Submitted by: Mark Bunster of the blog The Loaded Orygun
Being 15-13 and at 8th place in a terribly competitive Western Conference race, after a season that started two months late and began like a shot of 5-Hour Energy, really isn’t that bad. It’s a playoff spot–barely–and ironically if the season finished today the Blazers would match up pretty strongly with a Thunder team they’ve already beaten twice (cough). And the raw numbers–which include back-to-back 30+ home wins as recently as Feb 1, that were part of a string of five double-digit wins at home–made folks like John Hollinger shrug and put the Blazers absurdly high in his Power Ranking. I credit most of that to the weight he gives point differential (scored minus allowed), in which the Blazers are an amazing 4th so far behind only the Bulls, Heat and 76ers.
But all you have to do is watch them play for a week or two in order to understand how tragically flawed the Blazers actually are, and how a variety of intangible dipswitches need to be flipped to ‘on’ before circumstances will permit a Portland win. Like those old dot matrix printers from the dark ages of computing, you’re never quite sure which ones are needed when (and if Jeremy Lin is any permanent phenomenon, the answers are both in Chinese). I emphasize the word “tragically” rather than “fatally,” because sneaking into the postseason through the service entrance is still surviving, and if there’s a team that carries a collective 2nd shoe or sword of Damocles around, it’s the Blazers.
So it’s not THAT bad. Certainly Sacramento or New Jersey or Golden State vicariously confront the agony of repeated one-and-dones in the playoffs, year after year of winning a majority of their games, and still wish it was them instead. But the stench of persistent mediocrity brings its own displeasures, and like Portnoy’s inspiration in A Lover’s Complaint, the loving-and-spurning cycle breeds resgination, but in the present mostly irritation:
- O that infected moisture of his eye,
- O that false fire which in his cheek so glow’d,
- O that forc’d thunder from his heart did fly,
- O that sad breath his spongy lungs bestow’d,
- O all that borrowed motion seemingly ow’d,
- Would yet again betray the fore-betray’d,
- And new pervert a reconciled maid!
OK, let’s break it down:
- The rest of the country may see a double OT loss on the road to the reigning NBA Champs and think the Blazers were valiant and showed their toughness, but not if you saw the game. The Mavericks were inconsistent after the first quarter, Dirk had a rough night (7-20) until the Blazers gave him a 3rd chance to win it with a jumpshot, and generally looked like a team who would struggle to beat an opponent that shot 37% for the game (which is what Portland did in fact shoot). Time after time, the Mavericks would turn the ball over (23 TO in all), take an ill-advised, too-quick shot, or most importantly stick to single coverage for LaMarcus Aldridge on a night the perimeter “shooters” went 13-50 with just five assists. Maybe some night Ray Felton, Jamal Crawford and Wes Matthews will make a team pay for doubling Aldridge as soon as he touches the ball, but it sure wasn’t going to be last night. This wasn’t a case of Portland willing their way to two overtimes, it was about Dallas leaving the barn door open like the whole herd had farted at once. And Dallas can change their strategy next time and try again–what does Portland do? Use their Oregon connections to Kevin Love to get him to kidnap Ricky Rubio for their point guard?
- So, the guards. I really can’t fault Crawford too much; he is performing generally to his prior reputation and has never been much of a point guard–because he’s a shooting guard. Ordinarily this wouldn’t be a problem…except coach Nate McMillan only has one point guard he trusts to use, and when that guy is tired he looks to Crawford. After the latest brick building display from Felton, McMillan admitted that perhaps it was time for RayRay to butt-meld with the pine for a while. But who would go into that starting slot? Jamal Crawford. This is bad, because if Crawford is looking to feed others as his mental priority, he’s not looking to take shots. And really, in Portland’s offense the guards are needed more to stretch the defense than to distribute like FedEx. They can do that by driving to the hole, drawing help–or by making jumpers that prevent defenses from sagging. They currently can do neither, and the result is a ton of crazy-open missed threes, each one redeeming the concept that perimeter D against the Blazers is for suckers.
- I don’t know if this one is on the players or is a bizarre vestige of the Roy years, built on 1-4 ISOs that allowed the rest of the team to stand around and read Us magazine while Brandon dribbled at the top of the key, but it might just help the Blazers attack the basket coherently if they didn’t wait to start trying until eight seconds were left on the shot clock. At the beginning of the season it looked like the team had made a philosophical if painful break with Brandon-ball, streaking down court with the same speed no matter after a miss or a make, rotating the orange around, inside and out, and taking a shot not when the clock demanded, but when somebody got open. That was a large part of what caused many Blazer fans to gush so at that early success–it was damned exciting ball, and had the side effect of working. I don’t know what’s caused it since then, but the quick outlet pass has disappeared like greek yogurt at the Beverly Hills Safeway. Free the Portland Five!
- Actually, I do have a theory as to why the team is playing slower than they might like or should: they’ve gotten afraid to lose. They don’t want to make the bad pass, don’t want to take the out of control charge call, aren’t willing to look foolish for taking an open three with 20 seconds left on the shot clock. Well, Crawford will, and in many games if it weren’t for his utter lack of short term memory, left to the rest of the team’s devices every trip would be a clock violation, a tragicomic ad nauseum revival of “You first Pierre/No YOU first, Garcon!” The disgust factor reached an apex against Dallas when with a chance to nail a crucial OT basket, Nicolas Batum made his defender miss at the three point line, stepped around him to face clear sailing basketwise…and whipped a late-clock pass to Felton standing about 27 feet back, who had little choice but to heave up an orange hunk of masonry. You remember my piece about playing small? 6’9” Batum suddenly morphed into 5’4″ Rick Moranis, squeaking ”Honey I Shrunk the French Shooting Forward!”
- It’s hard to pick on Nic sometimes, because in the same game where he committed egregious testicular retraction by passing up his shot, he continued dropping jaws with his ability to block shots from out of nowhere. Ask Goran Dragic; Batum has surprise-swatted him from behind FOUR times already this season. But there’s a sense of untapped potential with Batum, and not because he’s stil just 23. There are flashes of brilliance that make you believe a fully complete player is coming, but too often he gets lost in the corner waiting for a chance to shoot a three, or doesn’t exert any effort on help defense or after the shot. Put him face up on nearly anyone and Nic can play visibly strong defense. But his motivation or understanding about when to insert himself into the play is still lacking, or he just doesn’t want to get bruised. He can see what happens to Gerald Wallace on a nightly basis and perhaps will have none of it. If that’s so, that’s unfortunate–because if there’s something else the Blazers desperately need it’s weakside help and rebounding.
- Which reminds me: would you guys please mind doing some rebounding? Versus Houston Feb 8th, where the Blazers had multiple chances to corral a win (stop me if you’ve heard that before), the team found themselves in the lucky position of being able to tie the game very late with a made shot…if only they had secured the rebound AFTER A MISSED FREE THROW. Folks, letting the other team get to the glass after a missed freebie is like letting your 10 year old brother checkmate you because you were texting your girlfriend. Fair play to the 10 year old, but you’re just a slacker dolt who should have been more focused. Against Dallas the key shot other than Dirk’s customary miracle fadeaway was one where Sean Marion had two chances at the rim, and finally Brendan Haywood got the deuce–literally by slapping at it not with his hand, but his forearm. Yes, his forearm made the tip in. That’s par for the Blazer tragicomic course this year. But what where Marion and Haywood DOING there, camped out under Portland’s basket like Occupy Victory Park? Disgusting. Where was Tonya Harding when we needed her?
- Craig Smith, we love your new identity as The Rhino, someone who is almost unique among Blazers in his fearlessness to thunder into the lane and dare someone to take issue. But my man, they have figured you out: once you get there you’re not gonna pass, and when you shoot you will have my grandmother’s hops. Learn to kick out, see if you have a spin move or something you can go to, or flop like you’ve been Tasered if anyone brushes against you.
- Coach Nate: for heaven’s sake, PLAY THE YOUNG BACKCOURT GUYS SOME. What on earth can Nolan Smith do to mess things up at point guard, that RayRay hasn’t already done by repeatedly tattooing the area on the glass outside the white box? Before Jamal Crawford lucked into your lap thanks to the acting GM, were you going to go 48 minutes with Felton? Maybe your guys wouldn’t tucker out mentally in the crucial last minutes of games, if they’d been spelled for a bit by Nolan or Eliot Williams. And for all the unfinished promise of Nic Batum, how is the guy not getting 30-35 minutes a game? If Wes isn’t hitting, SIT the guy. If Gerald Wallace can’t bring the mojo on the road, let HIM come off the bench.
- Oh, speaking of GM’s: how about you GET one? I’m looking at you, Team President Larry Miller, as well as owner Paul Allen and his sycophantic gnomes back at Vulcan, Inc. It’s an insult to interim titleholder Chad Buchanan that you make him do the work but won’t give him the full power or credit, and it makes your organization look cheap and slapdash. Maybe Pritchard and Cho weren’t teambuilding genii, but either give Buchanan the job or look for someone else and HIRE them. You’ve left him this team; give him the respect to do a competent job.
- I know practice time has been close to nonexistent this season, but if I see one more 3-on-1 fast break that ends up in a blocked shot or a pass out of bounds, I’m going to grab my flat screen and stick it to someone at Rose Garden Avenue where the LEDs don’t shine. It’s like watching Pachinko–the ball will end up somewhere, but “where you wanted it to go” is a payoff only a casino could love. Sometimes the plays look so haplessly out of kilter I keep waiting for Blaze the mascot to sky off his halftime trampoline and jam home the rebound in a somersaulting climax. No such luck.
- Fix the button that fell off the left sleeve, and get the dang thing dry cleaned; it’s filthy. Oh wait, that’s from the list of complaints about my blazer. Nevermind. (By the way, if you search for Portland related NBA stories on Twitter by using the hashtag #Blazers, be prepared for half of the tweets to be from people ragging on the Nike shoes, as in “Why dude be thinking he fly in his Members Only jacket and Blazers? He be trippin fa sho!”)
- LaMarcus Aldridge has outplayed Kevin Durant pretty much every time they’ve faced each other the last two years. Same with Kevin Love. Same with Blake Griffin when he came into the league. And against Dallas he outplayed Dirk Nowitzki at BOTH ends until the final shot. The NBA doesn’t owe him an All-Star spot; they owe him a freakin’ apology and elite-level foul calls from the refs. Let LA crash the lane and reduce Emeka Okafor to rubble, give him the and-one instead of the charge, and admit you aren’t worthy.