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April 1, 2009

Five Thoughts: Portland-Utah

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 4:53 am

1. The Wave
I am a confirmed hater of The Wave. To me, there’s no better sign that a crowd of fans at a sporting event is bored because the action on the floor or field is so dull. That said, I must give credit to the fans at the Rose Garden for turning The Wave into a symbolic act marking the latest blowout victory by their Portland Trail Blazers. The Wave first appeared early in the fourth quarter of Tuesday’s 125-104 dispatching of the visiting Utah Jazz, marking my second straight Blazers game with The Wave dating back to its debut March 1 against San Antonio. I also caught The Wave on TV last Thursday when Portland smacked Phoenix.

That the Rose Garden has been filled with The Wave so frequently lately is a sign of the Blazers’ dominance at home. While they stumbled last Monday against Philadelphia, Portland has pasted a number of Western Conference contenders in the last month, a list that also includes a victory over the L.A. Lakers on March 9 that was, so far as I can tell, Wave-free. The Blazers are now 31-7 at home, outscoring opponents by a robust 9.4 points per game. The odds are against their earning home-court advantage, but if they do Portland will become a very difficult first-round out because the team plays so well at the Rose Garden.

2. Taking Advantage of the Jazz
Over the course of his coaching career, Nate McMillan has made no secret of his admiration for Utah’s Jerry Sloan. McMillan’s Sonics were rivals with the Jazz during his playing days, facing them three times in a span of four postseasons during the 1990s. McMillan has talked about Sloan so much that when I asked him to talk about the Utah coach before the Jazz’s last visit to Rose Garden, he said he’d resolved not to speak on the subject any more.

As a result of McMillan’s respect for Sloan, he always has his teams ready to play Utah–sometimes to the point where it becomes a detriment. This time, McMillan and his coaching staff delivered a masterstroke of a gameplan that took advantage of the Jazz’s style of play. Most notably, the Blazers caught Utah overplaying screens defensively. At least four times, Portland wings Nicolas Batum and Brandon Roy prepared to come off of downscreens to apparently catch the ball on the perimeter. Instead, when their Jazz defender started to lean that direction, they reversed course and went to the cup, leading to a pair of Roy layups and two Batum alley-oop finishes.

3. Emerging Batum
Let’s talk a little more about Batum, the Blazers’ 20-year-old rookie by way of France. When Batum claimed the starting small forward role in game two, the assumption in these quarters and elsewhere was that the role would either be ceremonial (with Batum playing merely the start of the first and third quarters) or short-lived. Not only has Batum held on to the job, he’s emerged as a key stabilizer for Portland as the team’s best perimeter defender and a developing perimeter shooter.

On this night, Batum was outstanding, hitting threes and running the floor on offense while being very active defensively. He finished with 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting. Batum was a big reason why the Blazers’ starting lineup was so effective. With Steve Blake-Roy-Batum-LaMarcus AldridgeJoel Przybilla on the floor, Portland outscored Utah by 25 points in about 24 minutes of action. That fivesome has developed into a truly strong unit that complements each other nicely and is outscoring opponents by 14.5 points per 48 minutes. Based on that, McMillan could stand to use the group together more often to close out games.

4. Defending the Stars
Tonight’s biggest test for Portland was defending Jazz point guard Deron Williams. Point guards with dribble penetration have given the Blazers fits all season, which wouldn’t be a problem except for the fact that four of Portland’s five most likely first-round opponents feature All-Star-caliber point guards (Denver’s Chauncey Billups, New Orleans’ Chris Paul, San Antonio’s Tony Parker and Williams, with Houston as the lone exception). The Blazers did a tidy job of defending Williams on this evening. He finished with a quiet 16 points on 4-of-13 shooting and had just one stretch where he was a major factor in the game, that coming when Utah cut into Portland’s lead in the second quarter. Roy spent a fair amount of time on Williams and did a good job of staying in front of him.

On the other end, Roy is equally problematic for the Jazz. He finished with 25 points, 13 of them in the first quarter, and scored in the flow of the offense. Roy never forced the action and instead looked for his teammates, handing out 11 assists. Utah tried a variety of defenders on Roy, most notably Ronnie Brewer or Andrei Kirilenko, but never really found an answer. If I’m not mistaken, for one possession the Jazz even ran a box-and-one defense, which Roy calmly exploited by setting up a teammate for his 10th assist of the night. Add in Aldridge’s 26 points, Batum’s play and contributions from the rest of the lineups and Portland scored 125 points in about 88 possessions playing without sixth man Rudy Fernandez (sidelined by back spasms). That’s, um, really good.

5. Frustration Mounts
With the Jazz frustrated by the inability to stop the Blazers all night long, tempers flared in the third quarter. After Przybilla drew a charge on Carlos Boozer, the two big men exchanged pleasantries at halfcourt, drawing a crowd and double technical fouls. Even after referees stepped in, the two would not stop chirping at each other, and both were ejected.

Later in the third, Roy wrapped up Kyle Korver and fouled him hard in transition. Sloan was incensed Roy was not called for a flagrant foul and apparently said the magic word, drawing a quick ejection. With his team down big, Sloan might have wanted an early exit.

One minor thing worth noting from the Roy foul: Sensing the tension of the situation, Jazz assistant coach Scott Layden immediately jumped up to ensure none of his players left the bench to draw an automatic suspension. I’m not sure if that’s a role Layden has been assigned or simply his heads-up thinking, but had a Phoenix Suns assistant done the same thing in the 2007 Playoffs, the whole course of NBA history might be entirely different.

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