SUNS 120 – TRAIL BLAZERS 106: IT RAINS, YOU GET WET

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Magnificent CME Erupts on the Sun - August 31

Well, let’s not start sucking each other’s—sorry, let’s get some mood lighting in here first. Cue Crash Davis:

 

“A player on a streak has to respect the streak. You know why? Because they don’t—they don’t happen very often. If you believe you’re playing well because you’re getting laid, or because you’re not getting laid, or because you wear women’s underwear, then you are! And you should know that!”

 

Streaks are magical and wonderful alternate realities accessible only when supreme confidence overpowers consciousness and tears a portal in the fabric of regularity. Such confidence can come through a variety of means, from rocking garters to laying with Susan Sarandon to not laying with Susan Sarandon to any other possible recurring occurrence in the known universe. Whatever the means, they should never be mocked or disrespected in anyway because the power of the result can be so plainly transcendent. But the portal is always unstable. At any moment, it can close as mysteriously as it opened, and when that moment comes, hopefully all the postcards found their destinations.

The Blazers rode a 12-game winning streak into the US Airways Center, nestled in scenic downtown Phoenix, to take on the hometown Suns. Over the three-week span of The Streak, Portland had become a not-to-be-reckoned-with Western Conference contender, Wes Matthews had become one of the best shooting guards in the entire NBA, and I had begun thinking about which player’s face to tattoo on my neck (Will Barton and Thomas Robinson running a pick-and-roll in Summer League is the answer btw [think the most bizarre edition of NBA Jam depicted as hieroglyph on Wilson Chandler]). Everything had been going so well that I wish I could keep burying this lede forever to stave off the admission of its truth and live the rest of my life in the beautiful alternate reality of endless wins and strange neck tattoos, but I can’t, so here you go. The Trail Blazers lost to the Suns by a score of 120-106 on Wednesday night, ending the streak at 11 straight wins.

If the Blazers simply had lost with poor shooting and careless defense and a hot night from a random player on the opposition, it could have been chalked up as one of those nights. With the amount of basketball talent in the NBA (even among the bad teams [not counting the Bucks]), an 82-game schedule tends to have its share of those nights. But what made Wednesday’s loss to Phoenix so perplexing was how beautifully the Blazers played through the first 14 or 15 minutes or so. The passing, the movement, even the defense appeared to hit a rhythm that Portland had not yet seen so far in the young season, even as they rolled off 13 wins in 15 games. Around the 9-minute mark in the second quarter, the Blazers held a 39-23 lead as the game felt a like a pile of smoldering tinder ready to explode into flames. In the ashes, maybe even Will Barton and Allen Crabbe would get to play.

As it happened, it did in fact burst into flames, but not in the way that it had earlier seemed. Fire is fickle like that. Led by Goran Dragic (who scored 19 of his game-high 31 points in the first half), former Blazer Channing Frye, Gerald Green, and Goran Dragic a second time (Dragic had 10 assists), and probably a deserved third time too (Dragic shot 4/5 from 3-point range), the Suns stormed back in a matter of minutes to take a 53-52 lead with three minutes left, only 6 minutes after trailing by 16. By halftime, the Blazers trailed 61-58, but it seemed that the Suns couldn’t sustain their pace. SPOILER ALERT: they didn’t; and Robert De Niro’s character dies at the end of Heat.

The third and fourth quarters sort of blurred together in my mind, thank God. Goran Dragic continued to play like the Slovenian Allen Iverson, sans the gulliness and T.G.I. Friday’s addiction (not judging, just differentiating). The Morri elevated their games in concert — like when Amir and Achmed Khan get together on the same squad in Backyard Baseball — combining for 34 points and 7 rebounds. Frye finished with 25 points on 10-12 shooting from the floor, including 3-5 shooting from the 3-point realm. Even the immortal Ish Larry Smith (his middle name is Larry; no kidding) could be seen running the offense for his 20 minutes with measured competence, the final smoking gun–err, sparkling wand of Jeff Hornacek’s sorcery.

For a brief stretch – emphasis on “brief” – LaMarcus Aldridge (who led Portland with 24 points on 10-18 shooting) looked like he might single-handedly drag the Blazers back into the contest. But he didn’t, or couldn’t. The fates had already conspired. At least Will Barton and Allen Crabbe got some run though. Happy Thanksgiving.

TRAIL BLAZERS @ SUNS PREVIEW: EXACT SCIENCE IS NOT AN EXACT SCIENCE

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The Phoenix Suns (7-7) are like fish sticks. Hear me out. I imagine that Nicolas Batum, culinary-minded Frenchman that he is, loves to get down on some steak frites or coq au vin or bœuf bourguignon or confit de canard or cassoulet or even just a simple salade niçoise, if he’s feeling spritely. But sometimes, maybe Gregg Popovich has the Spurs doing something new and interesting with their side-screen defense and David Vanterpool just uploaded the latest footage to the shared Google Drive folder and my man simply doesn’t have the thyme to spend his day slowly cooking a duck leg in its own rendered fat. He’s out here trying to become an elite wing player for a Western Conference contender, not star in the sequel of Julie & Julia (seriously though, I’m waiting on you, Nora Ephron). In situations like these, young Nico probably goes to the freezer and – still watching Vanterpool’s annotated film on the iPad – blindly grabs whatever Kid Cuisine happens to be on top of the stack. He might have been hoping for one of their delicious and whimsically-shaped varieties of Mac & Cheese, or maybe he just wanted whatever entrée comes with that funky half-cooked chocolate brownie joint with the sprinkles (pretty sure it’s the corn dog btw [I feign doubt lest you ask tough questions]). But instead, our hero looks down to see the Deep Sea Adventure Fish Sticks. Frustrated, he tilts his head back and says, “Ze fish sticks again? J’en peux plus.” That is exactly how I feel about the Suns.

The Trail Blazers (13-2) have already played this Suns team twice so far this season, and before that, they met in the preseason, and before that, they met in Las Vegas Summer League, and before that, our universe burst into existence. The Suns are as ubiquitous for the Trail Blazers as the actual sun, or something. In honesty, the whole let’s play the Suns once every two weeks for all eternity thing probably wouldn’t even be that bad if Phoenix didn’t, by my unofficial recollection, win all but one meeting between the two since the end of last season. In the two regular season meetings, the Blazers lost by 6 in the season-opener in Phoenix, then required a stunningly open game-winning layup from Damian Lillard to steal a one-point win in Portland on November 13th. The betting houses of Vegas had the Blazers opening as just a 3.5-point favorite, despite riding an 11-game winning streak and winning the last two games by double-digits over teams with much higher expectations this season than Jeff Hornacek’s squad in Phoenix.

I’ve written previously here about why the Suns match up well against the Blazers but allow me to summarize. Phoenix is led by their two guards, Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic, who are both versatile, athletic players capable of attacking the rim, creating their own shot off the dribble, or finding teammates for open looks. In the frontcourt, Miles Plumlee isn’t very good but he works tremendously hard and he’s very athletic, which puts him at an advantage against Robin Lopez, who also lacks skill and works tremendously hard, but is not remarkably athletic. At the 4, Channing Frye knows LaMarcus Aldridge’s game well due to the time that they time spent together in Portland, and on offense, Frye’s perimeter game brings Aldridge away from the basket, which hurts the Blazers’ interior defense and rebound-by-numbers approach. On the wing for Phoenix is former Texas Longhorn, and noted tenderizer of opposing forwards, P. J. Tucker, who had this to say about his philosophy to the Arizona Republic:

 

“They know I’m going to come at them so they’re ready to come at me too. I like it, though. I’m getting respect in this league. They know I’m going to hit them so they’re going to try to hit me too.”

 

Just like Dr. Naismith intended. Unsure if his bloodlust had been articulated fully, Tucker continued:

 

“I’m always trying to attack people and make them be physical. And if they’re not, I’ll just try to take them out of their game. Just put people in compromising situations and make them make decisions.”

 

There’s something very unsettling in the way Tucker says “compromising situations” there, like he once bound and tied Archie Goodwin after an intense practice and kept him in the basement for the rest of the week (RIP Archie Goodwin). Batum better know how to swing a samurai sword.

Although with the way Wes “The Dark Knight” Matthews has been playing lately, Hornacek may try using Tucker a la Bane and employ Tucker’s brand of cold-hearted violence to torture not Wes’s body, but his soul – dump him in an old world prison pit of fiercely contested 3-pointers and non-metaphorical knife wounds to the kidney (P. J. likes to put you in compromising situations! Yeah, he’ll stab you in the kidney and set off a nuclear explosion in your city! That’s real hustle! The league gone soft!).

In other frightening Phoenix-related revelations, the Morri (to call them the “Morris twins” would imply that they are human and, well…) have the same tattoos! Not only could they switch uniforms at halftime if one plays better and gets in foul trouble, they could conceivably switch lives! Some of you Debbie Details can say that the shading on their tattoos is slightly different, or that Markieff has an inch and a few pounds on Marcus, but that’s all part of their commitment to the illusion! Just wait for the prestige, children, when Marcus, Markieff, teammate Miles Plumlee, and Miles’ brother Mason (of the Brooklyn Nets [lol]) shed their outer costuming to reveal that underneath the slight variances on the outside, the Plumlees and Morri are all made out of the same mysterious alien stuff. Just like fish sticks.

TRAIL BLAZERS 102 – KNICKS 91: TELL FLEX TO DROP A BOMB

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Well, it’s probably about time to pack up professional basketball in New York. It had a good run but all good things must come to an end and after the display in the Moda Center on Monday, it’s probably about time to walk that horse to the woodshed and turn that old dog into glue and scrapbooks. The Trail Blazers beat visiting the Knicks by a score of 102-91, Portland’s 11th consecutive win improving their record on the season to 13-2, as the Knicks fell to 3-10.

There aren’t a lot of bright spots for the Knicks these days, but the darkest spot in this game had to be the defense. The Blazers did most of their damage in the first quarter, running out to a quick 34-18 lead as New York tried a unique style of pick-and-roll defense. Rather than trapping or playing underneath the screen, Mike Woodson’s squad sort of stood passively nearby the pick-and-roll, appearing at first to be attempting to lure the Blazers into a false sense of security by playing dead. However, upon further review, I think that they were actually dead. On one spectacularly horrible defensive sequence, Damian Lillard turned the corner on a pick-and-roll and walked entirely unimpeded right down the center of the lane for an unguarded dunk. When the Knicks did decide to at least show a minimal aversion to conceding unguarded layups and dunks, Portland would make two (or one [or zero]) quick passes and find a wide-open shot. Batum scored 13 of his 23 points (tying Lillard for a team-high) in the opening period, and the game felt effectively over with 36 minutes still to play. But the tragedy for Knicks fans is youth, knowing that at least 3,312 minutes remain until this season can die.

The second quarter began and because Terry Stotts loves nothing more than pleasing the ironic sense of humor of the Internet and its bizarre inhabitants, Portland ran a lineup of Earl Watson (!), Will Barton (!!), Dorell Wright, Thomas Robinson, and Joel Freeland. New York, meanwhile had Amar’e Stoudemire, Iman Shumpert, Andrea Bargnani, Metta World Peace, and Pablo Prigioni on the floor. Yet the Blazers continued to build on their lead, maxing it out at 48-26 with less than 5 minutes left in the half, before the Knicks finally “closed” it to 56-39 at halftime.

In the second half, the game became slightly more competitive – although when Stotts is basically announcing garbage time in the second quarter (Watson and Barton together! I saw it!), it’s hard to argue that Portland’s intensity level was at the highest level possible. Nonetheless, New York’s defense looked improved (They played with effort! Have you heard of this thing, effort?) and on offense, everyone happily climbed on the inked shoulders of Carmelo Anthony. Melo finished as the high scorer for the game with 34 points and 15 rebounds, and while the Blazers struggled to shoot the ball in the second half, Melo’s performance put a bit of a facelift on what otherwise would have been an especially ugly defeat for the Knicks. New York actually closed the deficit to just 8 points at 82-74 inside of 10 minutes to go in the game, before a Nicolas Batum dunk and Wes Matthews 3-pointer pushed the Blazer lead back to 13, and New York never really threatened again.

KNICKS @ TRAIL BLAZERS PREVIEW: THE CRUCIBLE

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SCENE: The New York Knicks arrive in Portland with a 3-9 record. Their defense has been awful. Their offense has been inconsistent at best and pond scum stagnant at worst. Carmelo Anthony and J. R. Smith have yet to find their form. Amare Stoudemire has shown brief signs of life in his return, but Tyson Chandler is still on the injury list, where he is now joined by point guard Raymond Felton, who went on a Shake Shack binge last week and woke up three days later in a hangar in Queens surrounded by Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons. The situation has become so dire that owner James Dolan even exiled longtime fan Woody Allen from the swank pre-game VIP restaurant in Madison Square Garden. Suddenly, Mike Woodson’s perfectly manicured goatee seems a little bit too perfect. Before the game tonight, the team, the coach, and the owner all met with a PRS-sanctioned counselor to air their grievances.

 

J. R. SMITH: We’re frustrated. Like you say, it’s too early to panic, but me, personally, I’m panicking. I don’t like this.

 

COUNSELOR: Mike, what do you think of that word, panic?

 

MIKE WOODSON: Panic word shouldn’t even be an issue. The issue is how can we come together as a group and figure out how to play consistent basketball for 48 minutes. So I don’t know what J.R. is talking about. It shouldn’t be panic time. It’s too early in the game for that.

 

COUNSELOR: Interesting, 48 minutes of consistent basketball. That sounds like a nice idea. So how do you get there? Offensively, you should be able to put up points with your scorers, right?

 

SMITH: There’s a lot of pressure going into the next shot, the next play, the next possession. I think we’ve got to, after one play is over, look forward to the next play and try to do better the next time. I think we’re overanalyzing stuff. We need to get back to having fun and playing basketball.

 

WOODSON: They shouldn’t feel pressure. If we flipped last year at this time, we were 10-2 and running away from the division really. Well nobody’s doing that in our division. We’re two games out with a lot of games left.

 

COUNSELOR: Mike, I gotta be honest. I have absolutely no idea what you just said. Melo, do you know what he’s talking about?

 

CARMELO ANTHONY: I think there are times we’re just searching. At moments like that, Woody’s just searching, trying to figure it out on the fly, figure out rotations and who play with who and things like that. It’s a tough situation.

 

COUNSELOR: Yes, it seems like Woody might be searching for quite a few things. Do you happen to know what they are?

 

MELO: I don’t know. You got to ask Woody that. I’m not searching. We’re not searching. But as a coach, I understand that could be a tough situation, to try and figure out what’s the best lineups, who can play, who can’t play. It can be a tough situation for him.

 

COUNSELOR: Woody?

 

WOODSON: When you’re talking about executing offense and playing offense at a high level you might have to make that next pass.

 

COUNSELOR: Yes! Passing! What else you got?

 

WOODSON: When you play a fast-paced team, it forces you to play fast as well. Maybe that helps us because we’ve been so methodical and sluggish in term of our pace.

 

COUNSELOR: Well, teams that want to push the pace normally just do that themselves, but yeah, I think you’re on the right track.

 

WOODSON: Maybe there are situations where I’ve got to take the ball out of someone’s hands and get it into [Bargnani’s].

 

COUNSELOR: Oh—well, umm—maybe let’s move on.

 

MELO: It’s a very tough time right now. It’s a time where you can easily put your head down and mope around. But I can’t do that.

 

COUNSELOR: Yes, as the star and leader, you probably shouldn’t do that. But what about the defense? Is there any way that you guys could improve there?

 

WOODSON: We’ve had our struggles. But the schedule is what it is. We can’t run from it.

 

COUNSELOR: Again, I’m not really sure what you mean by that. Are you saying that the NBA is conspiring against your defense by forcing you to play other professional basketball teams with professional basketball players?

 

SMITH: We lost to teams we have no business losing to.

 

BENO UDRIH: Maybe we just get a little too lazy.

 

[Sitting quietly in the corner as doctors drain fluid from his knees, Metta World Peace shoots a deathly glare at Udrih, then silently straightens a paper clip and carves “KILL BENO” into his knuckles.]

 

SMITH: Lack of intensity. I hate to say it, but our defense’s backbone is on Tyson, and Tyson’s not here right now. And we know that, and he’s not going to be available for a few weeks now, so we’ve gotta step it up individually. It’s a team game, but individually we’ve got to take pride in guarding the ball, guarding our man. We have to enjoy stopping the other team.

 

COUNSELOR: Injuries are tough.

 

WOODSON: It’s hard. You got two starters not in uniform. I don’t know what kind of team we really have. We haven’t had a full deck. Until we get there, we have to maintain and hold this thing down so it doesn’t get too out of whack.

 

COUNSELOR: Sure, having a real point guard like Raymond Felton should help when he gets healthy. Ray, when you reckon you’ll be back?

 

RAY FELTON: Some miracle can happen, and I wake up and I’m 100 percent. Then I’ll be playing. But the way it looks I don’t think I’ll be playing this next one either. So, wishful thinking, L.A., hopefully. But we’ll see.

 

COUNSELOR: Interesting. Maybe a calisthenics program and proper dieting might be more immediately effective than your faith in the Almighty, but I’m no Tim Grover.

 

FELTON: I definitely would love to play this game, but I got to take care of myself, take care of my body. I’m not worried about Portland. I’ve got to do what’s best for this team.

 

COUNSELOR: Word. Your body is a temple. We know. Speaking of health though, Amar’e looks to be coming back, right? How did he play in the last game against Washington?

 

WOODSON: The only bright spot was Amar’e Stoudemire. He was fantastic.

 

COUNSELOR: Not sure if that’s a compliment or an indictment of how terrible everyone else played. James, you’ve been pretty quiet. Do you have anything to add about Amar’e’s impact on the club?

 

JAMES DOLAN: We would not be where we are today without Amar’e. Amar’e agreed to come to the Knicks, gave us a launch pad by which we could convince the other guys like Tyson to come, and ultimately Carmelo to come play with us. Do I think Carmelo would have come if we didn’t have Amar’e? No, I don’t think he would’ve.

 

COUNSELOR: Looks like we’ve found Patient Zero. Amar’e, how are you feeling?

 

AMAR’E STOUDEMIRE: My reaction was mutual. I genuinely have a love for Mr. Dolan, so we’re in this thing together and we’re going to try to win here in New York with the Knicks. That’s the ultimate goal and that was the game plan from Day 1 and it still is. My mission is to become a great player and hopefully become a future Hall of Fame player. And my goal is to do it here in New York, to finish off my career here. That’s the goal. That’s the mission, and I’m going to continue to work hard as I always have to get better and better and try to dodge injuries.

 

COUNSELOR: Looks like the symptoms include delusion.

 

WOODSON: I’m proud of how we competed. That’s something I hadn’t seen a lot this early season, and that was New York Knick basketball. Unfortunately we’re a little snake-bitten right now in terms of getting over the hump.

 

SMITH: I don’t want to play 3-8 basketball. I don’t want to play 50-50 basketball. If we’re going to be a championship-caliber team and call ourselves that, then we’ve gotta play like that. It can’t be no other way.

 

COUNSELOR: And it looks like it’s contagious. Might be time to call the napalm in on your own position, James. Still have Zeke’s number?

 

DOLAN: I couldn’t do that to him, and I couldn’t do that to the organization.

 

WOODSON: It’s great to have the support, believe me when I say that. But I haven’t lived my dream as a coach worrying about the security of my job.

 

MELO [sobbing]: I’m just trying to stay positive through this very tough time right now.

 

FIN

TRAIL BLAZERS 113 – WARRIORS 101: TURN YOU INTO A POPSICLE

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The Trail Blazers beat the Warriors by a score of 113-101 on Saturday night in Oakland, sinking any remaining doubts about the so-called legitimacy of Portland’s 12-2 record or 10-game winning streak to the bottom of San Francisco Bay. Throughout the young season, the Blazers have shown a dynamic, fast-paced offense that can shoot the lights out and run lesser teams off the floor. Then in the win over Chicago on Friday, that they showed that they could buckle down on defense when necessary and use it to feed that offense. But on Saturday night in Oracle Arena, Portland showed that they could win a fistfight with positively Memphis Grizzlian toughness. Leading the way for Portland was LaMarcus Aldridge, who shed his usual finesse style to reveal an “LA The Rugged Man” alter ego and tied Golden State’s Klay Thompson for a game-high 30 points (16 of which came at the free throw line – a testament to his aggressiveness inside) and 21 rebounds.

Amid the figurative fistfight, a real one nearly broke out in the third quarter when commonwealth brethren Andrew Bogut and Joel Freeland became tangled up underneath the basket. Bogut appeared to throw an elbow/forearm/punch at Freeland, who immediately backed away. Mo Williams, however, didn’t share Freeland’s commitment to nonviolence and ran at Bogut to confront him and possibly introduce him to the Alabama hammers (what I assume Mo calls his fists). Mo landed one quality shove before Bogut wrapped his hand around Mo’s throat as if it were a lukewarm can of Foster’s (Australian for lazy joke!). At some point too, Wes Matthews and a suited Jermaine O’Neal squared off in an intriguing undercard matchup (I didn’t really see what happened between them because who really watches the undercard?) with O’Neal coming out of retirement to take on Wes “The Ironman AKA The Dark Knight AKA Ballot AKA The Baddest Man in Madison” Matthews. After the officials stopped the game for approximately 4 hours to watch about 47 different replay angles while Mike Barrett moaned broken narration to his terrifying flashbacks from the Chris Mills and Bonzi Wells bloodshed of 2002 (That was 11 years ago! Put the gun down, Mike!), the officials finally decided to eject Williams and Matthews (who was already on a technical from earlier in the game), assess a technical foul to Freeland and the Warriors’ Draymond Green (not really sure what he did apart from a textbook “Hold me back!” move), and somehow gave Andrew Bogut only a technical. After all, Bogut only tried to reconstruct Freeland’s face, crush Mo’s larynx, and spent the rest of the sequence restrained by his teammates while coach Mark Jackson frantically searched behind the bench for ropes and the elephant tranquilizer (as John Wooden said: failing to prepare is preparing to fail). The Warriors center must have told referee Bill Kennedy about the holes in the Outback, because there is no other excuse for him not getting ejected.

When the scuffle broke out, Portland was trailing 79-71, with just 3:42 remaining in the third quarter. The Warriors, led by Thompson and Stephen Curry (22 points, 11 assists) who was back after missing some time with a concussion, were having their way offensively and the Blazers had yet to find the right rhythm on the other end. But as Wes – who continued to prove his omnipotence with 13 points in the first quarter (recording 23 at the time of his ejection) – said about the ejections to the media after the game:

 

“That inspired us. We got better from it, we got stronger from it. Mo and I continued to cheer. They couldn’t hear us, but we were continuing to cheer.”

 

Inspire it did. Portland reeled off a 10-2 run to close the third quarter, going into the fourth with the Warriors hanging to just an 84-81 lead. Then in the fourth, Portland simply outboxed Golden State in the same way that Manny Pacquiao dominated the lesser Brandon Rios in the highly-publicized prize fight taking place at the same time. Aldridge scored 17 of Portland’s 32 points in the final quarter, Joel Freeland chipped in 4 more, and Portland – but especially Aldridge – physically manhandled the Warriors frontcourt in a way that hasn’t been seen from a Portland team in quite a while. On the other end too, the Blazers played inspired defense, aggressively defending the perimeter to force turnovers while Robin Lopez built a wall (complete with archers, moat, alligators, and vats of boiling hot oil) around the rim. A game that had started with Portland looking like it might just not be their night, soon looked slated for an exciting finish, before ending with the Blazers pounding the Warriors into submission and putting in the bench unicorns (Allen Crabbe and Will Barton) to close out an easy victory.

TRAIL BLAZERS @ WARRIORS PREVIEW: LET’S BELIEVE IN LOVE

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Like the ungrateful saps soon to descend on your dinner table this Thursday, the Trail Blazers (11-2) stopped into Portland real quick on Friday to give their regards, party with some old friends, feast on the dark meat of Tom Thibodeau’s soul (traditionalists say it’s best basted, but try it deep-fried and thank me later), and immediately head out again to continue their adventure elsewhere. Saturday, the Blazers 9-game winning streak arrives in the East Bay, where they will take on the Golden State Warriors (8-5) in Oakland’s Oracle Arena tonight at 7:30 PM PT.

On Friday, the Warriors fell 102-95 to the Lakers in Los Angeles, and lost Andre Iguodala when the Warriors point forward left the game with a hamstring injury after he “heard the pop.” Iguodala had already been handling the point guard duties with Stephen Curry still recovering from a concussion and Toney Douglas nursing a stress fracture in his leg. Should none of the three play, as it seems they may not, Golden State head coach Mark Jackson will be forced to start–umm, hold on–just give me a second to find another point guard on this roster–ummmm–okay, here’s one–Nemanja Nedovic?!

 

[Before we go any further, allow me to qualify what will soon folllow: Jackson will probably end up starting somebody like Draymond Green or Kent “The Bazed Guard” Bazemore as the nominal point guard and hope his squad can work it out — or they’ll pull the ol’ NFL “hey look, his brain tissue healed up just at the right time!” and start Curry — but let’s just imagine a different world. Let’s imagine a world in which Nemanja Nedovic fulfills his destiny.]

 

I love basketball and the Internet and their marriage together so much, you guys. Let them never break up ever. Back in the old days, Hubie Brown had to sit for months on end in his maester’s quarters, waiting for ravens to bring in that season’s scouting scrolls, and relying on his proficiency in High Valyrian to decipher the projectability of Dick McGuire’s playmaking skill at the next level. But today, one search query can instantly take us to this fantastical wonderland that calls itself the Adriatic League.

Note the title of the video: “Nemanja Nedovic-European Derrick Rose.” There were other Nedovic highlight tapes on YouTube, but I clicked on that one for obvious reasons. Give me a homemade Eastern Bloc basketball video with an insanely hyperbolic comparison in the title that makes me wonder if the video creator has actually watched NBA basketball or just heard tales of the mythical creatures on the other side of the Atlantic, and I’m there. Note to you web marketing heads.

Clearly a pupil of Steven Spielberg’s style of building a narrative in the motion picture format (and unlike that mouth-breathing cretin, Michael Bay), YouTube user Branislav Sormaz allows the tension of anticipation to slowly build, using that natural excitement to keep the eyes of his audience glued to the screen as he carefully sets the scene, then fills it with the details necessary to instill that sense of realness. We see a deft pass to find a big man slipping a screen. We feel the shocking violence of a blocked shot. Then, with an innate sense of the audience — a sign of a truly natural storyteller — Sormaz understands exactly when his viewers will begin to question his “European Derrick Rose” assertion. Like adding another layer of tension to the narrative, Sormaz lets that doubt grow just enough to feel almost correct, before crushing it in an awesome and spectacular display of filmmaking.

If the Coen brothers had directed this picture, they might have cut to a Belgrade shop-owner telling a group of Serbian street youths a parable about the role of the dunk in modern basketball, or maybe just shown the crowd reaction to each play without actually showing the play. But while Sormaz is most certainly an auteur, he is a moviegoer first. As such, he knows exactly what the people want to see. For almost the entire rest of the video, we see Nedovic throwing down two-handed finishes on lob passes, bursting past defenders in transition for wide open run-out dunks, as well as the sort of fearsome slams in traffic and on defenders that have come to define the YouTube highlight video genre. By the time it’s over, I don’t know if Nemanja Nedovic is the European Derrick Rose or if Derrick Rose is the American Nemanja Nedovic, and to tell you the truth, I don’t want to know.

Neither, apparently, does Nedovic, who had this to say back in July to Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle:

 

“Maybe I’m the European Derrick Rose but I’m not the real one.”

 

Of course not, Nemanja. Your star is so much more brilliant.

 

“I’m like European Derrick Rose but three times slower.”

 

Umm, okay. Well maybe don’t tell coach Jackson that. Tonight, he’ll need to suspend his disbelief.

TRAIL BLAZERS 98 – CHICAGO 95: YOU ARE SPECKS OF DUST BENEATH OUR FINGERNAILS

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START WRITING OUR NAME ON THE TROPHY, MOTHERFUCKERS! After trailing by as many as 21 points in a nearly catastrophic first half, the Trail Blazers came all the way back to beat the Bulls by a score of 98-95 in front of a (real) capacity crowd at the Moda Center on Friday night and earn the signature win of the season thus far. Portland extended its winning streak to 9 games, and now boasts an 11-2 record for the first time since—FUCK HISTORY WE LIVING IN THE NOW. Of course, the Bulls played without Derrick Rose for much of the second half, after Rose left the game with an unknown knee injury, leaving Chicago to run the crunch time offense through Kirk Hinrich (not to mention Tom Thibodeau trying to earn some much-needed good karma by playing Nazr Mohammed for all the key plays down the stretch [that karma might have actually kept Rose’s ACL in one piece but still, just give those minutes to The Human Fund next time, Thibs, or burn them]). But please don’t spit on the Blazers’ parade and call it rain (although it will be pouring metaphorical acid rain if Rose’s ACL is in fact torn) — and speaking of parades, I’ll see you in Pioneer Square around mid-June. Don’t worry; I’ll bring extra kazoos.

 

[UPDATE: Rose has been diagnosed with a meniscus tear so he will need surgery and is out indefinitely, but shouldn’t take as long to recover than an ACL tear. Cue: acid rain drizzle]

 

As anyone who has seen Bloodsport can attest, the only thing better than winning is winning when it seems impossible – “Victory from the jaws of defeat” and all that stuff – and seeing the Blazers win this game certainly felt impossible in the first half. Bulls head coach and defensive guru Tom Thibodeau matched the lengthy Luol Deng against the red hot Wes Matthews, putting Mike Dunleavy Jr. on Nicolas Batum. Then in the frontcourt, Joakim Noah matched up against LaMarcus Aldridge while Carlos Boozer handled Robin Lopez’s limited offensive game. Notably and unsurprisingly, Terry Stotts did not keep any of these matchups the same on the other end, as the Damian Lillard vs. Derrick Rose contest was the only one that remained on both ends. The advantage for Portland would be to push the ball in transition (as they want to anyway) and catch the Bulls before they can reorganize all the assignments, or better yet, catch them in the chaotic moment of reorganization. To do that, the Blazers would need to prohibit Chicago from scoring to have time to set up their defense, rebound Chicago’s misses to create transition opportunities, and make shots when available. Instead, the Blazers gave up 32 points in the first quarter and 59 in the first half, Chicago out-rebounded Portland 52-39 (surprisingly lower than my unofficial first half count of ∞-0), including 17 offensive rebounds for the Bulls, and Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge got off to ghastly starts, missing their first 8 shots combined. Aldridge finished the game with just 12 points, while Lillard would come back to finish with 20 points and 6 assists.

Meanwhile, Derrick Rose scored 17 points in the first half (he only finished with 20 because again, he left with an injury in the third quarter). Yet somehow, the Blazers went to the break only down 59-44, despite everything going wrong short of locusts and pestilence.

 

“The night is darkest before the dawn.”

 

The Dark Knight may not be a strong enough comparison for the way Wes Matthews is playing right now. No disrespect to Bruce Wayne, but he’s just a dedicated guy with a lot of disposable income (say, that sounds like someone else I know). Wes is on some magical bit-by-a-bioengineered-spider-or-Kobe-Bryant-or-both-or-he-is-actually-the-dude-from-Taken-taking-over-the-body-of-Zeus type stuff. Matthews led all scorers in the game with 28 points, doing it on 12-19 shooting (including 4-8 from 3-point territory) and the sort of huge plays that lead to all-caps tweets and all manner of excited yelps from the southern tip of the Willamette Valley all the way to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. If the team and fans were a hobbit and a wizard and dwarves all clinging to trees as fire and wild dogs and some kind of goblin monster and Tom Thibodeau appeared to bring imminent death, then Wes Matthews was that Golden Eagle of salvation swooping them all up in his talons and on his wings and flying them all the way to the mountaintop.

Though Matthews was the talisman for the Blazers’ third quarter performance that saw them outscore the Bulls 34-12 and turn a 15-point deficit into a 7-point lead by the start of the fourth quarter, I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize the impact of the Portland crowd. For all the remarks so far this season about the lack of attendance in the Moda Center and – God forbid – theories that Portland might be turning on its premier franchise in favor of second-or-third-rate soccer, the crowd #TurntUp for this one. Blazers management had announced earlier on Friday that it would be a sellout, and they weren’t exaggerating or creatively interpreting the definition of “sellout.” The Moda Center was as packed as it’s been this season, and the energy wrought from the seats spurred the spectacular comeback on the court.

As the Blazers’ comeback became the Blazers building their lead, the crowd was rocking, and Chicago’s superstar, Rose, was limping into the locker room, it felt almost like the game might turn into a blowout the other way. But credit the Bulls and the dynamic data in Hinrich’s heads-up display for fighting back and almost snatching the game again. With 3:15 remaining on the clock, a Hinrich 3-pointer put the Bulls ahead by 5 at 93-88 and crowned a 22-10 surge by Chicago that began at the start of the fourth quarter. Hinrich scored 9 of his 13 points in the final period, and between his glasses and black sleeve, he looked like a sentient Kirk Hinrich cyborg sent back in time to simply kill all in his path. But thanks to a Batum 3-pointer, a tough pull-up jumper from Wes Matthews (Portland’s Sarah Connor), and two late (clutch!) Aldridge free throws, Portland scored the last 7 points of the game to seal the win.

Next stop championship. Well actually, Oakland is first. Then championship.

BULLS @ TRAIL BLAZERS PREVIEW: ROSE COLORED GLASSES

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The Trail Blazers finally return to their MLS-stricken homeland after their 4-game road trip left a trail of destruction from Brooklyn to Milwaukee, and resulted in Portland’s first 10-2 start since Greg Anthony’s coffee was still hot. Entering the Moda Center to get Po’ Shine’d on Friday in the second game of their own 6-game journey are the famous Bulls of Chicago (6-4), fresh off a 97-87 loss to Nate Robinson’s Nuggets (yes, the team belongs to Nate; he owns it.) on Thursday in the high plains of Denver. While the Bulls did run out a 5-game winning streak before the defeat to Denver, Chicago’s 1-4 road record so far this season is surely putting further hardship on the already-besieged six greasy hair strands clinging for life in the barren center of coach Tom Thibodeau’s dome.

The likely starters for the Bulls tonight will be Derrick Rose, (Portland’s own, former Jesuit Crusader, and my coach at the 2000 Trail Blazers Blazin’ Hoops Camp!) Mike Dunleavy Jr., Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, and Joakim Noah. Boozer currently leads the team in scoring at 16.2 points per game, Deng adds 15.8 points per game to prove the Bulls’ management correct for not giving him up in the potential trade a few years back to land Kobe Bean Bryant, Dunleavy shoots a Wes Matthewsian 51.9% from 3-point range, and Noah does that stuff he does, but the Bulls are only an elite squad when the former pride of the South Side’s Simeon High School (word to Jabari Parker!) Derrick Rose plays at an elite level. Rose had said before leaving Chicago that he had a good feeling about the trip ahead, but unfortunately for Bulls fans and the aforementioned 6 endangered hairs of Thibs, the point guard might be in the midst of a quarter-life crisis. I mean, look at what else he had to say to ESPN Chicago’s Nick Friedell:

 

“I’m old. I’m 25 now. Damn, man. I’m old. I’m stretching, man. I have to stretch before games now.”

 

Never that.

But that’s not all. Rose on his plans for the downtime on the flights and in the hotels:

 

“I got to get my iTunes account ready, man. I got to at least find something to watch. I haven’t been watching that much TV, so it’s going to be pretty tough.”

 

Stretching! iTunes! The struggle is real! The poor guy doesn’t even know about Spotify and can’t think of a single current television show or movie that might be of interest. As a 25-year-old myself, I can tell you firsthand about the depressing feeling of losing touch with the youth and asking a 23-year-old coworker to attempt to explain how Reddit works (I still don’t know btw). When Rose is sitting at home on Friday nights because it’s the only time that he can devote the appropriate attention to the transfer market in his FIFA Manager Mode, going to the small bar at the Thai restaurant around the corner from his apartment by himself on weekdays because it’s never crowded and has the only TV that plays sports of any non-obnoxiously-sports-themed bar in a 3-block radius, and deciding to “go back to school” on a whim, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Two years Rose’s younger, and flashing that innate social media skill of the children in creating and growing the #4BarFriday Instagram video series (I know, Derrick! Instagram has videos now! Have you heard?! Yeah, it’s crazy! I’m old too! Check my LiveJournal!), Damian Lillard will seek to send Rose straight to his ever-advancing death on Friday night. Dame Funk comes into the contest averaging 19.9 points per game, and waxed nostalgic to Friedell on how the bygone mythical player Derrick Rose influenced Lillard’s game in the way that Al Michaels might get all misty about Vin Scully:

 

“I watched [Rose] a lot. The thing that stuck out to me is how well he uses his speed and athleticism and changes pace. He gets from zero to 70 like this (snaps fingers). I’ve been watching that for a while so certain things that I’ve seen him do let me know that it can be done with my ability to jump and run fast. I think watching after him allowed me to see certain things that would be available with some of the ability I have.”

 

In the midst of a letter-writing campaign to extend the early-bird deal at Sizzler (“4:30 is too damn late! That’s when I watch my VCR recordings of last night’s NCIS!” says Rose), the Chicago point guard stepped away from his typewriter for a quick second to respond:

 

“That’s big. For me, that’s what I try to do as a player. I just try to play hard and go out there and try to win games and I’m happy that people pick up on it [and] even see it. With a player like him, what he’s done in the league and what he’s doing now, it’s an honor that he even looked at my game so that’s huge.”

 

That stuff reads like that conversation with Kevin Garnett and Bill Russell, only if Russell was actually dead. Rose sounds as likely to regain his 2011-2012 form as he is to do what many 25-year-olds in crisis do: stay in Portland and open a cider bar on NE Alberta (cider is hot right now! [pun intended and speaking of puns, he could call it Rose Colored Glasses and specialize in local marionberry-infused cider {you’re welcome, Derrick!}]).

Thibs should hope Boozer (#neverforget) has a good night, which might be tough given that Carlos Danger will be up against LaMarcus Aldridge and may struggle to get his preferred midrange jumper over the long arms of LaMarcus. As for Rose, he might as well be dead until he proves otherwise. Remember that sentence when Derrick goes for 40 tonight, because if any coach in the NBA dabbles in necromancy, it has to be this guy.

Speaking of necromancy, Trailblazers.com blogger Casey Holdahl announced that the Blazers will be bringing back the famous glasses with caricatures of Blazer players. There will be no better way to drink your celebratory champagne when the Blazers when the championship this June than out of a glass featuring a caricature of Nicolas Batum. I’m ready to replace all of my glassware with these sure-to-be beauties. So yeah, maybe 25 isn’t that old after all.

TRAIL BLAZERS 91 – MILWAUKEE 82: YESTERDAY’S NEW QUINTET

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The Trail Blazers beat the Bucks AKA The-Possibly-Sooner-Than-Later-Seattle-Supersonics by a score of 91-82 on Wednesday night in front of about 37 people in Milwaukee. Judging by the crowd shots on the TV feed, everyone in attendance was a Blazers fan, a relative of Wes Matthews, or a truly masochistic Bucks fan. Even Twitter during the game was noticeably missing many of the more regular Portland faces—err, avatars. Not that anyone missed a whole lot by not watching. The game simply played out like a mad-lib of the Blazers’ season thus far.

Opponent starts well thanks to scoring from <insert player(s) almost forgotten to still play in the NBA>. Blazers hang in game due to outside shooting from <insert Blazers starter(s)>. Blazers wrangle a grasp on the game by halftime. Blazers separate from opponent in second half as the offense finds better rhythm, the defense improves, and the opponent’s hot shooting early regresses towards their average. <Damian Lillard and/or LaMarcus Aldridge> carry Portland down the stretch to cement the win.

The only difference in this game, the 8th consecutive victory for the Blazers who are now 10-2 for the first time since the 1999-2000 season, was that it was pretty ugly throughout.

The Bucks started well thanks to scoring from Luke Ridnour and Zaza Pachulia. Ridnour took over the starting gig from rookie Nate Wolters, who started the previous few games in place of the injured Brandon Knight, and thus Ridnour became the recipient of the Portland defense’s midrange scoring opportunities (as explained by Zach Lowe on Grantland and summarized in the preview here). Ridnour scored 6 of his eventual team-high 13 points in the opening period as the Bucks took a 24-23 lead.

The Blazers hung in the game due to outside shooting from Wes Matthews. Matthews, who played in high school at James Madison Memorial in nearby Madison (Wisc.) before playing his college ball at Milwaukee’s Marquette University, seemed to take well to being back in his home state, and with his mother and grandmother watching in the crowd. Although right now, Wes could be playing in the ninth circle of Hell with Judas and Cain in attendance and I don’t think it would hinder his jumper. As it was, Matthews scored 13 points in the first quarter, to finish with a total 15 points (all of which came in the first half). The Blazers wrangled a grasp on the game by halftime, going into the break with a 53-51 lead.

The Blazers separated from the Bucks in the second half as the offense found better rhythm, the defense improved, and Milwaukee’s hot shooting early regressed towards their average. Portland’s precise passing and movement began to carve up the Milwaukee defense and create open looks for LaMarcus Aldridge and others. Aldridge found himself curiously wide open on more than a few plays, as Bucks defenders – generally Ekpe Udoh – struggled to rotate and recover quick enough to keep up with Portland’s movement. Aldridge scored 10 of his game-high 21 points in the third quarter, as the Blazers extended their lead to 6 by the final intermission.

The Blazers defense, currently last in the NBA in turnovers forced, actually created a couple steals for run-outs to help push the lead early in the fourth quarter towards double-digits. Then very briefly, the Bucks appeared to be on the verge of climbing back in the game. But with about three minutes remaining, Lillard scored a quick 5 points on a dunk and 3-pointer to put the Blazers up 11, effectively ending the night for Milwaukee and cementing the Blazer victory.

Like playing a game of Mouse Trap, the idea that this was a “trap game” sounded interesting on paper. But when Milwaukee opened the box, found the diver and the bathtub and Larry Sanders missing, saw how much effort it would take to get the whole thing to work right, and suddenly everyone just wanted to do something else.

10-2, though. Let that be the final thought. Smile.

TRAIL BLAZERS @ BUCKS PREVIEW: THE GOAT CHEESE TARTE WAS DELICIOUS, TOO

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Wedding Feast at Cana  Julius Schnorr von Carosfeld, 1819

The Trail Blazers (9-2) have won 7 straight games. The Bucks (2-7) have won 4 straight games against the Blazers. Two streaks enter the BMO Harris Bradley Center on Wednesday evening, but only one will leave unscathed. The other will be ground up, stuffed into sausage casing, and grilled on an open flame in a frigid parking lot this weekend, or however else the people of greater Milwaukee dispose of their dead.

With a win over the Bucks tonight, the Blazers would complete an undefeated East Coast/Canadian/Upper Midwest road trip. If road trips are venues for self-discovery and spiritual growth, then over the course of this one, the Blazers have begun to realize and believe in their own emergence as a top-flight offensive team and not-quite-horrible defensive team, something Zach Lowe explored over on Grantland this morning.

According to Lowe and backed up by the film and quotes from Terry Stotts before the season, Portland has altered its pick-and-roll defense to drop the defending big man below the screen to deter the ballhandler or rolling big man from attacking the lane, while the ballhandler’s defender chases over the top of the screen. Keeping the big man below the screen plays more to the strengths of the Blazers’ large but fairly lumbering center, Robin Lopez, and Stotts’s preseason comments about the defensive adjustments focused on using their new center in the way most comfortable for him.

But Lowe’s divinity lies in his ability to find and explain insights in a way that makes them seem staggeringly simple, and so he also details how playing pick-and-roll defense in that fashion fits into the overall, analytics-integrated philosophy of the Blazers front office and coaching staff. Trapping and aggressively hedging pick-and-rolls requires quick rotation from the rest of the defense (especially the weakside wing defender), which can often create open three-point attempts on the wings and the corners – corner threes being the nerds’ crown jewel of efficiency.

However as Lowe explains, playing the pick-and-roll as the Blazers do allows them to keep the wing defenders glued to their marks, and forces the ballhandler into playing one-on-one in the midrange area (the least efficient area of the court). So while Blazer fans have seen opposing point guards get theirs with at times alarming frequency, much of that, and even some of Damian Lillard’s perceived struggles as a defender (it’s hard to look good when the system is entirely built to have you chase point guards over screens with little help), have been by design.

The game tonight against the Bucks may offer further proof of the Blazers’ modern defensive design. A paradox for many a Wisconsin philosopher, the Bucks have many point guards and at the same time, they have no point guard. Now that Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis found new freedom elsewhere, the team photo this year included Brandon Knight, the Pride of Blaine (Wash.) Luke Ridnour, rookie (and former South Dakota State Jackrabbit!) Nate Wolters, and combo-guard Gary Neal (formerly of the San Antonio Spurs). With Knight sidelined as he nurses a sore hamstring and tries to dig the remnants of his confidence out of the backyards of DeAndre Jordan and Kyrie Irving, and Ridnour being pretty damn old at this point (Ridnour played on the Sonics! Remember them?), Wolters will start for Milwaukee on Wednesday and try to do his best with the midrange opportunities he will certainly find.

For those who don’t follow the Summit League as fervently as they might like, Wolters was an outstanding scorer, once tossing up 53 points on the mighty Mastodons of Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (yes, that’s all one school), and drawing comparisons by some due to his size, scoring ability, ballhandling skill, mid-major pedigree, and skin color to a collegiate Steve Nash. Said Bucks’ big man and noted Atlanta restaurateur Zaza Pachulia in today’s Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:

 

“Most second round picks, you don’t know what to expect. But the way he plays, I wasn’t expecting him to play this good.”

 

If only Zaza’s doomed restaurant ventures received such glowing praise, midtown Atlantans might still be able to enjoy tasty berry mojitos in chic, continental ambience.

By funneling the offense through Wolters, the Blazers’ will continue to prohibit 3-point opportunities on the wing, a key against the Bucks, who enter the game 5th in the entire NBA in 3-point shooting (the Blazers are 4th) at 41.7%, which is actually better than their overall field goal percentage of 41.4%. Leading the way for the Bucks is O. J. Mayo, who averages a team-high 18.4 points per game and prefers spot-up opportunities on the outside.

With Carlos Delfino, Larry Sanders, Knight, Zaza, Neal, Ersan Ilyasova, and Caron Butler all on the injury report for Milwaukee (Zaza and Neal are listed as gametime decisions and Ilyasova and Butler are listed as probable), Portland needs to keep Mayo from finding open looks, hope Wolters doesn’t play like he does against Mastodons, and the Bucks just might go the entire game without scoring a point as the world sees the true majesty of the Blazer defense. Such is the power of a Zach Lowe joint. Dear water, please enjoy your transformation into wine.

 

Unrelated: LaMarcus Aldridge has taken to calling Wes Matthews “Ballot.” Update your tweets accordingly.