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Portland Trail Blazers Week Preview – 3/24

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

 

Robin Lopez

If you’re still down from the Portland Trail Blazers coming back from their Eastern road trip battered, bruised and beaten, I’ve got some good news for you. The Blazers will still be in the fourth seed in the Western Conference playoffs as long as they win the Northwest Division, and that seems more likely with each passing day.

The Oklahoma City Thunder don’t know when their getting back superstar Kevin Durant, and they’re also without rim protector Serge Ibaka until the playoffs…if they get there. The Blazers have a five-game lead on OKC, with the head-to-head tiebreaker already in hand due to winning three games against the Thunder.

That means, with just 12 games remaining, the Thunder basically have to overcome a six-game lead with Russell Westbrook, a roster full of one-way players, and a coach who compares more favorably to your average camp counselor than a guy who’s coached a Finals team. Even if they defeat Portland in their final matchup of the year, it’s still unlikely they win the division, even if they have separated themselves in the race for the last playoff spot.

What I would like the Blazers to do is rest LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum, as well as anybody else, during this upcoming week. The Golden State Warriors come into town tonight, and the game will be on TNT, but it’d be more prudent for the Blazers to rip a page from the San Antonio Spurs’ playbook and punt this game and the next one, rest the starters, and move on to the second back-to-back of the week.

With the schedule suddenly serving up a diet of four-games-in-five-nights nonsense, waving the white flag until Friday is what the Blazers must do. 

It may not be honorable, and it could piss off Commissioner Adam Silver and the legions of NBA fans that want to see Warriors-Blazers as badly as I do, but with Aldridge, Batum, and Air Sasquatch all doubtful, they’ve no chance of beating them anyway.

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

I think I’ve made my thoughts on tonight’s game clear. Game starts at 7:30, and if you’re going to the game, I’m jealous that you get to watch Stephen Curry work. Blazers get whooped.

Wednesday, March 25: @ the Utah Jazz, CSNNW, 6:00

The Skinny: Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce the 2015-16 Jared Wright Stealth Pick for a playoff spot next year. This might seem high praise for a 31-39 team full of youngsters, but consider this: the Jazz are 12-5 since trading Enes Kanter after the All-Star break, even after a two-game losing streak where they lost to the Warriors (no shame) and the conference-worst Minnesota Timberwolves.

The advanced stats tell the story even better. The Jazz, largely due to their mammoth 7-2 center, Rudy “the Stifle Tower” Gobert, are leading the league in defensive rating post-All Star break, and it isn’t even close; the next best team in that span, Golden State, is more than five points behind Utah. That’s a bigger gap than the one between the Warriors and the Blazers, who rank 24th (gulp) in D-rating since the break.

The Jazz still are trying to work things out on offense; having either young point guard they have, be it Dante Exum or Trey Burke, distinguish themselves beyond denting the backboards with errant shots would help tremendously on offense. 

The big deal with young teams, however, is establishing an identity. Jazz coach Quin Snyder has brought the Jazz along as a potential Indiana Pacers-type of squad. Though Gordon Hayward is no Paul George, Gobert is certainly more athletic than Roy Hibbert, and is just scratching the surface of his potential.

Add in Derrick Favors, whatever the Rodney Hood/Alec Burks combo can do at shooting guard, and a couple good, veteran signings in the offseason, and next year’s Jazz could take teams by surprise as much as last year’s Blazers did.

Key Matchup: None. With Aldridge doubtful, Batum ailing, and Damian Lillard clearly superior to whomever Utah has at guard, there’s no real point in highlighting a matchup.

Prediction: Even were Aldridge able to play, Gobert did an amazing job snuffing his offense out in the last games these teams played. When you see someone as routinely unstoppable as LaMarcus Aldridge reduced to just a large dude in shorts, it sticks in your mind.

Utah beats Portland at home, again.

Friday, March 27: @ the Phoenix Suns, CSNNW, 7:00 PM

The Skinny: Here’s the part of the week that Portland should look to make some hay. Sure, the Suns are no joke, and desperate to boot, but after exchanging Goran Dragic for Brandon Knight, their offense has gone into the toilet.

Last year, when Dragic and Eric Bledsoe formed a two-headed point guard monster surrounded by crack three-point shooters, they were a legitimate thrill to watch. Winning 48 games with a fairly young roster, it was assumed that with another solid move or two, the Suns could keep pace in a West that was stacked with veteran teams, reliant upon veteran players bound to break down.

Instead, the Suns front office signed Isaiah Thomas, who then permanently fouled up the team’s chemistry by grumbling about minutes despite his destiny clearly being a sparkplug off the bench; players shorter than me (I stand 5-10) are not supposed to start in the NBA. Thomas sabotages the defense as much as he gooses the offense, and he also doesn’t realize, at this stage of his career, that putting up big numbers on a bad team is not as impressive as being a sixth man on a contending team. 

Phoenix messed up their team, to be succinct. Where they go from here, both next season and beyond, is anybody’s guess.

Key Matchup: Damian Lillard vs. Eric Bledsoe. The guy Phoenix did hold onto, fortunately for them, is pretty good. Having put his injury issues behind him, Bledsoe’s played every Suns game so far this year and is putting up 17 points a game, with 5.5 rebounds, six assists, and 45% shooting from the field. 

He’ll likely always be an average three-point shooter (he stands at 34.5% from three this season), but Bledsoe’s stocky build, attacking mentality, and athleticism ensure he doesn’t need to be a dead-eye shooter to be successful. Although Russell Westbrook is putting up stats that I can’t even manage in NBA 2k, Bledsoe is most similar to him in terms of how they play point guard, if not in actual production.

Lillard’s been shut down by Bledsoe in the past. With the other members of the Blazers’ core either out or hurting, the youngster needs to kick it up another notch (© Emeril LaGasse) and carry the Blazers to the regular season finish line.

Prediction: If the Warriors and Jazz do indeed take care of business, this will be a matchup of two beaten-down, desperate teams. Expect this one to be ugly, nasty, and chippy.

Portland plays the ugly, nasty, and chippy game better than the Suns do, so I’ll pick them to win.

Saturday, March 28: versus the Denver Nuggets, KGW, 7:00 PM

The Skinny: In every measurable way, be it the eye test on the court, the traditional stats, the saber metrics, or just listening to Brian Shaw throw players under the bus, the Denver Nuggets have sucked this season. From a Portland perspective, the Nuggets have been a buffet of cupcakes this season.

Denver, the city, went from a place the Blazers rarely won to the site where Portland hung 80 points in a single half. The Nuggets went from a freewheeling bunch of runners and gunners to a sullen collection of spoiled athletes, playing for a coach who seemed over his head.

Shaw isn’t the kind of coach for the roster the Nuggets have, but replacing a coach is much easier than a bunch of players with guaranteed contracts. While Melvin Hunt has the team playing better lately, don’t be fooled: that’s just the team reacting to Shaw not being there any longer.

The Nuggets are about to begin a painful rebuilding process. Whether they have the right men in the front office to bring Denver back to prominence, however, is questionable. 

After all, hiring Shaw was such an obvious mistake, several friends of mine were saying it would fail right from the start. GM Tim Connelly has to clear the roster out, strip it down to Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried, and rookie deals, and begin again. 

If I’m the Nuggets brass, I give Connelly the chance to atone for that kind of epic flub. You can’t really judge a GM until he gets his own vision out onto the court, and Connelly could only work with George Karl’s roster. Let’s see what the young executive can do.

Key Matchup: Arron Afflalo vs. Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari. I have to go with the former Nugget, Afflalo, against his former teammates on the wing.

Gallinari is a guy I want to highlight in particular. It was thought that his career was over after repeated knee surgeries robbed him of two seasons’ worth of his career, and his return this year hadn’t made people think otherwise. He looked slow, his shot was hesitant, and the liquid grace and accuracy that inspired the Nuggets to demand Gallo be included in the Carmelo Anthony trade looked gone forever.

The month of March, however, has been Gallinari’s oyster. He’s averaged 19.3 points per game, with 38% shooting from three and 90% from the line. The shooting stats are key, since he can no longer just drive by opponents. 

At 6-10, he does possess the height to get his shot away over most wings, and as he ages (and hopefully, with some luck with injuries for once), the herky-jerky moves and unpredictable shimmy-shakes other players with limited mobility have mastered can be utilized by Gallo to create offense for a team that suddenly needs it.

Chandler can defend the scorers that Gallinari, with those bad knees, can no longer chase around. Afflalo is expected to guard Gallinari on defense, especially if Batum’s back continues to give him gyp. Chandler will then check Afflalo when the Blazers have the ball.

Afflalo’s play against his old friends will go a long way towards deciding this game, and since the Blazers really need a couple wins to ice the division, they can’t afford to let this chance slip away.

Prediction: Leopards don’t change their spots. If things start to go south, expect the Nuggets to fold. Blazers win.

Last week, the Blazers and I both went 0-4. The first such week for the Blazers this season is also my first 0-4 week. Guess I can’t let a few big wins carry me away. #fandom

Trail Blazers’ Record: 44-24 (4th in West, .001 ahead of LAC, ½ game in front of SAS)

Jared’s Picks Record: 42-26

 

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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