Somebody famous said that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. The Portland Trail Blazers experienced that firsthand tonight in a 105-97 loss to the Washington Wizards. This squad has all but patented the process of digging huge holes for themselves then riding a "never-give-up" attitude to steal unexpected victories. Sometimes it seems that the Blazers don't win games as much as they play chicken with losses, waiting to see who will blink first. They almost pulled off another such win in D.C., closing a 25-point third-quarter deficit to 3 in the final frame. But Washington's offense and a little bad luck got in the way of completing the victory.
Always looking for new ways to make their kung fu stronger, the Blazers played the first half of this game in Ostrich Style. That is, they took the court and laid a giant egg.
The Wizards must have had REO Speedwagon in their earbuds for the pre-game warmup because they spent the first two quarters taking it on the run. Again and again Washington beat Portland's guards down the court for easy scores. When they couldn't run, the Wizards' halfcourt offense was unselfish, with Nene, Marcin Gortat, John Wall, and Paul Pierce all taking turns scoring. When Drew Gooden joined in the parade, it didn't seem fair.
Meanwhile Washington's defense did a magnificent job forcing the Blazers inside the three-point arc. Well-timed double-teams against LaMarcus Aldridge in the post and turned Portland's night into a major headache. Nicolas Batum was the only Trail Blazer looking even moderately normal on offense in the first half. But frankly Portland's offense almost didn't matter when they were allowing the Wizards to shoot 60% from the field.
The Wizards led 60-40 at the halftime break, a simultaneous offensive and defensive collapse for the Blazers. In super-technical analyst terms, it was very ouchy.
With 4 minutes gone in the third period, Washington's lead stood at 25, 71-46. If you'd have downed a shot for every bonehead, lackluster possession the Blazers had turned in up to that point, you'd have been dead. And who could blame you? The Blazers were reduced to holding the ball for 20 seconds and praying on any given offensive possession. At a certain point stapling eyelids shut seemed like the less painful route than watching the game.
But these are the Portland Trail Blazers. Half the league has learned that putting Portland down by 15 or 20 is not enough. They'll make you swear at the TV set for 24 minutes and swear you've never seen anything so sweet for the other 24. This was true again tonight.
After an early third-quarter timeout, the Blazers buckled down on defense. The Wizards responded by shooting like they already had the game in the bag...casual Friday stuff on a Monday night. Washington started holding the ball, settling for jumpers. The Blazers rebounded the resulting misses and got to work Arron Afflalo, Damian Lillard, and CJ McCollum struck from range in the third. Washington's defense spread out a little more, chased a little less, opening the middle for offensive boards and drives. A hail of three-pointers and layups melted down Washington's lead to 7, 81-74, after three.
Chris Kaman created a one-man bench stand for Portland to start the fourth, narrowing the margin to 83-80 with just over 3 minutes gone. Portland solved the Aldridge double-teams by shifting the action high, forcing the Wizards to send big men way outside if they wanted to trap the ball, opening up the entire floor for passes whenever they tried. Bereft of extra defensive attention, Aldridge would score 12 in the period. But the Wizards picked up their offense as well, exploiting Portland's vulnerability to screens. They'd use picks to curl players into the lane for easy, short-range jumpers or free dribblers from on high. Portland never really solved that riddle.
The score stood at 92-88, Washington with 4:00 remaining. 30 seconds later Wall missed a shot that Gortat tipped in. It looked like offensive basket interference, but it still counted. At the 2:15 mark with the lead at 6, Wall goal-tended a Lillard layup, again without a whistle. Those 4 points felt critical enough at that juncture that Terry Stotts picked up a technical arguing about them. Following a Paul Pierce three-pointer, the technical free throw boosted Washington's lead to 10, 100-90, with 2:00 remaining. At that point the outcome was academic. Lillard hit another three and Aldridge a pair of shots, but the Wizards cruised in to their 105-97 victory anyway.
So let's get this out of the way. The blown calls were bad and some officials should be sent to bed without their pudding cups tonight. Granted,
But let's also talk about things the Blazers can control. As commentator Steve Jones used to say, "When you get far enough behind you need everything to go right in order to complete the comeback." The Blazers had several cargo crates of stuff go right in the second half, but they lacked a couple things. The missed calls were included in that package. But had the Blazers been down only, say...15 to begin with instead of 25, the same calls would have been aggravating but probably not fatal.
It's not like playing a crappy defensive first half and then turning it on in the second is unusual for the Blazers. They do it plenty and they usually win. That doesn't make the practice sound. Chances are, they shouldn't win as much as they have in that situation. Given that, it's hard to begrudge this loss, whatever factors contributed. Even Siegfried and Roy got bitten by tigers now and then.
The main difference between this performance and earlier wins was Portland's abysmal offensive showing in the first half. Their shots weren't just missing, they were causing damage to backboards, rim brackets, and pedestrians walking outside the arena. Washington's defense got so far inside Portland's heads that they were voluntarily stepping inside the three-point arc for long twos. The Blazers never do that. They also held the ball, hesitated, and flinched on layups. It was a disaster. The beautiful third-quarter comeback, though relatively short-lived, provided an ocean of goodness in contrast.
But no amount of effort is going to save a game where the opponent gets 25 fast break points against your 4, or shoots 50% while you shoot 40%. Three-pointers sometimes provide an out but the Blazers shot 8-28, 29%, from range tonight. They hit only a single three-pointer more than Washington and only a single free throw more. Those 4 points didn't even begin to make up for the badness. Portland also excelled at rebounding, particularly on the offensive end, but a patio umbrella in the hurricane.
The take-away from this loss probably shouldn't be that it was a loss, but that it was scary how close to a win it became. When you're closing to within 3 or 4 in one of your worst performances of the year against a playoff team on the road, something is going your way.
Arron Afflalo's 15 points on 5-9 shooting look modest, but he's the one who started Portland on the long return journey in the third. He collected 4 personal fouls...not one of his better defending nights.
Damian Lillard tried to seal the deal in the fourth period but wasn't quite up to the task. His 5-18, 2-8 from distance shooting rate was low. 9 assists spoke well of his ability to get inside and dish but he just couldn't finish well enough.
LaMarcus Aldridge had 24 points, 12 rebounds, and 3 assists off of 10-19 shooting. That line is amazing when you consider how hard the Wizards went at him. He was harried all night and still came out smelling like a rose.
Nicolas Batum was the only guy keeping any momentum going for Portland in the first half. Once again, when everything else is quiet, Batum makes the most noise. 15 rebounds headlined the good end of his spectrum. 12 points on 4-12 shooting provided the other side of the story.
Robin Lopez once again registered a quiet rebounding night with 4. This time his scoring (8 points on 3-6 shooting) and defense didn't quite make up for it.
Chris Kaman had a nice scoring night with 12 points on 5-8 shooting in 13 minutes of play. In general the bench didn't do much. Several commentators during the game mentioned Portland's tired legs on the second night of a back-to-back. Those legs would be less tired--or at least would be called upon to work less--if we didn't get lines like 1-6 from Meyers Leonard, 1-4 with 1 assist from Steve Blake, or the non-Kaman portion of the bench scoring 12 points in a combined 53 minutes of playing time.
The Oklahoma City Thunder also lost tonight, putting Portland's magic number to clinch the Northwest Division at 8. The Blazers are now 1/2 game ahead of the 4th-place Houston Rockets, 1 game in the loss column. Portland trails the 2nd-place Memphis Grizzlies by 2 games, 1 in the loss column.
The week's not going to get any easier either. Portland gets a travel day before facing the Miami Heat on Wednesday night. Somebody better put an extra quarter in the plane's leg massager.
Bullets Forever might wonder how this went from a laugher to a squeaker in a few short minutes of court time. That's just Portland, brah.
We'll make you feel better with a nice Willy Raedy article in the morning and the Blazer's Edge Podcast in the afternoon. Plus pudding cups for ALL of you, cuz none of you are call-missing refs.