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Portland Trail Blazers Week Preview

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

 

LaMarcus Aldridge via Wikimedia Commons

Last week, the Portland Trail Blazers played some great basketball as a team. They obliterated a disheveled Cleveland team, then did the same to a more organized Dallas Mavericks team (their most impressive victory so far this season, in my opinion). While they gave up a lead on the road to the Clippers, that’s true of many teams since Chris Paul arrived in Los Angeles; I picked them to lose that one anyway, so meh.

Pulling away from Denver on the second night of a back-to-back showed the guts of a still slightly overworked starting lineup and the improvement of the Portland bench. Chris Kaman, known in this space as Air Sasquatch, has been nothing short of awesome, replacing Mo Williams’ production while giving LaMarcus Aldridge or Robin Lopez a breather. Where he’s been especially incredible, however, is when he’s played with one of the starting bigs.

Kaman and Aldridge, in particular, have been very good on the court together. Despite Aldridge’s humongous usage rate (30%!!!) cutting into Air Sasquatch’s offensive numbers, Kaman has found ways to be very effective without the ball, something he was not motivated to do in either Dallas or with the Lakers…or, honestly, ever.

I guess we can add this to LaMarcus Aldridge’s list of superpowers: reviving the careers of cast-off, injury-prone centers. First RoLo, then Air Sasquatch…SOMEONE GET SHAQ ON THE PHONE!

And about Aldridge: digging into advanced stats reveals something worrisome about his numbers. Worrying about a guy putting up 22 points and seven rebounds a game while registering a 20.5 Player Efficiency Rating (per ESPN.com…and yes, that number’s a good one) doesn’t make much sense, but per NBA.com, Aldridge is only making 38.8% of his straight jump shots so far this season.

Watching his last couple games, he has been missing from 14-16 feet much more than a guy like him should; for the season, Aldridge is shooting 38% from eight to 16 feet. Stepping further out into his comfort zone, Aldridge is hitting much better from 16-24 feet, at a 48% clip. His three-point shooting stands at 4-11 for the season, including a league-average rate shooting the “above the break,” or wing, three-pointer.

One piece of good news about Aldridge’s shooting: He’s been terrifyingly accurate fading away and/or turning around. Fadeaway/turnaround jumpers he hits at a 13-25 rate, and the number for those shots in the post? 14-22. That’s right, over 60%!

With Aldridge using 30% of his team’s possessions so far this year, it seemed like a good idea to highlight the trends in his shooting. If LMA can work out the kinks shooting from 14-16 feet and shooting from the pick-and-pop, we could see that scoring average balloon, and the Blazers become even more dangerous.

Alright, enough of this statistical nonsense. Time for picks! Let’s go! (All games on AM 620 radio)

Tuesday, Nov. 11: versus the Charlotte Hornets, CSNNW, 7:00 PM

The Skinny: Ignore all the other stuff about these guys for a bit. This team got blown out by the Lakers last night. The freaking Los Angeles Lakers, a team some columnists (like, um, me) suggest might be the worst defensive team of all time. Charlotte could only muster 92 points against a team that you, me, my editor, and two random old people from the nearest retirement home could score 100 on, easy.

Ever since that 71-69 monstrosity of a game they lost to the Memphis Grizzlies on the first of this month, the Hornets have been thought of as offensively challenged. Other than that crazy game they had against Atlanta, this has been pretty much the case, despite the best efforts of Al Jefferson, Master of the Left Block.

Lance Stephenson, the big signing Charlotte made in the offseason in an attempt to bolster their wing rotation, has been hit-and-miss. The hits are putting up over 10 rebounds and five assists a game, showcasing his famous versatility. The misses are more literal; he’s shooting a ghastly 31.7% from the field, and averaging only eight points a game.

If the Hornets want to ascend higher in the NBA’s pecking order, they have to put that big round ball through that tall round hoop at a rate that doesn’t make people retch or go blind.

Key Matchup: Robin Lopez vs. Al Jefferson. Big Al is the reason Charlotte has any chance on offense. He’s the kind of tent-pole player that point guard Kemba Walker is incapable of being, or the kind that Stephenson or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the Hornets’ athletic small forward, aren’t trusted to be. Unlike most players his size in these modern times, he utilizes the post area as a primary weapon.

Even the best power forwards today, including Aldridge, Blake Griffin, and Kevin Love, use the post-game as a complimentary avenue of scoring, rather than their base. Centers like Dwight Howard lack the skill to do what Big Al does on a nightly basis; Howard scores through sheer power and athleticism, as well as being the most devastating roll guy in the pick-and-roll today. Howard is Patrick Ewing without the smooth jump shot, but with healthy knees. 

Jefferson is a breed of player that will soon fade into the mists of time. Appreciate him while you can.

Lopez will get the first crack at seeing Big Al up close and personal. Expect Air Sasquatch and Aldridge to take their turns as well.

Prediction: I can’t take the Hornets seriously, not after what the Lakers did to them. Portland actually can play a little defense, and they’ll be at home. Charlotte fails to crack 90, Big Al get 30, and Portland wins.

Wednesday, Nov. 12: @ the Denver Nuggets, KGW (channel 8), 6:00 PM

The Skinny: If this team looks familiar, it’s because Portland played them just a few days prior to this game. The game last night was an up-and-down affair, as it usually is when Denver’s involved. 

The general flow of that game was similar to the others the Blazers have won so far: Aldridge shoots 25 shots, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum do their things, Damian Lillard hits a few shots and stays out of the way, RoLo and Air Sasquatch fuse into a two-headed Dragon of Doom, the Blazers press the “Annihilate!” button. 

For Portland to replicate those performances on the road, Lillard has to make more of an impact, especially after Batum suffered a knee contusion at the end of Sunday’s game.

Key Matchup: Damian Lillard vs. Ty Lawson. I’ll just go with last week’s matchup. I was tempted to put Kenneth Faried vs. Steve Blake, Cage Match Edition, but I happen to like Faried. I don’t want to see Blake choke him out with his own dreadlocks.

Lawson put up 18 points, 6 rebounds and 8 assists on Sunday, doing what he could despite a gimpy ankle. He’ll continue to be the Nuggets’ conductor as they try to dig out of their early-season hole.

Prediction: In the NBA, there are parts of the schedule that veteran players refer to as “schedule losses.” What’s meant by that is the last game of a four-in-five-nights scenario--as the one in Denver will be--is a hellish slog of a game where you usually lose unless you’re a top three team playing a bottom three team at home, and even then it’s not a guarantee.

Going into the thin air of Denver, playing a fourth game in five nights, against a team that doesn’t play again until this game, and against a team mad from the beating the Blazers placed on them, doesn’t bode well. Portland takes the loss.

Saturday, Nov. 15: versus the Brooklyn Nets, NBATV and CSNNW, 7:00 PM

The Skinny: I read a description of the Nets, written by CBSSports.com’s Matt Moore, that fits them to a T. Moore wrote about their win versus the Orlando Magic, “It was a very Nets win. They struggled with a younger, more athletic, worse team, but outsmarted and eventually got 'em with savvy and talent.”

Moore is spot on: the Nets are old, slow, tough, opportunistic, ground-bound (except for Mason Plumlee, Team USA Superstar #sarcasm) and intelligent. They beat you by inflicting little bug bites with Deron Williams and their Eastern European brigade, then they come in with the Joe Johnson hammer (averaging 21 PPG) to finish teams off.

The problem is, Brooklyn hasn’t played anybody of consequence yet. The best team they’ve beaten is the New York Knicks, a team still trying to figure out how to put their jerseys on, let alone run the triangle offense. They took advantage of a horribly depleted Oklahoma City squad, and they have bad losses at Boston and to Minnesota--two young, athletic teams.

Before this game, Brooklyn plays a Wednesday-Thursday back-to-back against the Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors. We’ll finally see what the 4-2 Nets are made of.

Key Matchup: Wesley Matthews vs. Joe Johnson. Johnson is a veteran guard that uses his size and strength on the perimeter to bully opposing wings; his advantage over the Toronto Raptors’ skinny two-guard DeMar DeRozen in the teams’ playoff series last year swung that series in Brooklyn’s favor. 

Funnily enough, that happens to be Matthews’ calling card as well. Though shorter and not as skilled with the ball as Johnson, Wes is a much better long-range shooter and defender, is younger, and will not be as easy to push around as DeRozen. 

Matthews has had a hot start to the season, putting up nearly 18 points a game with 50% shooting from the field. Even after his 5-13 outburst from three last night against Denver, Wes is still shooting a below-average (for him) 37% from behind the arc; I shudder to think what might happen if he regains his 40% touch, while maintaining his overall shooting. He also is rebounding fairly well at four a game, and his usual brand of in-your-face defense is on full display every night.

With Batum likely not going to be 100% for awhile, it’ll be Matthews’ job to limit Johnson’s impact on this game, and let Aldridge and the centers take advantage of Brook Lopez’s lax defense and rebounding.

Prediction: Wednesday begins a brutal three game West Coast swing that will conclude in Portland for the Nets, and it’s very easy to see them dropping all three, and convincingly. If Boston and Minnesota gave Brooklyn problems, going west to face the Suns, Warriors, and the Trail Blazers won’t be pretty.

Portland takes advantage of a tired, old Nets team and rings up a W.

Last week, I picked the Cavs to beat the Blazers, but Portland instead upended the Cavs on NBATV’s Fan Night. Since the Blazers lost in Los Angeles like I predicted, our records for the season (my picks and the Blazers’ overall record) still remain identical.

Trail Blazers’ Season Record: 4-3

Jared’s Picks Record: 4-3

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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