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Portland Trail Blazers Week Preview – 3/16

Monday, March 16, 2015

 

Damian Lillard

Watching the Portland Trail Blazers cast down the hated Houston Rockets last week was pretty sweet, I’ll admit. What’s more, it’s seemed to inject new life into a team deflated by Wesley Matthews’ season-ending Achilles rupture.

The Blazers used the impetus gathered from punishing the evil Rockets to destroy the reeling Detroit Pistons and the slumping Toronto Raptors, moving into third in the West despite the despicable Rockets beating the Los Angeles Clippers yesterday.

The man Portland needed more production from, and received, was Nicolas Batum. Batum picked a great time to get healthy and active again, using his ball handling skills to penetrate the defense from the weak side and get the rotations happening from the defense that yields the kinds of threes the Blazers used to obliterate Toronto last night.

Since Matthews got hurt, Batum’s shot 53% from the field, including 8-for-14 from three, and other than a four-point performance against Detroit, has had double-digit points. His rebounding has returned as well, with 40 total over his last five games. 

His passing was a big story in Toronto, with 12 assists; he had a double-double acting as a facilitator of the Blazers’ offensive juggernaut. Damian Lillard’s destruction of Kyle Lowry helped, as did LaMarcus Aldridge not being normal. With Batum, Arron Afflalo, and Steve Blake around to provide the finishing punch…that’s what the Blazers do when they’re at their best.

They’ll need 16 of those performances if they want to realize their dreams of hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy, due to Matthews not being around, and seven other good-to-great West teams being around.

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

Monday, March 16: @ the Washington Wizards, CSNNW, 4:00 PM

The Skinny: The second leg of this five game trip, and the first of two back-to-backs book ending said trip, has the Blazers playing the struggling Wiz.

As skunky as the Raptors have been lately, Washington’s been almost as bad. They do miss the outside shooting of Bradley Beal and Paul Pierce (the Wiz attempt fewer than 17 threes a game, fourth-least in the NBA), but a team that employs John Wall shouldn’t struggle this much on offense, right?

Looking at the lineup data provided by NBA.com, the ideal starting five of Wall, Beal, Pierce, Nene, and Marcin Gortat has played just 31 games together, 453 minutes total. That lineup has a net rating of 12.5; for reference, the league’s best total team net rating, which belongs to the Golden State Warriors, is 11.6. 

The real problem for Washington has been health. If those five had played together as often as, say, the Warriors or Blazers have, maybe they’d be challenging Cleveland for second in the East instead of hoping to fall butt-backwards into home-court advantage in the first round.

The Raptors still, amazingly, are in third in the East, a mere .003 percent ahead of the Chicago Bulls. Washington is a game back of both, in fifth. After erasing the Bulls in five games last year, I doubt the Wizards are sweating them too much, but if the rematch does happen, I’d bet on the Bulls this time.

Jimmy Butler is hurt, but he’ll be back and rested in time for the postseason, and a team  that features Butler, Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah, Nikola Mirotic, Taj Gibson, Tony Snell, Aaron Brooks, Kirk Hinrich, and the corpse of Derrick Rose should be able to beat the Wizards in a month’s time, especially with home-court.

Washington better get its shooters healthy and its act together, or the success they found in last year’s playoffs won’t be built upon.

Key Matchup: Damian Lillard vs. John Wall. After Lillard so thoroughly outplayed Kyle Lowry, a great defensive guard, I want to see how he does against Wall, who’s taller and more athletic than Lowry.

While his court vision has improved, and multiple knee surgeries haven’t sapped his quickness or vertical leap (yet…), Wall basically is still the same player he always was: a speed demon with a somewhat broken jump shot. 

Oddly, when he’s moving, fading away, or pulling up, Wall is almost perfect, and no that’s not a typo. He’s 80% on 95 pull-up jumpers, shooting 23-30 on floaters, and has made 20 of 22 fadeaways. He’s showing a bit more savvy in the half-court, as well as duping defenders during fast breaks by pulling up instead of going hard at the basket.

Straight jumpers, though, are still a problem. If James Harden was terrible shooting jumpers, Wall is absolutely horrendous at just 21%. Having shot 471 of them, which number half of his total field goal attempts for the season, that’s kind of a problem. 

I expect Portland coach Terry Stotts to give Wall the “Rondo Treatment,” telling Lillard to hang back and let Wall shoot or pass it off to someone else. With Wall shooting 30% from three, that strategy won’t burn the Blazers too often, as long as Wall doesn’t get past Robin Lopez.

Prediction: The Blazers are on a roll, and while the Wiz are starting to get desperate for wins, they don’t have enough outside shooting to break the stiff Blazer D. Portland wins.

Wednesday, March 18: @ the Miami Heat, CSNNW, 4:30 PM

The Skinny: Chris Bosh losing his season to blood clots in his lungs--a couple days after Blazers legend Jerome Kersey lost his life to that same condition--cast a pall on the Heat’s year. We were all prepared to salivate over Bosh-Goran Dragic pick plays; think Lillard-Aldridge supercharged. Bosh is as versatile as Aldridge is, while Dragic has almost unparalleled vision when running pick plays.

Alas, unless Dragic chooses to re-sign with the Heat, we might not get to see that. A starting five of Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Bosh, and Hassan Whiteside (with his head screwed on straight) wouldn’t have been fun to play against, especially for the Cleveland Cavaliers, where a certain dude who once wore number 6 for the Heat now plays….

Of course, the key concern is Bosh’s health, and it seems he’s on track to make it back to the court for the start of the next season. That’s not just good news, that’s the best news.

Key Matchup: Robin Lopez vs. Hassan Whiteside. Basically, whomever can outmuscle the other guy for rebounds and such will give his team the best chance for victory. Whiteside’s been a loose cannon lately, recklessly getting into fights and drawing a one-game suspension for a brutal flagrant foul.

He plays on a minimum contract, and one reason he was a scrap heap player was his temper. The Heat organization chastised him publicly and privately, with president Pat Riley and resident franchise player Wade both getting into Whiteside’s ear in the last week.

(Of course, Riley has no business punishing players for physical play. His mid-90s New York Knicks teams did stuff on the court that would make even Whiteside blush, and prompted the NBA to change the rules of the game.)

Despite his chill attitude and quirky personality, Lopez isn’t one to tolerate shenanigans, and Joel Freeland’s tough guy rep went up after getting into a pointless head butt fight at the end of the Detroit game. 

Prediction: Even before losing Bosh, the Heat struggled to score, a main reason why they’re a half-game out of the playoffs as of today. Replacing him with Dragic, instead of those two playing off one another, hasn’t helped much, if at all.

Portland actually can score, and they defend better than the Heat. Blazers win.

Wesley Matthews

Friday, March 20: @ the Orlando Magic, CSNNW, 4:00 PM

The Skinny: Since canning Jacque Vaughn on the sixth of February, the Magic have gone a predictable 6-10. Bad, but not the progress-less eyesore they were under Vaughn.

Unlike other young teams like the Utah Jazz, Orlando’s lacked a general direction. It’s mostly been about acquiring young talent for GM Rob Hennigan and his front office, with an emphasis on long-armed guards who can’t shoot, like Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton, as well as intriguing swingman Tobias Harris.

The strategy made a bit of sense--shooting is the one NBA skill that can truly be taught--until Hennigan signed veterans Channing Frye and Ben Gordon. The Frye contract in particular is somewhat confusing, at four years and $32 million for a guy who can only shoot.

Frye’s a good influence in the locker room, but his skill set relies upon a an offensive system that works very well. Oladipo and Payton are still learning how to produce NBA offense, so you’re basically paying $8 million per year for what you can get either for the veteran’s minimum, or hire a respected ex-player (like Shane Battier) as an assistant coach.

As the third year of his tenure winds down, Hennigan had to fire his coach, the veterans he signed are doing little on the court (or taking minutes from young guys like Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic), the young players he has don’t complement each other well yet, and the fans, and the owner, are starting to get antsy. Either the next coach Hennigan hires works wonders with next year’s team, or the next pink slip will have his name on it.

Key Matchup: Robin Lopez vs. Nikola Vucevic. While the guy Orlando fans nicknamed Vooch still has no clue how to play defense, 24-year-old big men that have his post moves, and put up 19-11 with 53% shooting, are pretty rare.

His problem is that he’s either paired with a shooter who can’t defend, like Channing Frye, or a defender who can’t shoot, like Kyle O’Quinn. Pairing Vucevic with Gordon would obviously be a total defensive disaster, with Gordon being just 20 years old himself.

The dream scenario for the Magic would be to snatch up a big man in this year’s draft that can play next to Vucevic. While Vucevic will never be Blake Griffin, having a Griffin-DeAndre Jordan dynamic going in Orlando with Vooch and whomever the Magic can draft wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Lopez will have to be careful when guarding this guy, as Vucevic has range to 18-20 feet. If Lopez is drawn out of the paint, Orlando can squeeze out a bit of precious space for Payton and Oladipo to drive. 

Aldridge will have to be the great equalizer; punishing the Magic on the offensive end while using his foot speed and long reach to chase his old friend Frye off the three-point line is an ideal way to negate, then exceed, Vucevic’s impact.

Prediction: As the Blazers are destroying this hapless squad, please take time to appreciate the artistic marvel that is Elfrid Payton’s hair. As the proud owner of a bird’s nest myself, I can only stand in awe of what Payton has gracing his scalp.

If my hair is a fitting abode for hawks, Elfrid’s is only fit for an eagle. Or a pterodactyl.

Oh yeah, the Blazers win. All hail Elfrid Payton’s hair.

Saturday, March 21: @ the Memphis Grizzlies, CSNNW, 5:00 PM

The Skinny: Oh man, that’s not fair. Facing this team on the end of a five-game Eastern road trip, on the second night of a back-to-back, with this being the second back-to-back on the trip, simply is cruel. This, my friends, is what the folks in the NBA biz call a “schedule loss.”

Memphis has had the Blazers’ number this season, and will have a golden opportunity for the 4-0 sweep on Saturday. Having already established their tiebreaker over the Blazers (like Portland did with the vile Rockets last week), the Grizzlies will look to separate themselves further than the current one-game lead they currently have on Portland for the second seed in the West.

Even with Mike Conley gimpy from a bad ankle, this team is very formidable despite their 3.1 net rating, which trails six of their fellow Western playoff teams. The defense isn’t quite as nasty one through 12 as in past years, but when your one and two are Marc Gasol and Tony Allen, with a healthy Conley a very close three, in the postseason that could be all you need.

Key Matchup: None. I could single out Aldridge and Gasol, or Lillard against Conley, or the Blazers’ wings against Allen, but I couldn’t choose one. Whether Portland finally cracks the Memphis Code won’t decided by one particular matchup. The Blazers will have to win all three to win the game.

Prediction: The Blazers don’t have enough in the tank, after a long road trip and on a back-to-back, to beat a team that’s dominated them all season long. Portland loses.

Last week, I picked the Blazers to go 3-0. That’s what keeping the faith will get you. This team must come out with the attitude that they have nothing to lose, that everybody outside of Rip City has counted them out. That attitude can be the fuel, and edge, they’ll need come playoff time.

Trail Blazers’ Record: 44-20 (3rd in West)

Jared’s Picks Record: 42-22

 

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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