Portland Trail Blazers Week Preview & Predictions – 12/8
Tuesday, December 08, 2015
Them young Trail Blazers…feisty, aren’t they?
Except for the Los Angeles Clippers game, which was a flat game offensively for Portland, the Blazers lit up opposing defenses like Christmas trees last week. It wasn’t just Damian Lillard and Co. picking the low-hanging fruit, either; both the Indiana Pacers and Dallas Mavericks are in the top 10 in defensive rating in the NBA, and even the Minnesota Timberwolves, after drafting Karl-Anthony Towns and bringing in Kevin Garnett to mentor him, have improved as a defensive unit.
The third quarter against the Pacers was especially entertaining. The Blazers hung 41 on Indiana, turning a three-point deficit into a seven-point lead before running away with the game in the fourth. While the offense has been great, the ugly specter that has reared its head before this season, and will again, is the lack of defense.
At a meeting of OSN writers a couple months ago (it was more like “Fill Jared with drinks and bar food while he makes an ass of himself”), I joked to my friend Bryant Knox that the Blazers would score 110 points more often than not this year, and that their opponents would score 120 more often than not. That prediction was turned upside down last week, but my basic semi-drunken point remained: every Portland game was going to be offensive.
How you interpret the term offensive depends on your outlook on the team. If you like bunches of points, quick threes, slick ball handling, and a young team understanding how to play together, offensive (AHH-fensive) means that they’re an offensively-skilled team, and are entertaining to watch.
If you like crisp defensive rotations, rim deterrence, solid on-ball defense, a team that knows how they want to deny the opposing team points, and a team that wins more than they lose, you’ll find the Blazers to be offensive (O-fensive) in another way. Like insulting your mother offensive.
Lack of defense cost them the Dallas game and almost got them beat in Minnesota (side note: Kart-Anthony Towns is going to be awesome), but the offense, and more specifically the backcourt, keeps bailing the poor defense out.
And if Portland gets a few scores in a row, that avalanche effect spreads to the whole team. If one or two guys are hitting, all of a sudden Allen Crabbe drains a three, then Meyers Leonard has seven straight points, then Ed Davis hits a couple awkward-looking hooks, and all of a sudden the Blazers are up by double-digits, or they’ve erased a big deficit.
The next step, which will be taken through this season and beyond, is not getting in the types of situations where an offensive avalanche is necessary to win, or not gagging away those big leads an avalanche gets them because of poor defense.
Time for picks! Let’s go!
(All stats courtesy of NBA.com and basketball-reference.com. All games can be heard on AM 620 Rip City Radio.)
The Skinny: So, about the Cavs…
This is a team that has three legit superstars in LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving. They have a solid supporting cast with Timofey Mozgov, Tristan Thompson, Iman Shumpert, Mo Williams, and Matthew Dellavedova. They have that one perimeter guy who can just go off from three-point land at any notice in J.R. Smith.
They appear to bet set up for a soft cakewalk through the East on their way to a rematch with Golden State…except…
There are signs that this team isn’t as stable as the above list would make it out to be. LeBron is starting to break down and has begun to take games off for rest, which is what happens when you drag teams to the Finals for five straight years (which is amazing and incredible, no matter how many Finals he’s actually won). Irving is as fragile as papier-mâché, which is a bad sign for LeBron’s heir-apparent.
Love is finding himself this year, but his role will be lessened when Irving comes back; those two never played well together, as Irving is a ball-dominant guard who doesn’t ever think about passing, and Love needs the ball to be fully effective. How those two learn to play off of each other will be key for Cleveland going forward, and Irving’s lingering injury issues aren’t helping there either.
As for the role players, Mozgov was taken advantage of by the Warriors in the 2015 Finals, Thompson is the world’s wealthiest garbage man, Shumpert is injured, Williams is doing what he can, Dellavedova is a scrappy player that lacks the talent to move the needle, and Smith is freaking nuts. Everyone else on the Cavs is either a young bit player not ready to contribute, or a veteran no longer able to contribute.
Oh, and by the way, the team’s payroll counting taxes projects to exceed $170 million.
They damn well better win the NBA championship this season, or this year will be seen as a giant waste. A waste of LeBron’s final prime years, of all that money going to both Love and Thompson (who play basically the same position, and are undersized at center), and a waste of an opportunity to seize a title if the Warriors have a letdown or suffer a setback.
Player To Watch: Noah Vonleh and Meyers Leonard. If LeBron’s playing, Al-Farouq Aminu will be needed to try to slow him down, meaning that both the greenhorn Portland power forwards would be left to deal with a guy in Love that can score in all the ways. Post-ups, drives, midrange, three-point shots, putbacks off of offensive rebounds.
Love will be a stiff test for the young guys.
Prediction: The Cavaliers steamroll the Blazers as Portland struggles through a back-to-back against a title contender, less than 24 hours after playing on Monday.
The Skinny: These teams played a home-and-home on the last two days of October, with the Suns winning both games by double digits.
I don’t know what it is about Phoenix these last couple years, but they always seem to have the Trail Blazers’ number. Sitting at 8-13, a game behind the Blazers, the Suns have been very pedestrian. The two bright spots on the Suns are the two guards, Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight.
Bledsoe, when healthy, is one of the better point guards in the league, a defensive bulldog that barrels into the lane at will and is as physical as they come at the point; he’s compared to Russell Westbrook and LeBron James because of said physicality. It’s his counterpart that’s been the surprise so far.
Knight was acquired from Milwaukee in a three-team trade with the Philadelphia 76ers that cost the Suns the juicy top-three protected first-round draft pick the Los Angeles Lakers owed them in the disastrous Steve Nash trade (the pick went to Philly, while Carter-Williams went to Milwaukee). That the Lakers seem to be bad enough to actually keep that pick this year matters little, since that pick becomes fully unprotected in 2017.
I doubt Knight will be worth the value of that very high draft pick over the next 10 years or so, but right now he’s giving Phoenix everything he’s got. He’s averaging 21/4/5 (PTS/REB/AST) per game with shooting splits of 44/39/80. With the Bucks struggling under MCW’s uncertain leadership, and considering how Milwaukee overachieved the previous season with Knight at the helm, it’s somewhat fair to wonder if Milwaukee would have been better off just paying Knight as a restricted free agent instead of taking the cheap way out by gambling on Carter-Williams and his awful shooting, which has torpedoed an already shaky Bucks offense.
Player To Watch: I was trying to go for a big man matchup here, but Lillard-McCollum vs. Bledsoe-Knight, Round Three, is too irresistible to not highlight. The Phoenix guys took the first two rounds handily, but that was before McCollum grew into his current role as a starter. The pair of guards that wins this matchup will win the game for their team.
(Thanks, Captain Obvious.)
Prediction: Like I mentioned above, Phoenix has had Portland’s number. At the end of a long road trip, against a team that’s dominated them the last two years, I can’t pick Portland to win. Suns defeat them for the third time in eight weeks.
The Skinny: While the Knicks stand at a somewhat surprising 10-11 after 21 games, and even though Carmelo Anthony has returned to being a scoring machine, the true story regarding New York, and the story everyone around the NBA is discussing, is the rise of their 7-foot-3 Latvian rookie forward Kristaps Porzingis.
When he was drafted, the boos sounding throughout the Barclays Center in Brooklyn from Knicks fans would have shaken the confidence of almost any prospect, but not this guy. Porzingis just smiled and said he would change minds in New York.
The stories about him walking the streets of Manhattan and either taking pictures with Knicks fans, or chiding Nets fans for wearing Nets gear, are endearing. With an aw-shucks demeanor, the skill of a possible Dirk Nowitzki-type, and a heart of steel on the court (he’s dunked on guys, and been dunked on, and he’s not afraid of mixing it up inside), even the notoriously cranky New York fans are latching onto this kid.
Porzingis’ impact goes beyond his traditional per-game stats (14/9 with two blocks per game, 44/35/84 shooting splits). His value is proven when looking at the Knicks’ ratings when Porzingis is on the court or off the court.
The difference between having him on the court as opposed to off is 7.9 points per 100 possessions; that means that the Knicks are almost eight points better when Porzingis plays, a difference that far and away leads his team. That difference is nearly double the next man on the list, fellow rookie Jerian Grant, more than double former Blazer Robin Lopez (third on the list), and more than triple the Knicks’ resident superstar, Anthony.
Everyone in New York was disappointed at the time when the Knicks failed to land a top-two pick, and either Karl-Anthony Towns or D’Angelo Russell. There was even talk of the Knicks, and old-school president Phil Jackson, hoping that post savant Jahlil Okafor would be available at the fourth pick.
Something tells me the Knicks wouldn’t give Porzingis back now.
Player To Watch: Meyers Leonard. The big man matchup with Porzingis will be fascinating. On the surface, they’re two really tall white guys that can shoot the three, screen, and are athletic. Digging deeper, you find that Porzingis has already established that he’s better than Meyers, who’s in his fourth year in the NBA.
You might even say that Porzingis is Leonard with guts and stones. If you wanted to be a jerk.
Prediction: This one could go either way. Since the Blazers are at home, and since the 12th is my birthday, I’ll hope for a Portland win.
More congratulations are in order for your 2015 MLS Cup winners, the Portland Timbers! And to the Timbers Army, you guys deserve to see a winner. Congratulations, party hard and safely, and I guess I’ll forgive you for clogging the MAX trains after games when I went home from my summer job at the church literally three blocks from your stadium.
Trail Blazers’ Record: 9-12
Jared’s Picks Record: 9-12
Bro Counter: 26 to go before I have to pay him $40!
Related Slideshow: 12 of the Greatest Sports Movies of All Time
Hank Stern ranks his top twelve favorite sports films.
#8 The Longest Yard
Not the remake with Adam Sandler and Chris Rock. But the hilarious original with Burt Reynolds and Eddie Albert as a wonderfully villainous warden who pits the guards against the inmates in a grudge football game that includes former Green Bay linebacker Ray Nitschke and other ex-football players like Sonny Sixkiller and Joe Kapp, both stalwart Pac-8 quarterbacks long, long ago.
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