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Portland Trail Blazers EOY Preview & Predictions – 12/18

Saturday, December 19, 2015


As the Portland Trail Blazers are currently mired in a five-game road trip before Christmas (that started most ignominiously in Oklahoma City on Wednesday), it’s time for the annual Holiday Break at Oregon Sports News. Our benevolent founder/editor has seen fit to provide his lowly peons a respite from writing.

Does this mean that you’ll go without analysis on upcoming Blazer games? Of course not!

Just like I did last year, I shall provide several weeks’ worth of previews for your information and possible enjoyment before my management-imposed exile. The upcoming schedule is both road-heavy and East-heavy, both very bad signs for Portland. Since it’ll be nine games long, let’s just jump right into it, shall we?

(Stats courtesy of NBA.com and basketball-reference.com. All games can be heard on AM 620 Rip City Radio.)

Sunday, Dec. 20: @ the Miami Heat, 10:00 AM (yes…as in, the morning), CSNNW

The Skinny: We’ll cover the Heat in the other game they’ll have after the New Year; they’re supposed to be a contender in the East, but they’ve had a patchy start to the season, and I can’t get a handle on them as of yet. We’ll see if they can maintain their fourth-place standing in the East.

For this game, I want to highlight that ridiculous starting time, especially for a team from the West Coast.

To give the uninitiated some context, 10:00 AM Pacific Time is when West Coast NBA players on the road are either still sleeping or just waking up. After a game that ends at around 10 PM, and the cool-down routines, media obligations, post-game meeting with the coaches, and a flight to the next city, players usually don’t hit the sack until past four AM.

The Blazers will have a day to prepare for that early start in Miami, but the routines they’ve drilled their bodies to respond to, the meticulous planning of the day an athlete relies on to perform at their best, is going to receive a rude disruption on Sunday.

I remember a similar situation in Detroit several years ago when the Blazers had to play the Pistons on a Sunday. It was 11:00 AM Pacific time at tip-off, and I remember the Blazers getting demolished in that game.

I expect a similar situation here. There are several instances for each team during the NBA season where they suffer what’s called a “schedule loss.” This appears to be one of those games.

Player To Watch: Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis. It’s their job to contain Hassan Whiteside, the Heat’s monstrous center. Whiteside is averaging 12 and 10, with almost four blocks per game. They must keep Whiteside off the offensive boards if Portland is going to have any chance of controlling this game.

Prediction: Schedule loss for the Blazers.

Monday, Dec 21: @ the Atlanta Hawks, 5:00 PM, CSNNW

The Skinny: Sitting at ninth place, despite a perfectly fine 15-12 record, the Hawks are probably wondering two things right now: how did the East suddenly get this deep, and what in the blue hell has happened to Kyle Korver in December?

The first question was a little bit under their control, but they decided to go the cheap route. DeMarre Carroll, the 3-and-D specialist that blossomed in Atlanta’s free-flowing offensive system in 2014-15, signed a big contract with the Toronto Raptors in the offseason. Instead of retaining a member of the starting lineup that crushed all in its path before the playoffs, the Hawks have tried to replace Carroll by committee, and so far have failed.

The Hawks got a little worse, and the middle teams in the East all got better. The result is right in the standings; I dislike being so simple with my analysis, but sometimes simple and direct gets the point across the best. Plus, I’m a big DeMarre Carroll fan; he’s basically a bigger Wes Matthews without the bruising post game, but with an innate sense of timing that allows him to take advantage of a lazy defense with back cuts.

As to what’s happened to Korver, perhaps the greatest shooter not named Stephen Curry in the NBA today, that’s harder to explain. It was assumed that Carroll’s departure would bring even more attention to Korver by opposing defenses, but he was ticking right along during the first 18 games of the season, shooting 42% from three in that span.

Once December arrived, Korver’s shooting percentages plummeted with the temperatures. He’s shooting 33.3% from three, and an absolutely abhorrent 34.5% from the field overall, during this month; if this continues, this will easily be Korver’s worst shooting month in recent memory.

Atlanta has enough talent and consistency to make the postseason. It’s a given that at least one surprise team in front of them will hit a bad rut, and the big man combo of Al Horford and Paul Millsap is among the better pairs in the NBA.

In a way, the Hawks have become the East’s version of the Los Angeles Clippers; they get hot for a few games, then have a couple bad losses that make you question them, then they have another run that keeps them in that four/five spot in the standings. They don’t have the look of a team that’s a serious playoff threat, yet they aren’t a first-round doormat either. They’re just…fine.

Player To Watch: Meyers Leonard. Though both Millsap and Horford are rough-and-tumble players, they’re both also smaller than Leonard. Leonard will have good shots all game long, especially popping out after a screen. Hopefully, he starts making them.

Prediction: The Blazers are on a back-to-back, and despite the Clipperiness of Atlanta, they are still the better team. Blazers lose.

Wednesday, Dec. 23: @ the New Orleans Pelicans, 5:00 PM, KGW

The Skinny: If you’re a professional wrestling fan, particularly of the Southern Territories in the 1980s, you’ve probably heard of “the American Dream,” the late Dusty Rhodes. As charismatic a performer as they come, Dusty was a master at “cutting a promo,” or talking to the camera or a live audience, basically to promote a match he was involved in. 

One legendary promo, cut by Dusty during his return a few months after ”Nature Boy” Ric Flair and his Four Horsemen broke Dusty’s leg, is named Hard Times. Dusty was the son of a plumber, as he liked to say, and that working-class upbringing coupled with his unusual physique (“My belly is a little big, and my hiney is a little big,” as Dusty himself said) made him a hero among the fans.

Why do I bring up a pro wrestler here? Because the Pelicans, after their latest shower of injuries, have indeed fallen on Hard Times, daddy.

Anthony Davis, great as he is, can’t overcome all the bad luck just by his pure awesomeness. I can’t remember the last time a legit Top-5 player in the NBA, a true franchise cornerstone, playing the majority of his team’s games, helmed them to a bottom-five finish in the NBA standings. We might see just that if the Pellies can’t dig themselves out of the 7-18 hole they’re in 25 games into the season.

This right here is proof positive that even basketball is, at its core, a team sport. Detractors of the sport, and sometimes even blowhards like me, overstate the importance of having that true superstar on a team, the one guy who is just so much better than everybody else that, according to the detractors, the other nine guys on the court don’t matter.

As LeBron James learned after all those times he fell short in the NBA Finals, as Kevin Durant learned after he and his star teammates struggled through untimely injuries after their Finals run in 2012, and as Davis is learning this season, one man can only do so much by himself. Even Michael Jordan didn’t come close to winning a title until he was flanked by Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, and coached by Phil Jackson.

Player To Watch: Mason Plumlee. He’ll get first crack at defending Davis in this game. Basically everyone in the frontcourt will have their eyes on him the whole time; it’s up to the other Pelicans to make the Blazers pay.

Prediction: New Orleans didn’t offer much resistance in the Moda Center. I’m tempted to pick the Pellies because Portland’s going to be at the end of a grueling five-game road trip, but New Orleans has just been so bad.

I’ll walk out on a limb and say the Blazers win.

Saturday, Dec. 26: vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers, 7:00 PM, KGW

The Skinny: Two things to note: firstly, the Cavs will come into this game after playing the juggernaut Golden State Warriors on Christmas Day, while the Blazers will be fresh and recuperated after three days of rest and a Christmas spent at home with family. 

Secondly, these teams played a very good, close game back in Cleveland on the eighth of this month, which should give the Blazers confidence that yes, they can beat this team. Cleveland used a third-quarter rally to separate themselves, then held on to win despite Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum combining for 57 of Portland’s 100 points.

That stuff said, there is something new that the Blazers might have to contend with by the time this game rolls around, and that’s the return of All-Star guard Kyrie Irving for Cleveland, after recovering from a knee injury sustained in the 2015 Finals.

If you’ve read any of my postings for OSN or GoLocalPDX through the past year-plus, you know what I think of Irving. He and Damian Lillard are basically the same player. Irving handles the ball a bit better, and Dame’s a slightly better shooter, and they both suck on defense. Lillard’s been as durable and steady as an oak, while Irving’s been dealing with myriad injury issues ever since his lone college season at Duke.

The difference between them is always going to be their teammates. In the 2014 playoffs, Lillard had a great starting lineup around him while Irving was stuck in the outhouse with fringe NBA talent. This last postseason, Lillard had to deal with an injured Matthews, a disinterested and injured LaMarcus Aldridge, and a slumping Nicolas Batum. Irving, meanwhile, got to team up with some dudes named LeBron James and Kevin Love, and all the attendant role players that seem to follow LeBron around like buzzards circling a dying elephant.

If Irving doesn’t make the Christmas game (going up against Steph Curry, I’d imagine a guy like Irving would try his hardest to play), expect him to try to play against Lillard. The last time Irving played the Blazers, he dropped 57 points. The porous defense Portland presents each game would be a good time to start easing Irving back into the rotation.

Player To Watch: Damian Lillard. If Irving can play, this will be the matchup of the night throughout the NBA.

Prediction: Despite the Blazers’ best efforts, they couldn’t take advantage of Cleveland in the last game. Even after playing Golden State the night before, I think the Cavs have enough juice left in the tank to defeat Portland. They’re not going to take the Blazers lightly again.

Sunday, Dec. 27: @ the Sacramento Kings, 6:00 PM, CSNNW

The Skinny: The Kings have had a dysfunctional year so far. It was to be expected, really. Putting together a team headlined in part by Rajon Rondo, the mercurial genius, and DeMarcus Cousins, the super-talented and super-combustible big man, and handing it over to George Karl, himself a notoriously stubborn coach, and expecting them to play cohesive, winning basketball is something only a lunatic would do.

Rondo is on a one-year deal, so the Kings can either trade him or let him bolt; he’d be the easiest of the three to let go. Karl’s philosophy and personality don’t fit at all with the roster in Sacramento, but the Kings are already paying other men to not coach for them. It would look really bad if they cut Karl loose, as well; no quality coach in his right mind would go within 1000 miles of Sacramento, looking for a job.

As for Cousins, I had the pleasure of watching a couple Kings games recently, and…OH. MY. GAWD.

DC is shooting, and making, threes (I admit, he‘s only making 31% of them, but teams are starting to honor that shot). He’s bringing the ball up the court. He’s setting crunching screens. He’s posting up and clowning fools with deft footwork, or bulling over them with his 6-11, 270 pound frame. He’s dribble-driving past guys and smashing the ball through the hoop like he’s a fat version of Kevin Durant.

On the offensive end, there’s nothing Cousins can’t do. Hell, he’s not a bad defender either if has a reason to give a crap. The Kings haven’t given him many reasons to do so, honestly.

Sacramento is reportedly exploring trade options for Cousins, which only highlights the insanity of the front office there. Cousins is the offensive equal of anybody in the NBA not named Stephen Curry, and yes, I include LeBron and Durant--Cuz is that damned good. If the Kings give him away for dimes on the dollar, the fans there should mobilize and raze that crappy old arena to the ground.

Figuratively speaking.

Player To Watch: Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless. The main event is Plumlee vs. Cousins, but the matchup between Rudy Gay and Aminu/Harkless, whether at the 3 or the 4, will be an under-card that could swing the game as well.

Prediction: On the second night of a back-to-back, on the road, I’ll give the nod to the Kings in a close one.

Wednesday, Dec. 30: vs. the Denver Nuggets, 7:00 PM, CSNNW

Sunday, Jan. 3: @ the Denver Nuggets, 6:00 PM, CSNNW

The Skinny: Denver, amazingly, is currently in eighth place in the West at 11-14. It really does seem like the East body-snatched the West, at least from the four-to-12 seeds. Things are looking up for the Nuggets lately, too.

Trading away Ty Lawson may have hurt in the short-term, but it’s allowing teenage rookie Emmanuel Mudiay to grow into the starting point guard role. Former Blazer Will Barton (who our very own Brad Stein HATED when Barton was here) is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate, and a ball of energy more under control.

Nikola Jokic and Joffery Lauvergne are serviceable young bigs, and the Bosnian Bruiser, Jusuf Nurkic, should be back from injury in time for the January 3 game.

However, the good news stops with the youngsters. Danilo Gallinari is doing what he can as a swingman, but his ability is forever hampered by all those knee injuries he’s suffered, and he’s now dealing with a bone bruise in one of his knees that might not go away in time for the games against Portland.

Wilson Chandler is done for the year, Jameer Nelson and Randy Foye are taking time away from Mudiay and Gary Harris (though Foye is playing fairly well), and Kenneth Faried seems to have inherited Lawson’s traits of IDGAF, and is consequently available for trade.

The Nuggets are still stuck between the vestiges of George Karl’s run-and-gun fever dream and a full-on youth movement, but they’re making all the strides they can. That they’re in the playoff hunt at all should not be taken as an achievement, but rather an indication of the sudden weakness of the Western Conference.

Player To Watch (Dec. 30): Damian Lillard. Round Three with Mudiay.

Player To Watch (Jan. 3): Mason Plumlee. Nurkic is one bad dude, with a reputation for trash-talking and rough play; I’d compare him to a tamer, European Bill Laimbeer. Plum can’t let himself be taken out of his game, or he’ll get a seat next to Terry Stotts as Ed Davis plays instead.

Predictions: Home teams win, one game apiece.

Thursday, Dec. 31: @ the Utah Jazz, 6:00 PM, CSNNW

The Skinny: The Jazz are pretty much the same team stat-wise we saw at the end of last season: a stingy defensive squad that lacks competent point guard play and has trouble scoring. Big man Derrick Favors is putting up 17-8 while shooting 53%, and swingman Gordon Hayward is leading the team in scoring with 18 per while shooting 42% from three, but nobody else is doing much of significance offensively.

Nominal point guard Trey Burke is shooting better this year than his previous seasons, but his point guard instincts remain horrendous; Hayward averages more assists per game than he does, and Hayward averages a measly three APG. Burke’s future is likely as a Mo Williams/Jarrett Jack-type microwave, while the other highly drafted point guard the Jazz have, teenager Dante Exum, blew out his knee during the summer playing for his native Australia.

Utah is also currently missing mammoth 7-2 center Rudy Gobert, who sprained his ankle; he should be back by New Year’s Eve. 

Utah’s been experimenting with having no point guard at all on the floor. Shooting guards Alec Burks and Rodney Hood have played in the backcourt together, along with Hayward, Favors, and either Gobert or Trevor Booker, or sometimes rookie Trey Lyles.

When you’re as starved for competent ball handling and offense as Jazz head coach Quin Snyder is, you’ll try most anything.

Player To Watch: CJ McCollum. How the smaller McCollum will get his points going against rangy wings like Hood, Burks, and Hayward will be an interesting thing to observe. If Gobert recovers in time for this game, inside points will be very scarce; CJ will need to get his shot going for the Blazers to stand a chance.

Prediction: I’m going to pick the Blazers. Damian Lillard is the best player on either team, and the Jazz have nobody that can reliably break a defense down. The one guy who can on occasion, Hayward, will be watched by the Blazers’ best defender, Al-Farouq Aminu.

Good luck with that, Gordon.

If you read all the way to the finish, congratulations! I wish I had a present to give you, but my sincere thanks for a wonderful 2015 at OSN will have to do.

Happy Holidays, and see you guys in the New Year!

GoLocalPDX partner Oregon Sports News: Since 2011, Oregon Sports News has provided entertaining, hard-hitting local sports news & commentary every weekday. To read more from this author, check out Oregon Sports News by clicking here.


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