Let me begin by saying that I hope this isn't the end. Live from the Rose Garden, it's Almost Live.
There's still, in case you were wondering, a three-story Greg Oden cut-out on the side of the Rose Garden. I'm guessing it'll remain there until the end of the season, at which point the team will have to make some big decisions about the Ohio standout and his future (or lackthereof) with the team. There are so many questions in that arena. Oden's offseason might not garner the hype of LeBron's "Decision," but all eyes will be on Greg and Blazer management here in Portland. If another team attempts to sign Oden, do the Blazers match? How much will they pay? Will Oden cooperate with some kind of sign-and-trade, should the opportunity arise? Does he owe that to the franchise? Does he owe the franchise anything?
There are other questions, too. Do the Blazers make personnel changes with the medical staff—be they for appearances sake or sincere concern? Will free agents seek out Portland as a destination? Will superstition over the team's rash of injuries play any role in their decisions? Will the fans keep showing up at full-force (tonight, by the way, looks like another sellout)?
The regular season itself is a huge question mark. I don't doubt that the Blazers—if Roy can get healthy and the rest of the team can work together—are still a playoff team without Oden's return (knock on some wood right now for me), but are they a team that can improve on last year's first-round knockout?
Injuries make this game heartbreaking and they keep it interesting, as well. Every time a guy goes down it's an opportunity for someone else to become a star—as we're seeing with Wes Matthews in Brandon Roy's leave of absence. But if the Blazers make a push this year, and that push isn't enough, will everyone with an emotional investment in this team keep asking themselves, "what if Greg Oden had come back?"
FIRST QUARTER 9:13
The Blazers are down 2-6. Everything they've tried to do has been on an individual level. LaMarcus creating space for himself with some pivot moves and taking a jumper; Wes Matthews trying a three; Nic Batum (the Blazers' only scorer so far) driving to the hoop and laying it up. When the team effort starts up, it's ugly-looking tipped passes and halfhearted alley-oop attempts. Ugly stuff.
Both teams shooting below 40 percent, but Nic is starting to look active out there , at least. Blazers are up 7-6 with his 5 points leading the way. No matter how poor the shooting, you've got to love the Chauncey Billups/Andre Miller matchup. These are veteran point guards still playing with the energy of teenagers. They help each other up when one falls, they don't get into pissing matches, but they both play hard every minute that they're on the court.
The real action is in watching these teams' defensive efforts. They're starting to warm up in the middle of the quarter, with kick balls, steals, blocks and interrupted plays coming every 20 seconds or so. It'll be a war of attrition. If it looks sloppy—well, right now it is a little sloppy. But moreover, it's defensively aggressive and that makes every okay pass look like a horrible one and every layup look like it should have been a dunk. 10-7 Blazers
Buck Williams, Terry Porter and Jerome Kersey—all working for the team again these days—take center court to receive copies of a new Blazer book. As always, this city's fans know their Blazer history and remain sentimental. They cheer the bejeezus out of them. Fans are asked via big-screen to text-vote which of the three was the "Most Dependable Player" during his career. Dependability is a quality Portland fans are learning to admire more than ever.
Speaking of dependability, I thought my favorite sign ("Blaze the Nuggets"...which I'm pretty sure was once "Blaze the Nugs") was gone, but it just moved around the corner to section 208. What would we do without stoner humor? I'm not so distracted that I can't see two super-sweet Wes Matthews drives. That guy knows how to finish. He's...dependable when he gets to the hole.
Chris Dudley sighting! We are told he is doing public events to help raise awareness of diabetes, and the camera pans to a club level area, where Duds is gathered with a roomful of his dabetes volunteers. Sounds like a great cause and a so much better use of Duds' time than, you know, being governor.
LaMarcus Aldridge misses his third shot in five tries and the fans let out some long groans. Come on, guys, he's still shooting 40% and it's the first quarter. Give him a little time.
In what feels like the blink of an eye, the Blazers go down by 10 points. Everything is going wrong on the offensive end, and the Blazers seem unable to guard against Nuggets fast breaks. Rudy Fernandez, oddly, is the most vocal and creative offensive player on the court, and the fans see this. Rudy is barking at teammates, throwing great passes and...well, missing free-throws. He misses two to make the Blazers 1-for-6 on the night. There's no better indicator of mental distress in a player than missed free-throws, and everyone is missing them for the Blazers tonight. The Blazers end the quarter with a measley 16 points, shooting 30 percent. The poor percentage is an ongoing problem, but this time around they weren't playing the kind of defense that allows them to miss shots. The quarter ends at 28-16.
SECOND QUARTER 10:18
As has been the truth all season long, when the Blazers run, teh Blazers win. And without Brandon Roy on the court, the Blazers can run like crazy. Wesley Matthews just sank three three-pointers in a row amidst the chaos of a Blazer fastbreak. So what can we learn from this? RUN. RUN. RUN. AND DON'T EVER STOP RUNNING. A 12-point halftime deficit has been reduced to a one-point deficit in two minutes and 18 seconds. That's some Phoenix Suns shit, and I love it. The fans love it, too.
LaMarcus tied up the game, but he also looked a bit out-of-sorts on the break a couple times. Then again, he played all the way through the game's first 15 minutes. I still love the team when they're running like that. The question is, what do you do with a Brandon Roy—whose game started slow and got slower when his knees started aching—on the break? Can he handle it? Can he be productive in a crazy blitz of an offense? Or is his game too subtle for an end-to-end push? This organization has proven itself to be very loyal. We see it with the defensive treatment of a medical staff that's been under siege as of late. So pushing Brandon Roy to play a different style of basketball—let alone contemplating Brandon Roy's trade value—is probably off-limits.
I haven't mentioned tonight just how awesome Marcus Camby is, have I? I think I should just have a recurring sidebar full of "Camby Affirmations." Camby Affirmation, Thursday November 18: Today you are a brilliant shot-blocker with the speed of a very old panther in the wild. You are careful not to foul, and yet you play with aggression unmatched by your peers. Your lucky number is 23.
It's okay to shoot 36 percent if you can grab three offensive rebounds per possession. That's a trade secret.
I feel like Phil Jackson was once the only coach who ever took 20-second timeouts between opponents' free-throws. Now everybody does it. Let's see how it works out for the Blazers. They aren't going two-for-one, apparently. Instead, the play is for Andre Miller to drive to the hoop, mistime a pass that winds up in Nugget hands until Wes Matthews recovers said errant pass, gets his three-pointer blocked right into Miller's hands. Miller than catches the blocked shot and shoots while he's still in the air. It's a perfectly drawn-up play. Miller beats the buzzer and the Blazers are within two points. The Nugs end the half 45-43. And Quickchange is on. They get the same intro they always get: "Here's a couple who never has a problem deciding what to wear to a Blazer game." Sigh. I do love Quickchange, though. The music is so amazingly awful. You get it as your home halftime entertainment, too.
and, because I'm not totally heartless, howabout this:
THIRD QUARTER 12:00
Okay, everybody has a Blaze the Nuggets sign. I guess it's not just my favorite.
The Blazers start with sme measured, chesslike half-court basektball, and the best shot they can manage is a long two-pointer—almost at the three-point line—from usual suspect LaMarcus Aldridge. It's just off, though Marc leaves his arm in the air like a crane, expecting a swish. Sometimes it seems like the Blazers should stick to moves at the rim or three-point attempts.And sometimes Aldridge and Camby can hit anything. The Blazers keep on putting them up tonight: Slow, contested shots that go long and bounce directly into Nugget hands. In no-time, the Nugs are up 10 again. Their jumpers are dropping. Nothing exciting has happened in the first two minutes and 41 seconds. Nothing. 55-45 Nugs.
Andre Miller is once again doin' work to get this team back in the game—using old man crossovers and pump-fakes to get jumpers everywhere on the court. And he's on fire. But Chauncey Billups wants in on his action. He pulls up for a ludicrously long three-pointer and drains. Miller comes back for more. And more. Four or five in a row so far, and the other Blazers seem pretty okay with that. Finally the Blazers get out on the break (after Marcus Camby blocks Carmelo's shot—Carmelo, indignant, refuses to even walk back upcourt, instead letting his crew do the defending, and it's Wes Matthews with the finish. Blazers are within three. Nugs call time, and as the Blazers hop towards the bench, Matthews waves screams and flaps his arms to the crowd.
Another break, another score. This time it's Miller to Nic Batum, who lays it in from the left lane. MORE OF THAT! MORE. OF. THAT!
It feels like the fastbreak has a lingering effect when the team switches back to its halfcourt sets. This time Miller looks spry and active, cutting behind screens and eventually passing to Nic Batum, who's in a precarious spot at the top of the arc—not his usual three-point territory, but it works out for him, and the Blazers go up by two.
Quick-and-sloppy begets breaks for the opponent, too. This time it's Carmelo Anthony in front of the pack. Nic Batum fouls him (close to a clear path) and successfully grabs Melo's arm. Melo, in turn, grabs the back of Nic's head—it doesn't look mean so much as odd. It's like a mom-cat grabbing its kitten. Nic's not sure whether to react violently or positively, so a misguided butt-slap lands near Melo's thigh.
Andre Miller comes out and he's PISSED. I can hear him grunt from here (I think it's a "damn") as he makes his way back to the bench, swapping out for Armon Johnson. Gotta keep that Iron Man streak alive, Dre! One wonders if the tension between him and Nate ever really got figured out. 30 seconds later, Marcus Camby comes back into the game. Feels like he was sitting for about a minute. Bigger Marc has 4 points and 8 rebounds. His impact goes way beyond those numbers.
A couple ill-timed calls and a Gary Forbes bailout/layup brings the Nuggets back up by two. I see why Miller didn't want to come out. He was the backbone behind just about everything the Blazers did to get the lead. Then Armon Johnson comes in and gets a weird offensive foul and the whole thing just goes to hell. 71-69 Nugs.
Look for a tech on Carmelo or Andre Miller next time up, if they should pick eachother up again. Things getting chippy when the Blazers are on defense, and those two were all arms and elbows last time up. Nice steal from Wes Matthews, who is everywhere tonight. Some good decision-making from Rudy Fernandez, too. His stats don't look great, but he's been generous with the ball and he's firing the team up.
Just as I sing Rudy's praises he misses a three. Oh well, he'll make those. And he makes up for it immediately by drawing a charge from Gary Forbes. That's what I'm talking about. Blazers pushing and scrapping—they're up by one.
Carmelo Anthony picks up his fifth foul on a moving screen, and he's barking his way up the court. But in true Anthony style, he catches himself and starts smiling and laughing. I like that about Melo. I know some people think it's sarcastic or a sort of superiority thing. Myself, I think it's drive and a real love of the game mixed with the unique ability to accept his fate. He's like this every night, whether the team is up or down. He's cutthroat but full of joy. Kinda like Jackie Chan.
Rudy is there when you need him. Whether it's hitting threes or tipping rebounds or drawing charges, he's all over it tonight. Blazers up 5, but that means little. Carmelo isn't even on the court, and the Nuggets know how to create offense when they need it. For some reason, though, they're just rattling off three-pointers like the 24 second clock is about to buzz and they're down two. Take it to the rim. Or don't. I kinda like it better this way.
"Letting them play" out there.
Whoever designed the plastic ball-shooting gatling gun that the Blazers use needs to be fired immediately. First off, it looks like something off Mythbusters. Secondly, it jams up every time and fans are left screaming for balls that never come shooting at them. Yes, I just wrote that last sentence. Yes, I know there are kids in the building.
George Karl is the ultimate caricature of a coach. He's sitting there with his face in his hands one minute, up and convulsing while pointing at the basket another. I'm pretty sure he's saying "You've gotta have heart!" during every timeout. That guy is a classic. I hope he coaches forever. Glad he's healthy and back to his old cliches.
Wes Matthews, man, how big is that guy. How fucked would the Blazers be without him? No knock, Martell Webster, but talk about dependability...
Carmelo's back on the line for two, and the Blazers have a six-point lead. They can't seem to get anything going all of a sudden, but neither can the Nugs, who've had shot after shot bounce out of the basket—shots that seem off by millimeters.
Carmelo Anthony picks up a charging foul thanks to an elbow shove and some great acting by Nic Batum. It's a totally legit call, and it's Anthony's sixth. Not a heady play, by any measure. Karl sinks in his sports coat, like "I wanna go home." Melo looks befuddled for a second and then—you guessed it—he chuckles while walking off the court. He's still smiling on the sidelines long after Karl calls a timeout. It'll be Blazer ball, with a seven-point lead and three minutes left in the game. Not a bad place to be, especially without Melo.
They replaced George Forman's "Let's Grill Em!" inspirational speech with one from "Mercy Mercy Jerome Kersey!" Honestly I'm kind of surprised he calls himself that. Still, this is a good sign for my local arena rock hit suggestions.
Chauncey with the three. Four point game. Not over. Etc.
LaMarcus Aldridge wound up over 50% for the game—as of now—but he's missed a couple of key free-throws and, as a team, the Blazers are only hitting 50 percent of those. This would't be a nail-biter if that average came up a bit.
If you see Wes Matthews in the supermarket, give him a hug. That man is the best gift Utah ever gave anyone.
Marcus Camby finally gets the foul he's been asking for all quarter and he connects on two free-throws. Blazers up six with 33.9 seconds on the clock. Some vicious three-point shooters (and one hell of a clutch player in Billups) on the Nugs roster, so don't count them out, but the Blazers ought to feel real good. Beating the Nuggets is never easy, and they're a step away from it now.
When you're down six and the other team takes it to the hole, you don't foul unless you can send them to the line. That's pretty Basketball 101, but the Zers just can't resist trying to block Nene's shot, and he gets a three-point play the "old fashioned way." The Nuggets will have to foul. Why am I telling you this? I'm sure Marv Albert is telling you this. I should be telling you that I look like a junkie because I've got cuts all over my hands. Kittens, you see.
Anyway, back to this game.
Armon Johnson has his own sign! It says "Armon 'HAMMERTIME' Johnson"!
I can't begin to explain what just happened on the court, but it was much more stressful than it should have been, and Chauncey Billups is screaming at officials, which will almost certainly get him a big fine or even a one-game suspension. He really didn't have much room to talk. If the Blazers fouled on this end, the Nuggets certainly fouled on the other end first. At the end of the day, the refs let it all go and the Blazers pulled it out. Wicked last 20 seconds, though. Nuts. SportsCenter fare, I would hope.
Blazers win, 86-83. Goodnight and thanks for reading.