Highlights, lowlights, and things to keep in mind as we near the midway point…
LaMarcus Aldridge has made his first All-Star team, and deservedly so. As of the writing of this column, he’s fifth in the league in scoring and in the top 25 in rebounding, shooting 51% from the floor and 80% from the line. He’s had big moments in big games: LA scored 33 in Saturday night’s double-OT loss to the Mavericks and hit some clutch shots, including a double-clutch over Shawn Marion, to keep the team alive in game in which the team shot under 40%; or take the OT loss to Oklahoma City last week, where LaMarcus scored 39 and had would should have been a game-clinching blocked shot, had the referees not botched the call (as the league later admitted they did). LaMarcus is becoming the marquee player the franchise needs with the early retirement of Brandon Roy. And yet…
The team is 15-13. They’re 4-10 on the road, including losses in very winnable games against Detroit, Sacramento, and Houston. Now, two cushions help to soften this blow: 1) The Western Conference is very tight—3 ½ games separate the second and eighth seeds; and 2) everyone in the West is struggling on the road—a compressed schedule exacerbates the large distances Western Conference teams travel. (The Western Conference geographically spans from Portland to Memphis, a distance of over 2,000 miles; the Eastern Conference spans from Boston to Milwaukee, a distance of less than 1,000 miles.)
A major cause for concern, though: their last five losses are by an average of 4.2 points. They’ve shown a remarkable ability to stay in games, even when rebounding or shooting poorly, but they’ve been unable to close it out at the end. Winning close games comes down to execution, clock management, solid playcalling… these are in the purview of the coach. Nate McMillan needs to find a way to get through to his players in these moments, or the organization might need to start looking elsewhere for a coach.
Not that all of the players are performing at peak levels. The staples of the backcourt—Crawford, Felton, and Matthews—are all shooting below their career averages. Nicolas Batum, while showing flashes of brilliance (from the 9 three-pointer game to his block party against Dallas on Saturday), has not been consistent: you’re never sure on a given night if it will be “fade into the corner and shoot threes” Batum or “slash, drive, rebound, block, and hit key 3’s” Batum that shows up. Speaking of inconsistency, Gerald Wallace has played like an All-Star at home and a D-Leaguer on the road—he’s had two games in which he didn’t score, and one in which he scored only one point, all three of those games being away from the Rose Garden.
But let’s not sound too pessimistic. Wallace, Batum, and Crawford have indeed been excellent at times. Fans have gotten more than they expected from Elliot Williams and Craig Smith. Kurt Thomas has been automatic with that jumper from the elbow, and peppers every game with crafty veteran plays. And Marcus Camby at times has rebounded so well he seemed to be under the impression this was the last strike-shortened season when he was a dozen years younger.
This team has played some very good basketball so far this season. They’re a few rimmed-out shots or bad calls from being at the top of the Western Conference standings. If they figure out how to close out those close games and beat the teams they’re supposed to beat on the road, we very well may see that. And come playoff time, it often happens that the team that gets hot and stays healthy goes far. Let’s hope the Blazers heat up at the right time.