There was clutching, grabbing, holding. There were harsh words exchanged, there were four technical fouls called, as emotions spilled over from the court to the stands. In other words, this was a playoff-style game.
This much we know. If these two teams square off in the first round it'll be an absolute war. It'll be tough against anyone, but there is bad blood here, and it got nothing but worse on Friday night.
It was pretty easy to see what Dallas' game plan was early in this contest. They doubled Brandon Roy every time he touched the ball, they sagged back in the middle inviting outside jumpers, and they bumped, and held cutters anytime sometime tried to dance to the middle. Nothing came easy, for either team.
In the end, simply, Dirk Nowitzki rescued his team, put them on his shoulders, and helped the Mavericks to the 83-77 victory. Nowitzki poured in 40 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, and hit more free throws than the entire Portland team combined.
The Blazers were led by LaMarcus Aldridge, who scrapped his way to 27 points. Aldridge, who has been called "soft" in the past, showed no signs of resembling anything like that on this night. He's quietly been a rock for this team lately, and shot 9 for 20, with everything contested. Much of the night he was banging down low with Erick Dampier, or Brendan Haywood. Aldridge initiated contact, delivered some blows, and had a very strong game.
Even though the Mavericks did play Aldridge tough, they were clearly okay with him being Portland's first option. They just didn't want Roy or Andre Miller to get started. Miller, who burned the Mavs for 52 points in January, was held to 6 points of 2 of 12 shooting. Roy was just 4 of 14, and ended with 13 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists
Nothing about the way this game was played was terribly surprising. We expected a playoff atmosphere, and we thought emotions would be running high for both teams. I rarely discuss officiating on this blog, as you know, but I know it's going to come up. So, here are a couple of thoughts.
Nate McMillan constantly tells his players to be aware of the same things- time, score, situation. Referees have to get two of these things right- time and situation. It's knowing the situation that got them tonight. They weren't ready for how this game was going to be played, and should have been. They appeared to be totally caught off guard for how physical the game was going to be, and how much they would need to control things early (that's not to say that this is easy).
It is, however, up to them to establish control and set guidelines. When Dallas allowed to clutch and bump early, even above the foul line, you could sense what was coming. They lost control. When they allowed extra blows to be delivered, without penalty, inside, it was inevitable- there was going to be a confrontation.
That's exactly what we got when Juwan Howard to exception to a late elbow from Eduardo Najera in the second quarter. Najera, after a basket, delivered the blow to Howard, and then initiated a confrontation after the ball was inbounded. Najera went down, and Howard was assessed a technical. I'm fine with that, but both players should have probably been called for a technical, not just Howard. And, none of this would have happened if the game would have been controlled in the opening minutes. They could have brought the coaches together, or the team captains, and explained that they were not going to allow this to continue.
Clearly, the officials have a brutally-tough job. It's a very difficult game to call, especially on a night like this. Honestly, I don't know why anyone would want to be an NBA referee. No, I couldn't do a better job than these three guys. But, that's the job, and this crew wasn't ready. That has to be pointed out because it was such a huge part of this game. Everything that happened after the first few minutes was because of this. I'm not even going to point to specifics, after the confrontation, because the tone had been set.
Now then, if you're the Blazers you have to do a better job at reacting to all of this stuff. Dallas' rough style got to them early. They spent too much time looking for calls, rather than executing the offense. In other words, the Mavericks got under their skin, and stayed there. That's on the Blazers, and McMillan said as much after the game. Dallas won the emotional battle. Even though the officials didn't seem to be ready, the Blazers have to have a better reaction.
To listen to McMillan's post-game comments, click here
All of this should serve as a good lesson for the Blazers. This is what is going to happen in the playoffs. This is how defenses are going to be set, and Brandon is going to be played this way. Cutters are going to be held, and teams are going to pack players in the middle, close off lanes, and dare you to beat them with long jumpers. If the Blazers don't figure out a way around this, it's going to be a short post-season.
The value in a game like this will be the fact that it came in game 79, and not in the 83rd game of the season. There's the lesson. What are you going to do about it? That will decide what happens, no matter who Portland gets in the playoffs.
San Antonio losing to Memphis gave the Blazers some help on this night. That's why you can stomach a loss like this, at least a little bit. And, that leads us up to the final three games. The Blazers take on the Lakers on Sunday, Oklahoma City on Monday, and Golden State on Wednesday. Sixth place is still right there, and will likely be decided on Monday.
Who are the Blazers going to get in the first round? We still don't have a clue, and likely won't, until Wednesday. What is clear is how the games are going to be played, no matter who the opponent happens to be.