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Portland Trail Blazers Week Preview – 3/10

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

 

Robin Lopez

One game is a sample size not worth considering, so the fact that the Minnesota Timberwolves were able to hang 122 points on the Portland Trail Blazers Saturday night isn’t cause to run for the nearest fallout shelter, especially after Wesley Matthews’ replacement, Arron Afflalo, fouled out.

If the Blazers continue that kind of effort against the opponents they play this week, however, it might be time to buy up all the bottled water and canned goods in Rip City.

With little more than a month to go in the regular season, the Blazers are pretty much where they’ll be in the playoff seeding; due to their stranglehold on the Northwest Division, even if they end up with, say, the sixth-best record in the West, they’ll still be locked into the fourth spot. 

They might not have home-court advantage, but I’d rather have a do-over with the Houston Rockets, or take on the Los Angeles Clippers, than face the Oklahoma City Thunder (and their supernova, Russell Westbrook) or the rope-a-doping San Antonio Spurs, who finally have Tony Parker back healthy.

If anyone in the Blazers’ camp had thoughts of maybe catching the Rockets or Memphis Grizzlies for higher seeding, Matthews’ loss squashed any notions of that. It’ll be tough enough just to tread water, get as healthy as possible for the playoffs, than see what happens.

To be honest, that last sentence can apply to all eight teams in the West. It really does feel like a crapshoot, no matter how dominant the Golden State Warriors have been.

Time for picks! Let’s go! (All games on AM 620 radio, all stats per NBA.com)

Wednesday, March 11: versus the Houston Rockets, KGW and ESPN, 7:30 PM

The Skinny: Welp, this is awkward. Facing MVP-candidate James Harden, lately seen donkey-kicking LeBron James in the crown jewels, would be challenging enough with a full crew. Without Wes to live inside his jersey for 48 minutes, this game has the feel of a guy bringing knives to a gunfight.

The Rockets themselves are 1.5 games back of Memphis for the Southwest Division lead, and a full game up on the Blazers at 43-20 (Portland’s at 41-20). This game is the latest in a series of huge Western clashes the Blazers have gone through the last couple weeks…but the first real test without Matthews.

Houston has been without star center Dwight Howard for the last two months, but I’m actually of the opinion that they’re just as good, if not better, without Howard clogging the middle. Donatas Montejunas is a more efficient post player than Howard, and the Rockets’ pace-and-space game on offense is augmented by the long arms of Trevor Ariza and Corey Brewer on defense, blanketing perimeter threats and forcing turnovers.

The only thing that can stop Houston is Harden’s stamina. It isn’t an exaggeration when analysts say Harden does everything for that offense. From a scoring standpoint, he’s the only guy that can get a decent shot off anytime he can; Montejunas can’t be that guy yet, and Howard never was.

From a playmaking standpoint, he’s the only guy capable of running more than a rudimentary play. Patrick Beverly and Ariza are 3-and-D guys, Jason Terry is a defenseless fossil, Brewer is an energy guy and that’s it, and Josh Smith…wait, I need to stop laughing.

Harden has to do so much for the Rockets, and in this day and age, no one man is capable of carrying a franchise by his lonesome. Hell, even Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippen flanking him. Who’s Harden’s Pippen?

Either Howard gets back and rounds into form quickly, or the Rockets might suffer yet another playoff disappointment.

Key Matchup: Arron Afflalo vs. James Harden. I’m sure Stotts will have Nicolas Batum shadow the Beard as well, but Afflalo will get his turn.

Harden’s traditional stats are great (27/6/7, with 38% three-point shooting and 87% free throw shooting, with 10 attempts a game), and his net rating is 6.8, but delving into his shooting stats reveals something interesting: Harden’s secretly a terrible jump shooter.

On jump shots, the Beard shoots 29%, and of his 1,100-plus shots this year, 459 have been jumpers. To be fair, most of those come after fancy dribbling or with a hand in his face; anybody not named Stephen Curry will miss a vast majority of those kinds of shots.

He’s also attempted 95 layups, and made only 29. Those stats confirm what everybody thinks and knows about Harden. He’s only interested in drawing contact and getting to the free-throw line.

That tendency bit him in the butt in last season’s playoffs, where those ticky-tack fouls, and the free points that come with them, tend to disappear. Until Game 6, it was tough sledding; if Howard wasn’t grilling Robin Lopez and eating him with a good microbrew on the side, Houston wouldn’t have gotten to that fateful sixth game.

When defenses ratchet up the pressure, when coaches can key into every little tendency on the court, when officials swallow those precious whistles…that’s when James Harden’s worth as a basketball player will be proven.

Prediction: Can I push? No? Damn. I’ll say the Blazers win, so at least we can lose together #fandom.

Friday, March 13: versus the Detroit Pistons, CSNNW, 7:30 PM

The Skinny: After cutting Smith loose and surging back into the playoff picture, the Pistons, after trading away D.J. Augustin and acquiring Reggie Jackson, have promptly stunk again. Right now, they’re 12th in the standings and fading fast.

The decision to trade for Jackson is a very curious one, for several reasons. Augustin was playing well in relief of Brandon Jennings, the sparkplug behind Detroit’s revival and the starting point guard. He was keeping the team going, helping the Pistons succeed while building hope for next season.

Another reason is Jackson’s constant whining about wanting to start, and being good enough to start. Problem is, Jennings was the starter before getting hurt, and he was playing very well; he had an outside chance at an All-Star spot. 

Also, since arriving at Detroit, Jackson’s averaged 17 points a game, jacking up tons of shots, dominating the ball…and the Pistons have lost six of the seven games Jackson’s played for them. Clearly, Jackson’s focus is on himself, and his upcoming restricted free agency.

Stan Van Gundy’s job is to bring talented players into the Pistons organization; the cupboard’s been so bare for so long, I really don’t blame him for this move. With Jackson’s selfish tendencies coming to the fore, however, his future doesn’t seem to be in Detroit.

Key Matchup: Robin Lopez vs. Andre Drummond. Drummond, the third-year player out of UConn, is one of three players from the 2012 Draft that my children (if I ever have them) will ask me about. “Daddy, was Andre Drummond really as good as Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard?” will be the question.

Drummond certainly has the tools to be mentioned with those guys. While Davis will end up ruling the league soon, and Lillard has the reputation and endorsements, Drummond’s game is very similar to DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers center, right down to the craptastic free throw shooting.

Averaging 13 points and 13 rebounds a game, Drummond’s been successful despite sharing the paint with Greg Monroe, being force-fed post moves by Van Gundy, and having to deal with the constant shuffling of Detroit’s roster. 

He’s a physical defensive presence and instinctive rebounder, being shaped in the mold of Dwight Howard by the man that coached Howard during his glory years in Orlando. Lopez will have his hands full on the glass, but if all else fails, you can foul the big man and put him on the line.

Prediction: The Pistons are in a funk, and a trip to Rip City is not a good way to snap out of a funk. Portland wins.

Sunday, March 15: @ the Toronto Raptors, CSNNW, 4:00 PM

The Skinny: Speaking of teams in a funk, the Raptors are stuck in a major-league funk, the kind that make you wonder how they were as successful as they were.

It seems like only yesterday that Toronto was the second-place team in the East, hoping to hold off Cleveland and Washington and feast on the hapless teams at the bottom of the Eastern bracket. Instead, the Cavs caught fire, the Raps froze solid, and now Toronto’s going to be lucky to escape a death match with Chicago in the 4/5 matchup.

A road-heavy schedule did them no favors, but with only one win in their last nine games, there can’t be any excuses. Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozen, Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson, and the bench all have to play up to their potential, or Toronto will suffer another humiliating defeat in the playoffs, with home court advantage.

Key Matchup: Damian Lillard vs. Kyle Lowry. Lowry’s a pit bull defender, the kind that will get in your face and stay there. Despite his recent struggles offensively, and the Raptors’ general malaise on defense, Lowry’s a guy that takes matchups personally.

Fortunately, Lillard’s the same way. Some folks were taking shots at Lillard before the All-Star break, saying Lowry was better than him because he was starting an All-Star Game. Lillard was getting picked on for his defense more than anything.

After improving somewhat earlier in the season, Dame’s defense has slipped again. With Lowry’s offensive game in the same rut, whomever can succeed (or stink the least) at the weaker part of their games will go a long way toward helping his team win.

Prediction: The Raptors will be at home, but at this point, at the start of the week, the Blazers look like the better team.

(The Blazers play Washington on a back-to-back after this game. Check back Monday. The column will return to its original day then.)

Last week was a success in the win/loss column for the Blazers, but…well, you know…

Trail Blazers’ Record: 41-20 (4th in West)

Jared’s Picks Record: 39-22

 

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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