Portland Trail Blazers Week Preview – 12/1
Tuesday, December 02, 2014
You can point to Wesley Matthews torching the nets from deep or the improved bench play (led by Steve Blake and Chris Kaman AKA Air Sasquatch) as reasons for the sterling start, and you’d get no argument from me. Damian Lillard also had a giant start to the season, putting up 20 points, five rebounds and almost seven assists a game while shooting 46/42/88 splits. He’s still turning it over 2.8 times a game, though.
However, I give the bulk of the credit to LaMarcus Aldridge, the team’s bedrock player and the guy through which everything runs. His numbers are about equal to Lillard’s in terms of impact (21 PPG, 10 RPG, 45% shooting on 18 shots a game), but even when Aldridge has those nights when he goes 7-22, he commands respect from the defense. Opposing players are drawn to him like asteroids to Jupiter, or Thanksgiving buffet tables to offensive linemen.
Aldridge took advantage of a small Minnesota team on Sunday by putting up 26 points and 15 rebounds, and while Memphis did neutralize him on Friday, I’m still inclined to start with Aldridge when discussing Portland’s great start.
Here’s hoping Nicolas Batum can shake off his shooting slump (he did finally hit a couple threes last night), Allen Crabbe can continue to be useful (CRABB3!!!) and the Trail Blazers can continue to avoid major injuries (*knocks on cherry wood desk*)
Time for the picks! Let’s go! (All games on AM 620 radio, all stats per NBA.com)
Tuesday, December 2: @ the Denver Nuggets, KGW (channel 8), 6:00 PM
The Skinny: It’s already the third time these teams will play this season, out of four divisional tilts. It’s unusual for this to happen, but I’m MORE than fine with Portland’s two annual visits to the Mile High City (and its thin air) coming within the first 20 games.
When these teams last played, Denver was a total wreck. The Nuggets were getting their butts kicked left, right and center, Ty Lawson was gimpy with a bum ankle, and the Denver front office was under pressure to trade off their surplus of wing players and begin a true rebuild.
Er, hold that thought. Denver’s been tearing the league a new one since the last time Portland played them.
The Nuggets’ last two weeks are living proof why ANY statements made in November--about ANY team--are pure idiocy. Everybody in the media has an opinion, and we are obligated to put those opinions out there (I wouldn’t be here writing otherwise), but with that comes the risk of looking foolish and knowing that anything said could be flat wrong.
Entering their game at Utah tonight, Denver has won six of their last seven games, and Lawson and Arron Afflalo are tearing perimeter defenses apart. Their statement win at Cleveland launched their recent run, and the Nuggets don’t appear to be slowing down.
Key Matchup: Wesley Matthews vs. Arron Afflalo. I’ve highlighted the point guard matchup of Lillard and Lawson before, and that battle will still be key. Afflalo’s been playing great lately, however, and despite the depth of the Nuggets and Afflalo only shooting 11 times a game, he makes enough of an impact to deserve attention from me and the Blazers.
Afflalo’s season stats aren’t overwhelming (14/3/1), but he is shooting very well from three at 40%, and from the foul line at 86%. He’s picked his game up over the last two weeks, and not surprisingly the Nuggets are playing better.
As for Matthews, he’s been the perimeter counterweight required to complement the brilliance of Aldridge and the two-headed dragon/center combo of Robin Lopez and Air Sasquatch. Lillard has been hit-and-miss to begin the season, and Batum has mostly been miss. Matthews’ borderline All-Star play is amazing to see; just when you think the guy can’t do anything more on the basketball court, he goes out and does more.
If he can make Afflalo and his backups honor his shot, Matthews will give Lillard and the bigs more space to take advantage of Denver’s lack of height at the point and in the post.
Prediction: This game will be the second in as many nights for the Nuggets, while the Blazers will have a day to rest and prepare. Portland won’t score 84 points in the first half again, but they’ll continue to take advantage of Lawson and Kenneth Faried defensively.
Thursday, December 4: versus the Indiana Pacers, CSNNW, 7:00 PM
The Skinny: It’s genuinely inspiring to see the decimated Pacers put up a 7-10 record so far this season; most people thought they’d be one of the five worst teams in the league when Paul George shattered his leg and Lance Stephenson left for Charlotte. It’s a testament to Indiana coach Frank Vogel’s skill and motivational abilities.
In the Eastern Conference, a team like this could steal a playoff spot--and a bit of extra revenue--just by being gritty and trying hard. That says more about the state of the East than about the Pacers, but you won’t hear Indiana making apologies for it. What happened to them (in relation to George, anyway) was not their fault at all.
Unfortunately, when your best player is a 7’2” stiff that’s scoring 13 and grabbing eight rebounds a game, when your best perimeter threat is C.J. Miles, and when your leading rebounder is a marginal NBA player named Lavoy Allen, you’re at a continual disadvantage. It’s sad to watch, but these things happen. Portland fans know this better than most.
Key Matchup: Robin Lopez vs. Roy Hibbert. Hibbert is the 7’2” stiff I referenced above. While the impact he can make on the court is as large as he is, last year he had the maddening tendency to disappear, almost literally. There were games when he had two points and zero rebounds. ZERO! You should get at least three or four boards just because you’re big and you’re moving. Hibbert didn’t try enough last season, and it cost the Pacers their best chance for a championship since Reggie Miller hit his peak in the late 1990s.
He’s had to try harder this year by default; losing George, a borderline top-10 player and the third-best wing player in the league, inspired him to exert all possible effort. Hibbert’s still just an OK rebounder, and against a dervish like Lopez, he’ll sometimes wilt. Not having the tough-as-nails David West at 100% won’t do Hibbert any favors.
When the Pacers are trying to park Hibbert in the middle to shut off the paint, it will be Lopez’s job to make them pay by converting a few of those 14-foot set shots. When Hibbert’s guarding Aldridge, Lopez has to make himself available for a pass. West is undersized and hurting, and the other Pacer bigs are either stretch-pansies or foul machines.
Prediction: Even at their peak, Indiana has made games ugly; it’s the only way they can beat more talented teams. That strategy is taken to the extreme without George, and it’s worked.
It won’t work here, though. I expect Portland to take care of business before they set out on a five-game road trip.
Sunday, December 7: @ the New York Knicks, CSNNW, 4:30 PM
The Skinny: As of Monday, New York is 4-14 on the year. As good as the start has been for the Blazers, it’s been as bad for the Knicks. I feel no pity for these guys, however; they did this to themselves.
Carmelo Anthony, he of the mogul aspirations and pimp suits, has been dealing with back issues the past week. Carrying an entire franchise by yourself for as long as he has isn’t good for the lumbar region (I have arthritis in the lumbar part of my spine, so I can relate in a way), even after Anthony shed a bunch of pounds during the summer.
Anthony actually isn’t the problem; crapping on a guy averaging 23 points a game while shooting 48% from the field (and 41% from the three-point line) eventually gets old. The rest of the Knicks? FAIR GAME!
New York’s leading rebounder is Amar’e Stoudemire, a guy with two bad knees who’s been a running NBA joke since he signed a massive contract with the Knocks in 2010.
Rookie coach Derek Fisher is only on the sidelines because team president Phil Jackson is too old to do the day-to-day work. Jackson’s basically shadow-coaching, trying to install the triangle offense with a team he’s going to detonate with a broad smile after this year.
Other than Anthony, nobody on the Knicks averages more than 12 points a game.
New York is one of the worst defensive teams in the league. The only reason this doesn’t get more attention is because of the D-League team in Philly and the historical suckitude of the Los Angeles Lakers.
And the team’s assists leader? None other than the most selfish, boneheaded, idiotic player in the NBA…J.R. Smith.
Your 2014-15 New York Knicks, everybody!
Key Matchup: Nicolas Batum vs. Carmelo Anthony. Batum’s defense has slipped so far this year, and his shooting has been suspect, but he’s very familiar with Anthony. Batum and Wesley Matthews will tag-team him throughout the night.
The key, however, will be making Melo work on defense. If Batum’s being passive yet again, Anthony can guard him with minimal effort, and conserve energy. Energy he can use to hurt Portland with his prodigious offensive skills.
I’m in the Let Nic Be Nic camp, but against the likes of Anthony, he needs to assert himself on offense. If that means going 2-14, so be it; making Anthony actually play defense will be worth it. New York simply doesn’t have anyone else that can consistently hurt teams.
Prediction: This is a good game to begin a five-game roadie. The Blazers overwhelm the Knicks with threes, Aldridge, and the two-headed dragon/center combo.
Last week, Portland went 3-1, losing to Memphis on Friday. I picked the Grizzlies to win that game, so I record my second straight perfect week. Deal with it.
Trail Blazers’ Record: 13-4
Jared’s Picks Record: 13-4
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