The Portland Trail Blazers have experienced a remarkably tumultuous season so far. They began the year setting fire to the league. They were humming on offense, beating really good teams, doing a fair impression of a serious contender. Then everything came apart. By the trade deadline, the coach had been fired and half the team had been traded away. This looked for all the world like a team entering shutdown mode, playing for cap room and lottery positioning.
Except, strangely, they haven’t really been much worse than they were before their grand implosion. Nevertheless, I had somehow conceived of this as a winnable game for the Wolves, as if a formerly good team playing out the string was somehow more vulnerable than a formerly good team playing without four of their top six players. But I was wrong about that.
The plus/minus numbers tell a real story here. Excluding Derrick Williams, the Wolves’ starting group essentially held their own. Kevin Love was -2 in his 37 minutes, Luke Ridnour was -1 in his 35. Martell Webster and Wes Johnson, the two other players who spent the majority of their minutes with the first unit, were -4 and -5, respectively. Which is not great, obviously, but good enough to keep things close. This is where things get ugly, though. The second unit, composed of Malcolm Lee and Wayne Ellington with Williams and Anthonies Tolliver and Randolph up front, averaged a -10.6.
Given that Derrick Williams is probably the most dangerous scorer of the bunch, it would stand to reason that this unit would need to generate some synergistic ball-movement in order to create shots. But neither Lee nor Ellington is adept at achieving the kind of paint penetration–or making the kinds of decisions with the ball–necessary to make that happen. When they were in the game, the Wolves’ offensive possessions were a picture of stagnation, overdribbling and contested, off-the-dribble jumpers. Suffice it to say, the Wolves’ bench sorely misses both J.J. Barea and (I can’t really believe I’m writing this) Michael Beasley.
As if that weren’t bad enough, Lee and Ellington both had the misfortune of being shredded by Jonny Flynn in the pick-and-roll game. (This puts two somewhat opposing thoughts into my mind. The first is something like wonderment at how they managed to achieve this, considering that, in our experience, the best way to defend Jonny Flynn has seemed to be: stay in front of him; watch him dribble for 20 seconds; wait for him to take a bad shot. The second is that the long-distance Rambis-haters were perhaps onto something when they suggested that the Triangle was constraining Flynn’s creativity and that all he really needed was a steady diet of pick-and-rolls. Or maybe he just needs to be defended by Wayne Ellington and Malcolm Lee.) Without Rubio and Barea, the Wolves’ perimeter defense is shaky in any event. When this group was in, though, the Blazers lived at the front of the rim.
But Portland scored 119 points on 52.3% shooting; this can’t all be blamed on Malcolm Lee and Wayne Ellington’s D. To my eyes, the team’s other major defensive affliction was actually their offense. The Wolves hit only five of their 21 threes and missed a hearty complement of their two-point jumpers as well. And missed jumpers have a habit of turning into transition opportunities for your opponent, which themselves often translate into mismatches and open shooters, the defense scrambling to organize itself. The Blazers big runs in the game were fueled by just these situations.
As for the game’s glossiest matchup: LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Kevin Love was essentially a push. Both scored 26. Love got his at the line, Aldridge got his through those towering, un-guardable fadeaways (un-guardable, in particular by the undersized K-Love). The two All-Stars wrestled their way to a rebounding stalemate. Which stalemate was promptly broken by one J.J. Hickson, massively energetic, thrilled to no longer be (not) playing basketball in Sacramento. Around every corner of this game was the specter of the Wolves’ injury epidemic. The sight of Hickson–unburdened as he is by the fatigue of having played through this exhausting NBA schedule–flying through the air, keeping balls alive, putting back misses, reminds one of how much we miss Nikola Pekovic. It’s tough to win when you have only one rebounding big man. It’s tough to win when you have only two consistently competent scorers. Yes it is.