A Eulogy

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R.I.P. 2010-11 Portland Trail Blazers

October 26th, 2010—April 28th, 2011.

48 wins, 34 losses.

First Round Playoff Exit

The playoffs, like the Hobbesian state of nature, are nasty, brutish, and sometimes short; depressingly short. So we turn first to the memories of yesteryear. 

Just two seasons ago the Blazers, behind the do-no-wrong offensive wunderkind Brandon Roy, won 54 games. They made the playoffs for the first time in what felt like much longer than it actually was. When that Trail Blazers team fell to a sixth-seeded Rockets team the loss was heartbreaking but understandable; Greg Oden was a shell of himself and Brandon Roy was basically the only player capable of creating a shot that wasn’t a jumper. The Trail Blazers fell in the sixth game of the first round, “Next Season…” hope whispers.

Trades were made, new players arrived (including former “all-defensive team member” Marcus Camby), everyone got injured—even the coach. The Trail Blazers fell to the Phoenix Suns in six games, in spite of a miraculous comeback by an injured and counted-out Brandon Roy. “That’s Okay,” hope whispers, “just wait until everyone is healthy next season. It can’t get any worse.”

Then suddenly Greg Oden’s junk hit the internet. Rudy Fernandez was desperate to be anywhere but Portland and Kevin Pritchard’s golden-boy status fizzled out on national TV as he carried out what everyone knew would be his last NBA draft. After making his mark there and not in free-agency, it was fitting that Pritchard would leave after the draft, even if it was like watching a man who’d been sentenced to hang tying his own noose.

The anti-Pritchard Rich Cho blew in on by way of Oklahoma. More comfortable in numbers, he said little, but smoothed a front office and ownership team that at the time looked un-tethered. The season began and so again did the injuries. Brandon Roy seemed on the verge of complete disability, unable to produce at his former capacity, and perhaps even lucky to simply remain in the league. Fans labeled him “selfish.”

After being nearly written off as a number-one, LaMarcus Aldridge rose to fill the void. A trade was made for former All-Star and  “all-defensive team” member Gerald Wallace and Portland got a “favorable” playoff matchup against the Dallas Mavericks.

Well, we all know how that went.

“That’s alright…” hope whispers, searching for an excuse. “The Blazers just need more size. Next year, when Oden is healthy …”

Hope is a fascinating thing, springing eternally and yet frozen by bitterness and cynicism—dammed by disappointment.

However, a first round playoff series victory would have meant what, exactly? In a Western Conference where the parity and talent level are such that an eight seed can beat a one seed in six games, a playoff series victory can be more indicative of a favorable matchup than the caliber of the team.  Without a healthy Brandon Roy, Portland didn’t have enough favorable matchups to beat the Dallas Mavericks, much less the Los Angeles Lakers or the Oklahoma City Thunder. Had Portland advanced, hope would have sprang and flowed against the current of logic and reason to whisper, “This could be something special…”

The link between hope and reality is progress; falling short is understandable as long as there is consistent, measurable steps made towards a goal. The Trail Blazers did not seem to make much headway this season, which is disheartening.

Please, do not mistake me for a messenger of hope; things will probably get better, but much is yet to be done. Roy is still without meniscus in his knees. Oden is still in recovery, and what used to be a jump-shooting team has devolved to the point that no one on the roster can seem to hit a three pointer.

Hope, however, is not the only source of happiness. Leo Tolstoy once said, “happiness is nine-tenths perception,” and that while one may not be able to control the circumstances that surround them; one does control their own perspective. Of the 30 teams in the NBA, 29 will not win a championship this season; hell, there are a lot of teams that haven’t won a title ever.

Besides, past championships are a poor salve for disappointment; ask my friends here in San Antonio if their four trophies make their recent loss any more bearable. A championship is an amazing memory, the ultimate ending to a season-long struggle, a moment where (sans the fans of the opposing team) the entire world cheers with the victor.

Of course, one need not be awarded a trophy to have a special moment. During game four of the series, and in front of the Rose Garden’s adoring fans, Brandon Roy overcame. Once again, Roy shot and dished and drove and willed his team to a historic come-from-behind victory, finally overcoming a 23-point deficit with lurching bank shot. Every observing basketball fan in the world that wasn’t rooting for Dallas willed and prayed for that shot to go in and screamed in delight when it did. The story was too good, the odds were too improbable, the reality too harsh; and yet Brandon Roy went nova just one more.

In retrospect, Roy’s performance is even more impressive. Yet if games Five and Six are any indication, the Brandon Roy of old has not returned. He still has injuries that may not ever subside, needs more time to adjust to what his body will allow him to do (not to mention, the ins and outs of the point guard position). It isn’t as though Roy was just waiting and then something clicked and everything is magically better. A shell of his former self, Roy played his heart out in an all-time great offensive display that rivals any offensive quarter by virtually anyone, then fell back to earth.

Thus, as we lay this season to rest, shed no tears for what could have been. Rather, celebrate what was. It was beautiful to see Aldridge shoulder the load of leadership and re-invent his game. It was beautiful to see the chemistry that the team developed, even if it did result in “three goggles” becoming a nation-wide phenomenon. It was beautiful to watch Brandon Roy walk on proverbial water one more time, and the lack of a championship does not diminish that beauty in the slightest.

Now, we look forward to a new draft, and a new collective bargaining agreement that will likely either radically change the basic financial structure of basketball and player movement or wipe away an entire season. With such uncertainty ahead, little can be said positively or negatively about Portland’s prospects of winning a championship in the near future other than to say that they are at least a healthy roster away from contention, which is no small obstacle. I cannot say there will be hope, but I can say there will be basketball in Portland (which is more than Seattle can say and more than Sacramento can promise) and I can tell you that the next season—whenever it takes place—will excite. It will be frustrating. And at times, it will be beautiful.

Exit Interviews

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Taking place all at once and spread across the Blazers’ practice facility courts, exit interviews this year were a bit of a free-for-all scrum. Some players are left out, as availability was often simultaneous.

NATE MCMILLAN

Coach McMillan spoke about the shock of the season’s sudden end—it’s something one never gets used to, he said. McMillan also touched briefly on the Blazers’ lineup issues, including a glut of wings and the need for a true backup power forward. He also added a general summation of another tough, injury-plagued season.



LAMARCUS ALDRIDGE

LaMarcus Aldridge insisted that the year was not lost or in vain despite the Blazers’ inability to advance past the first round for the third straight year. He talked about his growth as a leader, and that’s all I can remember—which is to say that Aldridge wasn’t particularly enlightening.



BRANDON ROY

After what was easily the most trying year of his career, Brandon Roy said he was simply happy to have been able to play this season. Surprisingly, Roy said that his most cherished and memorable moment was returning to the court against the Lakers for the first time after undergoing double-knee surgery (and not the wicked, savior-like Game 4 performance). Royy plans to spend the off-season with his family, as well as seeking new treatment options for his weathered knees.



NICOLAS BATUM

After Thursday’s final loss to the Mavericks in which he scored no points and grabbed no rebounds, Nicolas Batum sat in the locker room staring silently into space. Clearly he was upset with his performance, and said as much. But Batum also said that he was not upset with his lack of scoring in the postseason, though admittedly I found it hard to believe.

Batum also added that he’s leaving the season upset for the first time in his young career. As such, Batum hopes to get back to playing as quickly as possible, likely in hopes of getting the distaste out of his mouth. He plans to play for the French national team beginning in July, and was excited that he will play against teammates Rudy Fernandez and Patty Mills, who will suit up for their own respective nations.



RUDY FERNANDEZ

A tad more jovial with the media than usual, Rudy Fernandez said he looks forward to returning to Portland next season. In the midst of his explanation, Patty Mills wandered by and tugged at Fernandez to sign the jersey that all Blazers would autograph. As displayed in their playfull ribbing, Mills is one of the primary reasons Fernandez found his way back into this team, socially speaking. Fernandez added that he would also return to national ball this summer after a short rest, and placed great importance on Spain’s Olympic qualifiers.



GERALD WALLACE

I asked Gerald Wallace if he felt any differently looking forward to his next season with the Blazers after his many years in Charlotte. Pretty simply, he said ‘no,’ but did admit that a full year in Portland, beginning in training camp, would help him integrate further.

Wallace had no substantial comments on whether having two starter-quality small forwards, himself and Batum, was a positive or negative. In the off-season Wallace plans to rest, but added that having kids is pretty much a workout in itself. Until after his basketball camp and the kids go back to school in the fall, Wallace said he doesn’t focus much on working out basketball-wise.



WESLEY MATTHEWS

I was unable to get video of Wesley Matthews, who admitted openly for the first time (at least that I’ve heard) that an right-ankle injury has dogged him all season. Matthews didn’t say what, if anything, the injury prevented him from doing, only that it was a source of constant pain all year. He said he had undergone an MRI sometime back, but refused to share the results, except to say that it’s “messed up.”

ANDRE MILLER

At length, Andre Miller spoke in his usual hushed tones. Over and over he stressed the importance of the team’s need to stay healthy. He added bits about building a championship attitude in work-ethic and mental toughness. Miller said that, despite the option on his contract, he wants to return to Portland next season.



A Familiar Shadow Looms

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I’m sitting here at the Blazers’ practice facility in Tualitin after a somewhat strange, almost wholly unenlightening series of exit interviews.

As the coach and players prattled on about a challenging year, getting better in the off-season and another disappointing first-round playoff exit, the big question mark loomed in the weight room.

Greg Oden was sprawled out on an exercise ball, once again being run through the rigors of rehab.

It’s a sad, familiar story and you’ve heard it before.

There are a few new wrinkles of course—the new faces of Wesley Matthews and Gerald Wallace—but none rife with potential to alone put the Blazers over the hump and into that championship pedigree. Sure, with the right breaks and another year to mesh and grow, Portland could finally break through the first round. But as things stand, the Blazers leave the 2011 season in much the same shape they found it—disappointed, but not without hope.

Looking back to last night’s series-clinching loss to the Mavericks, I see little reason now for a full-on recap. As it shook out, the Mavericks proved themselves to be the deeper and more poised club—indeed, they were the better team.

Of course, questions were asked of the Blazers and their coach what the team needs to do in order to win a similar series next year.

To a man, each noted the importance of good health and “getting better.” Coach McMillan added a bit about the glut of Blazer wings and the lack of a true backup power forward. More specific than that, however, the Blazers would not get.

Most glaringly, at least after a series that saw Portland hit just 30 of their 100 three-point attempts, there was no call for better shooters. McMillan was asked, but chose to deflect.

In fairness, there hasn’t been much time to reflect. At the interviews the Blazers were little more than 12 hours from their season coming to another abrupt end.

There was little left to do, besides cast a few more uneasy, perhaps awkward glances towards that big guy in the weight room.

That and hope that history quits repeating itself.

Recap & Video Coming Friday

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Nicolas Batum sat in his chair, not having showered, and staring off into space… He finished with 0 points and 0 rebounds.

After missing the Trail Blazers’ final shot of 2011—a three—Gerald Wallace whipped his headband at the ground in disgust after towing the Blazers with 32 points and 12 rebounds.

To a man, regardless of what they did or did not contribute, Thursday, the Blazers were shell-shocked after being closed out by the Mavericks at the Rose Garden, 103-96.

Check back Friday afternoon for the Game 6 wrap…

But in the meantime, one stat to chew on: the Blazers hit 30 of their 100 three-point attempts against Dallas in the first round.

Game 6: You Know the Drill

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More of this, please….

There’s really not a whole lot to pile on to this one. It’s put up or shut up. On to Game 7 or off on summer vacation.

The pivot points have been well documented. For the Blazers to win they must:

    – Get points inside, early and often from LaMarcus Aldridge. He must take the ball to the rim, try to get Tyson Chandler in early foul trouble, and keep his own energy up.

    – Rebound! Dallas can’t control the offensive boards like they did in Game 5. Marcus Camby’s staying away from dumb fouls would go a long way in this regard.

    – Make shots, especially from outside. Dallas’ zone worked exceedingly well in Game 5 and until the Blazers shut it down with a few threes, the Mavericks have no reason to quit.

    – Get a burst from the bench. After Game 4’s heroic outburst, the Mavericks have defensive schemes in place to limit Roy should he get hot, in part the zone mentioned above. But beyond snapping the zone, Roy will likely see the space he needs. Other guys—like Nicolas Batum, Rudy Fernandez and to a lesser extent Gerald Wallace—must not only hit from distance, but take the ball to the basket. These guys have got to score more than 20 collective points.

    – Continue feeding off the Rose Garden’s ridiculous energy. Each team has yet to win on the opposing home court. And in their last 20 road playoff games, Dallas have a record of just 2-18.

That’s it. After five games, you know these teams almost as well as the players on the court.

TIP-OFF: :7:30PM

TV: TNT & KGW Channel 8

RADIO: 95.5FM

VEGAS LINE: Portland -4

Pick & Scroll: The Maintenance Day Snooz

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  • Holy Crap! Did you know the Mavericks are a pitiful 2-18 in their last 20 road playoff games?

  • Game 6 Schedule announced: Thursday’s game at the Rose Garden starts a bit earlier than usual at 6:30PM is at 7:30PM. Whoops

  • A columninst from the Dallas News hypothesizes why Dallas’ home crowds pail in comparison to the Rose Garden Faithful:

    The first is the “one horse town” theory. Because the following cities have only one pro team, San Antonio , Sacramento, Utah, and Portland always will have louder
    crowds who are more loyal and supportive than multi-franchise crowds in cities where, if the basketball team is disappointing, then it is time to throw the energy behind the
    baseball team.

    The second theory is Mavericks fans are as psychologically damaged as some of the players from these last several seasons of playoff disasters. So, at Mavs playoff games of
    high tension, you can feel the crowd is nervous and uncomfortable rather than energetic and insane. I am not saying it is ideal for both of these theories to play a role, but
    I think in both cases there is a combination of reasons that keep Mavericks crowds a notch behind.

  • Matt Calkins at the Columbian checked in with coach McMillan
    Tuesday
    on the Blazers’ low-key maintanence day. It’s some rest LaMacus Alridge apparently needs:

    And if you watched Game 5 and thought “LaMarcus Aldridge looks tired,” McMillan wouldn’t protest.

    “I agree. I totally agree,” McMillan said. “Hey, we got a game to play. We have to suck it up. That’s part of the playoffs, that’s part of what you go through.”

    I would’ve asked coach about how he plans to attack the zone the Blazers are sure to see after Monday’s debacle.Then he would’ve said “we’ve got to execute.” You know the
    drill.

  • This crap about the “hard screen” on Patty Mills has got to stop.
    It’s the playoffs. Shut up. Don’t talk, much less tweet—puff your chest up and get it out on the court. Think to yourself: What Would Andre Miller Do?

  • Dirk’s got a pretty interesting, seemingly quite accurate take
    on the West
    :

    “Yeah, I mean I think coming into the playoffs the way it already shaped up down the stretch, the West is wide open,” Nowitzki said. “I think that’s what you see
    now in the playoffs. Teams can be beaten. No team really looks unbeatable right now. So we’ve just got to keep on plugging and keep on fighting and hopefully get a big win on
    Thursday and go from there.”

  • Rob Mahoney at ESPN sister-site The Two Man Game on the
    Mavericks’ confidence in their defense:

    There was little rhythm to anything Portland did on the offensive end, and Dallas refused to bail them out with purposeless fouls and free trips to the free throw
    line. 98.8 points per 100 possessions is a fantastic defensive mark, and the Mavs rightfully earned it with their effort and execution. This is the kind of performance that
    renews faith — not only in the fact that Dallas can win another game in this series and advance to the second round, but that they’re capable of competing beyond the ending of
    this series.

    Remember what most analysts pointed to in the run up to the series:, that the Blazers had size over their backcourt counterpart and the mismatch would be the differnce?
    Mahoney’s on this one too:

    I’m still shocked at how little of an impact the size of the Blazer guards has had on the series overall. Those matchups have been problematic for moments, but
    they’re clearly not go-to options; as much as Miller, Roy, Matthews, and Batum would love to pick on J.J. Barea in the post, Portland just hasn’t gone to that strategy with
    any frequency. Part of the reason is that Jason Terry has done a fantastic job of fronting, contesting the entry pass, and even bothering shots in the post. He’s been a
    passable post defender, which is all Dallas really needs him to be; with JET removed as a defensive liability down low and Beaubois still having yet to play a game in this
    series, Barea is the only clear matchup disadvantage in post-up guard play. Throw in the time that Barea spends guarding Rudy Fernandez (who doesn’t have the frame nor the
    proficiency to operate from the block), and it’s a bit more difficult for the Blazer guards to post up the Mavs than many — including myself — anticipated.

  • Pick and Scroll, The Perception of Neutrality

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

    • At ESPN Dallas, Calvin Watkins writes that free throws and rebounds were the story in Portland’s 93-82 victory. The referees did not beat the Trail Blazers; the Mavericks came out with energy and took the game, but the officiating sure as hell did not do the Blazers any favors.
    • In mediations, we talk about the importance of the “perception of neutrality.” Everybody has biases; and between the brain’s natural tendency to reinforce what it wants to believe and its tendency to give fear (and especially fear of loss) more weight than it statistically should, biases can become exacerbated. The referees have to maintain a perception of neutrality in order to give the game legitimacy; if the fans feel the game is overly unfair, they will lose interest in the game since the outcome will be more predictable. Referees are human, they are not immune from bias, hell, even the color of a team’s Jersey can have a subtle impact. With all respect for the professionalism of the officials, to me, the referees failed to maintain a perception of neutrality in the first half of last night’s game. Maybe the referees felt subtle pressure because all of the calls that went Portland’s way during Dallas’ epic collapse in game 4, maybe it was just the influence of the energy and intensity that Dallas was playing with. However, as a fan watching the game, it felt like the referees allowed Dallas to play defense with a lot more contact and physicality than Portland was allowed. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe if we sat down and reviewed every call and non-call (a much trickier subject) I’d come to a different conclusion; but let’s face it, I’m not going to take the time to do that and most people aren’t going to either. Perception is reality, and when there are no readily available objective standards that are easily understood, feelings are allowed to carry the weight of actuality.

    Somehow, the league needs to work on the perception of the referee’s neutrality. Publicly fining any NBA employee that dares to speak out about officiating may help in some ways, but it also creates the perception that injured parties are being “silenced,” there has to be a better way.

    Zoned Out

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    It was bad. No two ways about it. Monday’s 93-82 loss in Dallas was even worse than the score suggests.

    “We didn’t play well tonight,” McMillan said, a bit candidly. “We didn’t deserve to win. They outplayed us.”

    In a lot of ways, Game 5 felt a lot like Game 4—minus Roy’s fourth-quarter out-of-body experience.

    Again at the half the two teams were neck and neck. Dallas then came out with a whopping third quarter run as the Blazers offense suffered another complete meltdown. Indeed, as Rick Carlisle said after the miracle Game 4 comeback, the Mavericks felt otherwise good about their defense.

    LaMarcus Aldridge’s early scoring is no longer a given. Tyson Chandler’s physical play has rocked Portland’s foundation for two-straight games. And when Aldridge can’t get establish a presence down low the Blazers’ offense sputters into a mess of shot clock beating flails, Andre Miller bailouts and missed three-pointers.

    Where Dallas previously failed to account for Roy’s potential insurgence, Monday they were focused and ready. Double-teams came, but moreover the Mavericks’ zone absolutely crippled the Trail Blazers’ ability to get good looks. Dallas has again put the onus on Portland’s wing-players, Rudy Fernandez, Nicolas Batum, and to a slighter degree, Gerald Wallace. Together, the group just isn’t pulling its share of the offense. They need to score.

    For Dallas, Tyson Chandler was phenomenal. More than just iron clamps on LaMarcus Aldridge, the fiery center scooped up an astounding 13 offensive rebounds, good for a franchise playoff record. Chandler finished with 14 points to go along with his game-high 20 boards.

    I could go on with numbers—like Dallas’ whopping trips to the line, Jason Kidd’s 14 assists, Marcus Camby’s fouls to name a few—but what Monday’s loss in Dallas really hinged on was the Blazers inability to execute their offense and make shots against the Mavericks’ zone.

    Coach McMillan said that if the Blazers would’ve broken it quickly by hitting a shot or two from deep early, Dallas would’ve retracted the zone. Instead, he said, “they felt it was disrupting us and they stayed with it.”

    Indeed, there was no momentum gained by Portland’s historic Game 4 comeback.

    And still, either team has yet to win on the other’s home court.

    We’re Giving Away Free Copies of Paul Allen’s Book

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    Gonna be at Game 6, Thursday? Well we’ve got a stack of Paul Allen’s new book, “Idea Man,” in nice hardcovers that we’re going to give away at half-time. PRS readers, of course, are first in line.

    If you’re going to be at the game and want a copy of the book just send us an email tiled “Idea Man” and we’ll send you the half-time meeting spot. Sound good? *While supplies last.

    Pick and Scroll, Heroic, Brutal, Cold-Blooded, Emotional, Down 23, Win by 2.

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

    Mahoney: “The efficiency. The creation. The drives, the shots, the set-ups. Roy murdered the Mavs in cold blood on his home court.”

    On Saturday I tweeted Roy’s player efficiency rating for the final 12:45, but upon review I actually shortchanged him a bit. His mark for that stretch was an incomprehensible 89.68, or roughly triple what a typical MVP winner might post. Per 40 minutes he averaged 67 points, 16 assists and no turnovers.
    In a nutshell, then, this wasn’t just the best quarter of Roy’s career; this was the best quarter of just about anybody’s career.

    Go read the whole article, no matter which team you’re a fan of. Hollinger does an excellent job of breaking down all the pros and cons of Roy’s emergence for both teams and demonstrates that in spite of momentum; according to historical statistics, the Blazers are still in an uphill battle.