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Portland Trail Blazers Week Preview & Predictions – 2/25

Thursday, February 25, 2016

 

The Portland Trail Blazers’ playoff push continues, with their victory over the sad-sack Brooklyn Nets lifting them to sixth place in the Western Conference, 3 ½ games behind a fifth-place Memphis Grizzlies team that is without their best player. How they are doing this despite all the talent they lost over the summer, and with the guys they replaced that talent with, is both difficult and simple to explain.

It’s difficult because even with the West being weaker this season, there were several other likely candidates to ascend to playoff-level competition this season. The Utah Jazz, after carefully cultivating their young players, looked primed for a jump. All the top eight teams last year either improved or stayed the same…except for Portland. The Phoenix Suns were looking to get back to the playoffs, and the Sacramento Kings were doing…things.

The Blazers were a likely candidate to fall out of the playoffs altogether and have a ticket in the Ben Simmons Sweepstakes. That this roster of cast-offs and scrapings led by two guards that can’t play a lick of defense is the sixth-best team in a conference is odd and strange.

At the same time, it’s simple to explain because of those two guards, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. They not only provide the bulk of the scoring, but they keep the offense flowing. They both blend encouraging the extra pass one possession with selfishly jacking a 30-footer with 20 seconds left on the shot clock the next, switching gears to keep defenses honest.

Lillard, in particular, has become adept at passing out of traps and double-teams at the top of the three-point arc. The Houston Rockets trapped him a few times in their games earlier this month, and Dwight Howard was too slow to stop the 4-on-3 shenanigans from yielding an easy Blazer bucket.

Those traps usually led to turnovers or forced shots from Lillard earlier in the season, but as he’s adjusted to being the leading man, and as he’s learned how to play with his new teammates, Lillard’s making better decisions with the basketball. He’s even adding a few laser-like passes to his highlight reel of dunks and 35-foot bombs.

This two-man game is going to be difficult to defend in the postseason, or it would be if any of the three teams Portland’s likely to face in April (assuming they get there) didn’t have two great wing defenders, and a mobile big to back them up. Unfortunately, the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, and Oklahoma City Thunder have those things.

Still, if the Blazers do face the Thunder, Lillard and McCollum alone are going to steal at least one game. Whether the Blazers actually make a series of it will depend on the continued improvement of guys like Allen Crabbe and Mo Harkless, as well as the continued steadiness of Gerald Henderson, Ed Davis, and especially Al-Farouq Aminu (Chief!)

The Blazers still have a tough row to hoe, with two games each against the Warriors (who won’t forget or forgive the legalized mugging they got in Portland on Friday) and Thunder highlighting a difficult 24 remaining games. If they do hit a snag, at least they’ve staked themselves to a bit of a lead over the Jazz and Rockets.

Time for picks! Let’s go!

(Stats provided by NBA.com and basketball-reference.com.)

All Trail Blazers games can be listened to on the new radio partner of Oregon Sports News, AM 620 Rip City Radio!

Thursday, Feb. 25: vs. the Houston Rockets, 7:45 PM, TNT

The Skinny: Well now. We got to see the Blazers destroy this mockery of a team twice this month already, the second time so badly the coach wondered publicly if his team was “broken.” Now all of North America will get to see Portland annihilate these asshats on TNT. Gravy.

Analysts keep saying that Houston still has to be taken seriously because of the talent on the roster. Talent is nice. Talent gets some respect. But when that talent doesn’t fit properly, things get ugly. Like, from Western Finalist-to-out of the playoffs ugly, which is where the Rockets are as of today.

That road to a playoff spot would get much tougher if Houston gets beat again by the Blazers. Not only would that mean yet another loss to a team that’s dominated them this month, but a loss would give the season series to the Blazers…meaning that this win would effectively count as two wins for Portland, at least where the Rockets are concerned.

The Blazers got the head-to-head tiebreaker over Utah on Sunday. Earning the same advantage over the Rockets would only solidify their hold on a playoff spot.

I’ll say this: if Houston doesn’t show up to play tonight, if they aren’t ready and engaged against a team they’re chasing and a team that’s tortured them for two solid years, then why the flippity freaking F are they playing the game? Other than to get dem checks and smoke more hookah, of course.

(Looking at you, Ty Lawson.)

Player To Watch: CJ McCollum. The guy that’s opposite James Harden is always going to get this slot. Harden averages 28/6/7 with the kind of shooting numbers that tell you much about the weight he’s carrying on a nightly basis. He’s under 43% from the field and under 35% from three, hardly the magical efficiency that Houston GM Daryl Morey craves.

If it weren’t for his prodigious foul-drawing ability, the Beard wouldn’t be scratching 20 per. Which leads me to give this advice to the Blazer defending Harden: keep your damn hands down! Let him toss that ball up to the rim, arms flailing like a fish out of water, and if it goes in, shake his hand and move on. Instead of shaking his hand as he marches to the foul line for an and-one opportunity.

Prediction: To borrow a phrase from Nick Fury/Sam Jackson, the Rockets are the ant in this equation. The Blazers are the boot.

Portland wins.


Saturday, Feb. 27: @ the Chicago Bulls, 5:00 PM, CSNNW

The Skinny: At 30-26, the Bulls are clinging to sixth place in the East. The thing is, “clinging to a playoff spot” is not at all what folks envisioned when Fred Hoiberg was brought in as the hand-picked coach/toady of the Bulls’ brain trust, and as Jimmy Butler emerged as a true star.

The problem with Chicago right now is that they’re a team in transition, instead of a team that needed a few tweaks to contend in the East. Derrick Rose uses possessions like the old Derrick Rose, only he can’t finish like he used to, and is hijacking the offense in the process. Pau Gasol is banged-up, and too old to shoulder the kind of offensive burden he used to. Butler is also banged-up, as well as Nikola Mirotic; both are due to return in mid-March at the latest, leaving the burden to guys like Bobby Portis and Doug McDermott, young players that are going to have to grow up quick.

It feels like there are still vestiges of the Tom Thibodeau mindset among the longer-tenured players on this team. Rose was never taught how to run an offense, having been accustomed to being quicker and more athletic than everybody else throughout his life. Now faced with being a few steps slower, and having spent his time moping and making dumb commercials instead of absorbing more knowledge about playing point guard, he’s been a bad fit in Hoiberg’s scheme.

Excising the likes of Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson from the roster won’t be popular with Bulls fans, since their hard-playing style is admired in Chicago, but for the Bulls to move on and grow as a team, they need to stop these schizophrenic tendencies they have on the court. The basic fact is that Portis and McDermott are younger and healthier than Noah and Gibson. And that Butler is a more worthy star to build around than Rose now.

Player To Watch: Damian Lillard. I’m sure he’ll be more than happy to show Mr. Rose how a point guard in 2016 should play.

Prediction: The Bulls, in what’s become an annual tradition, have many players that are injured or limited. Unlike in past years, they don’t have the iron will of Thibs to hold them together and drag them to 50 wins and a top-four seed. Portland starts off a long road trip on the right foot with a win.


Sunday, Feb. 28: @ the Indiana Pacers, 3:00 PM, CSNNW

The Skinny: Yay for this indulgence of my Paul George fandom/fetish! Indiana is in fifth place in the East right now, and the main reason--nay, the SOLE reason--is their resident superstar. It takes a true badass to switch his jersey number to the number 13, and tempt fate…one year after a freak accident resulted in a shattered leg. And “shattered” isn’t hyperbole, people. I’m being literal.

His nickname may be PG-13, but his game is rated R. There isn’t a thing he can’t do on the basketball court; the only thing that limits him is the ungodly burden the Pacers lay on him, to the point that they’ve started reducing his minutes. Too many minutes on the court were diluting his awesomeness, and for Indy to have any chance in any game, George needs to be awesome all the time, every time.

George uses 30% of the Pacers’ possessions, and has his fingerprints on many more than that. His stat line may not blow your socks off at first, but that’s probably because you’re an insufferable plebe. We are talking about a man who’s “position” is listed as shooting guard/small forward/power forward, and he handles the ball more than Indiana’s nominal point guard, George Hill. The only things Paul doesn’t do for this team are serve the Gatorade and drive the team bus.

Here are his stats:

35.5 MPG, 23.4 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 4.2 APG, 1.8 SPG, 41/38/85 shooting splits, 20.3 PER, 4.6 Net Rating, 6.3 Win Shares

You may think what Damian Lillard is doing for the Blazers is impressive, and you’d be right. Lillard does have a running buddy in McCollum, though, whereas George doesn’t have anybody nearly as productive as McCollum on his team; the next highest scorer on the Pacers, Monta Ellis, is not only small and past his prime, but is scoring 10 points per game fewer than George, and is only shooting 31% from three-point range.

Paul George is carrying a playoff team almost on his own, and was the best player on a contending team just two years ago. He’s not only a legit top-10 player, but he’s the model of versatility, and a poster boy of the direction the NBA is going. To be a successful player or team nowadays, you need to do many things, and do them all well.

There are maybe two or three players in the entire NBA that are more versatile than Paul George, and they play on championship-contending teams (Draymond Green, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard when Gregg Popovich loosens the leash). If Larry Bird can somehow swing a trade or strike gold on a draft pick, maybe George can get back to those heights, and turn his story from an endearing comeback tale to an ode of Homeric proportions.

Player To Watch: Paul George. Because Paul George.

Prediction: Pacers win. Because Paul George.

 

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