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Portland Trail Blazers Week Preview – Dec. 9

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

 

Steve Blake of the Portland Trail Blazers

At 16-4, the Portland Trail Blazers have just about hit the quarter mark in the 2014-15 NBA season. Anybody and everybody can declare that kind of record a resounding success, and while Portland did fatten up on the impotent East (9-0 against Eastern Conference opponents, including home victories against Cleveland and Chicago), the Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets have done the same. 

Being a good team is mostly about beating the bad ones (Captain Obvious award going to me). The Blazers have made some of those games an adventure, particularly on the road, but thanks to LaMarcus Aldridge they’ve come out on top whenever they played a game back East. 

A key reason why Portland’s been very good to start with has been the improved bench. In particular, Allen Crabbe and Joel Freeland have been surprisingly useful.

At the start of the year, the worries about the Blazers’ bench have been mostly about whether the two veterans, Steve Blake and Chris Kaman (AKA Air Sasquatch), had anything left. Another topic du jour was what to expect from CJ McCollum, drafted in the lottery to be a light-it-up third guard, and Meyers Leonard, drafted in the lottery to be the center of the future.

Blake and Air Sasquatch have become the sixth and seventh men Portland’s desperately needed since coach Terry Stotts took the job in Rip City. McCollum, though, broke his finger, and Leonard still doesn’t have much of a clue about how to play basketball.

Enter Crabbe and Freeland. Crabbe is a former second-round pick out of Cal, where he starred as an offensive maven who couldn’t play a lick of defense. He fell to the second round because NBA teams value potential more than anything else; he pretty much suffered from Wesley Matthews Syndrome. Crabbe can shoot very well, but he had nothing else to offer an NBA team at the time of his draft, and if you’re not 19 years old or foreign, most NBA teams will ignore you if you’re someone like Allen Crabbe.

Crabbe hasn’t been spectacular, but in his 12 or so minutes a game, he makes a couple very good plays that stand out. In Sunday’s game in New York, Crabbe had a couple key baskets and a big block. He scored only six points, but the margin of the game was four. 

His outings so far have been along that same vein, as well as Freeland’s. Drafted in the butt-end of the first round in 2006, Freeland came to these shores from England last season. He beat out Leonard for backup center minutes behind Robin Lopez, but with the signing of Kaman in the offseason, Freeland fell by the wayside. People were more enamored of Thomas Robinson’s athleticism and Leonard’s potential (that word again…), yet when they failed to be useful, there was Freeland sitting there like a PBJ sandwich, always there when you need him.

Crabbe still needs to work on his defense (though I’ll admit he’s been good for a young guy on the perimeter), and Freeland’s been a foul machine, but getting solid don’t-shoot-us-in-the-foot-PLEASE play from your third wing player and fourth big man is good enough for a team like the Blazers, whose starting five players are a good a unit you’ll find in the league. Maybe Crabbe and Freeland, assuming Stotts isn’t tempted to go with guys of a higher pedigree, could be the eighth and ninth men Portland needs to seriously contend for a championship.

Stars like Aldridge and Damian Lillard usually are drafted high, but your role players tend to come from everywhere in the draft and the world. McCollum, Robinson and Leonard may have “lottery pick” on their resumes, but Crabbe and Freeland have been better fits so far. Crabbe’s 6’6” frame and shooting ability allow Stotts to use him as a true backup to Nicolas Batum or Matthews, and Freeland’s heady play and resourcefulness set him apart from Robinson and Leonard.

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

Tuesday, Dec. 9: @ the Detroit Pistons, CSNNW, 4:30 PM

The Skinny: When I submitted last week’s preview, my editor looked over the part about the New York Knicks and said, “Holy macro this team sucks.” Other than Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks have nobody worth mentioning without mockery (and most folks mock Anthony anyway); all their players had good offensive games against the Blazers, and they still lost.

Take away Carmelo Anthony from the Knicks, and they become the Pistons. 

Where to begin with this team? Detroit’s former top executive, Pistons legend Joe Dumars, did a horrible job the last several years of his tenure, but the deed that finally got him the axe was signing the mercurial Josh Smith to a four-year, $54 million contract. 

Smith is a terrible fit for this team because he falls too much in love with his jumper (he’s a career 28% shooter from three, one of the worst marks among players with at least 1,000 career attempts), making him unfit to play on the wing. Unfortunately, Dumars also had two young big men in Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond penciled in as starters. Dumars made the modern cardinal sin of grabbing talent for talent’s sake, disregarding FIT and CHEMISTRY, among other abstract concepts players of his generation seem to have forgotten about. 

(Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan have also stunk it up in the executive’s office, though Larry Bird has done a great job with the Indiana Pacers, and Magic Johnson likely would also be an excellent NBA executive if he weren’t busy lording over a multi-billion dollar business empire.)

Stan Van Gundy, the man currently in charge of the Pistons, is an excellent coach. He took the 2009 Orlando Magic--a team that started a young Dwight Howard and four jump shooters--to the NBA Finals, and his influence is the first thing people mention when discussing Howard’s evolution into a defensive force. With these Pistons, however, I doubt God could win 30 games. 

The Blazers are successful because the five guys on the floor complement each other very well most of the time. The Pistons suck bad enough to get beat at home by the Philadelphia 76ers, who were 1-17 before beating Detroit, because the five guys on the floor for them are incapable of playing together.

Key Matchup: Robin Lopez and Chris Kaman vs. Andre Drummond. One bright spot for Detroit is Drummond, the beastly seven-footer. Although his shooting percentage has dropped to 48% this season (down from 62% the year before), that’s mostly because Van Gundy’s force-feeding him in the post. That trial-by-fire should pay dividends in the future, but the alley-oop lobs and putbacks Drummond feasted on last year haven’t been as available. Basically, teams are paying more attention to him.

Once Van Gundy cleans house and establishes a roster and a plan, Drummond should blossom into the kind of defensive force Howard was in his younger days. Monroe likely will be gone after this year, and the Pistons will be looking to move Smith ASAP. Drummond hasn’t been comfortable playing with either of them, let alone both at the same time, and it’s frankly amazing Drummond’s as productive as he is. Averaging 11 PPG, 11 RPG and two blocks a game is good, but he’s capable of much more than that.

RoLo and Air Sasquatch will have their hands full battling this guy.

Prediction: Portland shows the Pistons what a real team looks like.

Wednesday, Dec. 10: @ the Minnesota Timberwolves, CSNNW, 5:00 PM

The Skinny: A few days after losing in Portland on Nov. 30, Minnesota suffered the indignity of getting beat by the 76ers, giving the Philly minor-league team their first win of the season after starting out 0-17. Predictably struggling as a young team in transition, the Timberwolves are paying more attention to the progress of Andrew Wiggins and the top college players this year than their record.

I don’t pay attention to college basketball because watching a bunch of kids dribbling around for 35 seconds before launching a desperation three isn’t my idea of fun, so I can’t say who Minnesota should target with its lottery pick this June. Just know that while they’ll make things competitive, and they’ll dunk very often, they’ll lose at least 55 games.

Key Matchup: Nicolas Batum vs. Andrew Wiggins. Looking over Wiggins’ shooting percentages, you get a glimpse of promise, a clear game plan regarding the shots he takes, and very alarming trends.

The promise is his shooting percentages in the restricted area (inside the semicircle under the basket) and from the three-point line. Although only about 15% of his shots are threes, Wiggins is shooting 43% from behind the arc, and he’s 36-60 in the restricted area, good for 60%. 

He’s a very good finisher at the rim, and the game plan Wiggins is following is plainly to either drive to the hole, or move without the ball. As he gets more experience, he’ll get better at going backdoor behind defenses with cuts and screens, contorting defenses without presenting a threat from outside.

The alarming things about his shooting are his awful numbers everywhere else on the floor; he’s a ghastly 26% inside the three-point line and in the paint (excluding the restricted area/dunks). If Wiggins doesn’t have a good look from three (or doesn’t have the guts to shoot) and drives, putting a big man in front of him with the man guarding him walling him off from behind will usually result in a miss or turnover. Wiggins averages just one assist a game, revealing his lack of knowledge about the NBA game at this stage of his career.

Batum will be keeping this in mind as he defends Wiggins; he’ll likely play off of the rookie, daring him to shoot from three. Robin Lopez and LaMarcus Aldridge are good help defenders as big men, and if all goes according to plan, Wiggins should be easily neutralized.

Prediction: This is the second night of a back-to-back, but both Detroit and Minnesota are so bad, the Blazers should win both games. They’ll just hope they don’t lay an egg.

Friday, Dec. 12: @ the Chicago Bulls, ESPN and CSNNW, 4:00 PM

The Skinny: During their annual Circus Trip, the road-weary Bulls got their butts handed to them in Portland. They were without Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol, two of the best four players on the team, but they’ll have those guys back for this one.

Chicago has benefited from the stellar play of shooting guard Jimmy Butler, whose emergence as a legitimate offensive threat is surprising enough to hide his poor shooting from three (31% 3PT%). Averaging almost 22 PPG while providing his usual awesome defense has thrust Butler squarely into All-Star consideration, and he’s still got plenty of room to grow.

With the weakness of the Eastern Conference, the Bulls are occupying an interesting place in NBA history right now. With Cleveland still developing into a superpower, Toronto and Washington young and unproven, and Miami and Indiana stripped of the pieces needed to contend, the window is open for Chicago to get to the Finals, and try their luck against whomever survives the Western Conference Thunderdome (Mad Max reference yo!)

As long as their offense maintains its improvement, their defense and experience will be advantages any team will struggle to overcome.

Key Matchup: Damian Lillard vs. Derrick Rose. The Adidas pitchmen haven’t played against each other yet, unless you count the game Rose got hurt yet again in Portland last year. With the reduction of Rose’s role in light of Gasol’s arrival and Butler’s emergence, both Rose and Lillard serve as secondary scoring options that are capable of taking over a game at any time--Rose because of his driving ability and talent for finishing, Lillard because of deadly three-point shooting and combining with Aldridge for the nastiest pick-and-pop play in the NBA not featuring Dirk Nowitzki.

Stopping Rose’s penetration into the paint is as impossible a task as stopping Lillard’s shooting, but whichever one of these point guards that makes the most progress against the other on the defensive end will give his team the kind of small advantage that’s often crucial in a game featuring two very good teams.

Prediction: Normally, I’d pick Portland to lose a game like this, the third game in four nights against a team trying to reestablish itself as a heavy hitter. However, December 12 just so happens to be my birthday.

Against my instincts, I predict that the Blazers will give me a birthday gift in the form of a victory.

Saturday, Dec. 13: @ the Indiana Pacers, CSNNW, 4:00 PM

The Skinny: Gee, this is a road trip full of teams the Blazers already beat this year! The tilt last week between Portland and Indiana was one game I actually got the chance to listen to, but after doing so, I wish I hadn’t. That game was disgustingly ugly, an affront to my senses and the basketball gods.

It doesn’t bode well for Indiana that they lost a game they succeeded in mucking up, but the concept is still sound. They did a fantastic job defending the Blazers, who sport one of the NBA’s most explosive offenses, but the Pacers just couldn’t score enough in turn. 

Indiana will look to do what they did last week, just with better results (for them) this time around.

Key Matchup: LaMarcus Aldridge vs. David West. West should still be on the blacklist of the Rip City faithful after shoving Robin Lopez during the game in Portland; the shove drew a technical foul on West, and reinforced what everybody already knew about the Pacers-they have to turn basketball into football in order to win.

West is experienced, tough, and clever, but Aldridge has been ripping through opposing bigs like a sledgehammer through spoiled pumpkins. Pacers centers Roy Hibbert and Ian Mahinmi will likely take their turns defending Aldridge, but it’s the other end I want to highlight in regards to this matchup.

West is almost a good a shooter as Aldridge from the midrange. He doesn’t have great creators like Lillard or Batum to help him, nor does West have Aldridge’s dribbling ability, but he’s the kind of physical forward that’s given Aldridge problems defensively before.

If Aldridge can limit the 34-year-old West’s offensive impact on this game, Indiana will have trouble cracking 80 points again.

Prediction: Unfortunately, the combination of the Pacers’ physicality and the Blazers playing their fourth game in five nights will result in a schedule loss. They’ll return to Portland to lick their wounds and prepare to host the World Champion San Antonio Spurs next Monday.

Last week, both the Blazers and I went 3-0. I record my third straight perfect week, but that’ll likely end this time around.

Trail Blazers’ Record: 16-4

Jared’s Picks Record: 16-4

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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