It seems like a long time ago that the Blazers came storming into the playoffs on a wave of blowouts and key victories, though Portland's regular season has only been over for one week. It's also easy to wish at this point that the Hornets had been able to hold on to a five point lead in the final minute and beat the Spurs. Had this happened the Blazers would have been the third seed in the West instead of the 4th and been playing a struggling and battered New Orleans instead of a confident and determined Houston. Ah well, what might have been.
As is, Portland is against a very tough Rockets team. I never would have imagined losing McGrady would be the catalyst for this team, but it united them and now I have to admit that if they do knock off the Blazers I like their odds to upset the Lakers. The key to their success is of course Yao Ming; if he's on the Rockets are hard to beat. However, they also have a slew of fantastic role players that fit into the system like keys in a lock. Not to mention two of the best perimeter defenders in the past decade (Shane battier and Ron Artest) are in their starting lineup. Every game against the Rockets is a slugfest, and you can't take your focus off for even a second, though I suppose that is just playoff basketball.
As I already said, the Blazers came into the playoffs on the highest of highs, surging from the 7th seed to the 4th seed in the final two weeks of the regular season. That streak included victories over the Lakers, the Spurs, and the Nuggets. In fact, their only loss in their last eleven games was to none other than the Rockets. So all of a sudden the Blazers had these heightened expectations: at the start of March most every Blazermaniac would be satisfied with a competitive first round exit. By the end of the regular season, everyone was drooling over a chance at a seven game series against the Lakers in the second (or even third) round.
There was a rally in Pioneer Square for the Blazers making their return to the second season. There were banners. Radio shows. Fanfare all around. And at some point it subtly shifted from support to pressure. Where once it was simply euphoric mania, it was instead expectations. As if a team full of players making their playoff debut didn't have enough reason to be nervous, now there was all this hope around the team, even (though nobody would admit it) looking past the first round.
So when Game One tipped last Saturday, the Rose Garden was rocking with a newfound frenzy, but the players were clearly not playing with the same loosness and confidence that allowed them to close the season strong. Houston, meanwhile, has done this Round One thing many times over and was more than prepared. It wasn't anything special to them. Yao started hot and never cooled as time and time again the Blazers refused to front him. He shot 9 for 9 from the field and 6 of 6 from the line in only 24 minutes. On the other end Portland had no ball movement, too often relying on either a Roy clearout and drive (tough to do against the likes of Artest and Battier on the perimeter and Yao guarding the rim) or one pass and a hoisted 20 footer. Roy had 21 points and Greg Oden was the only other player in double figures with 15, but most came in garbage time (which there was plenty of). The Rockets shot and astounding 59% from the floor as a team and crushed Portland 108-81.
In a lot of ways this game felt like the season opener against the Lakers- surrounded by so much hoopla and fanfare that it weighed the players down and ultimately the Blazers got crushed. The only difference was that the Blazers got crushed at home this time, and instead of having 81 games to make it up they have 6 at most. To make matters worse, the Blazers spent 82 games fighting to earn home court advantage and blew it in a matter of hours. A lot of time you hear about road teams "stealing" a win, but Houston didn't steal it so much as mug it out of the Blazers. Now if Portland wants their first series victory since the 2000 Western Semifinals they will have to beat the Rockets in Houston, something they aren't very adept at (2 wins in their past 13 games there). It also made game two an absolute must win, because there is simply no way Portland takes 4 of 5 from Houston with 3 of those games in Texas.
Nobody really knew how the Blazers would respond to such a loss as the one they endured in the first game. It was the ultimate buzzkill on both the team and the fans, who desperately wanted something to cheer for in the playoffs. There was the one obvious adjustment of fronting Yao, which any high school team would have done. Other than that nearly any change would be psychological. How would such a young team play after a horrendous defeat- would they let it weigh them down or learn from it? The answer was the latter.
The Blazers started with mixing up defenses on Yao, both fronting and doubling him, switching defenders, and not letting him get comfortable. This freed up other Rockets (notably Artest, who scored 15 in the opening quarter) but it also prevented Houston from getting into an offensive rhythm. On offense the Blazers ran a lot more screen and rolls to get Yao involved in the defense more frequently, and Roy was also simply on a different level. In the second quarter Lamarcus Aldridge, a major X-factor who was a dreadful 3-12 in the first game, caught fire while Roy stayed hot and Artest cooled. Aldridge and Roy combined for the Blazers last 21 points in the second, 16 of their 19 third quarter points, and 18 total in the fourth.
For Houston a number of role players stepped up as Yao endured foul trouble and Artest's forced shots rendered him ineffective. Both Blazers castoff Von Wafer and University of Oregon alumn Aaron Brooks repeatedly torched Portland's perimeter "defense" (pull your head out Steve Blake!!!) to the tune of 21 and 23 points, respectively.
The whole game was back and forth; every time one team grabbed a four or five point lead the other team would go on a quick two or three bucket run and reel the opponent back in. The biggest play of the game came with Portland up 93-90 and about 2:30 left in the 4th. After Houston put up terrific defense for the first 20 seconds of the shot clock, Roy found himself with the ball at the top of the arch and Ron Artest an arm's length away. Roy took one look at the rim and let it fly, hitting nothing but net and giving the Blazers their largest lead of the quarter, 96-90.
A few possessions later Portland was up 100-92 with about 39 seconds left, and needed nearly all of that as Brooks went berserk. He hit three threes (including a 35 footer) and a tough driving layup in the final 28 seconds, and I don't believe any of those shots even hit the rim. But the Blazer's margin was enough and they held on for a 107-103 victory to even the series. Roy was dominant with 42 points (tied for 2nd most in Blazer playoff history) and 7 rebounds, while Aldridge was also formidable with 27 points, 12 rebounds, and 3 blocks.
Three Things I Like
It's official, Roy is a superstar. In the first game he was the only bright spot with 21 points before sitting the entire 4th in a blowout loss. He said before the second game he would put the Blazers on his back if he had to, and that's exactly the situation that arose. The Broy Wonder hit big shot after big shot and attacked the rim, keeping Yao in foul trouble and the defense guessing. Even more impressive is that he had zero turnovers (how many guards have 40+ point games in the playoffs with no turnovers) and never looked out of control.
That's the thing about Roy, even when he goes of for 30, 40, or 50 he does it in the flow of the game. Nothing is forced, and you don't even notice that he has amassed such a point total until the closing moments. He's a team player and a team leader, and as I've said many, many times before he's the biggest reason the team stands where it does.
Though there was little to celebrate in Game One, the second game showed Portland had learned from its mistakes. For starters, Yao was fronted and it limited his offense incredibly (9-9 and 24 points in Game One, 3-6 and 11 points in Game Two). He also was forced to be more actively involved on defense, which led to him earnging his fourth fould with about seven minutes to go in the third (he should have been hit with his fifth about three times in the final period but I suppose that would make 1.2 billion viewers overseas turn off their TVs). In any case, due to some clever offensive and defensive adjustments, Yao's impact was severely limited in the second game. If Yao isn't effective, the Rockets have no other go-to guy as Artest runs too cold and take too many wild shots.
Another major adjustment was implementing a zone defense with mixed results. Sometimes it completely stagnated Houston's offense, sometimes that broke it and got an easy look. Nonetheless, it forced the Rockets to mix up their offenses and never be really set.
Finally, McMillan put Oden and Joel Przybilla in at the same time for the first time since December 30th against the Celtics. It allowed Portland to cut off a lot of drives to the basket, cause majot matchup problems on both ends, and let the Blazers gain an advantage on the boards. I don't expect to see the line of Blake, Roy, Rudy, Oden, and Joel very often, but in certain stretches it can put the Blazers in complete control of the tempo and boards.
All of these three things were adjustments from the first game to the second, and all three were major contributors to Portland victory yesterday.
3. Joel's leadership-
All season long Joel Przybilla has been a steady heady veteran presence for Portland, and his amplified that role in the playoffs. Not only has he willingly taken on Yao, but his voice was strongest after the crushing defeat on Saturday. When a lot of young guys were down on themselves he pulled them together and helped them keep their heads up and continue to believe in themselves. His numbers aren't the same, mostly because he's facing a top two center in the NBA, but he's a thorn in Yao's side and a big motivator for his team.
He may never get a putback in this series with Yao on him, but he still is getting his rebounding numbers and keeps the players minds in the series. Many a time this season I've asked "where would this team be without Joel Przybilla?"
Three Things I Didn't Like
1. Travis Outlaw's disappearance-
I was long an advocate for trading Outlaw, stating he didn't take the ball inside or rebound. Then post-trade deadline he began to do those things, and I was completely okay with him sticking around. Now he's pulled a great disappearing act in the playoffs. He's Portland's third leading scorer in the regular season at roughly 13 a game (and around 14.5 after the trade deadline), and added about 4 boards a game (close to 5 after the deadline). In the first two playoff game he's posting 8.5 points and 1.5 rebounds in roughly the same amount of playing time. In a lot of situations he's the team's go-to guy, and he just hasn't produced.
The good news is that he can be expected to light back up at any moment, the bad news is he could also get worse. He just isn't predictable, and the Blazers need to be able to rely on him because Roy and Aldridge can't be expected to combine for 70 every night (though I wouldn't put it past them).
2. Losing home court-
At this point it would be better if Portland had been the 5 seed and Houston the 4, then at least that Game One debacle could be explained. And the Blazers may as well be the 5 seed, as they now find themselves in the same position as every 5 seed: having to win a game on the road. I won't put anything past the Portland because of how they closed the season and because the areas they need to improve in can be easily remedied. I just don't like the idea of HAVING to win in Houston. In fact, the only solace I take at this point is that Houston has that whole "never been out of the first round" thing over their head.
3. Losing Dikembe Mutombo-
I know that Mutombo plays for the opponent, but some things supercede competition. Mutombo went up for a rebound against Oden just minutes into his first shift in Game Two and came down awkwardly on his left knee, which buckled under him. He didn't move for some time, just writhed on the floor as trainers from both teams surrounded him. He never could get all the way up and eventually was hauled off on a stretcher. Later in the locker room he said "for me, basketball is over," which if true is a very sad end to the career of an absolute warrior.
I'm willing to bet, given what he looked like on the floor, his career is over (keep in mind I'm not doctor though and the knee will be re-evaluated in Houston after being diagnosed as a "strain," the universal term for "it's a knee injury but we don't want to give the details yet."). He's 42 and if he needs surgery he won't be able to rehab it fully and come back to a competitive level before he's simply to old to play the game.
For my part I've always been a fan of Mutombo's game, to say nothing of his terrific off-court efforts and personality. Every basketball fan remembers him clutching the ball after his Nuggets upset the top-seeded Sonics 15 years ago. He's a gritty defender and rebounder, a four time Defensive Player of the Year and an eight time All-Star. The fact that he remained so effective so late into his career says wonders about his conditioning. If Blazer fans are lucky Greg Oden will turn out exactly like Mutombo as a player, and every GM should hope for players of the same personality.
As for the immediate impact, losing him is a mighty blow to the Rockets. Without him they only have one center, while Portland has two 7 footers and Aldridge. Landry and Scola are fine players, but they will have a Hell of a time handling Oden on both ends of the floor. Yao will see a mjor increase in minutes, and if he gets in foul trouble (as he did yesterday) then the Rockets will have a tough time winning. It is too bad when an injury swings the the tide of a series, but there isa chance that losing Mutombo will do just that in this one.
So, here's hoping Dikembe can recover fully, perhaps even play again but mostly if he does have to ride off into the sunset I hope that he can live the rest of his life without pain in his knee. If he truly is done, it's a sad day for the league. The NBA could use more men like Mutombo.
Game Three is Friday in Houston, and the next two games are very pivotal. If Portland can grab one of them they are back in control of the series, if Houston sweeps them then the Blazers are down 3-1 and likely on the way out. I have a gut feeling (or maybe a blind hope) that the Blazers will win one of the next two games, simply because the two teams are so evenly matched and because at some point Houston's first round struggles will catch up to them. However, it is still far too early for me to make any series prediction that I can feel confident in. It should be hard fought whatever the outcome.