Pick and Scroll, a “Big Letdown” in the Big Easy.

|

Your daily (Mon-Fri) roundup of links from around the blogosphere, typically Trail Blazers related.

Blazers Playoff Seed Battle

|

By defeating the Blazers Wednesday night the Hornets forced a playoff seed swap in their favor. Graduate of the Nate McMillan School of Doing Some Things and Some Stuff (NMSDSTSS, the Fightin’ Scrappers!) Monty Williams now has his team in position to be seeded sixth in the playoffs, with the Blazers now dropped to the seventh seed. This is more significant than it seems, although it has yet to be settled (respect to the Mavs), if the playoffs started today the 7th seed would face the Los Angeles Lakers. As fun as Blazers versus Lakers would be, it is not the matchup that gives the Blazers the best chance of advancing passed the first round of the playoffs for the first time since the year 2000. As if the Hornets weren’t enough, the Memphis Zach Randolphs are also threatening to push the Blazers to a lower seed. (I’m ignoring the unsettling idea of missing the playoffs entirely for as long as possible.)

After the jump, analysis of remaining schedules and other factors that influence the Blazers playoff seeding:

Crap.

The tiebreaker situation with New Orleans doesn’t help; the Blazers have managed just one win in four games against the Hornets this season. Portland has one win and one loss against the Grizzlies, with the rubber match game coming in Portland on April 12th. (Doomsday scenario: Zach Randolph comes to town and wipes the Blazers from the playoffs.)

It would be a mistake to count the Blazers out of the sixth seed simply because they seem to face a tougher final stretch at this moment. In my totally biased fan opinion the Blazers are better than the Hornets of Grizzlies. Also keep in mind that Dallas has not given up on overtaking the Lakers for the number two seed. If Dallas catches the Lakers the number seven seed could end up providing Portland with a less daunting (not meaning to knock the Mavs, but they are comparatively less fearsome than the Lakers or Spurs) first round match up.

Blazers Miss Auxiliary Players & the Extra Gear in New Orleans, Wednesday

|


Hey, where have you been?

I recently wrote about how the Blazers could come out of the current six-game gauntlet against playoff teams with some momentum and perhaps a record better than 3-3.

“They’re going to have to kick things into an extra gear,” I babbled. The next bit is more important: “The competition is such that Portland can’t afford for anyone to disappear. To a man, they’re all going to be at their best.”

Wednesday in New Orleans, neither of those things happened. When the fourth quarter rolled around one team—The Hornets—tightened up their execution. Meanwhile Portland’s auxiliary players—Nicolas Batum, Marcus Camby and Wesley Matthews—went missing in the offense.

In 23 minutes Batum missed all of his seven attempts from the field. He finished with two points and two turnovers.

Coming off the bench for a scant 17 minutes, Camby grabbed five rebounds and did not score. He also failed to initiate offense from the high post, and more importantly, could not blunt the hustling, strong and determined interior presence of Emeka Okafor.

In 33 minutes, starting shooting guard Wesley Matthews hit three of seven attempts to finish with seven points, one assist, two rebounds, four fouls and a turnover.

It was not a total team effort. Or it least it wasn’t in the second half.

The Blazers began by shooting the lights out, opening up an 11 points lead in the second quarter. After that they fell into poor one-on-one sets. In part, credit surely goes to New Orleans defense, and to Monty Williams. In three of the team’s four match-ups this season, the former Trail Blazers assistant has got the best of his former mentor.

There was a sprinkling of playoff-type atmosphere in New Orleans, Wednesday, as the Blazers and Hornets duked it out for standing in the Western Conference. The 95-91 Hornets win pushed them into the sixth seed and the Blazers down to seventh. The victory also clinched the season series for the Hornets, 3-1. Should the teams tie at the end of the year, New Orleans owns the tie-breaker.

Coming in I thought perhaps the game was gift wrapped for the Trail Blazers in much the same way as Monday’s matchup against the injury-laden Spurs. Hornet David West was recently lost for the season, and he’s had a history of hurting the Blazers.

But in West’s place former Rocket/King Carl Landry performed admirably. With 21 points and six rebounds, he was almost a statistical carbon copy. Perhaps when one thinks of West it’s important to remember how much better players can get when playing alongside a top-flight pass-first point guard.

And my, did Paul pass. His shot wasn’t falling and it matter—Paul found a way to stay affective. He dished a game-high 12 assists and showed why, in the game’s final minutes, he’s been refereed to as one of the NBA’s best at maintaining a lead.

Most disturbing was the way Portland crumbled when as the game escalated into the final stretch. Over the final minute of the third quarter passed the half-way point in the fourth, the Blazers went deathly cold while allowing the Hornets to score at will. In that span the Hornets outscored the Blazers 21-5.

The lead was not insurmountable, and the Blazers made a somewhat valiant push and kept things tense in the final minutes. But it was too little, too late. With the playoffs just two weeks away, when the intensity ratchets up, Portland must rise to the occasion.

Because while the Hornets were good, Wednesday, it seemed more like the Blazers beat themselves.

Pick and Scroll, A Coaches’ Duel

|

Your daily (Mon-Fri) roundup of links from around the blogosphere, typically Trail Blazers related.

Behind Enemy Lines: The view from San Antonio.

|

The Portland Trail Blazers (should) know not to underestimate a short-handed team. After all, most of Portland’s 42 victories have been in spite of an injury report that bordered on the ridiculous. However, against a Spurs team without Tim Duncan (ankle), Manu Ginobili (thigh), Tony Parker (left patella contusion), and Antonio McDyess (lower back), the Blazers nearly managed the rare feat of an embarrassing loss to the best team in the league.

Monday night’s game was Portland’s 74th out of the 82 game regular season grind and the Trail Blazers had just endured a heartbreaking loss the night before to the division rival Thunder. The Blazers were exhausted and afterwards LaMarcus Aldridge confessed as much, admitting to having been fatigued “for the last few games.” However, how tired do you have to be to let Chris Quinn and Steve Novak score a combined 15 points on seven of nine shooting in the first half?

Portland had difficulty containing dribble-penetration by San Antonio’s guards throughout most of the contest both due to tired legs and to what Nate McMillan lamented post game as a failure to stop the ball on defense. With little resistance above the three point line, George Hill turned on the jets and roasted the Blazers in transition. In the half-court, Hill exploited the Blazers proclivity to switch on the pick and roll and repeatedly took advantage of a dead-legged Aldridge after the Blazer guard of choice failed to fight through the pick. In all fairness, Tiago Splitter can sure set a moving pick screen. In fact, Splitter’s screens are so good that Portland’s guards started noticeably hedging on the pick before it even arrived in a desperate attempt to navigate them.

Brandon Roy had 11 points on five of seven shooting; however, hobbled by a lower back injury suffered the night before, Roy seemed out of rhythm as evidenced by his five turnovers. After the game, Roy maintained that his knees felt fine even on the second half of a back-to-back.

Gerald Wallace was pure hustle. After putting forth 40 points in 45 minutes in a losing effort the night before, Wallace somehow managed to bring his trademark energy to the game. Early in the third quarter, Wallace managed to beat a fast-breaking Richard Jefferson in transition and take a charge (erasing what would have likely been a layup) and then block George Hill’s shot near the rim on the next Spurs possession.

Andre Miller is an amazing basketball player to watch. Every time I see that awkward looking turn around-fade away jumper from the low block slide cleanly through the net, I never fail to be impressed by how incredibly improbable it looks. Miller answered George Hill’s 27 points with 26 points of his own on 15 shots. Miller’s total may have been padded a bit when the Spurs decided to foul it out, but regardless, Andre Miller made shots when Portland needed them the most.  

Wesley Matthews had a Cory-Magette-esque 12 free throw attempts to eight attempted field goals for 19 very efficient points.

San Antonio always has a fantastic crowd and Monday night was no exception. However, at least to me, the fan’s frustration levels were palpable. San Antonio has fielded a championship caliber team for quite some time now; the people here know what a championship feels like and they want that feeling again. As the Spurs went on their rather unexpected tear through the regular season, expectations naturally swelled. However, as Portland fans can attest, the greater the expectations, the greater the frustration when those lofty goals are unmet. Monday night, the San Antonio crowd was cranky and absolutely all-over the referees; it was fantastic. With much yet to be decided in the playoff race and even though San Antonio is a perennially dangerous playoff power, I cannot help but secretly hope for a Trail Blazers/Spurs playoff series, if only to witness the sheer energy of the two legendary fan bases in full playoff form.

Why Everyone is Wrong When They Talk About MVP

|

Debating which NBA player deserves the MVP award is nothing new, but this season it feels different. Instead of discussing which particular player among a group of worthy candidates is most deserving, the argument has intensified around whether or not Derrick Rose should win the award. Mainstream media (the voters) seem mostly sold on Rose. Greasy blogger types think this is ridiculous. Watching the camps go back and forth over who is right and who is wrong has established only that everyone is missing something.

The MVP is an opinion award, remember? There is no clear definition. If there was there would be no debate, which would end all of the fun, all of the frustration, and most of the interest. There are qualities that many previous winners share, but the exceptions are evidence that these are not hard and fast rules. There is no single correct answer. Nobody can be right and nobody can be wrong.

Rose is the top scorer on a team that has won a lot of games. He is hardly a radical candidate. Perhaps you think an MVP should have a higher PER, more Win Shares, play better defense, or do something else. All of that is only as right and as wrong as any reason used to vote for Rose.

All of this is simple and obvious yet seems to be getting lost. At this point if someone wrote an article that named their choice for MVP while acknowledging their own biases and the limitations of their opinion I would print it out and frame it. I might even start stalking the author. In the mean time the least we can do is stand down a bit from so loudly mistaking our opinions for facts and the MVP award for something that it is not.

Portland Escape the B-Team Spurs, Win 100-92

|

Double Tea-Pop

James Anderson, Daniel Green, Steve Novack, and Chris Quinn: these are some of the San Antonio Spurs who saw meaningful minutes in tonight’s matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers. With Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili out with injuries, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich doubled-down and decided to sit other veterans Tony Parker and Antonio McDyess, some much needed rest for the ailing crew.

With the West likely secured for San Antonio, Popovich could afford to rest his starters, even if the end result was their fourth straight loss. But before falling 100-92, the B-Team Spurs almost ran the Trail Blazers out of the building.

The first half was about as exciting as a middling rec league contest—both teams were allergic to defense, just going through the motions like two squads on the second half of a back to back. Portland found themselves ahead by seven after two quarters, cruising to what appeared to be an easy victory.

But the wheels fell off in the third. The Blazers finished the quarter with nine points total. Nine. The Spurs, playing with house money, came out firing. Once the shots started falling, the crowd got energized. Once the crowd got energized, the shots kept falling. San Antonio could taste blood in the water, and started playing loosely with a ton of swagger.

With nine minutes remaining in the fourth, Gary Neal hit a three, giving the Spurs an eight point lead. They wouldn’t score another field goal for the next seven plus minutes.

Portland finally rallied, tightening the clamps against the lesser Spurs. The focus and intensity that had been missing for three plus quarters finally appeared. Andre Miller started dominating the ball, running the offense and actively looking for his shot. Gerald Wallace owned the boards and was able to knock down a much needed open three pointer. Nicolas Batum was also able to knock down a couple of shots, including a key three. San Antonio, on the other hand, whiffed their free throws and open threes.

After a 15-1 run, the game was all over but the fouling.

It should have never been this close. Portland should have never allowed San Antonio to make a run to take the lead. But, as they are wont to do, the Blazers played down to their opponent and allowed the Spurs to hang around. Luckily there was enough in the tank to pull it out in the end, because losing to a Spurs team missing their big three would have been an embarrassing blemish.

As it stands, however, in the midst of this brutal stretch, a victory of an injury-plagued opponent is a gift the Blazers will take.

Pick and Scroll, Thunder roll, Spurs Slump.

|

Your daily (Mon-Fri) roundup of links from around the blogosphere, typically Trail Blazers related.

ESPN Rankings:

On the Miracle, the Spurs, Thunder and the Six-Game Gauntlet

|

Well sir, I can honestly say that the warming glow of Nicolas Batum’s game-winning alley-oop is still burning brightly in my mind. Even after a rugged defeat in Oklahoma City on Sunday, Friday’s once-in-a-lifetime miracle comeback has yet to dim.

How long this can go on, I cannot say. Chances are the memory will occupy all prime Blazers-related real-estate until tip-off Monday against the very same Spurs, whose fumbling giveaway was epic in its own right. But before we look forward, allow me this:

The Thunder look good.

The addition of Kendrick Perkins has given Oklahoma City a downright fearful defensive presence. They are vicious, determined, long-armed intimidators—lock-down one-on-one defenders at every position.

On offense, Russell Westbrook has become every bit as deadly a closer as Kevin Durant. And Durant showed Sunday that he doesn’t have to score to win ball-games. When Gerald Wallace caught fire and put the Blazers on his back Durant switched to him an essentially ended the run.

But it was Perkins who made the defensive play of the game—a definitive, close-the-book block that resulted in a Westbrook fast-break layup. The plays opened a this-time-insurmountable six-point lead in the final minute.

Truly, the Thunder are now well-built for playoff basketball. When the tempo slows and physicality escalates, they’ll be right there in a team’s face. They’re hard-nosed defenders and, to use the parlance of coach Nate McMillan, they execute. The offense is efficient and team-first. Add to that not one but two get-a-basket-at-all-costs, good-offense-beats-good-defense, top-of-the-league playmakers down the stretch in Westbrook and Durant. Oh, and a home court that rivals the rare electric intensity of the Rose Garden.

Nothing the Thunder might accomplish in this year’s playoffs would surprise. They’re a young, hungry bunch that has the potential to upset any of the aging top three seeds.

Of those conference leaders, the Spurs are looking a bit shaky for the first time all season. Tim Duncan is out a number of games with a severe ankle sprain. Manu Ginobili suffered a quad contusion Sunday at Memphis. He returned to the game but didn’t finish it. The timing couldn’t be much worse for the Spurs, who lost Sunday in Memphis.

That said, San Antonio figure to be well fired up when the Trail Blazers come to visit, Monday. After the Spurs collapsed against the Blazers last Friday, Gregg Popovich was so mad in the post game press conference I wouldn’t have been surprised if a vein popped out of his beet red forehead. The turnovers were quite uncharacteristic of the otherwise hyper-disciplined Spurs.

I remember watching Ginobili Friday and being astounded by his savvy and dashing ability. Numerous times I blurted out fawning praise on press row. He was killing it.

Until that last minute.

Still, the Spurs were really the better team Friday. They got easier baskets, played at their own tempo, and forced the Blazers to take shots that they wanted them to. In particular, there were far too many Blazers threes.

That said, the Blazers are playing decent basketball. After falling behind by 15 to the Thunder in Oklahoma City on Sunday, the Blazers stuck together and rallied on the back of Gerald Wallace, who at times couldn’t miss. He finished with 40 points, two off his career high.

Indeed, as he continues to integrate with his new team, Wallace seems to get better each passing game. On both sides of the ball he’s quickly becoming one of Portland’s most dangerous weapons. It might be worth noting that Wallace has never played for a winning team. And after seven rueful years in Charlotte, the change can not be overlooked—it’s got to be invigorating.

Marcus Camby also played inspired basketball against the Thunder. Unlike in a lot of games since returning from injury and then being move from the starting lineup, Camby has, at times, faded into the background.

Sunday, however, the veteran center was in the thick of things. He finished with 13 rebounds in 31 minutes. The rebound total tied Camby’s most since sitting out over a month with the injury. His 31 minutes were the most in that same span.

On the heels of his first-ever career buzzer-beater, Nicolas Batum went cold. He scored just six points on one of four shooting and played just 21 relatively sour minutes. The six points ended Batum’s streak of three games scoring 20 or more, a career-best.

Batum suffered a quad contusion on the first play of the game. Perkins nailed him (another sign of Oklahoma City’s newfound defensive physicality). For the Blazers to pick things back up in the midst of this brutal stretch, Batum will have to get back towards that prior streak of offensive punch.

Brandon Roy was also hurt in Sunday’s game. He tweaked his back and did not play in the fourth quarter. It should also be mentioned that Roy’s looked to be having trouble with his knees in the last two games. Though it was lost in the shuffle after Batum’s game-winner, Roy was clutching at his right knee throughout Friday’s game. On numerous occasions his winced in obvious pain and moved with a visible limp.

And in this wicked run of six-games against Western playoff teams, what exactly must the Blazers accomplish to consider a positive run?

On paper, the Blazers are favored to lose more games than they’ll win. But personally, I never find a push to be anything more than it is—certainly splitting the six-game stretch is tolerable, but not exactly a momentum and confidence builder en route to the playoffs. Most times, “moral victories” are just another way of saying “lost.”

In the six-game gauntlet the Blazers are no 1-1. To go better than .500 they’re going to have to kick things into an extra gear. The competition is such that Portland can’t afford for anyone to disappear. To a man, they’re all going to be at their best.

TIP-OFF: 5:30PM

TV: Comcast

RADIO: 95.5FM

VEGAS LINE: Portland +4.5

Batum’s Bit of Blazer Lore

|


The play was one the Blazers have kept in their back pocket all year. Finally, tied at 96 against the Spurs with 0.9 left in regulation, coach Nate McMillan pulled it out.

Everything went just as planned. Better even. It was perfect.

The call, Andre Miller’s pass, the defensive assignments, rotation, Brandon Roy as the decoy that stole Manu Ginobili’s attention for that critical half-second, and of course, Nicolas Batum’s smarts to see it, plus his ability to jump over the Spurs defender, Tony Parker, and, while in the air, lay the ball in with just 0.9 seconds left on the clock.

It was the first game-winning buzzer-beater of Batum’s young career, professional or otherwise. Afterwards, when surrounded by media, Batum gave off a serene, confident glow. Once the media shuffled off Patty Mills and Rudy Fernandez, Batum’s locker neighbors, gathered around, huddled together and, wearing towels, re-enacted their post-buzzer celebration dance.



That Batum and the Trail Blazers were even in position to attempt a game-winning shot is, in itself, somewhat of a miracle. The series of mistakes the allowed the Blazers that chance were uncharacteristic of any NBA team, much less the hyper-disciplined Spurs.

With 1:21 remaining in the fourth, the Blazers were down six. Andre Miller then converted a layup. The teams traded misses and the Blazers looked like fish in a barrel.

Then suddenly Miller picked the pocket of Spurs guard Tony Parker and converted another layup. Still, Portland were down two.

With :30 seconds remaining the otherwise magnificent Manu Ginobili lost the ball while running down the clock. Miller scooped it up and sprinted towards the Blazers’ basket. He threw a wrap-around pass to Wesley Matthews, who was rejected at the rim.

Nicolas Batum plucked the ball out from the scrum and went up himself only to be fouled. He stepped up to the line and calmly drained both shots.

With 0.9 seconds remaining, the two teams were tied at 96. Without possession, the best the Blazers could hope for was overtime. Or so they thought.

For what should’ve been the final shot San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich subbed in Steve Novak to inbound (a job usually held by Tim Duncan). The relatively cold Novak, who played just 1:27 all game, sailed the entry pass in over Ginobili’s head and out of bounds. No Blazers had touched it. Portland ball.

And the rest is history.

To be sure, the shot—and the comeback at large—figure to become a substantial piece of Trail Blazers lore on par with Bradon Roy’s turnaround 30-foot three-pointer that beat the Rockets in overtime 2008.

In the tunnels of the Rose Garden afterwards all the old-timers were giving praise and remembering a similar shot by Billy Ray Bates. Everyone had something to say. They all wanted in on the action. Team doctors were slapping high fives. Kitchen staff were hollering. Journalists were smiling. Even usually quiet folks were jabbering away.

Nate McMillan stepped up to the podium and let out an uncharacteristic “woo!” He was incredibly proud of the way his guys played down the stretch. Pointing to their late-game poise, McMillan called for more of it.



McMillan did, however, say that the Blazers still need to get better. Perhaps it was a nod to the unusual nature of the game’s final minute-and-a-half. Indeed, it wasn’t how the Spurs usually go down—even if they were playing without Tim Duncan.

Conversely, Popovich was irate about coughing up what any other night would’ve assuredly been a Spurs victory. He had a hard time keeping the bile down. His answers were curt, clipped, combative and sarcastic.

“Yeah,” Popovich barked when asked about San Antonio’s final offensive set, “we wanted to throw it straight out of bounds without anybody touching it.”



Certainly Popovich had plenty to be mad about. The Spurs out-shot the Blazers (51.3% to 46.5% from the field), made more threes on less attempts (11-23 to Portland’s 7-26) and got more assisted, easy baskets.

But in sports, as in life, sometimes strange, magical things happen. And Friday’s come-from-behind victory in the final minute was surely one of them.