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Portland Trail Blazers Week Preview And Predictions – 3/2

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

 

The Portland Trail Blazers, in five days, went from suffering futility against the Houston Rockets to sweeping a weekend back-to-back against the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers to start a long six-game road trip. Young teams like the Blazers are given to erratic swings like this in the NBA; one game, they look like world-beaters against perhaps the best team ever in Golden State, the next, they gag away a 20-point third-quarter lead against a Houston squad they’d dominated recently.

The Rockets game, in particular, was discouraging. Watching that game, I saw a team in the Blazers that was crisp, playing together, and passing beautifully. Open threes, free runs to the rim, and general dissection by Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. The Rockets were blaming one another, their body language poor and uninterested in the blowout happening at Portland’s hands. 

After halftime, the Blazers let up on the gas. The eruption of James Harden, coupled with the tough defense played by Trevor Ariza and Corey Brewer (both around six-foot-eight) on Lillard and McCollum (both around six-foot-three), turned that game from yet another example of Portland’s team superiority into an example of Harden’s individual superiority, as well as Ariza/Brewer negating Portland’s backcourt. Teams that could be playing the Blazers in April (assuming they get there) will remember what the Rockets did in that game, and the unfortunate thing is, all of the top three teams have the athletes available to execute Houston’s strategy against Lillard and McCollum.

On the other side of the coin, Portland went into a very tough weekend against the Bulls and Pacers, not only one of those NBA back-to-backs, but at the start of a long Eastern road trip as well. Pro athletes are conditioned to shrug off a bad game and a good game alike, but given that the Rockets are right behind them in the standings, the loss, and the way it happened, had to sting some.

Any hangover from the Houston game apparently disappeared on the flight to Chicago. The Blazers won a tough, sloppy game against the Bulls, using defense (for once). And as for the Pacers game (which I also watched), Lillard simply decided to do his best Steph Curry impression and stake the Blazers to a big lead. This time, Portland held on; it was probably the most stress-free game I’ve watched from the Blazers all year, and not just because of the beer and chicken tenders, and the tasty fries my buddy let me inhale.

Young teams can be a pain in the ass to watch because they’re not consistent. They’re mostly trying to learn how to win games, and the fact that most of these teams tend to be bad doesn’t help either. 

The occasional moment when a young team achieves a great thing, whether it’s defeating the Warriors or sweeping a Chicago-Indiana back-to-back, make the frustration and hand-wringing worth it though, to me at least. The weekend’s games coming after one of the most disappointing losses of the season makes this progress that much sweeter to watch…even if the Blazers are liable to give some of that progress back later on down the line.

Time for picks! Let’s go! (All stats courtesy of NBA.com and basketball-reference.com)

All games can be heard on the new radio partner of Oregon Sports News, AM 620 Rip City Radio!

Wednesday, March 2: @ the Boston Celtics, 4:30 PM, CSNNW

The Skinny: If the Blazers overachieved so far this year, then the Celtics damn sure did. At least the Blazers have a legit star in Lillard, and an angry one at that. Boston doesn’t have anybody on their team that’s close to Lillard’s talent level; hell, I’d go so far as to say I’m not sure there’s anybody on the Celtics better than CJ McCollum.

And as good a job as Terry Stotts has done in Portland this year, he won’t win Coach of the Year. Boston’s coach, Brad Stevens, has done even more with a bunch of middling veterans, youngsters with limited ceilings, and a still-learning Marcus Smart. The Celtics are two games ahead of the banged-up Miami Heat for third in the East.

I told my friend that if Terry Stotts was a professor at Hogwarts, then Brad Stevens was Headmaster. (Because they’re both wizards. Get it? Hahahaha…I’ll leave now.)

Boston’s one of eight NBA teams with a winning record both at home and on the road. They are fourth in the league in Defensive Rating (better than the Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Oklahoma City Thunder). They are a tenth of a point behind the New Orleans Pelicans for 10th in the league in Offensive Rating; teams that are top ten in both sides of rating tend to be really good teams.

However, the Celtics shoot poorly, especially from three-point range, where they are fourth-worst in the NBA. Their big men are a combination of the slow, the soft, and the one-dimensional. Their top scorer, Isaiah Thomas, is shorter than I am, and incapable of playing good defense at the NBA level. Stevens’ genius doesn’t translate to the court very well, with such limited players and Thomas being a freelancing waterbug looking to score first, second, and always.

It certainly seems like the Celtics’ success this season is something straight out of fantasy, a realm of fiction where two midgets can go to Mordor and topple the second-most evil entity of all time, or where an 11-year-old boy, abused all his life, grows up to destroy the obscenely powerful wizard that killed his parents. Maybe Brad Stevens is channeling Frodo Baggins and Harry Potter in his quest to take a team of dwarves, misfits, and goobers to the pinnacle of the one sports league in the world that actively works against the underdog.

Stevens and the Celtics will fail, but I for one will be curious to see just how far they’ll get. I may even be rooting for them as well.

I’m a sucker for a good underdog story. It’s what being a Blazer fan is all about.

Player To Watch: CJ McCollum. One thing Boston does have are some extremely good defensive guards, especially Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart. Expect one of those two to be attached to CJ all game. Let’s hope McCollum took a few lessons from getting hounded in the Houston game.

Prediction: The Celtics beat the Blazers, and get one day closer to Mount Doom.

Friday, March 4: @ the Toronto Raptors, 4:30 PM, CSNNW

The Skinny: The sledding doesn’t get any easier, man. The Blazers’ third game in four nights has to come against a Raptors team that is not only playing some of the best ball this season, but is playing the best ball in the franchise’s existence. From January 6 to the All-Star break, Toronto lost only two games. 

Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozen, and company have made their best case possible as a potential challenger to Cleveland in the East. With the fifth-best offense in the league, and two All-Stars, it does seem like the Raptors could make a Conference Finals for the first time ever this season, and play with house money from there. And Kyle Lowry with house money is NOT a guy I want playing against my team if I’m a Cavs fan.

As with every other pseudo-contender, though, there are issues with the Raptors. Jonas Valanciunas has regressed a bit on offense and made no strides on defense. DeMarre Carroll has only played 23 games this season. Toronto is a thin team, going only about eight-deep some nights, and the added burden on Lowry and DeRozen could break them in May. 

The Raptors also have a recent history of spectacular failure in the playoffs, losing as a superior seed to Brooklyn in 2014 and getting swept--decisively--by Washington in a four/five matchup last year. The stink of those crushing, embarrassing defeats led Lowry to shed more than 20 pounds of weight in the summer, and led the Raptors management to sign Carroll, who earned the moniker of “Junkyard Dog” in Atlanta for his gritty, 3-and-D play.

That stink of defeat will hang around the Raptors until they can advance out of the first round, and this season represents the best chance they’ll ever get to do that. If they fail this time, GM Masai Ujiri will probably have to blow the roster up and start anew, however unpopular it might be in the T-Dot.

Player To Watch: Damian Lillard. Dame vs. Lowry is always interesting; two players with huge chips on their shoulders, all the confidence in the world, and a total green light from their coaches to do as they please. Sign me up.

Prediction: The Blazers are getting tired, and they’re facing a team that’s a clear tier above them. Raptors win.

Sunday March 6: @ the Detroit Pistons, 3:00 PM, CSNNW and NBATV (Note: NBATV will black the game out if you’re in the Oregon/SW Washington market.)

The Skinny: The Pistons have been a pleasant surprise this season, with the signing of young, disgruntled point guard Reggie Jackson working out brilliantly for Pistons czar Stan Van Gundy. Jackson is now happy and productive in Detroit (imagine any young person being happy in Detroit…). Jackson/Andre Drummond is a pick-and-roll combination that should terrorize the NBA for 10 solid years, provided Jackson continues improving his outside shot and Drummond stays healthy.

As for this year, looking at the Eastern standings calls a few words to mind that I can’t put into print, so I have to take the long route to explaining just how crazy it currently is out East.

In the first spot, you have Cleveland. They just took a loss to Toronto a few days ago, but the Raptors lost to these same Pistons on Sunday, so they gave a half-game back. Toronto sits a couple games behind the Cavs, with a real chance of catching them still.

Several games below them are the Celtics in third, and they look to stay there; two games below them are the Miami Heat and Atlanta Hawks, and between Chris Bosh’s renewed blood clot scares and Atlanta having lost a couple steps, they look to be deadlocked into a four/five matchup.

Six through nine is, to put it mildly, a $*#^%$ mess.

Detroit, Indiana, Charlotte, and Chicago are ALL TIED with the same 51.7 winning percentage as of Tuesday. Detroit and Indiana have won and lost one more game than the Hornets or Bulls, but other than that, yeah, they all be tied, Jack. Insane. Washington is also one and a half games back of that mass of teams, and John Wall is desperate to salvage his team’s season by hook or by crook.

With about six weeks or so to go in the regular season, drama regarding the final three seeds in the East will likely be the big story. Detroit hasn’t made the playoffs in a long while, and getting back there, even if it’s only to get destroyed in four straight by LeBron James’ team, would be a nice reward for the players and the fans, and validation for Stan Van Gundy. Just a few years after being undermined and pushed out of Orlando by that witless child-man Dwight Howard, Stan Van can show the basketball world that he’s still got it.

Player To Watch: Mason Plumlee. I hope he and Ed Davis don’t get embarrassed too badly by Drummond. They should rack up more than their fair share of fouls this game; Drummond shoots only 37% on free throws. There are literally dozens of guys that shoot better from the three-point line than Drummond does from the foul line.

If Plumlee doesn’t foul out of this game, he should be fined. I kid you not.

Prediction: I really want to pick the Blazers to win. I really do. But at the butt end of a long Eastern trip, against a young team in a total dogfight for a playoff spot, desperate to make it into the postseason…I can’t pick Portland.

Detroit wins.

Last week, the Blazers caught me up. We’re tied, and if the Blazers exceed expectations this week, they could pull out ahead. Either way, one or the other will separate themselves.

Trail Blazers’ Record: 32-28        

Jared’s Picks Record: 32-28

 

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