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Portland Trail Blazers Week Preview - Nov. 24

Monday, November 24, 2014

 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Portland Trail Blazers are making a habit of keeping things interesting this season. Although they whupped on the shorthanded Chicago Bulls on Friday, the other two games they had last week were close games against inferior teams, teams with great chances to win late.

The negative view is that the Blazers were sluggishly coasting, thinking they could just waltz into a place like Boston and kick butt because it’s Jeff Green and Jared Sullinger playing in Celtic green, not Larry Bird and Kevin McHale. Coupled with the Western team’s usual jet lag when playing on the East Coast, their lax play nearly cost them the game.

On the other hand, the New Orleans and Boston games were ones Portland would have lost last year. The experience of being a successful team, the increased continuity, and having an actual bench (!!!) allow the Blazers an ability to recover from bad starts that was missing last year. The days of a opponent’s first-quarter lead proving fatal are officially over.

One man that must be singled out is Chris Kaman. Air Sasquatch, he of the ginger beard and deer-hunting hobbies, single-handedly saved Portland last night. LaMarcus Aldridge had 20 points and 14 rebounds, but he shot the ball 21 times and attempted seven free throws to get that 20. Damian Lillard was worse, going 4-14 for 12 points. Lillard’s rebounding has been awesome, but Portland needs his scoring every night.

Kaman came off the bench and proceeded to grill Kelly Olynyk, sprinkle some salt and pepper on him (no fancy spices for Air Sasquatch), and swallow him whole. In a mere 18 minutes of action, the Gingerbeard Man (ah man, that was bad. Sorry) put up 16 points and snagged eight rebounds, shooting 6-13 from the floor but 4-4 from the line.

One of my favorite stat categories is “per-36 minute” production, projecting what a player would do if he were playing 36 minutes a game. Air Sasquatch won’t have these totals if he was a starter, but his numbers project to 22 PPG and 13 RPG. That’s the kind of impact he’s having on a per-game basis.

With Thanksgiving happening this week, and with the weather draping the wooded hills with mist, I found myself reflecting on many things as I lugged home the turkey I’m currently brining. 

Among the thoughts that went through my mind (other than “$&%* this %*$^%#& heavy turkey) were being thankful for good health, for being able to write again, for being forever single (I only seem to meet crazy women. It sucks), and being thankful that the Trail Blazers have reserve players that can, you know, actually play the game of basketball.

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

Monday, Nov. 24: @ the Philadelphia 76ers, CSNNW, 4:00 PM

The Not-So Skinny: Regarding the Sixers, and how the NBA’s teams conduct their business in general, I need to make something understood. It’s difficult for me to express because I like to be entertaining and happy, and Philly’s experiment makes me anything but. I’ll try my best to clear the air here, to make my personal dislike for this team understood, and to shed light on why the other NBA teams dislike the Sixers as well.

Bad NBA teams usually are bad for one of three reasons: they’ve had several key injuries (like the Oklahoma City Thunder), they’re very young (think the Orlando Magic, Utah Jazz, and Minnesota Timberwolves), or they’re an older team that doesn’t mesh with their coach or each other at all (the Denver Nuggets and the Los Angeles Lakers are prime examples). 

The first is just bad luck; OKC will be right as rain come Christmas, and they’ll try to sneak into the playoffs and be the best 8-seed in league history. The second can only be cured by time and good coaching; I’m not sure about Orlando or Minnesota, but Utah has a solid guy at the helm and some good pieces for him to mold.

The third is a blatant case of mismanagement by the team’s front office. Portland experienced this dynamic at the hands of Bob Whitsitt, who sacrificed character, pride, and the good will of this city in a desperate attempt to salvage his job after the Shaq-Kobe Lakers stomped the Jail Blazers in the early 2000s. Denver is a mishmashed mess, and the Lakers are hamstrung by Kobe Bryant’s massive contract and their mom-and-pop attitude in a league full of big-time businessmen.

Philly is none of those things. What GM Sam Hinkie is doing is deliberately putting together a roster full of marginal NBA players, putting point guard Michael Carter-Williams and skinny center Nerlens Noel (two kids that can’t legally drink) at the forefront, and telling coach Brett Brown to just roll with the punches.

The last draft saw Hinkie pick a center who has had foot and back issues, a forward who’ll play in Turkey for the next two seasons, and a guy in K.J, McDaniels who’d struggle to make any other NBA team, yet ends up as the Sixers’ third-best player.

Hinkie is doing this to increase the odds of getting the top pick in the lottery, but in the process he’s destroying the confidence of the two guys he does have playing now, and putting all his hopes and dreams on a bunch of unknowns. If even one of them doesn’t pan out, the Sixers will fall short of their long-term goals and Hinkie will never work in an NBA front office again.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales there’s a fable called The Mariner’s Wife, about Aldarion the sixth king of the Isle of Numenor, and his wife Erendis. As I read it, I found myself thinking that Aldarion resembled Hinkie very strongly in frame of mind.

Aldarion was known as the Mariner King; he was the second Numenorean captain to return to the north of Middle-earth, the first to sail to the south, and over the course of his centuries-long life, he made journeys all over the world, dreaming of the time when Numenor would hold dominion over the wide lands and coasts he and his men were surveying. Though his dreams would come to pass, Aldarion was 2,000 years dead by the time Numenor was strong enough to defeat Sauron the Dark Lord. 

In voyaging all this time, however, Aldarion sacrificed his relationships back home. He was so consumed with a future that he would never get to see that his wife Erendis was estranged from him, his only daughter grew up to be a cruel harpy that hated him, and the people of Numenor feared him as a bringer of discontent, greed, and darkness on the Isle where they were to lay down arms forever. His actions helped turn the peaceful Numenoreans into cruel men of war that butchered everyone who opposed them or their king.

Why did I think of Sam Hinkie when reading this tale? Hinkie, like Aldarion, is so caught up in what might be that he’s lost all sight of what IS. He blindly gathers up “assets” and future draft picks, but fails to see that the environment the constant tanking has created might seed an endemic attitude of losing, of being the eternal punching bag.

Hinkie is trying to win through the draft, but you can only do that if there’s a transformational, LeBron James/Tim Duncan type of player available to draft. Hell, Oklahoma City not only struck gold with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, they also hit on James Harden and struck late-round gold with a Congolese transplant from Spain named Serge Ibaka. This kind of stuff requires incredible skill and luck, and I doubt Hinkie’s possessed of either.

I apologize for the length of the rant, but people have to realize that while we’d all love to be captains of industry, some folks have to be the middle men, and some folks have to scrub the toilets. If his grand plan blows up in his face, Sam Hinkie will end up scrubbing toilets.

Key Matchup: None. The 76ers suck.

Prediction: Blazers win. Let’s move on. 

Wednesday, Nov. 26: @ the Charlotte Hornets, CSNNW, 4:00 PM

The Skinny: It’s rare that a team’s two inter-conference matchups of the year are expended in November, but that’s what the Blazers and Hornets will do this season. I’m glad, to be honest. Charlotte’s still trying to get its act together, so this is the perfect time to steal another win before Steve Clifford either gets his Hornets on track, or shoots Lance Stephenson with an elephant gun.

The Hornets played the Miami Heat down to the wire in their loss Sunday, but they once again came up short in a close game. Advanced stats suggest that the outcomes of close games are somewhat random, and will even out in time. This is seen most often in football, but it translates to basketball as well. If Gary Neal were a split-second quicker in getting that layup off in Portland, or if Kemba Walker didn’t play hero-ball in Miami, Charlotte might be a decent 6-8 instead of in the hole at 4-10.

Key Matchup: The Blazers’ bench vs. the Hornets’ bench. Portland’s grizzled old men, Steve Blake and Air Sasquatch, basically saved Portland’s bacon against the Celtics on Sunday. Charlotte’s issues this year have come when Walker and/or Big Al Jefferson leave the game, letting Stephenson “run” the offense and destroy any momentum the Hornets may have built up.

I actually expect Charlotte’s starters to play the Blazers as tough as they did in their meeting in Portland. I don’t think they’ll run up a 23-point lead again, but it will likely be down to Blake and Kaman to take advantage of the Charlotte bench with veteran savvy and timely scoring.

Prediction: While the Hornets are a disorganized mess, it wouldn’t be a shocker to see them end Portland’s winning streak at home. They’ll also still be smarting from giving up that huge lead, and revenge is a powerful motivator in the NBA.

I’ll pick Portland to win, but it’ll be as close as it was last time.

Friday, Nov. 28: versus the Memphis Grizzlies, CSNNW, 7:00 PM

The Skinny: The knock on Memphis for years has been that they can’t shoot. Sure, the combo of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol is perhaps the premier one-two big man punch in the league today. Sure, the famous “Grit-n-Grind” defense has always been there, crushing opposing teams in a vice-like…bear hug. (I’ll show myself out, please hold the tomatoes.) 

But they never were considered serious threats in the West because Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince are horrible outside shooters, and the Grizzlies couldn’t compensate last year with Mike Miller. 

To the sorrow of all fans of other Western Conference teams, however, it seems that in Vince Carter, Quincy Pondexter, and Courtney Lee, Memphis may have finally solved the one problem that’s shackled them to the ranks of the also-rans. That’s right my friends, the Grizzlies have guys that can shoot the three! The extra space on offense has allowed the Grizzlies to get out to a blazing start, demolishing all that stand in their path.

I’ll describe what they did to the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday this way: “And boom-BOOM! Came the giant’s axe from the sky, cleaving air and earth alike as a falling star. Men scattered. Trees scattered. Even the hills ran for the hills!”

When you make the hills run for the hills, you’re pretty scary.

Key Matchup: LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Marc Gasol. Gasol’s technically the center, but he’ll be the one starting off on Aldridge since Randolph is a shorter power forward with no athleticism to speak of; Aldridge would torch his former teammate with impunity.

Gasol has adequate foot speed, a quick mind, and is arguably the strongest man in the NBA. Defensively, he’s going to be a good challenge for Aldridge. It’s up to the Blazer big man to pass the test and give his team some consistent offense, because Lillard and the wing players will likely be stifled by Tony Allen, Mike Conley and the rest of the Grizzlies defenders.

Prediction: Portland’s at home, but Memphis is coming in like a wrecking ball covered in snarling grizzly bears. All good things must come to an end, and the Blazers’ streak ends at the hands of Memphis.

Sunday, Nov. 30: versus the Minnesota Timberwolves, CSSNW, 6:00 PM

The Skinny: After trading Kevin Love, the Wolves are kick starting their latest rebuilding project under Flip Saunders, who’d coached the team when Kevin Garnett was in his heyday. Saunders was brought back to oversee the front office after owner Glen Taylor finally fired the incurably inept David Kahn, and while Saunders isn’t a good front-office guy, anything’s gotta be better than Kahn. Right?

Well, Saunders was put in charge of the coaching search after Rick Adelman decided he’d had enough. After a lengthy, exhausting search, Saunders finally decided to hire…himself to coach the team.

It was a lame move that could not only tax Saunders’ ability to focus on personnel issues, but damaged his credibility because he’d rather coach the team instead of bringing in another person to interact with, one that might not agree with all that Saunders is planning.

Despite all the front office shenanigans, the team itself is full of intriguing young talent. Wings Andrew Wiggins and Zach LeVine ooze potential and athleticism, and Cleveland castoff Anthony Bennett is in shape and dunking on people.

Ricky Rubio’s knee troubles could be a blessing in disguise, as Saunders is now forced to give his young players more time on the court. When Rubio returns, hopefully it’s to a team that has a better idea how to play in the NBA.

Key Matchup: Nicolas Batum vs. Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins has had a usual rookie season: some ups in his play (figurative and literal), and more downs. The downs have been more drastic than the ups, but we are talking about a guy who’s still trying to develop a consistent outside shot. 

Wiggins is not going to be the franchise player Garnett was, nor is it certain that he’ll even be an All-Star like Kevin Love. Given the position Love put the Wolves in, however, they did very well to acquire a guy with potential like Wiggins. For a rebuilding team, potential’s the main building material used to construct the foundation. Wiggins is a start.

Batum, meanwhile, will be more than happy to provide Wiggins an up-close example of a first-class NBA small forward.

Prediction: Minnesota always plays the Blazers close; there’s residual bad blood between the organizations, even after the ouster of Khan. The Timberwolves right now just can’t keep up with a high-powered offense like Portland’s.

The Blazers embarrass Minnesota.

Last week, the Blazers went 3-0, and I went 3-0. Perfects all around.

Trail Blazers’ Record: 10-3

Jared’s Picks Record: 9-4

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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