Trail Blazers Preview: Three Upcoming Games
Tuesday, October 28, 2014
Let’s get to it! (All games available on AM 620 radio.)
Wednesday, Oct. 29th: versus the Oklahoma City Thunder, 7:30 PM, ESPN and KGW
The Skinny: Before Kevin Durant suffered a Jones fracture in his foot a couple weeks ago, this was billed by the national media as a big deal. ESPN made this their nightcap, and rightfully so--the combination of the reigning MVP in Durant and the delirious Rip City crowd, ecstatic about the return of basketball, would have made for great TV. Doesn’t hurt that these are the two best teams in their division.
Now, however, the Thunder are in survival mode. Along with Durant’s irreplaceable loss, OKC also will be without Anthony Morrow, the sharp-shooting wing they were counting on for some scoring…something almost nobody else on that roster has done much of in the NBA as of yet.
Key Matchup: Damian Lillard vs. Russell Westbrook. With the injuries his team has suffered, it will be up to Westbrook to both initiate all the offense and defend the dynamic Lillard.
One thing worth mentioning here: In the game these teams played in Portland last year, Westbrook was taunting Lillard about his inability to defend Westbrook. Portland coach Terry Stotts had Nicolas Batum defending the Oklahoma City point guard at times during that game; this is normal for the Blazers as they try to cover up Lillard’s horrendous defense.
Westbrook, however, decided to get personal. Though he knows full well that Batum defends the point on occasion, he yelled after Lillard, “Don’t be scared! Don’t be scared!” as the teams went to their benches during a time-out.
Lillard takes those kinds of things to heart. He has a long memory, with a competitive streak that burns as brightly as Westbrook’s. Look for Dame to go after Westbrook early to tire him out, knowing that he and Serge Ibaka are the only proven offensive threat OKC has available.
Prediction: The lack of balance on the Thunder’s roster, coupled with the Blazers playing their first game of the year in front of an insane crowd, means Portland will notch its first win of the season on opening night.
Friday, Oct. 31: at the Sacramento Kings, 7:00 PM, CSNNW
The Skinny: The Kings are staying in Sacramento, and they have DeMarcus Cousins, a young big man who has the potential to be the best center in the world one day. He’s already taken a few of those steps this summer, as he was a part of Team USA with teammate Rudy Gay.
The positives end there for the Kings. The men in charge, starting with owner Vivek Ranadive, are trying to reinvigorate the franchise after years of horrid management by the Maloof family, but many of us that follow the NBA don’t rightly know if they have a solid plan in action. The Kings are just gathering together talent and giving it to Michael Malone to shape. That doesn’t work in the NBA, but at least Ranadive is trying to put a good product out there.
Key Matchup: Nicolas Batum vs. Rudy Gay. I was tempted to put Cousins versus LaMarcus Aldridge here, but they don’t play the same position. Meanwhile, what happens between the two small forwards in this game will go a long way towards deciding it, thanks to Gay’s penchant for taking a high percentage of his team’s shots.
Per NBA.com, Gay’s usage rate was 27.4% last year; that means that over a quarter of his teams possessions ended with him shooting the ball or turning it over. That’s a franchise player’s level of usage, and Gay is not a guy you can build a team around. He did put up 20 points a game, and he got better when he was traded to Sacramento last season, but the perception of Gay is that he’s an inefficient player who acts as a black hole--alongside another potential black hole in Cousins.
Batum’s task will be to bother Gay enough to make him take 20 or more shots to get his 20 points. Without a clear plan of attack or another perimeter threat that does more than shoot threes for the Kings, it shouldn’t be hard for Batum to achieve this.
Prediction: While the quality of the team may be in question, it always sucks to play in Sacramento…for a variety of reasons. The Blazers will still be fresh enough at the start of the season to dispatch the Kings with little trouble; it’s later in the year that these games become traps.
Sunday, Nov. 2nd: versus the Golden State Warriors, 6:00 PM, CSNNW
The Skinny: This team’s had an interesting offseason, to be mild about it. Firing a coach in Mark Jackson who’d led the team to the most success it’s had since former 70’s great Rick Barry was shooting granny free throws? Refusing to add Kevin Love via trade because they think Klay Thompson is more than a taller, more accurate Wesley Matthews?
Golden State has had the aura of a franchise divided in mind. Owner Joe Lacob wants the team to contend RIGHT NOW! General Manager Bob Meyers knows in the West, it’s a crapshoot at best for those teams in the second tier. Besides being clearly inferior to the top contenders (San Antonio, the Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City with Durant), the Warriors also have to contend with Portland, Dallas, Memphis, Houston, Phoenix…it’s really, really hard to separate yourself. Golden State has had success so far, but Lacob WANTS MORE AND HE WANTS IT NOW!!!11!!!1!!
Having an all-consuming force like that hovering around a team tears it apart much more often than rallies it.
Key Matchup: Wesley Matthews vs. Klay Thompson. It’d be easy to say Lillard versus Stephen Curry, but those guys likely won’t guard each other; Thompson, in fact, may end up checking Lillard instead of Matthews the whole game because Steph Curry cannot defend an 80-year old blind man with one leg.
Thompson is eager to show off what he learned this summer, both for the sake of diversifying his game and also because he’ll face heaping piles of flak about being the sticking point in the aborted Love trade for years. He’ll want to prove that the front office--those that wanted to keep him, anyway--were right to not trade him.
Matthews will be waiting with his own accurate 3-point shot and a physical, stifling brand of defense that’s stymied the best wing players in the league. Even elite ball handlers like James Harden or Carmelo Anthony have some trouble when guarded by Wes, and Thompson is nowhere near that skilled with the ball.
Whichever one of these shooting guards makes his impact felt the most during this game, whether on defense, rebounding, passing, or draining threes, will give his team the edge.
Prediction: When two teams are relatively equal in terms of the rosters, you look at other circumstances to figure out how a game may go. The schedule won’t be an issue-the Warriors will be on the second night of a back-to-back, but this early in the season, it shouldn’t be a problem. Neither team has any major injuries. There’s no real bad blood between the Blazers and Warriors.
I expect both Aldridge and Curry to have big games even with great defenders on them (Andrew Bogut should be the one taking on LMA when he goes to work. David Lee is almost as bad as Curry on defense, and has been for years), and the auxiliary players for both teams will be prepared to take advantage of any scoring chances they get.
While the Warriors are slightly deeper, the Blazers are playing at home. So I flipped a coin, and it came up heads. I pick the Blazers.
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