Still late, but I am going to catch up in one fell and timely swoop. The Blazers returned from one of the oddest road trips you will see, mostly because of the fact they are the only team left in the Pacific Northwest. They started in LA for a Clippers game, New York for a Knicks showdown and then it was off to some Midwest swinging in Chicago and Milwaukee. That itinerary sounds rather insipid, huh? If I’m scheduling these games, I would like to schedule them in manner that is not as crazy and odd as this. But such is life in the NBA with the countless back-to-backs that are needed for all teams to play their 82 games in the most frenetic 7 months thought possible. Well, enough about that topic and onto rehashing a very good, quality, frustrating, and intriguing 3-1 road trip by the Blazer. To save time, yours and mine, to save space and show some trends, I have decided to lump this all together like a fantastic Hungarian goulash.
It has become quite evident in these first 5 games that the Blazers are going to be a little tough to stomach in the early going because all of the parts are still coming together. This leads to times of sheer brilliance, times of complete idiocy and times where it is so nondescript that make this part of sentence unnecessary (wordplay is fun, trying to describe the nondescript… that’s a doozy). Either way, the Blazers brand of basketball won’t be seen in full effect until their annual December deluge where they either have a host of home games (not so much this year in comparison to the past three years) or chemistry has final hit the equilibrium point of an extremely difficult titration in your analytic chemistry lab… sorry, flashbacks, scary, scary flashbacks. Where was I? Oh, yeah: the first trend noticed was that while the Blazers slowly chugged along at a steady pace, their opponents were able to stay at maybe a pinky’s length because of still porous perimeter defense and lack of certain physical and burly centers.
For instance, the Clipper and Knick game are the two most similar games because of the high energy that was seen by the Blazers in the first quarter. Shots were being made, ball movement was liking watch a painter make a masterpiece, one deft stroke at a time. Sure the opposition was making highlight plays off of missed box-outs like Blake Griffin’s vicious tip-dunk and his 4 offensive rebounds, or allowing Amar’e to still bully through the defense in a different jersey as if nothing had changed. It didn’t really matter because the Blazers were leading and looking pretty decent. It wasn’t until the second unit completely came in that you realized the team as a whole is in the “we’ll be good soon, be patient Rip City. Please?” mode. LaMarcus looked harried early against the likes of Timofey Mozgov (it’s ok if you say, “Huh? MazelTov?”) and Chris Kaman (who should think of going back to the serial killer hair because he played beast-like with it). Roy was the only bright spot at times, Batum was steady Eddie AND Freddie, Camby did his usual good good, and Andre was pressing like the nice Korean lady at the little drycleaners I do business at (what up Mrs. Choi!).
Staying with the trends, those second and third quarters were disturbingly the same. It was like the basketball gods wanted to see the same script played over and over and for good measure, over again. In the Clipper game it was Eric Gordon finding seams and running a pre-game lay-up drill time and time again. I can’t recall any of his attempts being jumpers, and with his speed it is relatively easy to go around molasses Miller. With the Knicks, Wilson Chandler and uber-bit player Landry Fields (a solid 4 year starter from Stanford) continually were thorns in the sides of the Blazers grabbing offensive rebounds, getting to the free throw line or casting in three pointers from Staten Isle. The only advantage the Blazers had it seemed was that their vices are not as destructive as their counterparts. The Blazers, with all their might in trying to make these games as difficult as could be, had the resolve to rise to the occasion and turn up the intensity and focus at the correct time. The opposition was left in the dust, and left to review how many of those horrific threes (looking at you Wilson) wasted potential good possessions, what it would have meant if they converted those free throws (both teams, and LaMarcus in that atrocious 4-10 that felt like 4-210 in NY) and what would have happened had they taken control of the ball a bit better. All in all, the Blazers matrixed the bullets shot and came out 3-0 going into the Chi.
Even before the tip at the United Center, I cautioned that this was probably going to be a loss. It wasn’t because I had no faith, it’s just that last spring’s loss to Chicago in Chicago in OT was replaying in my mind the entire Sunday prior to the game. Then the news of Maurice Lucas’ death came and then it sorta sealed it for me. Heavy hearts play either with passion for the fallen comrade or play lethargic as if still stunned and incredulous that the comrade is gone. (Editor’s note: that’s just me psychoanalyzing the situation, so I’m just throwing it out there to throw it out there.) Either way, Rose’s sizzling performance against the Thunder, Noah and Gibson being ever bit of a formidable forward-center combination and Tom Thibodeau’s All-Star neutralizing defense had me all aflutter in the most disconcerted way. Little did I know that Loul Deng of Wow, Sudan would be wowing the crowd and the Blazers to the tune of 40 points on 19 shots. Deng’s dazzling dominance was one of pure efficiency as he came off curls unabated, was hitting crisp threes (a shot I had hope for my fantasy basketball teams circa 05-09 that he’d improve on) and cutting through a non-existent/exuberant Blazer middle. He was the main story of the night because he easily could have doubled how much many points he had scored in his previous two games (23). What could (or should) not be lost in the gargantuan shadow of thorough domination was the awakening of LaMarcus Aldridge. Fresh off a disappointing, if I may be so bold, 20 points in New York, LA came out early and was using any Chicago defender that wasn’t laterally gifted or aware of who he was as his personal punching bag. A fantastic development is the rapport between Camby and Aldridge on the high-low alley-oops that have been demonstrated demonstratively in the early going. It was shame the rest of the Blazers were not as locked in Aldridge was because it may have been a bit more competitive (read: closer) of a game.
One trend that was displayed and is pretty much a beaten dead topic is how integral having Greg and Joel, in any combination, is to this team. Just one burly big man down there and maybe those penetration happy guards think twice before making a foray into the lane. Another big burly center underneath the hoop who has a ravenous hunger for rebounds would make centers like Noah and forwards like Chandler and Gibson work twice as hard to box-out. Just one of those guys is an extra 6 fouls, an extra breather to Camby or Aldridge so that fatigue doesn’t set in earlier than it should. Stacey King of the Chicago Bulls said it best that once Greg and Joel get back, the team will be right there pushing for 2nd in the West. He acknowledged the Thunder, gave them props like they were a Broadway play, but commented that we were the Thunder before the Thunder were the Thunder and we could still steal their thunder due to having the thunderous power of GOden and the Thrilla back in the fold. That was touching, big ups Stacey King. The loss ended a stretch of victories filled with stretches of shoddiness, but the wins were wins and the levees finally broke in Hurricane Deng and the running of the Chicago Bulls.
Looking for rectification and a way back onto the winning track facing off against a workmanlike Bucks team filled with tons of Blazer killers. The Blazers murder row consists of Corey Maggette, John Salmons, Drew Gooden and Earl Boykins (though he is in the cameo mode of his career). The Bucks had also taken a nail-biter from the Blazers in overtime last year and Portland walked into this as if it wasn’t going to happen again. However, they seemed to content with allowing the Bucks storm out to a huge early lead by simply not caring enough to defend the incredibly individualistic and one-dimensional offense. But thanks to a bench spark from Wesley Matthews in the first half the Blazers were energized and able to punch back and take the lead from the Bucks leading to their finest second half of the young season. The Blazers came out and locked the paint, prominently featured by LaMarcus tying a career high in blocks with 5, cutting off the passing lanes and forcing the Bucks to build the third little pig his chateau with brick after brick. Along with the defense showing up again for the Blazers, the bench production finally blazed like the glowing flame it needs to be to get this locomotive rolling. Matthews had his finest performance so far and Armon Johnson continues to make people forget about Jerryd Bayless with his heady defense and seemingly innate knack for being a point guard. He was playing so well at one point in the game Andre Miller told Nate to keep Armon in and slowly walked back to the bench from the scorer’s table. Is that confidence in the unheralded enough for you to follow suit? I don’t know about you, but I am getting more and more comfortable with him logging minutes and making smart decisions.
This was a telling road trip as it was made apparent that the Trail Blazers have graduated from the crash course in how to play on the road. I have never been more confident in the veteran leadership and the continued growth from Roy and Aldridge in clutch situations on the road. Yeah, they’ll drop a couple stinkers on the road, but more often than not (especially on the second games of back to backs, or SEGABABAs) the Blazer will win a fair share to a lion’s share of their road tilts. Also, the bench remains a work in progress as the cogs are still trying to be aligned properly. It will come with time, but if the bench guys like Dante, Wes and Armon can bring it like they did in Milwaukee—watch out just a tiny bit. And finally, the centers are severely needed for us to be supremely successful. That can’t be stated enough and I’ll save words on expounding the subject. On the goofiest road trip in awhile, the Blazers upped themselves to 4-1 heading into a pivotal division game against Oklahoma City. Talk about the Midwest Swing y’all.