Due to work and other life circumstances I had kind of lost touch with Portland. I was vaguely aware they were on a losing streak and were struggling mightily. Somewhere in there Brandon Roy played in the All-Star game and, judging by his performance making the front page of the Oregonian, apparently played very well. But I have been unable to keep up with what is going on and have lost my feel for the team.
Fortunately, last night I was able to attend the Seattle game, a game I selected mostly to get a Brandon Roy Bobble head. The availability of said toys shocked me because it speaks quite clearly to the popularity of the "reining Rookie of the Year" as Mark Mason announces at every game. We got to the game an hour early...and they were out of Bobble heads as you had to be one of the first 5000 fans there.
How late were we? My good friend John got there 2 hours early...and the bobble heads were gone. Portland fans do not, as a rule, show up 2 hours before game time. I think it is safe to say that even in the midst of a losing streak the Blazer fans love B-Roy. Fortunately as a season ticket holder I still got the bobble head...
The excitement was palpable. The Blazers have made a couple changes since I last saw them. First, the starting lineup has changed. Jarrett Jack is back in the starting lineup and Martell Webster is coming off the bench. This is an interesting change. It makes the Blazers smaller and faster. Roy slides to small forward instead of shooting guard, Jack slides into the shooting guard role and Steve Blake runs the point.
In theory this should improve the offense while weakening the rebounding further yet. Jack, Blake and Roy are by far the best passers on the team and all three have point guard instincts. It would stand to reason therefore that ball movement would be improved. Jack is a better perpetrator than Webster so there are three threats to break down the defense and create some shots in the paint. With LaMarcus Aldridge to either work the post or spot up for the 18 foot jumper and Joel Przybilla to set picks and rebound this lineup can post up, penetrate, and have multiple shooters to kick the ball out to if double-teamed.
As for rebounding, the Blazers already struggle in that department. It is not helped by replacing the 6'8" Webster with the 6'3" Jack. Webster is willing to get inside and battle. His statistics are not staggeringly high compared to Jack but his presence allows Aldridge and Przybilla to do their work with less interference. This is one of those areas that "don't show up in the agate type" areas.
The lineup has potential. Repeatedly Aldridge would get double-teamed and make the proper pass to the open man who would rotate the ball out top...where it would stop and the Blazers would wait for the Sonics to set up their defense. This resulted in multiple shot clock violations and several forced shots against the buzzer. For whatever reason the combination of Blake, Roy and Jack does not move the ball particularly well and when they do rotate it to the open man he is too hesitant to pull the trigger. Thus the offense struggled all night long. Eventually it degenerated into either Travis Outlaw coming off the bench for repeated clear-out, one-on-one situations or scramble plays where pure hustle resulted in good scoring opportunities.
The Blazers shot just 38 percent for the game. It would be nice to attribute this to the Seattle defense. But that is hard to do. Again and again Portland created open looks and refused to take them. Or they would get the shot they wanted and just miss. Here are a couple of examples.
Roy takes his time bringing the ball up the floor. By the time he reaches the offensive end 6 seconds have elapsed. He dribbles outside the 3 line for a couple seconds, then works it over to Blake who makes the entry pass to Aldridge. At this point Blake is supposed to cross out to where Roy had been to give Aldridge that side of the floor to work on. His defender knew the play and started towards the top of the key. Instead Blake runs baseline which runs his defender directly into Aldridge which unintentionally creates the double team. Roy scrambles to the spot vacated by Blake and Aldridge kicks the ball back out to Roy who is closely guarded. With about 6 seconds left Roy rotates it out top to Jack who is wide open. He hesitates which allows his defender to close, then throws it into the post to Przybilla who does not have great hands, fumbles the ball out of bounds and the possession is wasted.
To the Sonics credit when Blake went the wrong way they adapted and made the correct double team. When Jack hesitated on his shot they closed out and everyone was once more covered. But the offense moved the defense into the correct position.
The second example is quite similar. Outlaw has the ball outside the 3 line, foul line extended right. He breaks down Jeff Green, gets into the lane and draws a triple team. He kicks it out to the right corner. Blake, wide open, elects not to shoot. He dribbles to his left, rotates it out top to an open Roy who then dribbles backwards a couple steps and resets the offense...which allows the defense to reset. Outlaw moved the defense out of position, Portland had 2 open looks and took neither. If you fail to take advantage of situations where you get the defense out of position it will make for long, sub-40 percent shooting nights.
Fortunately the Portland defense was stifling. Seattle was being funneled into the middle where Przybilla and Aldridge were sending back seemingly everything the Sonics put up. At half time the Blazers had blocked a whopping 9 shots. But it is not the blocked shots alone...it is the adjustments those blocks make in the heads of the opposition. Time and again Sonics rushed shots close-in knowing that Aldridge (5 blocks) or Przybilla (4 blocks) was roaming the paint and missed easy shots. In the first half the Blazers were doing a good job of controlling the defensive boards so they were in the game.
This game showed once again one of the interesting things about this Blazer team. Particularly in light of the big trade the Sonics were involved in this team is built around Kevin Durant. Portland typically does a good job of making the opposing stars work hard for their shots and, while they typically have decent games, they seldom (Kobe Bryant excepted) go off for huge nights against the Blazers. However, role players have career nights with frightening regularity. This game was no exception.
Durant had a decent game...22 points on 6-15 shooting, 6 boards, 4 turnovers...but he had to work for it. Meanwhile, the guys killing Portland were Nick Collison and Luke Ridnour. It does not show in the box score but in the first half without Collison the game would have been a blowout. He had 6 early points and numerous rebounds, hustle plays, and so forth. The entire section we were sitting in was muttering imprecations against him because, though it was "only" 6 points, they were 6 points that gave Seattle the lead in the first quarter and his 14 rebounds nearly put them over the top and nearly allowed Seattle to win the game.
Then Ridnour took over. He rained 3s from everywhere. Again, it was not the TOTAL number of points he scored...his modest 10 point total was hardly game-breaking...but the timing was key. Portland started the third quarter rather well and was on the verge of breaking the game open. The 3s Ridnour rained in broke the run and, for a time, the Blazer spirit. He single-handed changed the game from a Portland romp into a dogfight that allowed Durant to come back in the 4th quarter after 2 relatively quiet ones and carry Seattle down the stretch. He made it a game but Portland held on for the 92-88 win.
This game spoke volumes about the current state of the Blazers. Take away their 13 game win streak and they are 9 games under .500. If they had played at that 36 percent clip during the 13 game stretch their record would be 24-34 which would rank slightly behind Sacramento. That actually seems a little closer to where this team actually is in terms of cohesiveness than their actual 29-25 record. This is a team that needs James Jones healthy, that needs to discover some offensive rhythm, and that needs to remember the magic that had them the hottest team in the league at one point. Friday night will be a good test. Seattle is not yet they SuperSonics...they are more like the SadSonics at this point. Even as the second night of a back to back home and home series against the I-5 rivals Portland SHOULD beat Seattle in Seattle. The question is will they. It will be interesting to see if they step up and win a game they should or if Seattle can claw their way to a rare win.