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Portland Trail Blazers Week Preview & Predictions – 1/5

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

 

Welcome to this week’s OSN Portland Trail Blazers Weekly Preview! Always on Mondays, always your first, best spot to see what your beloved Blazers will go up against this week, and review what they did right or wrong last week!

We’re baaaaaaaack!

Well, I am. The Blazers of yesteryear…not so much. 

That’s not to say there aren’t encouraging signs to point to during this season of growth. After a road trip that saw them go 0-5 and lose the unbreakable Damian Lillard to a plantar fascia injury, the remaining youngsters then proceeded to absolutely wallop a clearly distracted and tired Cleveland Cavaliers team on the day after Christmas.

After running off a couple wins against fellow bad teams (Sacramento Kings, Denver Nuggets twice) and taking a loss on the chin in Utah, Portland stands just outside the Western Conference playoff picture at 15-21. That record is nothing short of extraordinary, to be honest; for such a young team, devoid of any proven talent outside of Lillard, almost everybody that follows the NBA expected the Blazers to stink horribly. Some even thought they’d be the worst non-Philly Sixers team in the league.

For myself, I thought they’d only win about 21-22 games this year. Hell, even the most optimistic projections amongst my fellow writers here had them pegged for 30 victories. Portland’s reached half that already, and we haven’t even reached the halfway mark in the NBA season yet.

It is quite the stark turnaround, going from losing five in a row before Christmas, then winning four of five after the holiday. Such volatility is the product of two volatile elements: youth and outside shooting.

Consider CJ McCollum, professional firebreather, and his partners in crime, Allen Crabbe and Meyers Leonard. These three young men have been raining three-point death on every team the Blazers have played since Christmas.

McCollum’s offensive onslaught hasn’t been limited to just beyond the arc, however. He’s been shooting 68% in the paint and 45% from the midrange to go with his 43% three-point percentage post-Christmas. He’s also been scoring 27 points per game in that span, as well as grabbing 5.6 rebounds per game and dishing out 6.4 assists per game.

CJ has dispensed with the desperate hero-ball he played after Lillard went down in favor of a varied attack that both involves his teammates and takes advantage of their varied skills in order for him to score. His continued growth is the story of the Blazers’ season so far, and he should be a fixture alongside Lillard for years to come.

As for Crabbe and Leonard:

Crabbe’s last five games: 17 PPG, 45/47/89 shooting splits (47% shooting from three!!!)

Leonard’s last five games: 13 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 54% 3PT% (!!!!!!!!!), 5-6 3PT Sunday versus Denver

Crabbe has tried his best to provide offensive punch in Lillard’s absence, focusing on the things he does well (shooting, spotting up as a release valve when McCollum breaks defenses down) instead of the things he sucks at (defense, ball handling). Over the last 10 or so games, Crabbe has avoided falling into the trap that Mo Harkless ends up in at times: trying to do too much. Both youngsters are trying to prove they have a future in the NBA, like most early 20-somethings on the fringes of NBA rotations. You do that by establishing what you do well, rather than trying to learn new skills or polish below-average ones to an NBA level. 

Crabbe has established that he’s a legit shooter in the league, and he can build from there. Harkless wants to be a toolbox like Al-Farouq Aminu…or he wants to be a dead-eye shooter…or he wants to be a lockdown defender…or he wants to be a microwave off the bench. Establish your bankable NBA skill, young man. Then, once you stick in the NBA, you’ll have the time to really work on the deficiencies in your game.

And Meyers Leonard has found his shot! The big man’s resurgence from three-point land, not so coincidentally, has also led to Portland scoring bunches of points (even without Lillard) and racking up wins. Sorry for continuing to toot my own horn, but I’ve always said that if the Blazers were to have any sustained success this year, Leonard would have to shoot great from three. 

During the losing streak, he shot horribly, and the Blazers couldn’t score enough to make up for their terrible defense. In the last five games, Leonard has lobbed bombs from beyond the arc, and McCollum’s taken full advantage of the extra spacing a red-hot Meyers provides.

Jump shooting isn’t as cyclical or random as old-school guys like Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal would have you believe, but for a younger team like Portland, there’s some truth to those opinions. Young people in general, and young athletes in particular, are renowned for being inconsistent; it’s all part of growing up and finding yourself and your place in the world. 

The Trail Blazers’ shooting will hit another low again as the year goes on, and the New Year slog starts to set in. For now, let’s just enjoy the ride while it lasts. 

(Stats provided by NBA.com and basketball-reference.com. All games are on AM 620 Rip City Radio.)

Wednesday, Jan. 6: vs. the Los Angeles Clippers, 7:00 PM, KGW

The Skinny: Power forward Blake Griffin has been missing in action for the Clips as he nurses an injury, but that hasn’t hurt them any. They’re currently winners of six straight, including sweeping a four-game road trip (they played the Lakers in a “road“ game, but they share the same arena). While the opposition wasn’t the best, they did play the Charlotte Hornets, who are having a great year out East, and the Jazz as well. Sweeping a four-game road trip with most of those games on the opposite coast isn’t an achievement to be sniffed at in the NBA.

Los Angeles is streaky, and they’re beating up on the average and bad teams while losing to the elite ones, but that’s par for the course in Clipperland these days. It just confirms what many think of the Clippers, that they’re a talented but soft team unable to get over the hump. 

With the Golden State Warriors and the immortal San Antonio Spurs standing in their way, the odds of the Clips (and point guard Chris Paul) shucking their reputation are slim-to-none. At least they’ll all have their clever commercials.

(Seriously, State Farm’s The Hoopers commercials [a sitcom spoof] featuring Paul as the dad, DeAndre Jordan in drag as the mom, Cavs forward Kevin Love as a scrawny teenager, basketball greybeard Kevin Garnett as Grandpa, and Damian Lillard as the baby are incredibly hilarious.)

Player To Watch: CJ McCollum. Lillard might be able to play in this game, but even if he does, he’ll likely be rusty; he’s never had to get his rhythm back after an injury before. 

It’ll be up to McCollum to continue carrying the torch for the Blazers on offense, and be the man at the point of attack against Paul on defense. If his last few games (and this whole season, really) are any indication, he shouldn’t disappoint.

Prediction: The Clippers are focused for now, and have been pasting bad teams lately. Also, they’ve already blown one game in Portland. I doubt Clippers coach Doc Rivers lets that happen again. L.A. wins.

Friday, Jan. 8: vs. the Golden State Warriors, 7:00 PM, CSNNW

The Skinny: The Warriors are unquestionably the best team in the NBA right now, and by the time it’s all said and done, they might have a case for being the best single-season team in the history of basketball.

Big claim, right? Consider this:

The Warriors are currently 31-2, one win ahead of the pace the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls set at the 33-game mark of their record-setting 72-10 season.

Golden State blew away the competition in net rating and offensive rating before point guard Stephen Curry got hurt. Even now, they’re still in the top five in defensive rating, lead the league in offensive rating, and are one of only two teams with a double-digit net rating. The other team is the Spurs, because of course.

Curry is leading the league in scoring, averaging almost 30 points a game, is tied for third in steals, and is working on a 50/40/90 season. For context, the only people to have a 50/40/90 season while making an All-NBA team are Dirk Nowitzki, Curry’s mentor Steve Nash, and some guy named Larry Bird. Those three are amongst the best 35 players ever, and are also former NBA MVPs, an honor Curry earned last year…while playing in the same league as LeBron James. He’s the best player in the NBA today.

Klay Thompson has become an all-around wing player. He plays great defense and can handle the ball some to complement his incredible shooting; if it weren’t for Curry, Thompson would have an argument as the best shooter in the league. Capable of scoring explosions, including an NBA-record 37 points in a single quarter against Sacramento last season, Thompson is among the best second bananas in the NBA.

Draymond Green’s insane versatility and prodigious defensive skill make him uniquely valuable to Golden State. Whether he’s worth the huge contract the Warriors gave him would be a big question if Green were on another team, but in the right situation, he can make a good team great, and a great team one of the best ever. He racks up triple-doubles and talks smack with equal skill and passion.

The role players Golden State has at their disposal, and their varied and complementary skill sets, round out this beautiful basketball machine. Golden State goes ten-deep with ease.

This team is as laid-back, likable, and unassuming as their point guard. Green is the notable exception, but every great team needs at least one head case/braggart/heart and soul. 

This Warriors team is scary and awesome to watch at the same time. The only thing that can stop these guys is injuries, something they avoided last year but is hitting them hard this year. 

Player To Watch: I honestly don’t know who to highlight here. If you want a match-up, see Al-Farouq Aminu vs. Klay Thompson; with Curry banged-up, Thompson will be the driving force behind the offense…or as much of a driving force as any non-Curry Warrior can be.

Prediction: Warriors obliterate Portland on their way towards history.

Sunday, Jan. 10: vs. the Oklahoma City Thunder, 6:00 PM, CSNNW

The Skinny: In Oklahoma City, the Blazers got whipped by 16 points, an expected result when facing an elite team on the road. This is Portland’s fourth game in a row at home…and the fourth game in a row against a good-to-great team. Life just ain’t fair.

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are working together as effectively as I’ve ever seen. It’s like the injuries suffered by each of them the last two years (Westbrook in 2014 and Durant last year) let them stretch their legs and egos as single acts, trying to carry a team with defensive ace Serge Ibaka and a bunch of young guys and/or spare parts back to the Finals. 

When they both failed miserably (Westbrook couldn’t even get the Thunder to the playoffs last season), they gained a new appreciation for each other, and now they BOTH are in that God Mode state they had to enter to make the Thunder competitive when the other was injured. Combined with a supporting cast that is both eclectic and talented, OKC would be prohibitive favorites to win the NBA title, if it weren’t for the Warriors being the best team in the world. The Spurs and Cavaliers I would also put above the Thunder right now.

Still, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Durant and Westbrook carry their team all the way to the championship. The playoffs, and the NBA in general, are all about stars, and these two are both legit top-five players. They’re not really Batman and Robin; together, they’re like two Batmans. Alone, they’re both Robin. 

Player To Watch: Al-Farouq Aminu. He will be the first line of defense against Durant when the latter tries to iso-ball his way to buckets. It seems insane to even think this, but I’d rather take my chances with Aminu versus Durant than see a fully healthy, freak athlete in Westbrook matched up against a hobbled Lillard or a skinny McCollum. And Crabbe? Forget Crabbe.

Prediction: Thunder hang another big loss on the Blazers.

The holiday break, and the two games I predicted preceding my Super Preview, saw me go 6-5. The Blazers went 5-6 in that time. 

Trail Blazers’ Record: 15-21

Jared’s Picks Record: 16-20

Bro Counter: 20 more wins until I owe him $40! 

{image_6}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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