The first quarter of the Blazer-Laker game looked promising for Portland fans. It was largely set up by recent games. LaMarcus Aldridge has been on a tear recently. He regularly has dropped in 20 or more points and shot better than 50%. As a result he has been commanding double teams and forcing teams to dedicate a strong defender to him. This game started out no different.
When you double team one post player it opens up other things such as deep jumpers and weak side rebounding. Portland took advantage of both. Travis Outlaw made the first bucket on a spectacular one hand follow-dunk of a missed Aldridge jumper. That opportunity was created by the double team that moved Lakers defenders around. Most of the rest of the quarter was taken up by a flurry of a dozen try attempts and a couple more bombs that were prevented from being 3s only by virtue of Steve Blake and James Jones having their foot on the line. 6 of the 3s dropped in which is kind of the ultimate good news/bad news scenario.
The good news is Portland was scoring seemingly at will and the 3 was dropping. The bad news is the team that lives by the 3 tends to die by it as well when they stop dropping. Watch any team that regularly dials long distance and you will generally notice they both generate and give up huge runs. Golden State is probably the poster boy for that paradigm but in games like this one Portland follows the formula as well.
After building a 23-15 point lead Portland kept bombing away from outside but made just 1 of the next 4 triples. Meanwhile the Lakers were pounding the ball inside, going to the line, and getting the long rebounds to get some easy transition points.
The second quarter saw a lot less reliance on the 3 (2-6) but they were still shooting from deep. When they got penetration they set up a couple easy buckets but now the Laker defense was much more dialed in. Lamar Odom was doing a great job defensively on Aldridge when they were matched up 1 on 1 and as a result Portland now had no low-post scoring, the 3s were no longer open and the other players were not involved. After dropping 31 points in the first quarter they could only manage 19 in the second. Too much of the Portland offense devolved into random 1 on 1 moves against the shot clock that resulted in bad shots or turnovers. Though the Lakers only scored 24 points they completely dominated the quarter and it was obvious Portland was on its way to another defeat.
A lot of the damage was done by their first quarter success. When they do not have to work to score early the young guys on the Blazers tend to relax and not work as hard at the game as they need to in order to win. Though they are a talented young team they are not so talented that they can win without giving complete effort. They have problems with the transcendent talents of the league which, in reality, means 2 players: LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. Either of those guys can lift their team to victory even in the absence of significant assistance from their teammates. And on nights when their teammates are playing well...forget about it. It could get embarrassing.
This game did not reach that stage...not having your best player (Brandon Roy) and falling by 13 on the road to one of the premiere teams in the Western Conference is nothing to be ashamed of. And to their credit the young Blazer players never quit. They simply were outworked by a team that is, at this point, simply more talented and that outworked them on this night.
And there is no doubt the Lakers are a very talented team. I have never understood why Odom has not gotten more respect. His agate type for the night hardly overwhelmed anybody...12 points on efficient 6-12 shooting, 8 rebounds, just one assist...but he played a very complete game including 2 steals and 3 blocks. Most importantly, he played rugged, impressive defense on Aldridge and forced him into a 4-15 night with at least 2 of the makes coming when Odom was nowhere to be seen. Here is a guy who arguably made the difference for the Lakers in this game yet seems to be a favored whipping boy of many Laker fans. That seems mis-placed to me. Sure, Odom is not at a point in his career where he will regularly drop 20 and 10 but he will score timely buckets, play solid defense, and just generally be an above average threat to the opposition.
They also have Bryant, a guy for whom legitimate MVP chants are raised in about every home game. That brings up an interesting question; how important is image to the MVP? There are a lot of issues to discuss there but that is a post for another time.
For now, the Blazers are sitting at 38-37 with a tough schedule ahead: Home against Houston, San Antonio and the Lakers, then a quick road trip to Sacramento, home games against Dallas and Memphis and then closing out in Phoenix. 6 of those look like strong possibilities of losses with only the Memphis game looking like a probably win. After the Charlotte debacle, even that is questionable. Early on I figured them for 42-44 wins and a long-shot playoff slot. I was wrong about the playoffs...who knew you would need 50 to get in? and the win totals are looking shaky. But I am not ready to pack it in. One more strong run fueled by the home fires could see them go 4-3 or even 5-2 with a little help. While none of the games are easy all except the last one in Phoenix are games that should not surprise anybody if Portland won. They have a very respectable 25-11 record there and have almost always brought their A-game to the Rose Garden. Rumors abound that Roy may be back as soon as Friday which would make all the difference. It will be a fun close to the year as we see exactly what these guys are made of and get a look at who will still be on the team next season.