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Portland Trail Blazers Week Preview - Jan. 12

Monday, January 12, 2015

 

Robin Lopez of the Trail Blazers

On the surface, it shouldn’t be so exciting for the winningest team in the NBA this season to dispose of three under-.500 teams in four games. The 30-8 Portland Trail Blazers were clearly superior to their opponents in those games, even without Robin Lopez and Joel Freeland. Even though the games were reasonably close until the fourth quarter, they weren’t especially fun to listen to or watch.

The reason they were exciting, and the reason those teams had a chance UNTIL the fourth quarter, was the show being put on by Damian Lillard.

The formula for victory the Blazers have employed this season, cooked up by head alchemist Terry Stotts and stirred by great ball movement, includes a heavy dose of LaMarcus Aldridge, sprinkled in with three-point shooting (usually provided by Wesley Matthews), then finished off with a can of Lillard Time. 

In the last four games, and last night in particular, Stotts opened up a whole case of Lillard Time, and the Los Angeles Lakers frontcourt got dunked in it. 

Rarely has a game been put out of reach so emphatically; with a minute left in the game and Portland up by six, Ronnie Price applied ball pressure 35 feet from the basket. He did that in order to deny Lillard a chance for one of his renowned pull-up threes, but Lillard ended up blowing by Price. Lillard stormed down the lane, absorbed the brush-by contact from center Jordan Hill, flew right by Ed Davis, and stuffed home a one-handed hammer.

Oh, and he also drew the foul on Hill.

Lillard would score twice more before the game was done, the last field goal an eff-you three in front of the Lakers bench, just to show them who was boss. The closing and-one dunk broke my Twitter feed, and inspired Aldridge to quip that when Lillard gets going in the fourth, “I just wanna sit back and grab some popcorn.”

I can’t wait to see Damian Lillard unleashed in the postseason. He was put on this earth to crush souls on the basketball court. 2014’s Shot against Houston was a crown jewel of a moment, but it could also serve as foreshadowing for greater things to come.

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

Wednesday, Jan. 14: versus the Los Angeles Clippers, KGW and ESPN, 7:30 PM

The Skinny: The Clips, despite their 25-13 record, haven’t had the best of times this season. Despite stealing stretch big Spencer Hawes out from under Portland GM Neil Olshey (who used to work for the Clippers), Los Angeles’ bench hasn’t been as good as years past. 

Matt Barnes has struggled to shoot for much of the season, though he has experienced a revival of sorts lately. Hawes, seen as the ideal third big to complement post beast Blake Griffin and the rim-running DeAndre Jordan, has been a total washout; he’s shooting under 31% from three this year, and under 40% overall. Glen “Big Baby” Davis, Chris Douglas-Roberts, and Jordan Farmar are net-negative players. Even Jamal Crawford, this generation’s microwave extraordinaire, has struggled at times, managing just four points in the Clippers’ blowout loss to Miami at home on Sunday. Since Crawford’s sole purpose on an NBA team is to score, this is a bad thing.

Doc Rivers has at times gone to a starting lineup of Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Crawford, Griffin, and Jordan. While that lineup is a juggernaut offensively, it has two unpalatable side effects: Crawford starting takes away the bench unit’s only source of scoring, and playing Crawford and Redick together compromises the defense. I’m actually trying to be nice there; my editor tells me to stop spitting fire and brimstone.

The Clippers have been trying to trade for help on the wing all year, but if Rivers thinks his son Austin is the solution to his problems…well, he hasn’t seen Austin play NBA basketball. Doc Rivers was an All-Star NBA player, but Austin Rivers is an awful NBA player. 

Nepotism is not the answer, folks. It’s also your Word of The Day, brought to you by Oregon Sports News!

Key Matchup: Damian Lillard vs. Chris Paul. Going with the usual Aldridge vs. Griffin angle here is boring. Plus, Dame’s been playing so well lately, it’ll be interesting to see how he stacks up against the best in the business. I’ve also been waiting for the time when we could look at this matchup and not wince in anticipation of the pain Paul would inflict on Lillard this time around.

Paul’s having his usual great season: 18 points, almost 10 assists, and 4.5 rebounds per game, with 41% shooting from three (a career high) and a career-low turnover rate of just two per game. One gets the sense that Paul’s just fine with Stephen Curry, Lillard, and other young guards stealing the headlines and attention. 

Make no mistake, Chris Paul is a snake in the grass just waiting to strike. Lillard, who’s said before that Paul’s the toughest point guard to play against, must be on his A-game at all times. Just because they’ve filmed a few commercials together doesn’t mean Paul would be averse to making Lillard look bad, or vise versa.

Prediction: This game is one of several coming up that will make Blazer fans miss Robin Lopez. Jordan and Griffin claim 40 rebounds between them, and Lillard’s heroics for once aren’t enough. Clippers steal another one from the Blazers.

Friday, Jan. 16: @ the San Antonio Spurs, CSNNW, 5:30 PM

The Skinny: Another West power scuffling somewhat out of the gate, the Spurs at least have a legitimate excuse: injuries to Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard, their two best players. In the killer environment of the Western Conference, even San Antonio’s tactical mastery has been crushed by the younger, more talented teams. Those teams include the Blazers, who’ve already defeated the Spurs twice this season.

The mere idea of San Antonio fighting for its playoff life a year after swallowing the league whole with exquisite ball movement is mildly staggering. In an attempt to stem the bleeding, Gregg Popovich has played his old hands more than he’d like; Tim Duncan is averaging 31.2 minutes per game, the most in four years. Manu Ginobili is playing 25 minutes per game, the most since 2011.

Sometimes, Popovich has had to take a loss by resting his guys in the interest of keeping them fresh for the playoffs. Being in that situation is really nothing new for the Spurs; their health in April, May and June is much more important to them than winning a few games in January.

The problem this year is that those few games in January could be the difference between making the playoffs and sitting at home after Tax Day, which is why Duncan and Ginobili have played more minutes this season. 

When Parker, Leonard, and starting center Tiago Splitter eventually get healthy, San Antonio likely will transform into the juggernaut the NBA knows and fears. Unfortunately, with the Phoenix Suns figuring out how to play winning basketball, the Oklahoma City Thunder packing two of the seven best players in the NBA on their team, and the elite teams in the West showing no signs of slowing down, time is running out for the Spurs, in more ways than one.

Key Matchup: LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Tim Duncan. Assuming Popovich doesn’t rest Duncan after a Tuesday-Wednesday back-to-back, this matchup will bear watching because Timmy shows minimal signs of slowing down, despite the increased workload.

Duncan’s averaging a double-double with 15 PPG and 10 RPG, and he’s also fulfilling his decades-long role as defensive anchor (two blocks per game). He’s the player Aldridge, Griffin, Anthony Davis the Consumer of Galaxies, and every other power forward aspires to be. Each of those guys bring several elements of Duncan’s game to the table, but with the exception of Davis, nobody has a chance to be the total package Duncan was at his peak.

Aldridge will likely be guarded by Aron Baynes and Jeff Ayers as much as Duncan. Whomever is tasked with the unenviable duty of checking him will have their hands full, as well as dealing with severe handicaps (inexperience for Baynes and Ayers, age for Duncan).

Prediction: Portland makes it 3-for-3 this year, beating the Spurs on their own floor.

Saturday, Jan. 17: @ the Memphis Grizzlies, CSNNW, 6:00 PM

The Skinny: This week ends with the team that pummeled Portland at the Moda Center a few weeks ago, one of many times that the Grizzlies bludgeoned their opponents into submission this year. They’ve cooled off a bit since their hot start to open the season, but now that they’ve got Zach Randolph healthy again, Memphis is looking to reestablish itself atop the West.

One item of note regarding Memphis is their trade for forward Jeff Green, late of Boston. The Grizzlies gave up valuable shooting guard Quincy Pondexter, one of the few players on Memphis that can shoot a three well enough to keep defenses honest, which translates to “keeping defenses from loading up on Marc Gasol.” They also traded Tayshaun Prince, but Green figures to be a significant upgrade in athleticism and talent over the aged Prince.

As a floor-spacer, however, Green’s track record is spotty. In his younger days in Oklahoma City, he shot 39% his second year, then his percentage fell off a cliff while hoisting up an equivalent amount of attempts per year. He didn’t approach that second-year mark until 2012-13 with Boston, but that was on only two three-point attempts per game. 

His last two years in Boston saw his attempts spike up to nearly five a game, but he shot just 34% last season and is connecting on only 30% this year; for his career, he’s a 34% three-point shooter, below-average but enough to make the defense respect him from the corners.

Green will either be a needed boost in athleticism for a team lacking athletes, or the guy that submarines their already shaky spacing for an offense that hovers around the top ten in offensive rating. They achieved as much as they did because Pondexter and Vince Carter were threats from beyond the arc; if Green plays minutes on the wing, if he doesn’t suddenly improve by leaps and bounds shooting threes, the Grizzlies’ offense may once again plummet with him on the floor.

Key Matchup: All Blazer bigs vs. Marc Gasol. This is the matchup that scares Rip City. With Lopez and Freeland out, all that’s standing in the way between Gasol the Younger and a signature game is Chris Kaman (Air Sasquatch), Meyers Leonard (GULP) and an undersized Thomas Robinson. Hell, LaMarcus Aldridge will likely have to tangle with Big Spain if Air Sasquatch gets in foul trouble.

Gasol isn’t as aggressive in terms of getting his own shot as his brother Pau has been this season, but Marc is likely looking at the mishmash in the Portland middle and licking his chops. He and Randolph will likely have a field day rebounding against Aldridge and whomever is flanking him at “center.” After all, if the likes of Carlos Boozer and Tarik Black can own the glass, imagine what these guys can do.

Everybody must, must, MUST crash the glass in this game. The wings and Lillard have to help the Blazer bigs as much as they can if they hope to beat Memphis, especially on the road.

Prediction: The Memphis bigs prove to be too much for Portland to handle down low. Mike Conley and Tony Allen do just enough to cool off Lillard and Wes Matthews to allow the Grizzlies’ size to carry them to victory.

Last week, I picked the Blazers to go 4-0. Lo and behold, they went 4-0. 

Trail Blazers’ Record: 30-8
Jared’s Picks Record: 28-10

Bonus Prediction: Oregon 43, Ohio State 24. GO DUCKS!!!!!

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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