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Portland Trail Blazers Week Preview – 3/4

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

 

The Portland Trail Blazers stringing together a 3-0 week is something they haven’t done in a solid month. Before beating the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder at home, and stomping the Boogie Cousins-less Kings in Sacramento, the Blazers were scuffling along as a sub-.500 pace since MLK Day.

I admit to not watching much basketball lately; you try disassembling two tons worth of old TV sets per day with nothing but a drill, hammer, and cutters, and see how you hold up. While I was snoozing, LaMarcus Aldridge seems to have figured out how to roll to the hoop after he sets a screen.

With everybody doubling him when he isolates, especially after Aldridge’s epic undressing of Serge Ibaka on Friday, Aldridge is finding other ways to get his points, bad thumbs be damned.

Going hard to the hoop, getting out in transition (Aldridge runs the floor better than most bigs, a skill he‘s had from his first NBA game), and crashing the offensive glass for putbacks are all ways Aldridge has helped the Blazers during their modest three-game winning streak. 

One lineup that has incredible offensive potential is Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Arron Afflalo, Wesley Matthews and Damian Lillard. Surrounding Aldridge with four shooters, with everybody except Matthews capable of the drive-and-kick, is the kind of scenario found in Mike D’Antoni’s fever dreams.

Normally, taking out Robin Lopez is a definite no; Aldridge has long ago made his distaste for playing center known. Against the Thunder on Friday, Portland went to the lineup I mentioned above when OKC coach Scott Brooks went small. If Kevin Durant had been available, he would have played the “four” position, Brooks’ version of throwing a curveball.

With Ibaka playing the “five,” Aldridge felt comfortable enough to go at him (and take him to the woodshed), and with Batum and Matthews sharing duty on the supernova that is Russell Westbrook, the Blazers were able to eke out a massive victory. Not only do the Blazers have a huge lead in the Northwest Division on the Thunder, they also have the season series tiebreaker as well, having taken all three games they‘ve played so far. It would take a monstrous collapse to lose that lead.

The Afflalo trade didn’t just net a capable sixth man and third wing for Portland. Afflalo also affords them more lineup flexibility. Going small against a team like Phoenix, who plays plenty of smaller guards at all times (even after the Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas trades), or squads like the Thunder and Houston Rockets (the latter of which relies on long-armed perimeter players for pressure defense while Dwight Howard heals) that go small to change things up, lets the Blazers stay effective without the plodding Lopez getting beat by quicker players.

Personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing the Blazers and Thunder, both teams fully healthy, square off in the playoffs, with small lineups on both sides. Seeing Aldridge-Batum-Afflalo-Matthews-Lillard go against Ibaka-Durant-Anthony Morrow-Westbrook-D.J. Augustin would be an offensive bonanza. Seven games of that, please.

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

Miercoles, 4 marzo (Wednesday, March 4): @ the Los Angeles Clippers, CSNNW and ESPN, 7:30 PM

The Skinny: These teams are practically neck-and-neck in the current standings, so this game is even more important than the usual “two teams enter, one team leaves” Mad Max-style Western Conference Contender Deathmatch Game. 

The Clippers have been tearing up the league since Blake Griffin had surgery to remove a staph infection a couple weeks back. In fact, when they did have Griffin, the Clippers were struggling so badly that some folks were wondering if they would fall to eighth, behind the Rodeo Road Tripping Spurs and the hard-charging Thunder.

Without their best player, Los Angeles has climbed into a virtual deadlock with Portland for home-court advantage, while the Spurs suffered their first losing Rodeo Trip ever, and OKC lost Durant and Westbrook…again. Go freaking figure.

It seems insane to think this, given Griffin’s masterful passing and offensive skill, but maybe the Clippers as a team could be better off without Griffin mucking up the paint for DeAndre Jordan, taking midrange jumpers when Chris Paul could penetrate and kick, or failing to affect shots on defense with those T-Rex arms of his. Addition by subtraction is a thing in sports, and Griffin’s enough of a douche bag to justify kicking to another team.

It won’t ever happen; Griffin was the starting point of the Clippers’ surge into relevance, and his very real skills coupled with that symbolism endure he’ll be a Clipper until he doesn’t want to be. 

Still, the mind is free to wander. After all, Patrick Ewing was a ball-dominant, jump-shooting big man with flaws. Ewing ended up being the poster boy for superstars that couldn’t get it done when the chips were down, and while Paul’s shouldered most of the blame for the Clippers’ postseason flameouts, let’s not forget Griffin’s role in this.

It’s very easy to see Blake Griffin replacing Patrick Ewing as the shining example of superstar futility. At least, it is for me.

Key Matchup: Robin Lopez vs. DeAndre Jordan. Given the month Jordan’s had, how can I go anywhere else? Prepare to get smacked with numbers.

Since Griffin went on the shelf, Jordan has gone completely berserk. To start with, he’s averaged 17 points and 20.5 rebounds per game. He averaged 20.5 rebounds per game since Griffin went down. Insane. 

He also has a net rating of 13.2 during that span; that would be higher than any non-Golden State Warriors’ net rating among qualified players if that was a season-long total. Jordan’s defensive rebounding percentage of 38% reveals both his incredible ability, and the lack of ability of the other Clipper bigs.

Somebody had to get the available rebounds with Griffin out, and Spencer Hawes and Big Baby Davis are horrible rebounding bigs, but still, the man has averaged TWENTY REBOUNDS OVER EIGHT GAMES. 

In February, Jordan pulled down six offensive rebounds per game, either putting them back or getting fouled. On the season, he is shooting 72% (!!!!) from the field…and 41% from the free-throw line. That’s Apex Shaquille O’Neal numbers, without the volume in points or shots, and Jordan’s a better rebounder than Shaq ever was. Disgusting on all kinds of levels.

RoLo can’t hope to contain this unleashed beast on his own, but lucky for him Aldridge has been going on a rebounding tear of his own lately. Both of those guys together will have to try (repeat: TRY) to keep Jordan from dominating the glass, and everyone on the perimeter must crash down to keep another Clipper from taking advantage of the attention being paid to Jordan, and snaring the board.

Prediction: In the end, it won’t be Chris Paul, or Jordan, that proves to be the Blazers’ downfall. It will be spending a night in Los Angeles.

If you’re a young millionaire in Los Angeles, what would you do for a night out? The Blazers feel the effects of a night out, and lose.

Jueves, 5 marzo (Thursday, March 5): versus the Dallas Mavericks, TNT, 7:45 PM

The Skinny: As I’m writing this, the Mavs are 39-22, tied with the Blazers in the win column, but with three more losses. Yet another team caught in the Western Conference Thunderdome, Dallas has been dealing with issues caused by their big trade acquisition, point guard Rajon Rondo.

Anybody who knows of Rondo could see this coming a mile away. Mercurial at the best of times, destructive at the worst of them, Rondo’s starting to veer towards “destructive,” and with no Kevin Garnett or Paul Pierce on the roster to rein him in, Coach Rick Carlisle (who’s a much respected coach) is forced to butt heads with the maddening genius without support from the locker room.

Dirk Nowitzki is the franchise player, but he’s the kind of guy that leads by example. Like Aldridge, Dirk’s a chill kind of guy--the kind that Rondo, who was weaned on Garnett’s in-your-face intensity in Boston, likely won’t respect no matter how many points Nowitzki’s scored or how deadly a weapon Dirk is on the pick-and-pop. 

Center Tyson Chandler is another respected veteran, but after spending two years in the basketball hell known as the New York Knicks, he’s tired of babysitting. Honestly, I don’t blame him; he tried to impart lessons of professionalism while in New York, but they got thrown in his face. Holding Rondo’s hand won’t appeal to Chandler, even if Rondo were amenable to guidance.

While the likes of Oklahoma City and Portland made trades that bolstered their teams with minimal cost, Dallas went big, and paid a big cost. They went for the jugular with the Rondo trade, but it seems more and more likely that their target (their playoffs first-round opponent) will sidestep the thrust, and respond with a counterthrust that vanquishes the Mavs almost before they get started.

Key Matchup: LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Dirk Nowitzki. I highlight the power forward matchup not because it’ll have a large impact on who wins the game (though Aldridge’s defense on Nowitzki will be a factor), but because I like watching Dirk on the court, and imagining what Aldridge’s game will look like in eight or 10 years.

Nowitzki doesn’t move very well anymore; in fact, he sometimes looks like a mummy out there. His game was never big on athleticism, though. The precise footwork and the soft shooting stroke are still there, and will always be there until the day Dirk hangs up his sneakers.

Barring bad injury luck, it’s easy to see Aldridge’s game aging the same way. He never has been as prolific as Nowitzki, but that’s not a cause for shame--Dirk’s easily one of the best to ever play basketball. As long as Aldridge continues refining that jumper, and extending his range, he has a good chance to age as gracefully as those power forwards who came before him.

Prediction: National TV, against a team that’s undersized and in disarray, and at home? Of course I pick the Blazers to win.

Robin Lopez

Sabado, 7 marzo (Saturday, March 7): @ the Minnesota Timberwolves, CSNNW, 5:00 PM

The Skinny: There are three power forwards who came into the league in the late 1990s, from three different walks of life. These three went on to become sure-fire first-ballot Hall-of-Famers, three of the best 25 players ever, and left their own unique marks on the NBA along the way.

One was Tim Duncan. Five-time NBA champion, the model of consistency, the most adaptable superstar of all time, and the man widely acknowledged as the best ever at his position, Duncan grew up in the Caribbean and was a swimmer before taking up basketball. 

After a four-year career at Wake Forest, Duncan was drafted by San Antonio, where he learned from franchise center David Robinson. Duncan would go on to teach those lessons to two foreign players with wild athleticism named Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.

The second was Dirk Nowitzki. Growing up in Wurzburg, Germany, Dirk initially played handball, a sport the Germans historically excelled at. He said that he thought basketball was a woman’s sport as a kid, because his mother and older sister played (his mom was a member of Germany’s national team). He didn’t pick up a basketball until he watched the Dream Team play in the Barcelona Olympics, but once he did, he started refining the shooting stroke that made him a legend.

The third was Kevin Garnett. One of the first high school-to-NBA players, the skinny 7-footer played the game with a wild-eyed intensity that made you fear for the safety of anybody unlucky enough to guard, or be guarded, by him. A defensive terror and surprisingly sturdy rebounder, Garnett put the Minnesota Timberwolves, a franchise whose prior claim to fame was drafting college immortal Christian Laettner, on the NBA map.

After the trade that brought him back to Minnesota, Garnett’s career has come full circle. He has a chance to reconnect with the people that blindsided him with the trade to the Boston Celtics in 2007 (he’d go on to win a title in Beantown, but always regretted not doing the same in Minnesota), as well as reestablish himself in the community in preparation to, perhaps, own a piece of the Timberwolves.

While Duncan has the obvious edge in titles, he’s not quite the face of the franchise that Garnett and Nowitzki are for their respective teams. Before Duncan, there was Robinson, and before him was the Iceman, George Gervin. Some NBA teams are lucky enough to have multiple transcendent players in their history. Others are either too new, or were too horrible, to have a defining figure in their history.

The Timberwolves, woebegone as they have been through much of their 26-year history, do have one such player. Kevin Garnett didn’t just play for the franchise. He IS the franchise, just like Nowitzki IS the Dallas Mavericks and Dwyane Wade IS the Miami Heat. 

Old and broken-down he may be, but it’s still good to see him back where he belongs.

Key Matchup: Wesley Matthews vs. Andrew Wiggins. The Ghost of Timberwolves Past may have returned, but the player that will worry the Blazers, and the player who’s been running roughshod over the league, is the Ghost of Timberwolves Future.

Last time he played the Blazers at home, Wiggins posted his first career double-double, and led Minnesota to a surprising upset victory. The runaway Rookie of the Year looks to be every bit the franchise player the Wolves have needed since they traded away Garnett, and with the Big Ticket back to mentor him and the other young Wolves, Wiggins has a future that looks to be bounded only by what Flip Saunders can do to surround him with the proper talent.

All I know is, Minnesota has a second chance with Wiggins. They failed to put a championship team around Garnett because of front-office incompetence, and while Saunders was not in charge then, he still was the coach, and worked for the men that fouled up Garnett’s title window so very badly.

Note to Flip: Don’t cock this one up.

Prediction: The Wolves have been riding a sugar high after the trade for Garnett, and Ricky Rubio’s return. However, what goes up has to come down.

By the time we get to this game, the excitement will have worn off, and the Blazers will show the Wolves just how far they still have to go.

Last week, the Blazers refused to lose. I picked them to lose to the Thunder because I’m a terrible human being. At least I’m not the kind of guy who’d order orange soda in a bar.

Trail Blazers’ Record: 39-19 (4th in West)

Jared’s Picks Record: 38-20

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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