both. But just when you thought the game was safe, yes, Utah hit another three-pointer. They may as well have turned and shrugged while Cliff Robinson looked confused. They fouled Lillard with 0.4 seconds left. He missed the first, possibly just to keep things suspenseful, then intentionally missed the second to end the game.
To my own surprise, I spent a lot of this game thinking about Arrested Development. Yes, the TV show.
[Stick with me, this is going somewhere]
For the many people who have never seen it, Arrested Development was a US comedy that aired in the mid-2000's, with a revival on Netflix a few years ago. It's already considered a classic, and is known for being the ultimate example of an ensemble cast. While certain characters shone brighter, the show was built on the quirks of all the characters, and how they used those to interact in hilarious ways. Everything came together perfectly for three seasons: Well fleshed-out characters, perfect casting choices to fill those rolls, and deep, nuanced writing and production to make all these parts mesh so wonderfully.
And then there was season four.
The show was revived on Netflix years later for a fourth season. Everyone came back, and there was much rejoicing! However, with large ensemble casts, once they move on to other jobs, it's extremely hard to get them all back together at one time. In fact, it proved impossible. So the writers got to work. They created an intricately-written season where each episode revolved around one character, interacting with various other characters based on who could be scheduled together. But the elephant was always in the room: This was a show built around the chemistry and interactions of an entire group, and that group was never fully together all season.
The season was reportedly a huge success, but yet a complete failure. The wordplay and banter between characters broke down due to all the missing elements. The child actors had aged, and they couldn't really be written in the same way. So the writers, typically inspired, struggled with the absences. They used various techniques to work around the holes, and there were short, inspired moments. But then there was the rest: mismatched characters working through storylines that aimed for "outrageous" but accidentally overshot into "annoying". As the season progressed, those techniques were used repeatedly, and everyone started to see them coming.
Meanwhile, here we are, seven weeks after Robin Lopez went down with a hand injury, with Joel Freeland soon joining him on the sidelines. Lillard (fingers), Matthews (a sometimes-forgotten hyper-extended knee) and Batum (torn wrist ligament) were also dealing with injuries. And some how, some way, they made it all work. For a while. Lillard redefined "Lillard Time", Matthews continued on a tear that put him in the three-point contest, and, well, Batum tried to find ways to contribute. They made big plays, and found ways to survive, night after night. Then two major events happened almost simultaneously: Aldridge went down with an injury, and Lillard completely lost the range on his jumper. And it all fell apart.
That's when it hit me: We're mired in the Blazers equivalent of Arrested Development season four. Terry Stotts had successfully a system built to maximize all the players. They can handle a few absences (as seen by the Blazers' sparkling win-loss record when Lopez went down), but even the best system can't handle the complete disaster of the last month and a half. Stotts can't use his old formula anymore because too many pieces are missing, injured, and/or misfiring. He's worked around it every way he can, but at some point there are too many holes.
One hole was filled with Lopez' return, and it was a big hole. But some of the holes are more subtle: The offensive struggles caused by defenses no longer respecting all the Blazers' three point shooters. And the Blazers' lack of ability to make them pay for that shift. The attempt to maintain defensive pressure with unfamiliar lineups, or for teammates who can't move as well laterally anymore. And players like Matthews are less effective, not just due to nagging injuries, but also because the very system that was tailored to accentuate his strengths has been torn asunder. Combined, these limitations lead to events like a one point victory against a game Utah team.
But there is good news all around: The Arrested Development producers hope to have the cast back together for the next revival, and the Blazers hope to have their cast back together, and far more healthy, by March for the stretch run. Huzzah!
Even ensemble casts have a tipping point. So yes, Robin Lopez is the reason we're talking about a win, instead of yet another aggravating loss. He had 11 points (on 5-9 shooting), 6 rebounds and 2 blocks in 25 minutes. He also spent most of the night trying to keep Utah's big men away from the bucket. Those 25 minutes probably felt like 50.
LaMarcus Aldridge is awesome. But you don't need me to tell you that. 22 points on 50% shooting (but a rare 6-9 from the FT line), 11 rebounds (welcome back, Robin!), 1 steal, 1 block. Tonight he tied Sidney Wicks for the franchise lead in double-doubles. I think this guy might be a keeper.
Damian Lillard had a good, but weird, night. His outside shooting woes continued (0-6 from three), but he shot 10-11 from inside the arc, including a sneaky reverse layup that has been increasingly a part of his repertoire. He finished with 25 points, 6 assists, and 4 rebounds. This was another sign that Lillard is fully aware of his shooting struggles, and is making adjustments to contribute positively.
Nicolas Batum still can't shoot (2-7 FG's), but he definitely missed Lopez. He had 10 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists, in the usual quiet fashion.
Playing his old team, Wesley Matthews seemed chippy all night, eventually picking up a technical foul. But he had a good shooting night, including two open three-pointers late in the fourth. He added 21 points.
To recap the above: As soon as Robin Lopez returned, all five of the Blazers' starters were scoring in double digits.
There were only two bench players worth mentioning tonight: Steve Blake, who had a quietly solid night including two three-pointers, and Meyers Leonard, who still kind of looks confused on the court, but is getting results, so who cares? He had 4 points, 4 rebounds, and simply looked like he's earning his minutes. Progress is always good.
Chris Kaman is in a funk. At one point, he had the ball in the lane, with no defenders between him and the hoop. He passed it out for a semi-contested three pointer that missed. In 21 minutes, he had no points, but 5 rebounds and 2 assists.
Allen Crabbe and CJ McCollum leaped back into the rotation over Dorell Wright and Will Barton. Hard to tell if this was a match-up decision or the start of a trend. McCollum swished one three-pointer, but they were both otherwise quiet.
The dreaded Phoenix Suns arrive Thursday for a nationally-televised game. Brace yourselves.
Ryan's Instant Recap with Post-Game reaction collected by Sagar Trika.
Say hi to the nice folks at SLCDunk, and let them know how awesome their big men are.
Stay tuned for our In-Arena Report, coming shortly!
You know what else is nice after a big win? Helping some underprivileged youth see the hopefully-healthy Blazers in person during Portland's March 30th game against the Phoenix Suns! It's easy to contribute tickets to Blazer's Edge Night. The cost of a ticket is low and the joy it brings into the life of a child who otherwise wouldn't get to see a game is immeasurable. We're looking to send over 1000 kids this year. You can find all the details here.