We’ve seen two Portland Trail Blazers teams this season. The one that plays – and plays well in spite of noticeable flaws – inside the Rose Garden, and the other one that visits other NBA arenas and performs every bit as a rebuilding team.
So, in L.A., you witnessed that other team.
The road Blazers can’t seem to compensate for the flaws: deficiencies in transition and interior defense topping the list. On Friday night when the Blazers lost 104-87 to the Lakers, no one could stay in front of Steve Nash as he dribbled around to drop dimes or play pop-a-shot in the lane. And it became evident that Dwight Howard post-back surgery is still greater than the 6-foot-9 double-double machine, J.J. Hickson.
Don’t even call it a “big man” matchup. Hickson went 0 for 7 (he also got a shot blocked by seven-footer Pau Gasol) but had a team-high eight rebounds. Here lies the nine straight double-double streak. R.I.P.
Howard took all of his 13 shot attempts within mere feet from the rim for 21 points and 14 rebounds. On the first play of the third quarter, Howard caught a lob pass over the outstretched Hickson, came down, re-gathered and still scored over him. There was a play later in that quarter when Hickson finally got an upper hand – blocking Howard’s shot – but most of the night it was like watching an older brother school his little brother one-on-one on a Nerf backboard hanging from a bedroom door. And no, neither Jared Jeffries nor Meyers Leonard offered much for rim protection during their shifts. Besides Jeffries ringing up a charge against Howard, the Blazers who weren’t falling on their backs played too flatfooted to provide resistance.
And it wasn’t just Howard getting inside looks. An alley oop dunk by the point guard Darius Morris, a slew of Kobe Bryant drives, reserve forward Jordan Hill outhustling every Blazer on the court for offensive rebounds … a few of the reasons why the Lakers dominated inside for 58 points in the paint and 26 second-chance points.
It was bound to happen, but tonight life without Wesley Matthews truly hurt the Blazers. The shooting-guard shuffle once again started with Victor Claver, who didn’t attempt a shot until fourth-quarter garbage time. That’s zero points through most of the game from a starter. Of course, Claver didn’t play starter’s minutes as coach Terry Stotts trotted out Sasha Pavlovic, Will Barton and again pulled Damian Lillard (who slumped for 11 points) to the two spot while he and Ronnie Price tried to work together.
Though Barton made five of 10 shots for 11 points and grabbed six rebounds, no backcourt combination worked. But back to the true tale of this game, the defense, and the Blazer guards were as much as the problem as the low-post guys. Pavlovic replaced Claver in the first quarter and made solid plays with a steal, an open 3 and a driving layup. Then he lost his defensive scruples at the end of the first quarter by committing two fouls on Bryant in a span of four seconds. Later in the third quarter, Bryant also drew a three-shot foul on Barton. When they weren’t fouling, they were ball watching and Bryant outscored every Blazer shooting guard (27 points to the Claver-Pavlovic-Barton combined total of 19).
The Blazers are now 14-14 overall but just 4-10 on the road. This game held in front of the A to D-listers at Staples Center was certainly going to be different than the one played on opening night at the Rose Garden. For one obvious reason, nearly two months have passed and the Lakers are better. This time, Steve Nash played like Steve Nash and didn’t break his leg after halftime. The Lakers are now 4-1 with Nash back in the lineup and have won six of their last seven. Plain and simple, the Blazers ran into an improving team on its home court – and we know that road team just hasn’t shown the consistency to win games away from the Rose Garden.