They couldn’t beat L.A., so Blazer fans decided instead to beat the traffic. Down a seemingly insurmountable 18 points with 3:23 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Blazer contingent of the lower bowl started streaking towards the exits. The torrent of bodies was as cold and swift as the Columbia. A minute and a half later, parts of the 300 level were begining to empty out—a sight almost as rare as a Laker win in Portland. But fans can be forgiven, I suppose, for wanting to avoid scenes like this one.
Saturday’s 99-82 loss was the first time in 10 games that the Lakers left the Rose Garden with their heads high. Futhermore, it was L.A.’s biggest margin of victory in Portland since the nearly identical score on January 3rd 1988. That game was played at Memorial Coliseum.
Even stranger, the Lakers ended the streak without Kobe Bryant. And I can’t help but wonder if all Portland’s collective hatred of the Black Mamba as a galvanizing force left some kind of emotional void on the court at the Rose Garden—it certainly did in the air.
Indeed a great deal of energy was sucked from the Rose Garden before the first shot was taken. It was announced earlier Saturday afternoon that Brandon Roy would continuing sitting out through the All Star break. He talked to reporters before the game.
After Roy’s press conference came the news that Bryant too would sit out. It came as a shock to many members of the media, not to mention the throngs of Laker fans salivating in their #24 jersey. And while Bryant’s absence seemed to up the Blazers’ chances, it didn’t make for a compelling matchup. Indeed tonight’s buzz was nowhere near it’s usual Laker-visit pandemonium.
Blazer fans, however, may take some consolation that Bryant’s streak of nine-straight Rose Garden defeats remains alive and well. But for most, Saturday night was still a heavy blow to take. I asked Nate McMillan where this loss stacked up against the most difficult of the season and he snapped at me a little in response:
The Blazers were outplayed across the board. Statistically speaking, the only categories they bested the Lakers were in free throws attempted (19 to 15) and free throw percentage.
L.A. dominated most thoroughly was on the glass. The Lakers out-rebounded Portland 47-30 overall, and a nauseating 12 to two on the offensive end which helped the visitors take 13 more shots than the home team.
Lamar Odom led L.A. with 22 boards—more than the combined total of Portland’s starting lineup (together they had 20). Odom began the night matched up against Andre Miller and immediately started posting up the substantially smaller guard. I asked Odom if he felt a big night coming on when he looked the potential matchups beforehand:
As Odom said, the Lakers have the ability to go big or small. And when a player who’s 6’10” can play everything from point guard to center, the injury ravaged Trail Blazers are often going to find themselves at a dissadvantage.
While he isn’t versatile like Odom, Pau Gasol also gives the Lakers freedom to strech. Equal parts finesse and power, the seven foot tall Spaniard is a good enough passer where he doesn’t necessarily need to be in the key to thrive. Gasol, who finished with 13 points and eight rebounds, talked about finally getting a win in the Rose Garden, and how the sitting of Kobe Bryand and Brandon Roy cancel each other out somewhat. He also noted that the Blazers were startlingly thin inside:
The only Blazer players whose performances were any better than just mediocre were Andre Miller and Juwan Howard, even if their nights felt mostly quiet. Miller hit five of eight attempts, and finished with 14 points and six assists. Howard hit five of seven shots for 10, and grabbed seven boards. The rest of the cast didn’t give the veterans much help.
Sure, LaMarcus Aldridge scored 16 points, but it took him just as many shots. Martell Webster and Steve Blake were atrocious. Webster was one of seven for two points, while Blake had a similar line—one for five, three points. In the locker room afterwards, a sullen Webster took responsibility for his poor performance:
Despite Webster’s admission, this wasn’t a loss to be hung on a single player or players—the entire team got worked by the Bryant-less Lakers.
When the Blazers succeed as of late, it’s usually because a player or two finds a hot hand that inspires the rest of the team to lay out. But against the Lakers Saturday night that leader never appeared. And while credit must go to the opposing defense, tonight’s failure was more than systematic. On too many possessions the Blazers looked aimless on offensive. No one seemed to want to be The Man. But with at least two more games before Brandon Roy returns, the Blazers need someone with ego enough to try.