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Portland Trail Blazers Week Preview – Feb. 25

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

 

Robin Lopez

If you heard a dull thud near downtown Portland, that was the Portland Trail Blazers after the first two games post-All-Star break. First, they barely reached 70 against the rebuilding Utah Jazz, then they got their hearts ripped out--again--by the Memphis Grizzlies in a close game, gagging away a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter.

The common theme in those games is a total lack of offensive cohesion. While Utah and Memphis both employ imposing rim protectors, a good offense will be a good defense with proper execution. Since I haven’t seen any tape, I can’t say what Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum, or Steve Blake are doing wrong in terms of initiating the offense. I did listen to the radio broadcast in the final 12 minutes of the Grizzlies game, and it sounded like Portland was trying to go hero-ball.

Against Memphis, you have to be focused. You have to be persistent. You need to move. Any NBA defense that has time to set itself and key on a player can be good. Against Memphis, you might as well be a little pig tossing yourself into the choking coils of a python. 

LaMarcus Aldridge may have been absent, but the Blazers built double-digit leads on this team. That’s no excuse, and to their credit, the Blazers won’t offer his absence as one. 

It could be the long layoff is responsible, but the Blazers have had a nasty habit of starting very slow in games this season, especially without Aldridge. With the schedule stiffening, and the Oklahoma City Thunder charging like a horde of drunk rhinos, Portland better get its act back together.

Two games might not seem like a big deal in a normal season, but in this Western Conference environment, nothing’s normal. The West will wait for no team, and hopefully getting spanked by Utah, then getting smothered by the Grizzlies in LILLARD TIME (mocking all caps), will shake off the All-Star lethargy.

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

Wednesday, Feb. 25: versus the San Antonio Spurs, KGW, 7:30 PM

The Skinny: Yay. Just what a team scuffling out of the gate needs. A Spurs team on their annual Rodeo Road Trip, coming into Portland.

For those unacquainted with the “Rodeo Road Trip,” here’s an explanation: During the month of February, the Spurs go on a long road trip, usually nine games. Their home arena, the AT&T Center, is taken over by what I hear is one of the best rodeos in the nation (and since it’s in Texas, it’s likely true) for several weeks.

You’d think the Spurs would suffer the consequences of this annual tradition, but since Tim Duncan’s arrival in 1997, San Antonio’s had a great record during the Rodeo Trip. It’s a great bonding time for the new guys the Spurs pull out of the ether every year, and when they finally get back to San Antonio, that camaraderie is apparent…when the Spurs are healthy.

As the years have gone on, and the Rodeo Trips have gotten harder to endure, coach Gregg Popovich has had Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and sometimes even Tony Parker sit out games at the end of the trip. Since this is the second day of a back-to-back, you can never be sure who Popovich is or isn’t going to play.

Key Matchup: Damian Lillard vs. Tony Parker. I could cop out and go the Blazers’ bench (which performed very well against Memphis) against the Spurs bench, since San Antonio will go to the end of that bench, but Lillard’s performance against the defenses he’s going to see the rest of his career haven’t been good enough for wins lately.

Basically, teams are chasing Lillard off the three-point line. They will trap and hedge hard on pick-and-rolls with Lillard as the ball handler, the idea being “For the love of God, don’t let him shoot a three!”

Either the roller is slow to come off the pick and make himself available for a dive to the hoop, or the rest of the team isn’t taking advantage of the attention paid to Lillard, or Lillard himself has just been making bad decisions; it’s been one of these things at times.

With Robin Lopez, a solid finisher and smart player, back in the fold, Lillard should have an easier time in the pick-and-roll. I would love to see more Lillard-Aldridge action, though. All Aldridge does nowadays is plant himself on the left side of the floor and isolate. An effective enough play, but it doesn’t really involve the other four guys on the court.

More movement, and more success, starts with Lillard. He must make better decisions and look to distribute, not just toss up contested jumpers.

Prediction: Both teams have stunk it up after the break. Since the Spurs will have less rest, I’m guessing San Antonio stinks more.

Friday, Feb. 27: versus the Oklahoma City Thunder, CSNNW, 7:30 PM

The Skinny: After Lillard personally shined off this team two months ago, Oklahoma City’s undergone a drastic makeover, trading for black hole Dion Waiters, then dealing malcontent backup guard Reggie Jackson to Detroit for D.J. Augustin and Kyle Singler, and finally taking surly Turkish big man Enes Kanter off the hands of the Jazz in exchange for the useless, anachronistic, painfully ugly Kendrick Perkins.

Augustin is a capable third guard who will have no problems coming off the bench, continuing his career renaissance after nearly scrubbing out of the NBA with the Charlotte Bobcats. The work he did filling in for injured lead guards in Chicago and Detroit has been exemplary. Kanter is the offensive-minded big OKC’s needed since they drafted Durant back in Seattle. The other guy, however, has strong ties to the state of Oregon.

The name Kyle Singler should be familiar to fans of Oregon hoops. The high school rival of Lake Oswego High’s Kevin Love, Singler never did reach the professional heights of Love, but when Singler was at South Medford High School,  he and Love were evenly matched, trading state championships their junior and senior years.

While Love went on to be a one-and-done guy at UCLA, Singler went to that magnet for highly-regarded white ballers, Duke. Staying four years, he won a national title in 2010, won the 2010 NCAA Tournament MVP, became Duke’s fourth-leading career scorer, and basically became your typical white Dukie: a great college player destined to be average in the pros.

Drafted at the end of his eligibility in the second round by the Pistons in 2011, Singler had to wait for the NBA lockout to end. Rather than sit around in southern Oregon, he decided to go play in Spain. He stayed in Spain until 2012, helping the basketball version of Real Madrid win the Liga ACB’s (the pro Spanish league) King’s Cup.

He joined the Pistons in July of 2012, and while he didn’t find the team success with Detroit he had everywhere else, you can blame that on the incurably inept Joe Dumars more than anything. 

Now Singler’s spacing the floor for the Thunder with elite three-point shooting. The guy’s been a winner everywhere he’s played, in high school, college, and in Spain. Playing next to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, he’s got a good chance to add an NBA title to his list.

Key Matchup: Damian Lillard vs. Russell Westbrook. Yeah, I’m highlighting Lillard again. It’s mostly because Westbrook has been destroying the league since Durant went down with his latest foot injury.

I told Brad Stein on The Slant last Friday that I felt the Thunder were a better team than the Blazers. It was mostly based on the knowledge that Westbrook, surrounded by a capable cast of players with different strengths and with the reigning MVP at his side, would be fully unleashed.

Before, when Durant was injured, Serge Ibaka proved incapable of being a top offensive option, and the roster was full of defense-first guys, Westbrook was a shameless gunner. He shot his team into games, then shot them out of it. His devils were plain to see.

Now, after the trades, the team is balanced, Jackson has been excised like a cancer, and Westbrook’s better angels are starting to prevail. 

Brad and I also shared worries about Durant’s foot. A seven-foot guy having foot trouble, even a guy as light as Durant compared to other men that tall, is never a good sign.

Lillard will have all he can handle and more, but knowing Dame, he’ll be up for the challenge. He’ll also need all the help he can get from Lopez, Aldridge, and the rest of his teammates.

Prediction: While the Blazers lucked out in not having to face Durant for the third time this season, the Thunder are playing their best ball of the year. They also don’t want the Blazers to take the season series and the head-to-head tiebreaker, essentially adding an extra game to Portland’s huge division lead.

Oklahoma City beats Portland, and badly.

Domingo, el primero de Marzo (Sunday, March 1st): @ the Sacramento Kings, CSNNW, 3:00 PM

The Skinny: Rifling through ESPN’s analytics columns online, I came across a profile on Vivek Ranadive, the Kings’ owner. Ranadive sounds like your typical high-profile American citizen nowadays: intelligent, well-meaning, and absolutely no patience. None at all. Having three coaches in a four-month span will forever earn you that handle, though Ranadive himself doesn’t mind much.

Guys like him, who’ve made their fortunes in the tech industry, expect results in basketball as quickly as they do in business. To quote the ESPN article, “the new tech owners expect results in 13 weeks, not 13 years.” Problem is, this is a 13 year business in the NBA, and all the numbers in the world can’t help with that.

Houston’s Daryl Morey already found that out the hard way. The resident maven of analytics in the NBA, Morey this season acquired Josh Smith, who is to analytics guys what arsenic is to carbon-based life forms. 

Morey needed a power forward who can attack the basket, and when Smith feels like it, he can indeed do that. The results have been mixed--Donatas Montejunas has been a better option for Kevin McHale so far--but the idea of Smith is sound. 

Bringing him to Houston after Detroit cut bait was a decision made with the help of analytics, but with the end goal of acquiring talent in mind. Morey’s starting to find that middle ground (though not the midrange) between relying on numbers and relying on what his scouts and lieutenants in the front office see in terms of talent.

Sacramento is still trying to find that balance; they’ve just started out. Unlike the Rockets’ owner, Les Alexander, I doubt Ranadive will have the patience to let the Kings’ basketball people, and analytics folks, do their work without incessant meddling.

We’ll see how George Karl handles dealing with DeMarcus Cousins, but I’ll say this now so I can be quoted later: George Karl is an expert at cutting bait when things aren’t working out. He comes out of it looking clean, while the piles of wreckage he left behind him in Seattle, Milwaukee, and now Denver, are always left for someone else to clean up.

When the going gets tough, Karl gets OUT. If things stay tough in Sacramento in March 2017, the 63-year-old Karl will prefer retirement to figuring out the latest mess his stewardship’s caused.

Key Matchup: Robin Lopez vs. DeMarcus Cousins. The last time these teams played, Lopez broke his hand playing against Cousins. RoLo hasn’t forgotten.

Cousins is a post beast, but in the honeymoon stage of his relationship with Karl, he’s gotten up and down the court more. He’ll have to get used to it; Ranadive wants the team to play with incredibly quick pace (like Joe Lacob’s Golden State Warriors), typical for a tech guy.

When the game does bog down into the half court, Cousins is amongst the best options in the league. He can score on the block, off the pick-and-roll/pop, isolating his man at the top of the key; there is very little he can’t do offensively. Defensively, Cousins is the league’s premier charge-taker, and is a savage rebounder on both ends of the floor.

Ranadive may want to GO GO GO, but any sane person will realize that you can’t GO GO GO all the time. A franchise player like Cousins, an absolute stud of a big man, is what you need when the chips are down, the other team is locked in on defense, and you need that one guy you can toss the ball to and say, “Get us a bucket.”

Prediction: The Blazers lost their first road game of the year in Sacramento. I’m not at all confident in the Blazers on the road, but the Kings are still pretty bad despite slapping George Karl lipstick on this pig of a roster.

Blazers win.

Last week, I picked Portland to lose to Memphis, so I broke even. Sweet.

Hey, don’t hate.

Trail Blazers’ Record: 36-18 (4th in West)

Jared’s Picks Record: 36-18

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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