Another Near Miss on the Road
The Trail Blazers were emotionally charged, focused, and determined to get a big, divisional road win in Salt Lake City on Monday night. It kind of feels like they thought that would be enough, and the rest would happen automatically. As they have found out several times this season, when you're away from the comforts of your own building, and the energy provided by your own fans, pretty good just isn't enough. Anything less than 48 sharp minutes will only lead to disappointment.
The Utah Jazz were also very fired up for this game, and afterwards called the win "epic," and was a game they had circled on the calendar. They had looked at this as a huge measuring stick for them, and the fact that they came into the game shorthanded, without Raja Bell and Al Jefferson, only seemed to add to their resolve.
I always hear people say, after games like this, things like "the Blazers should
have won this game." It was certainly sitting there for them, I'll give you that. But, when you miss nine-straight field goal attempts in the fourth quarter of any game, it's tough for me to say they should have won it. And then there's always the debate about whether Portland lost this game, or Utah won it.
As frustrating as that stretch was to sit through, the Jazz deserve some of the credit in this game. That doesn't mean that Portland didn't control its own destiny, leading by 11 in the second half, but the Jazz made some very big plays in this game and therefore, it could be argued, deserved to win.
All that really matters is that the Trail Blazers are sitting here on the day after another big road loss searching for answers. The worry, of course, is that the more this happens the more it becomes a mental block for this team. The next time they're in this situation will they be looking for ways to win, or will they be thinking about the past and worrying about how they will lose? That may not sound like a huge issue, but it's a gigantic fork in the road. Success breeds success, and when you fail at big moments, it's just as contagious. A lot of NBA games are close. It's what happens in crunch time that separates the good from the very good.
In the recent past, the Blazers have been very good in close games. We've celebrated the numbers to back that up in the last few seasons, and they had built that repuation around the league- you get the Blazers in a close game, and nine times out of 10 they'll beat you. The stats always backed that up. But, we're seeing now that this is a very fine line.
This season, the Trail Blazers are now 1-6 in games decided by six points or fewer. Again, this is so opposite of what we've seen out of this team up to this point. A very real factor, and one that can't be overstated, is that this team doesn't have a closer right now. We all know Brandon Roy was that guy. He was the major reason the Blazers were always so good in tight situations. How many games did he win in the final seconds for this team? The list is sitting around here somehwere. It's long. He's not here. So, they've got to figure this out.
The good news is that this team is 12-9 and isn't happy. They've lost five very close games, and most of their road losses were there for the taking. The challenge is, and this isn't a little one, is that while this is a fixable problem, it's not going to be easy. Number 7 is not there to rescue this team with a heroic play. There's no Mariano Rivera warming up in the pen. Someone else has to step up and assume this role.
There are some candidates out there. LaMarcus Aldridge was dominant during stretches of the second half in Utah. But, the Jazz absolutely swarmed him late in the game. It's also tough for your power forward to be your closer. It's usually someone with the ball in his hands a lot on the perimeter. Look around the league at the great closers and you'll see what I mean. They are rarely post players.
Jamal Crawford? Yes, it's there for him. Gerald Wallace? In certain situations he could help with this. Raymond Felton? He's not shooting it well enough right now, but potentially could be a big-moment guy. Nicolas Batum? Very much yes. He's the guy, in my opinion, who could assume this role. But, that's going to have to be another day. This opportunity is gone. But, another one is right around the corner. That's the great thing about the NBA. You get lots of chances.
Of course, Batum's knee is now a question mark. At the time of this posting I don't have additional info on his MRI. I watched the replay 15 times on the plane on the way home and just couldn't tell what we're looking at here. He was optimistic, but we'll know more soon.