"So I guess this is growing up."
- Mark Hoppus, '90s motivational speaker, amateur guitarist.
The Blazers got themselves a win in Sacramento, bringing their record to 3-5. Lotta people were saying that was a must win. Lotta people saying if they'd dropped that game, to that team, in that fucking armpit of a city, that discussion would have turned to things like tanking, or blowing stuff up, or pulling a plug.
At least, until they won two or three games, and then talk would have turned to making a trade, or grabbing a free-agent, or finding a player to put on a pedestal and through sheer force of will and want, wishing them into a state of advanced evolution that Professor X would marvel at.
Because this is how we do in Portland, and this is how we've almost always done, even when contending for championships; What's happening now is never as interesting as what COULD happen later. We have transmogrified from a city of basketball fans to a city of basketball theoreticians. The playing of the games is almost secondary, what happens on the court is just fuel for the speculation machine.
Tonight's game is against the Houston Rockets, led by James Harden, a man whose season seems to exist solely so "unleashed" can have a proper usage in sportswriting. And for tonight's game, I wish to suggest a different approach:
Just watch the team play.
Not as a predictor of what could come. Not as some sort of moving tarot card that we peer at to predict the future. The court is not a pile of tea leaves at the bottom of a cup from which Miss Trelawney will divine secrets of NBA titles to come. Let's just try to see how this team learns on a play-by-play basis, and how the players adjust (or don't) and correct (or not) in the flow of the game. LaMarcus Aldridge isn't feeling all that great: how does he make up for that? Damian Lillard has more weight put on his shoulders each week: does he feel that weight as he climbs his way towards another double/double? Look at the bench, and look at the coach: Is he learning to trust them? Are they learning how to earn that trust?
Maybe try watching a game with those eyes, instead of through those quarter-a-shot-telescopes we seem to look through as we gaze at the horizon of this Blazers season. Those views are never all that good, you miss out on a lot due to constantly worrying that the shutters will close on you before you got your full quarter's worth. That's what being a Blazers fan feels like this year: A group of people all to eager to weigh every game down with the promise of the playoffs, or the portent of total chaos.
There's a lot more happening on the court than that.
DJ OG-1 is trying out some new stuff in his pre-game routine. The blend from Doug E. Fresh & Slick Rick's "The Show" over to Kurtis Blow's "The Breaks" is solid, but his decision to play the acapella of "I Wish" by Stevie Wonder over DJ Quik's "Tonite" is... that's a bad call, Ripley. It's a bad call. Speaking of bad calls? Nolan Smith. He gets to choose the warmup music. There were more than a few games I covered last year where he picked the pre-game music, and every time, it was dogshit. They probably lost those games, too. I could go back and check, I guess, but why would I want accuracy to get in the way? This is the internet.
Nolan Smith has picked "It's Goin Down" by Yung Joc. LaMarcus Aldridge singing along to it and nodding. I'm mystified at how this syrupy, tupperware hip-hop has risen to the prominence it currently enjoys. But I am old. I am typing this in a sweater vest. What the fuck do shaved Hobbits know about what's good these days, anyway.
This is the crowd about 2 minutes before tipoff.
You know what my favorite thing is about this season so far? When JJ Hickson is introduced, he finishes his run through the gauntlet by making a funny face and throwing a shoryuken. That's probably not really what he's doing, but I'd like to imagine that he likes to imagine he can summon the power of fire with his fist with an uppercut that he really, really means.
11:28 - Wesley Matthews got called for a delay of game before the game even started, and then drained a two. Trying to one up him on the scale of ridiculousness, JJ Hickson patiently waits 30 seconds before draping his nuts on Omer Asik's back trying to get a rebound. Asik hits one of two. Blazers miss on the other end, and James Harden streaks upcourt, all hair and determination, finding Jeremy Lin flying to the basket. He takes an elbow to the back for his troubles, and hits em both. 3-2, Rockets
10:22 - After hitting a spot-up jumper, Aldridge takes the opportunity on his next offensive possession to plant a forearm in Patrick Patterson's chest. Angrily. The shot doesn't fall, and the whistle isn't blown. While the posturing continues for a second, Jeremy Lin scores on a layup, and Harden gets his first dunk of the night on the following miss/possession. Damian Lillard puts himself on the board with a nice drive to the center, and the Blazers capitalize on a Rockets miss by letting Aldridge once again go at Patterson in the paint. Patterson is having problems stopping this dude - Aldridge made that look super-simple. Omer Asik answers on the other end, and after a bad Blazers possession, the Rockets streak back the other way, looking like yet another layup for Lin, but Batum comes sproinging up out of nowhere like he just hit one of those Mario springs that you used to think would send you over the flagpole. The swat is cleeean. 9-8, Rockets.
6:49 - Lillard seems to be poking at Lin, testing him, kicking his tires. He's blowing past him pretty easily, but jumping back, trying to find cutters. An errant possession leads to Batum tapping it back to himself on the baseline, and chucking up a three which drops. I think he's feeling himself tonight. Quick to put a damper on the rise in energy the Rose Garden is feeling, Harden beelines for the hoop. Aldridge tries to get in front of him, but he gets there too late, and the collision, although dramatic, does not go Portland's way. Harden gets his two. 15-14, Rockets
5:51 - Patterson seems to be answering Aldridge's shoving him around down low by hanging out around the three point line, waiting for Aldridge to forget about him, taking a step or two in, and lofting up pretty jumpers. He's not missing too many of those. Terry Stotts calls a timeout, and I gotta imagine that watching Patrick Patterson rain jumpers might have something to do with it. 17-14, Rockets
5:25 - Victor Claver checked in for the Blazers, and spent most of the time waiting for the inbounds pretending to shoot jumpers and hopping in place. I like that guy. He seems charmingly doofy. Him and Hickson. By the way - Hickson is stomping around the paint pretty effectively today. I like that he seems to finally be realizing that his body can be used for rebounds and defense. Nobody seems to have ever expected that from him until he got here. He catches a pass from Batum as Batum glides through the key, hits the 10 footer smooth as silk. Unfortunately, Omer Asik flushes a dunk right on his head on the next possession, which sucks because nobody deserves to be dunked on by Omer Asik. Batum retaliates by draining a three. Hickson thanks him by fucking up Batum's rebound of a Lin miss. Luckily Batum is resourceful enough to get it back. Unfortunately Batum throws an errant pass and gets dunked on by CHANDLER PARSONS on the ensuing play. Man. I don't know what's worse, getting dunked on by Omer Asik or by CHANDLER PARSONS. It's like being embarrassed by toast or brie. 21-18, Rockets
2:08 - James Harden just told the entirety of Portland to get the fuck out of his hairy fucking way on that drive. The left arm he sent flying out to chop anyone in a 10 foot radius was vicious. The pressure wave knocked Batum 2 rows deep. He tries it again the next trip down the court. Jared Jeffries just gets in his way. Meyers Leonard touches the ball. His eyes widen. He lofts it in the direction of the hoop, and it drops. His eyebrows go up. He always seems so grateful that he's been passed to, much less that he gets to score. 25-22, Rockets.
55.9 - Apparently the bench has earned a minimal amount of Stotts' trust, because he's put most of them in for this last minute. They muff an offensive play and eat an alley-oop from Harden to CHANDLER PARSONS. It's like every time he dunks, the net turns to doily, and the air smells faintly of cardamom. Meyers Leonard answers with a missed dunk, and that's the end of your quarter. 27-22, Rockets.
11:49 - Lillards got 2pts, 1 turnover, no assists. This is not an auspicious start. Rockets are getting to the line pretty frequently. Ronnie Price just got bailed out of a bad pass by Toney Douglass' foot. Douglas jumps in front of another pass on the inbounds, goes hard to the hoop, gets the shit hacked out of him by Price. He hits the bucket, gets the and-one. Aldridge looks at Wesley Matthews like "we gotta do something, here." The next play involves Matthews putting a pass at about 12 feet high, and 1ft left of the hoop. Aldridge catches it, and bams it home. There's a Rocket score, and then Ronnie Price decides that momentum is overrated, and jacks up a 20 footer, which clangs like a sword on chainmail. It is ugly, and demoralizing. 34-24, Rockets
9:34 - Harden just checked out, but this isn't slowing the Rockets down at all. Fucking CHANDLER PARSONS is backing down Meyers Leonard, and finds Marcus Morris sprinting unchecked at the basket. He flips the ball softly into the air. Morris plucks it from the sky in one step, plants with the second, and flies eight feet for the dunk. The building just inhaled sharply. 36-26, Rockets.
8:39 - There's a timeout on the floor. Hopefully Stotts subs Lillard back in, because Ronnie Price is looking all sorts of raggedy out there. This last possession featured him catching the ball and then jittering in 3 different directions like that prehistoric squirrel from the Ice Age movies after finding a chestnut. The play, of course, went nowhere. This is not a good night for Ronnie. After the timeout, Ronnie seems to have composed himself. Crosses Lin up effortlessly. Lightly hops into the air to throw up a floater, and gets his shit sent packing to the third row, courtesy Omer Asik. Aldridge cleans up the boards on the miss post-inbounds, gets hit by Asik, and gets the and-one. Someone's gonna have to take advantage of the fact Harden's having a quiet night. Aldridge? Batum? Matthews? SOMEBODY needs to. Patrick Patterson hits another 18 footer, and then Marcus Morris piles on with a three on the next possession. Aldridge makes his bid for "gimme the ball and lets run at these guys" status. He crosses the key, gets hit, tosses the ball at the basket. It clangs off. He hits the free throws - just in time for Harden to come back in. 41-33, Rockets.
6:33 - This defense is soft. How do I know? Because that loaf of Wonder bread named CHANDLER PARSONS keeps cutting through the key unmolested. He kicks it to Harden, who stab steps at Batum. Batum bites hard. Harden nonchalantly tosses up the three from the top of the key. Stotts is calling for the time-out before the ball has finished ripping through the net. 44-33, Rockets.
5:37 - Harden just challenged Matthews to stick to him. Then he hit him with his chest going to the rim and sent him back 2 feet. That distance was enough to ensure he collected his own board off the miss, and put it back gently. Matthews has the decency to answer at the end with a tough drive to the hoop, absorbing a hack and getting the chance for an and-one. He misses the FT, though. Harden skips the ball crosscourt to Patrick Patterson, who Aldridge has once again forgotten is even here. He puts the three through the bottom of the net. 51-35, Rockets.
4:18 - The Portland crowd just got educated on the difference between being a rookie, and being an All-Star. Damian Lillard drives hard to the basket, jumps from one side of the key, appears on the other having done some magical shit with his hands while hovering. Omer Asik gives him a facial with his armpit. Lillard falls. No whistle. Harden drives hard to the hoop on the other end. Batum bounces off of him. The whistles blow before Batum hits the floor. Harden gets his trip to the stripe. Lillard answers with a layup, Hickson breaks up a surefire Rockets deuce, and Hickson finds himself wide open on the opposite side - but not open enough that Harden can't get there and wrap him up as he's rising for the dunk. It pays off for the Rockets, as Hickson only gets one of two. 53-40, Rockets
2:55 - Okay, Portland. You're letting CHANDLER FUCKING PARSONS feel himself entirely too much. All 40 minerals and vitamins he's been baked with are making themselves felt. A three, followed by a pretty little runner from 10 feet out, and both times, there's nobody within 2 feet of him when he floats the ball at the hoop. There's a 20 second time out. I'm hoping that Stotts is saying something like "YOU'RE LETTING DOWNTON FUCKING ABBEY RUN YOUR ASSES OVER, FOR THE LOVE OF CHRIST, THIS IS AMERICA. DIG A TRENCH OR SOMETHING." 58-43, Rockets.
1:17 - After an offensive set that consisted of everyone on the team sprinting through the key in wide arcs, doing nothing but looking pretty doing that nothing, Batum ends up cutting so far backdoor the backdoor might as well be that telescoping portal thing from Coraline. He recieves the ball pointblank, and makes it count. Lillard decides to show up: On the next possession, he drains a three, and then manages to finally figure out how to draw a charge on Harden's bulldoggin ass. It's pretty easy - get there before Harden does, and then brace yourself. Matthews to Aldridge connects again on the next possession, and the crowd gets a little jolt of hope right before the end of the quarter. Patterson hacks Aldridge on the board attempt with .04 left on the clock. Aldridge gets one of two. 58-51, Rockets
It's been a thoroughly unimpressive game so far for the Blazers. The best possible example: The highlight reel on the jumbotron featured a play where Meyers Leonard catches the inbound, looks around for 6 seconds like "Guys? Guys? Anyone?" sees that nobody cares enough to get up on him, and tentatively pops a jumper.
That was a highlight.
10:26 - Whole lotta nothin so far. Batum is getting open off Parsons pretty easily, but nothing's dropping. Lin scores on a layup that seems entirely accidental the entire time it's happening, and Aldridge answers with a 15 footer on the other end. Lillard goes at Harden, almost gets his pants picked for it. Aldridge ends up with the ball at the top of the key again, thanks to Wesley Matthews. It drops. He rushes downcourt and hassles Omer Asik in the low post. Asik does the pee-pee dance. The travel is called. Meyers Leonard subs in for Hickson. Maybe this Matthews to Aldridge magic can be duplicated, Lillard to Leonard style. Aldridge spots DOWNTON ABBEY barreling down the baseline. Gets in front of him. The bread floats errantly, his shot untrue. Unfortunately Asik is there to scrape up the crusts. 65-55, Rockets.
8:00 - Lillard misses Aldridge completely. Harden ends up with the ball on the fastbreak. Lillard tries to check him with his face. Harden's elbow welcomes the contact. 68-55, Rockets.
7:12 - Whatever momentum there WAS? Gone baby gone like a Violent Femmes chorus. The Rockets are basically just running around at will, with the Blazers looking at them like confused farmers in a cracked-out henhouse.
6:45 - Lin just chucked up an ugly two that barely dinked off the front of the rim. Who's there to pick it up? Patrick Patterson, the invisible man! Aldridge tries to make up for it on the other end with another 16 footer, but time is starting to feel very short and this squad seems to have zero urgency, even after Wesley Matthews taking the pass from Lillard and jacking up the three butter-smooth. But just when you're starting to feel hopeful, CHANDLER FUCKING PARSONS HAPPENS for another deuce. The timeout punctuates his artsy-fartsy reverse layup. 74-62, Rockets.
4:45 - Jeremy Lin is basically doing whatever the hell he wants right now. He just took 3 Blazers to the hoop, and only Jared Jeffries mounted any sort of defensive effort, and that was when Lin bounced off of him and got the and-one. Batum answers with a two on the other end. Jefferies gets in Pattersons face on the other end, and in response, Patterson spins in a circle and throws a shot somewhere 3ft west of the basket. Lillard feeds Batum at the top of the key. He dribbles two steps, jacks up a three. It's like Jamal Crawford is back in the house. 77-69, Rockets
3:14 - Know what I said earlier about SOMEBODY needing to try and do something? That somebody is Batum. He's just chucking shit up out there. And it's falling. They're not poorly chosen shots. It's just as soon as he sees the shot is there, he's not hesitating, not from any distance. The Blazers peek inside the 10-point bubble for one of the few times tonight. 79-71, Rockets.
Someone in the crowd keeps waving a sign wherein Meyers Leonard is known as "The Slam Man." I don't think that's going to catch, guy. Also not happening - when someone on the Blazers takes a charge, and then we cut to video of Blaze the cat ringing a bell and pointing at you to scream "Charge." At least the crowd had no idea what to do there.
1:31 - Batum assassinates another jumper, but that's just setup. That's just preamble to Lillard and Leonard finding each other for the first time tonight in a pretty spectacular way. Lillard on the fastbreak lobs a pass skyward from behind the three. Leonard takes off from about 8ft out. It seems like a strong gust of wind blows in from nowhere, because he's drifting sideways as the ball reaches him. There is mild fear crossing his face as he windmills an arm towards the basket. His wrist finds rim and he follows through with authority. 79-76, Rockets.
1:12 - Jared Jeffries has been in the last 8 minutes and he's basically there to find a runaway train in a Rockets jersey, and jump in front of it. He gets another charge on Harden, Blaze the cat rings the bell with all the rhythm of a firecracker string. The crowd shrugs in response. Damian Lillard goes right at Omer Asik again - and this time finds his balance in midair, so when Asik's armpit finds Lillard's face, the scoop finds its home. It's a one point game and the Rockets seem a little shook. There's a prayer of a three from Matthews at the end, but it only finds atmosphere. 79-78, Rockets.
11:35 - Wesley Matthews gives the Blazers their first lead of the night with a pretty baseline drive in traffic. 80-79, Blazers.
10:52 - Nobody wants to put a body on Omer Asik. He must be really yucky or something. You'd think someone would want to block him out on like, three straight misses in a row, but nope. He just stands there and lets the ball fall into his hand, and then he puts it back into the basket like a big pale yucky robot. 81-80, Rockets.
9:46 - The Rockets have matter-of-factly, all businesslike, scored twice. Ronnie Price answers with a long two. Aldridge gets out way late on Marcus Morris behind the three, and Morris makes sure to punish the lackadaisical effort. That's a good word for Aldridge today. he's basically been skipping through most of the game. 88-84, Rockets.
8:31 - JJ Hickson forgot Omer Asik existed. Or he is just that YUCKY down low. So yucky that Hickson was all like "Sure - have this 10 foot diameter of open space. Roam around in it. Maybe catch a pass down low and dunk like you're doing a Shaq imitation circa '94." 90-86, Rockets
7:12 - Batum watches Morris hit a three, says "Fuck this shit" - crosses halfcourt. Gets the ball, dribbles twice, gets the three in his sights - takes it out. Batum, Matthews & Lillard seem to be the only people awake on offense right now. Lets see if the other two people on the court recognize this. 93-91, Rockets.
6:32 - Toney Douglas just went right over the top of Damian Lillard, right in front of Terry Stotts. He's striding out onto the floor before the whistle is even blowing. This is probably the last big chew-out. Either the fire under their ass gets lit, or the Rockets snuff that particular pilot light right out. 97-91, Rockets
6:07 - Batum just came swooping down out of the sky like fuckin Batman on that dunk. They used to call Scottie Pippen Batman, too. 100-93, Rockets.
5:13 - Harden just kinda chumped Wesley Matthews there in the key. Nothing fancy. Just "you tried to guard me, and then you almost fell down. I'll be hitting this 15 footer now." Matthews responds with a three on the other end as Harden gets picked off so hard he skids to the ground for a couple feet. While Matthews is celebrating and pointing at the fans, DOWNTON FUCKING ABBEY goes straight at Meyers Leonard and gets the hack for his trouble. He hits em both. 103-98, Rockets
4:06 - Lillard's two free throws get the team within three. A Taco Bell dings over the jumbotron, but the crowd gives no fucks for the grade d delicacies they will recieve. There is a turnover from the Rockets, but the Blazers can't convert. Harden goes to the hoop, and Aldridge mauls him. Harden converts his two. 104-100, Rockets.
2:56 - Lillard brings the ball up calmly, Batum sets him a pick. Lillard curls off of it, and from about 25 foot out, calmly chucks the three up there. It drops through perfectly. Dime's heart is pumping sno-cones right now. Rockets call time out. 103-105, Rockets.
2:02 - Someone finally fucked up DOWNTON ABBEY's drive to the hoop. The ball winds up in Batum's hands, but somehow, his wide open trey doesn't find net. The ricochet off the glass lands in Meyers Leonard's hands. He tries to dunk, gets an arm in his way, goes to the line, gets em both. And like that - the game is tied.
1:37 - Harden tried to cross-up Lillard by going behind his back, fumbled it, tried to flop a whistle out while falling down. Nobody bought it. Lillard comes up with the rock, gets hit by Lin, and goes to the line. The rookie could be standing directly in front of a Predator right now and there'd be no heat signature. 107-105, Blazers.
1:19 - WHO THE FUCK LEFT HARDEN OPEN FROM THREE WITH LESS THAN TWO MINUTES LEFT JESUS CHRIST. 108-107 Rockets.
54.8 - Blazers inbound. Lillard staring down Lin. Shakes him, but sets it back up. Finds Downton Abbey on him. Goes STRAIGHT at the hoop and gets the deuce. Meyers Leonard just straight up FUCKS Omer Asik as he tries to muscle to the hoop. There is no whistle. The crowd is batshit. Lillard once again facing down Lin. Instead of setting back up after he shakes him, he rises for the J. It drops. Dime gets his 22nd point on the night, and puts the Blazers up by three, 111-108
17.9 - Rockets ball. Lin inbounds. Harden gets the ball clean. Morris wide from three. Aldridge isn't even in the same zip code, but he tries to bridge the gap. Nothin doing. It drops. Tie game.
10.2 - Aldridge & Matthews are jawing about the last defensive rotation. Batum inbounds to Lillard. he jacks the three with 1.2 seconds left. It finds the far edge of the rim, skips straight up in the air... and arcs out. The buzzer sounds.
4:39 - Harden stutter-steps Matthews, gets a clean shot. It rims out, but Rockets get the offensive board. They Morris misses a three, but only barely. Lillard gives to Aldridge, who dribbles around aimlessly, almost coughs it up twice, tosses it to Matthews, who has Harden in his grill. He airballs the three as the shotclock runs out. Harden answers with another stuttering drive, on Matthews, who hits him. Harden gets his and-one. 114-111, Rockets
3:17 - Lillard sees Chandler Parsons in his grill. He doesn't care that he's 26 feet out. Parsons will feel this dagger he's about to throw at the bottom of the net. Tie game.
2:55 - Asik hits two free throws. Lillard gets the ball, sees Parsons on him again. He stab steps him from 25 feet out. Parsons runs backwards like 3 feet. Lillard jacks up ANOTHER jumper, the barest millimeter of sneaker on the three-point line. 116-116.
2:27 - I don't know what Asik just tried to do in the low post but it looked like his elbow vomited a jumpshot. Blazers can't capitalize on the opportunity, but Lillard jumps a pass on the Rockets' next possession, and comes up with it in the Blazers frontcourt. The ball gets shoved around to pretty much every player before Matthews chucks up a three with the shotclock running out. It clangs off, and begins arcing towards a dead spot on the floor, which Meyers Leonard keeps dead by running at the ball waving his arms like he's about to dive on a grenade. Aldridge is given the rock. There's a shambling drive across the key, and the shot he puts up is ugly, but the refs bail him out with a whistle. One of two. 117-116, Blazers.
55.1 - Harden drives hard to the hoop, and Lillard sneaks a hand in there, patting the ball off Harden's thigh. Aldridge winds up with the ball on the low post. Bangs against Patterson twice, and spins away, lofting a jumper. It drops. Harden drives hard to the hoop again, and just as he lets the layup go, here comes Batum doing his Batman impersonation again, swooping in from somewhere just west of Gotham to knock the rock into the 4th row. 119-116, Blazers.
21.1 - Harden crosses up the entire Blazers squad, kicks out to a wide open Morris. Sasha Pavlovic runs after him, arms pinwheeling, but it's too late. The shot is up, but clangs off, and then begins a comedy of errors involving palms and knees and elbows and a basketball that hits like 6 people without ever hitting the floor. In the midst of all that, Matthews gets called for a foul, Harden goes to the line with 1.4 on the clock. Hits one. Blazers call time. 119-117, Blazers
1.4 - Harden misses his second. The ball ricochets hard to the left. Nobody can get a hand on it. The buzzer sounds. The team huddles up at the center. The crowd begins to file out. FINAL: 119-117, Blazers.