Rally Comes Too Late
This group is tough to figure out at times. Their determination and belief has been downright inspiring at times this season. They never believe they are out of a game, and have shown the ability, on many occasions, to wiggle out of some very tight spots.
Early this season, when they were compiling such an impressive record in close games, many wondered if perhaps the law of averages would eventually catch up to them- if they'd start to get burned by playing with fire so often.
From the beginning this has been a team that's much more comfortable playing from behind. Or, as we've seen lately, playing from way behind. They aren't simply testing themselves, nor are they doing this repeatedly for our entertainment- showing just how far they can get behind before rallying to make it a nail-biter in the end. I just think it's a young team, front-loaded in the starting lineup, that's trying to figure out exactly what it is.
The Blazers have developed a bad habit of being a reactive team, rather than a proactive team. They're the fighter in the ring that likes to get hit a bunch of times before deciding how to counter punch. They're so likable because they always do counter punch, and never quit.
It's also frustrating to watch for fans. This team has shown that it does indeed have the chops to play with the best teams in the NBA, and for certain stretches can play beautiful and dominant basketball. It's that they don't know how to turn it on, or turn it off, that has us scratching our heads.
The first quarter on Tuesday night in Milwaukee wasn't one of their better stretches of the season, but they only trailed 27-23 after the first 12 minutes. It felt like they should have perhaps been down by more, and that they'd survived one of those low points. Then, came one of their really low points.
It took the Blazers nearly half of the second quarter to score a single point. The Bucks scored the first 16 points of the second, as Portland struggled, shooting just 2 for 20 from the field. By the time halftime arrived, the Blazers were down 58-31, being outscored in that quarter 31-8.
Then, as the second half started, we saw that old familiar storm start to brew again. That sense of urgency, that we'd hoped to see to start the game, was starting to fuel the Blazers and they started to believe again.
The Blazers ripped off a 23-7 run to start the third quarter, and even though Milwaukee kept answering with big shots of their own, the Blazers kept on pressing. They outscored the Bucks 26-19 in the third, and then outscored them 38-25 in the fourth. But, just in case you haven't done the math, the big second-half advantage wasn't quite enough.
The closest the Blazers came to catching the Bucks was 100-93 with 1:33 to go. The hole was just too deep on this night. Perhaps if they hadn't have put together their worst second quarter of the season, the second half flurry would have been enough. Or, Tuesday's game hadn't been the second of a back to back. Or, if we hadn't gotten into our rooms in Milwaukee until 2 am because of a flight delay getting out of Philly. Excuses. Yep, we toss them around on the broadcasts, don't we? It this team wasn't so likable it would be easier to just admit that they continue to try and bring a knife to so many of these gunfights.
Wesley Matthews, playing in front of friends and family in Milwaukee, did everything he could to keep the Blazers in this ballgame. He ended with 28 points, and hit 7 three-point shots. LaMarcus Aldridge, who's playing his best basketball of the season right now, had another double-double, scoring 21 points and grabbing 15 rebounds. The Blazers even got a nice night from Luke Babbitt off the bench, who had 9 points in 13 minutes.
But, the Bucks, who had seen Damian Lillard score 27 on the Sixers on Monday, did their best to cut the head off the snake, as so many teams have tried to do. Lillard, who still had 11 assists to go with his 8 points, was only 2 for 10 from the field, and was harassed into committing 6 turnovers. The kid can't do it every single night.
So, if you're now expecting the Blazers to downshift, roll over, and start going through the motions like so many non-playoff teams do at this time of the year, you're probably going to be disappointed. They aren't ready to concede anything, and I love that about them. Forget the draft, and playing for lottery positioning. Play to win, each night. The lessons they'll learn fighting to the mathematical finish of the season are much more valuable than raising a white flag earlier than necessary in order to begin a fruitless pursuit of ping-pong balls.
The three games left on this road trip will be difficult. Get used to hearing that, by the way, because that's how it's going to be for the next month. It's Chicago, Atlanta, and Oklahoma City, and then we come home.