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Portland Trail Blazers Week Preview – 4/6

Monday, April 06, 2015

 

What was assumed since the season started with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on the shelf finally was set in stone last week. The Portland Trail Blazers have won their first outright division title in a non-lockout season since 1992, guaranteeing themselves a matchup with the fifth seed in the Western Conference playoffs.

Whether that opponent is the Los Angeles Clippers (who defeated the Blazers in Portland last week) or the San Antonio Spurs (who looked scary while obliterating the league-best Golden State Warriors last night; I watched that game on NBATV) will likely be decided on the very last games, taking place next week. 

Either way, Damian Lillard will have a damned difficult playoff series against either team. Chris Paul of the Clippers is regarded as the best point guard defender in the league, while the Spurs’ latest phenom, Kawhi Leonard, is definitely the best perimeter defender in the league. 

If you’re wondering whether other guys (like our own Wesley Matthews) might have an argument against Leonard, well, anybody that can strip the dribble of Stephen Curry, glide in for the breakaway jam, and make the act seem so casual is worthy of respect and a healthy dose of fear. I watched Leonard pull that off twice against the Warriors on Sunday, with Curry dribbling casually up the court, surveying the defense, before Leonard pounced and poked the ball away. Leonard was so quick to the ball that Curry, himself a speedster, couldn’t even react beyond “Whaaa!?”

Curry is better with the ball than Lillard is. Even though Paul is himself a tough matchup, Leonard scares the freaking piss out of me. I cringe every time I imagine Lillard trying to bring the ball up with that freak breathing down his neck.

The Blazers had a great week, wrapping up the division and securing back-to-back 50-win seasons, no mean feat in the murderous West. Whether that success translates to the postseason is the real question.

Pundits did highly doubt the Blazers when they were matched up with Houston last year, though. We all know how that turned out. Rip City looks to be underdogs again this year, and I don’t think the Blazers players would have it any other way.

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

Monday, April 6: @ the Brooklyn Nets, CSNNW, 4:00 PM

The Skinny: This game was rescheduled because of the massive snowstorm that engulfed the New York area last winter. The players aren’t all that thrilled; LaMarcus Aldridge kept repeating “It’s a really long flight” when asked about going to Brooklyn for a one-game road trip, then back across the country to play Minnesota at home on Wednesday.

Besides the weird nature of this game (which could be enough to throw the players off by itself. Pro athletes are creatures of habit in the strictest sense, and a game back East this late has happened very rarely in the Blazers’ history), there’s also the issue of the Nets themselves, who are currently riding a hot stretch of play as the season winds down.

Brooklyn is 10-3 in their last 13 games, including a six-game winning streak that was snapped on Saturday by the Atlanta Hawks, who the Nets are trying like hell to avoid by climbing into the seventh seed (the Hawks are locked into the one-seed). Left for dead as recently as two weeks ago, Brooklyn now looks to not only make the playoffs, but maybe make a little noise.

It won’t happen, of course; the Cleveland Cavaliers are the likely two-seed, and they have a much better team and happen to employ some guy named LeBron James. 

Ah well, we all need our delusions of grandeur. 

Key Matchup: Robin Lopez vs. Brook Lopez. The stats on Brook Lopez tell a simple story: how the fragile seven-footer goes, so the Nets go. Brook had a great March, averaging 21 PPG, 9 RPG, shooting 55% from the field, and posting a positive net rating.

The rating is important to note, and not really because Brook has been a net negative when you factor in the entire season. In Brooklyn’s 31 wins that Lopez was a part of, he has a net rating of 11.4.

In the 35 losses he played in, Brook’s net rating was a -15.7. 

So yeah, if Brook Lopez plays very well, the Nets have a great chance of winning. If Robin Lopez can take his twin out of the game, Portland should have an easy time.

Prediction: Despite their recent stretch of play, the only decent team Brooklyn’s beaten lately is the Cavs. The Blazers happen to be a decent team. Portland wins.

Wednesday, April 8: versus the Minnesota Timberwolves, CSNNW, 7:00 PM

The Skinny: At 16-60, the Wolves stink this year. The development of runaway Rookie of the Year leader Andrew Wiggins has been rapid, welcome, and awesome to watch, but the rest of the team is either a bad fit (Kevin Martin, Nikola Pekovic) or in a state of flux.

The Wolves will have a top-five pick in the upcoming draft, and spending it on a big man seems the way to go. With Wiggins entrenched at small forward, picking another wing like Stanley Johnson or Justise Winslow might seem like overkill, though given the dearth of quality wings in the NBA, the Wolves might take either young man if they miss out on Jahlil Okafor or one of Kentucky’s Dash Brothers. With Ricky Rubio manning the point, they’re set there as well.

Willie Cauley-Stein would seem like the best fit, as a rim protecting big that could play next to the defense-averse Pekovic. Adding a non-shooter to a team that employs a youngster trying to establish himself in Wiggins and a terrible shooter in Rubio could submarine the offense, but taking Okafor and his polished post game would create complications of its own, either pushing Pekovic out of the paint or clogging it up with two big men (and a non-shooting point guard) on the floor.

President/coach Flip Saunders has his work cut out for him in the coming months, but one thing he can bank on is that Wiggins looks completely worthy of being 2014’s first overall draft pick.

Key Matchup: Nicolas Batum vs. Andrew Wiggins. I’ve highlighted Wiggins in past previews, and while his per-game production is impressive for a rookie (averaging 16.4 PPG), his shooting has remained the same: great in the restricted area, terrible everywhere else. 

Wiggins has learned how to leverage his incredible length and athleticism to get to the hoop and score despite the Wolves’ poor spacing, giving Minnesota an embryonic first-option type of player. The next step, to be taken in the offseason, is to improve that outside shot; Wiggins shoots 32% from three and a putrid 31% from midrange.

One thing he could do is consult fellow Canadian (and General Manager of Team Canada) Steve Nash, who has a solid argument as the best shooter ever. Becoming at least league-average from range, as well as continuing to improve on his surprisingly adept defense, will allow Wiggins to take the leap from “good rookie” to “bright young star” in short order.

Prediction: Minnesota’s actually defeated Portland twice this year, but both games were in Minnesota. Playing at home, and hoping to keep pace in the race for home-court, the Blazers take this chance to teach the Timberpups one final lesson.

Thursday, April 9: @ the Golden State Warriors, TNT, 7:45 PM

I won’t go too in-depth, despite not doing so when these teams played at the end of March; even after the egg they laid against the Spurs, the Warriors have home-court advantage wrapped up throughout the playoffs, and they don’t look to be resting guys.

I support Warriors coach Steve Kerr’s stance on this, by the way. Most of their key guys are young, they’ve been destroying teams all season, and if the likes of Andre Iguodala or Andrew Bogut need a day or two to rest their veteran legs, it won’t do any real harm. Let them play and build momentum for what looks to be an extremely challenging playoff gauntlet.

With that attitude, and the national attention of TNT on this game, I expect the Warriors will play anybody that’s healthy, and blow out the Blazers for the second time in 20 days.

Saturday, April 11: versus the Utah Jazz, KGW, 7:00 PM

The Skinny: Like Minnesota, the Jazz are a young team in a rebuilding phase, but the similarities end there. Although teams are now figuring out how to attack the Derrick Favors-Rudy Gobert Towers of Doom defense (like Portland did a couple weeks ago) and score, the Jazz still have the bedrock of a top ten-caliber defense.

Utah’s in a interesting place right now in terms of their roster. The core of their roster is set, but they need a point guard that can shoot, and waiting on either Trey Burke or Dante Exum to acquire that skill could compromise the upward trajectory they seem to be on, though NBA personnel people warn against identifying trends in March and April, when some teams just mail it in and wait for the season to end.

Since trading away Enes Kanter and freeing up time for Gobert to swallow opposing possessions alive, Utah’s found a path to success they could follow. Trying to mold their team like the Indiana Pacers in the first half of this decade could work; Memphis has become a contender by grinding out games. Even though the West is stacked with good teams, great players, and youngsters on the rise, if the Jazz really can develop into Pacers West, the return to prominence for this proud franchise will be that much quicker.

Key Matchup: LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Rudy Gobert. Aldridge shot almost as poorly on the 25th of March against this team as he did the first time he went up against Gobert. The Stifle Tower gained Internet fame in that game by stuffing Aldridge in a box, duct-taping it, and kicking it into the Willamette.

Aldridge got to the free-throw line against Utah on the 25th, sinking five freebies to supplement his 7-18 shooting and provide 19 much-needed points in a surprising Portland win.

The strategy will have to be the same: get to the line as often as possible, move the ball, and make every open shot count, because there won’t be many. Rebounding will also have to be a big part of Aldridge’s game. Even if the offensive putbacks won’t be there due to Favors and Gobert, defensive rebounding will be crucial. Holding the bricky Jazz players to one shot per possession will go a long way towards sinking their average offense.

Prediction: I was burned after picking the Blazers to lose in Utah. I’ll apply the same logic here that I did to the Minnesota game. Blazers are at home against a young team, and they should prevail.

Last week, the Blazers not only clinched the Northwest, but due to my picks this week, they’ve also clinched at least a tie with me.

Sure, I could be a douche and pick the remaining six games on the schedule as losses, but I don’t care that much about breaking even. And if the team’s got a better record than me, they’ve had a great year! It’s okay, it’s all good…

*sniff sniff*

Trail Blazers’ Record: 50-26 (½ game behind SAS, 1 game behind LAC, 1 ½ games behind MEM)

Jared’s Picks Record: 47-29

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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