Lin/Harden inbounds play 6.1 seconds?
Let's get this out of the way first: the game officials, most specifically Zach Zarba, who was making the slowest count this side of Wrestlemania on the Houston inbounds play, did not cost the Portland Trail Blazers that game Sunday night. Yes, Zarba make a mistake on that play. I don't care if it's the final seconds of a game or the first minute, it's supposed to be a five-second limit on inbounding the ball, not a slow six seconds.
That said, the Trail Blazers made too many mistakes to cherry-pick a couple of officiating calls and allow that to serve as an alibi for losing a game they should have won. Let's point out just a few of Portland's problems:
- The fourth quarter was another nightmare for Portland, whose offense under pressure has lost all its calm confidence. When good teams turn up the defensive volume, the Trail Blazers reach a level of chaos reminiscent of someone yelling "fire!" in a very crowded theater. Everyone is running around trying hard to make something happen but nothing gets done. In the fourth, the Trail Blazers were outscored 33-21, went just 6-for-16 from the field, 8-for-12 from the foul line, allowed 10 second-chance points, were out rebounded 14-6 and had five turnovers.
- Portland's four free-throw misses were out of character and the biggest, Wesley Matthews' miss -- his only misfire in 13 attempts -- with 12.2 seconds to play in the fourth quarter was a game changer. Portland had a three-point lead at the time.
- After Harden's three-pointer tied the game, the Trail Blazers still had 8.8 seconds to win it. But rather than run the clock down and get the final shot of regulation, Portland elected to try the lob to Damian Lillard, which was neatly broken up by Jeremy Lin and allowed the Rockets a chance to win it. I think that's a high-risk play and the reward would have been a basket by Lillard, but still just plenty of time for Houston to tie or win the game.
- Lillard and Nic Batum finished with seven turnovers apiece. In his last two games, Lillard has 12 turnovers to go with just eight assists. Stuff happens and I would not expect such a thing to continue. I think Lillard needs to take the reins of this team a little more, actually -- turnovers or not. I think it would calm things down a little on offense. He's the point guard, but I don't feel he's actually running this team. He can do that and I wish he would.
- In his last two games, LaMarcus Aldridge has taken a whopping 55 shots and hit just 23 of them. He's scored a total of 58 points, yes -- but 58 points off 55 shots isn't very efficient. Man, if that guy could just get to a baseline move from the left block once in a while, he'd stun the whole league. He just won't go there and the scouting report always says so. It's making it really difficult for him to get into the middle -- relegating him to more fallaway jumpers from 18 to 22 feet. That's a tough way to play.
Folks, don't go overboard on this rough streak by Portland. The important thing is that the Blazers are showing they can play with anybody -- as they have all season. And just some good fortune in one game can turn the whole thing around in a hurry. And in some crazy way, I'm not sure these losses hurt as much as it seems. It's not really that important who Portland draws in the first round of the playoffs. And getting the home court isn't all that big a deal, either. These guys can win a road game against a good team.
This is a young team with very little playoff experience and it would not serve the Blazers well to head into postseason play with high expectations and a lot of pressure.
What I could envision is some losses taking the pressure off these guys. Then they head into a first-round series against someone like the Clippers and ambush them in one of the first two games. Who tightens up then?