Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Trail Blazers vs. Knicks: Game 75

After the biggest three-game test of the season saw Portland (45-29) pass with flying colors, they must find a new way to motivate themselves as perennial cellar dwellers, New York (26-47) are in the Rose City. Playing 82 games, plus pre-season and training camp, can take its toll on a player both mentally and physically. Every member of the Trail Blazers knows each game the rest of the way is a playoff game, sometimes even single elimination, and a lot of times the opponent alone is worthy enough of motivation, such as Dallas on a TNT Thursday night or in Oklahoma City to run down the youthful Thunder for 6th place. Unfortunately for Portland, the Knicks are no longer the prime-time attraction, meaning it can become very easy for the Blazers to overlook them, so Coach Nate and the players themselves must find some inner drive. Playoff positioning aside, the revenge factor should be in place as the Knicks handled the Trail Blazers with ease back on December 7th, 93-84. If Portland doesn't remember holding a strong, double-digit lead in last year's contest in the Rose Garden, only to see the Knicks storm back to take a 13 point lead, before Roy-Wonder put on his cape and made the improbable happen, then they should learn from the Utah Jazz. After storming out of the gate with 44 1st quarter points and a 14 point lead, all looked well in Salt Lake City, before it happened. The Jazz let up, lost focus, and thought the game was over after the first 12 minutes instead of playing a full 48. New York ended up taking the lead on multiple occasions in the second half, even having it tied late in the 4th before Deron Williams put them away with a three. When you are playing an opponent who has nothing to lose, only to gain, you must assert your dominance early and often to ensure their spirits have been crushed. Over the first 60 or so games this year, this may have been a problem for the Trail Blazers, but lately, speaking of the Sacramento game on march 12th and New Orleans on the 27th specifically, Portland has done a superb job of gaining early leads and not letting the opponent creep back in. It will be imperative to have a cushy lead heading into the 4th so not only can the starters gain much needed rest for tomorrow's game in the altitude of Denver but to let the bench work out some of their kinks. In regards to the bench, frankly, they haven't even been mediocre lately, sans Howard. They scored a dreadful 11 points in Phoenix and only 12 against OKC resulting in a 1-1 split in those two games, but for a team like the Trail Blazers, who are looking to improve their seeding, not maintain it, sporadic bench play is the difference between a favorable matchup come late April and not. Coach Nate's late season rotation looks to be in playoff form as it has been trimmed down to only nine players, with the rooks only getting mop up duty. Juwan, really the only serviceable second string big, has been the only consistent offense for the second unit, while Rudy and Marty have seen their shots evaporate and Bayless struggle to deal with the up and down playing time. Not being an NBA player, I can only imagine how hard it is to get infrequent minutes in Jerryd's case or go from being a starter to seldom used role player in Webster's case, but my advice to them would be to focus and have a good time out there. You know you'll get at least a certain amount of time, whether it be five or 10 minutes, and lay it all on the line. Play within yourself and make it happen. Coming off of the bench and producing instantly is one of the toughest things to do in sports as a lot of players need a rhythm to get going, but all it takes is a few good outings and the their time should increase. Personally, the key to Portland making it out of round 1 is the bench. Our starters are already clicking on all cylinders right now, but they are the post-season X-Factor. Tempo. Portland must control it tonight and not get caught up in the run and gun, free flowing style the Knicks love to play. This doesn't mean the Trail Blazers shouldn't look to push the pace at all, because cheap buckets can be had on these guys but pick and choose the proper times to push tempo. Whatever we do, it must be pro-active and not reactive. If we want to grind it out, that's how the game will go or if we want a little showtime then so be it. The one aspect on offense we must stray from is the early shots in the shot clock. Unless it is wide open or from very close range, work the shot clock a bit and make this Knicks team work on the defensive end. Chances are the harder Portland makes New York work, the less resistance they'll face. Andre and LaMarcus should have no problems having the offense run through them on the blocks. If New York gets lazy, there is no way Douglas or Lee can either their respective assignments single handily or if they get lackadaisical coming out of their double teams, Batum, Roy, Webster, etc will be waiting to do work from beyond the arc. While every remaining game is scary due to the implications it would have on the standings if a loss was incurred, I feel pretty confident in our boys tonight. They are on a torrid face right now and with the added veteran leadership provided by Dre, Marcus and Juwan, the Blazers know the task at hand. As easy as it might be to overlook the Knicks, they learned their lesson against the Wizards and I don't see it happening again. Even if the bench doesn't show signs of improvement, which would be extremely disappointing tonight, the starters are good enough to put up win #46 for the Rip City. As well as Andre and Brandon have played lately, don't be surprised if Batum has a huge night. The Knicks may hone in on those two, leaving Nico open to operate, and with the way New York plays in transition defense, Andre could have a field day throwing passes ahead to Batum for a few Batum-Shokka-Lokkas. Game 75 Prediction: Trail Blazers 104 Knicks 90 Post-Game Thoughts "After the [opening] jump ball, it kind of went downhill from there," said New York coach Mike D'Antoni. Everything went according to plan tonight for the Trail Blazers and then some. No starter played more than 28 minutes, preserving them for tomorrow night's divisional battle in Denver. The Trail Blazers jumped out on the Knicks early, leading 31-20 after the first quarter, and kept their foot on the gas pedal the entire rest of the way, pushing the lead to as high as 36 late in the 3rd at 80-44. They used their size advantage inside to conquer the paint, 46-34, and absolutely wanted this game so much more, obliterating New York 68-36 on the Hustle Board (rebounds, steals, blocks). Finally, maybe most importantly of all, our bench showed up by outscoring their Knick counterparts 46-32, including Webster finding him shot to the tune of 14 points and Bayless running the show with a purpose as he filled the stat sheet with 6 points, 4 rebounds, and 7 assists. "They just stopped playing," forward Nicolas Batum said. "Next week, they go home." In a game that saw each and every member of the Trail Blazers not only play but score, it's difficult to choose who was most impressive, but two players who stood out in my mind were Nico Batum and Andre Miller. As I thought he would, Nico had a huge night, but he did so much more than the usual spot up three-point barrage. Although he was a steady 3-7 from I-5, he scored in a variety of ways. Whether it was rubbing his man off of Aldridge and taking the hand-off for a wide open flush or nailing a long-range jump shot off of the dribble drive, Batum was flourishing on the offensive end the entire night. In total, he dropped 20 points on 7-13 shooting and also found time to grab 5 rebounds and players such as Gallinari, McGrady, and Rodriguez. As important as the bench is to playoff success, Batum's output on a nightly basis could give Portland that extra oomph needed to get out of round 1. Last year Batum had to be bench in the playoffs, because Houston was sagging off of him and he wasn't able to knock down the jump shot as he is now. The more weapons Roy has at his disposal, the more lethal Brandon is going to be able to be. His line won't blow you away, 6 points (3-5), 7 assists, and 2 rebounds, but Andre Miller was in complete command of the entire game and doing so with ease. Nearly all of his dimes resulted in highlight-reel alley-oops or wide open attempts in the lane. If there are 10 better point guards playing in the NBA right now, present them, because I don't believe it. Dre wanted the respect to be regarded as one of the game's best point mans and right now, I don't think you'll find many naysayers. With the way he is operating on the court, my fan swagger has gone through the roof. Earlier in the year, even when healthy, I hoped to win, when we got depleted from injuries, I prayed for win, and now I expect to win no matter the opponent or location. Analysts can continue to brush us aside in the conversation as to whom is L.A.'s biggest threat but let them. A small market team like Portland is used to being underestimated an thrives off of it. Hopefully the team is just as, if not more, confident as I am and I must thank Mr. Miller, because his addition has been the complete difference maker. Even though many would have rather seen Houston defeat San Antonio and Memphis upset Dallas, by virtue of Portland's win and their losses, the Trail Blazers are playoff bound for the second straight season for the first time since the 02 and 03 seasons. Although there were no bottles of champagne being popped in the locker room after Coach told them of the news, its still nice to see the team accomplish their goal of getting back to the dance, especially considering the amount of adversity the team has inquired this season. While a great feat, the team will not be happy with or simply settle for making the playoffs; the goal now is to put themselves in the best possible seed and peak at the right time. Tomorrow night will go a long way in terms of both. A win gives the Blazers a realistic chance to work their way up to 5th in the standings and not many places can boost momentum and confidence like the Mile High City can. "It's a great accomplishment," McMillan said. "Losing so many guys, we knew it was going to be a challenge, but it remained a goal to get here." "Now we get that opportunity [to participate in the playoffs] again. This is what it's all about. This is what we play for. And we still have games remaining that we're going to focus on, starting [Thursday] in Denver." Official Game Photos Box Score

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Trail Blazers @ Thunder: Game 74

After a convincing 112-101 win over New Orleans to start this quick, two-game road trip, Portland (44-29) heads to the mid-west to battle Oklahoma City (44-27). If last Sunday's game against Phoenix was the biggest of the year, than this is the 2nd biggest to date. The Phoenix loss really put Portland in a hole in regards of climbing out to catch the Suns, which likely won't happen now after losing. While it won't be as hard to catch the Thunder if the Blazers drop one tonight, it may still be out of the question considering how consistent OKC has been this year, never losing more than three straight this year. Two things in Portland's favor tonight are the fact they have already won in OKC earlier this season, 83-74, and are an incredible 13-3 on the second half of back to backs. Back on November 1st, Portland was able to hold Kevin Durant to 16 points on 3-20 shooting. Now, I highly doubt he shoots that poorly again, but Batum was unavailable for action that night, meaning it was Webster's fingerprints all over the job that night done on Durant. Obviously, Batum vs. Durant is the matchup Trail Blazer fans everywhere want to see, but if Nico gets in foul trouble or just needs a breather, it'll be imperative for Marty to make defense priority #1 tonight. If the Blazers can keep Durant around his average of 30 points but force him into more than 20 shots in doing so as well as keeping him off the free throw line his third best 10.0 times a night, consider it a successful night on Durant. Nico needs to use his length to give Durant a little space, enticing him to shoot jump shots, rather than attack the middle. If he kills us with jumpers, so be it, but its better than him getting into the paint for cheap buckets all while getting our bigs in foul trouble at the same time. The game is going to be won or lost at the charity stripe tonight for the Trail Blazers. During their 89-77 loss on February 9th, the Thunder attempted twice as many free throws as the Blazers, 28 to 14. Granted, Portland was without Roy and had not yet acquired Marcus Camby, but in such a low scoring game with all other statistics comparable, it was their ability to get to the stripe which was the difference. OKC really possess only one legit big man in Kristic and he is further away from being a defensive nightmare than I am from being a member of Cirque Du Soleil. Andre needs to use his veteran craftiness to bait Westbrook into some fouls while Aldridge must use his size advantage in owning Green down on the blocks. I think Portland must get to the stripe at least 20 times tonight to have a chance, because you can't expect your starters to shoot over 75% from the floor once again, let alone on back to back nights. Although each Blazer stater has a Player Efficiency Rating above 17 and have carried the Trail Blazer load the previous two games, it's foolish to think they can perform at this level for the remainder of the season. All elite teams have benches they can rely upon and right now, ours is too sporadic to lean on in times of need. Tonight, that must change. Bayless has looked a little better, letting the game come to him rather than rushing each movement out there. Rudy has been more aggressive on defense, playing the passing lanes, but his patented three-point shooting has been off, a little too off. His percentage from beyond the arc is down from 39.9% lat season to 37.5% this year and has hit a recent cold streak, hitting only 3 of his last 14 over the course of the last three games. Marty has been down right chilly since his hot January, but I did like his play late in the game against New Orleans. He didn't settle for contested jumpers, rather he put the ball on the floor and got to the line or made a play for someone else. The bottom line is our core bench of Howard, Bayless, Webster, and Fernandez is on another level compared to the Thunder's Harden, Maynor, Ibaka, and Collison. I'm not asking for much, but the 2nd unit needs to account for at least 20 points and not only sustain the intensity left from the starters but increase it. Portland is on a roll right now, winning 12 of their last 15 games, but not until the prior two wins they hadn't beat anyone worthy of writing home about. Both wins lately had been complete team efforts with great ball movement and suffocating defense. I look for this trend to continue mainly due to our superb veterans. I don't see OKC getting many offensive rebounds or keeping Portland off the glass with Camby and Aldridge's length inside and while we can throw Webster and Batum at Durant, who is going to slow down B-Roy when he's dialed in? Thabo, Please! At home, I think Roy feels more comfortable getting his teammates off to a good start first, but on the road, Brandon loves to assert himself to get the team's engine running. He's been incredibly efficient lately, and if he scores anywhere in the 25 point range on less than 15 shots, there is no way Portland doesn't walk away victorious. Portland will come out of the gates like a bat out of hell and never relinquish the lead. Dre frustrates the young Westbrook, Aldridge abuses the smaller Green, and the legend of Batum will continue to grow tonight as he gives Durant fits all night long. Game 74 Prediction: Trail Blazers 104 Thunder 91 Post-Game Thoughts This game was a classic case of experience defeating youth. Portland was in the exact same position as OKC last season, full of young, exciting talent that has never been tested in playoff-type environments. What a difference our three veteran players can make as Camby, Andre, and Juwan always had an answer when the Thunder came calling. Only twice did Portland trail in the game and each time only by one point. Every single time Portland upped the lead to 6-10 points, OKC would storm back but could never fully grasp the momentum, thanks in large part to said veterans. In particular, Andre had at least three one man fast breaks, Camby hits a foul line jumper off the dribble late in the 3rd to thwart OKC's run, and Juwan floated in the last Blazer field goal to put us up five with under two minutes to play. In a game that saw Portland get outplayed statistically, the added experience is an intangible asset not seen in box scores. "It was a gut check for our guys," said Blazer coach Nate McMillan. "We have been talking about winning back-to-back games. Just a lot of things we threw out as challenges for our guys. The fact that Oklahoma City was right in front of us (in the standings), we had an opportunity to close the gap on them." Speaking of being dominated by the box score, I don't think getting out-blocked 10-3, out-shot from the foul line 25-17, and getting out-rebounded 41-34 are long-term recipes for success. Don't blame the starters though, as each had a +/- rating of at least three. Our bench nearly gave away the game on several occasions, blowing each lead the first unit built. Rudy didn't even attempt a shot, Jerryd's shining moments included a three minute span where he hit a long-jumper and successfully operated the fast-break but for the most part looked out of sync all night, and Juwan, outside of a couple jump shots, got absolutely annihilated on the glass by Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka. All in the all, the Thunder bench tallied 23 points, 14 rebounds, and 6 blocks compared to Portland's 12 points, 2 rebounds, and zero blocks. Yes, the team has won 13 of their last 16, but our starters can not simply continue to shoulder this much of the load. Juwan, I'll give a pass, because he has surpassed all expectations and shouldn't be expected to manhandle the boards on a nightly basis at his age. Bayless needs to just play under control and have a plan when he attacks. Help-side defenses just salivate every time he drives the ball, because he doesn't find the open man enough, instead throws up a shot which gets sent into the 5th row. Rudy may be hurting, but he needs to find his stroke and give this team the boost he gave us early on his rookie year while Marty needs to know he's getting 10 minutes of run a night and just go all out with confidence. Have no fear of getting pulled and just have fun out there. People can talk about Durant being in the MVP talk or the next Jordan or whatever, and he is a very good player, not great, I need to wait and see what he does come playoff time before dubbing him "greatness", but I still see more McGrady in his game than Jordan. Make no mistake about it, he is an athletic freak: 6'10" with quickness, handles, range to boot. But I've yet to see him hit clutch shots. Last night was a perfect example. He was the reason his team was even in the game at all with his 13-15 effort at the charity stripes, but he missed every single field goal attempt in the 4th quarter and his shot selection was sketchy at best, pulling up for threes well beyond the arc. Until he can find that "it" factor in crunch time that players such as Roy, Bryant, and Wade obtain, he'll just be another fun scorer to watch. Maybe a lot of you out there think I am being too harsh on the third year, 22-year old player, and I probably am. But when he is being anointed as the second coming by all media outlets, its time to bring his game back down to earth. I felt Batum did a tremendous job getting physical with him and, for the most part, keeping him out of the paint, forcing him into jump shots. Roy had 22 points and 7 assists, but it wasn't a typical Roy night as it took him 22 shots to do his damage and Aldridge had his moments, but 14 points and 6 rebounds weren't the deciding factors last night. Rather it was Marcus Camby and Andre Miller leading the charge once again. Early on the the game, as Portland built their nine point first quarter lead, Kristic was active, getting his hands on every rebound, but who was there to always have the last tap and guide it to a teammate? Marcus Camby. Without him, we lose this game and many others and he gives the team a presence inside and as much as we love Joel and Greg, Marcus is capable of making a shot outside of five feet every now and then. He just always makes the right play. Re-signing him should be priority #1 this summer. On to Andre, what more can I say that already hasn't? He fully exposed Russell Westbrook for the young pup that he is and took every advantage to get the Trail Blazers easy buckets. With the way our entire starting 5 is gelling and if we can get any consistency from the bench, 50+ wins is a lock. "Tonight felt like a playoff game with their crowd," said Blazers center Marcus Camby, who had 11 points and pulled down 12 rebounds. "They have a great fan base here. It definitely felt like a playoff game." Official Game Photos Box Score

Friday, March 26, 2010

Trail Blazers @ Hornets: Game 73

Up next for the red hot Trail Blazers (43-29), winners of 11 of their last 14 games, are the struggling, but dangerous New Orleans Hornets (34-39) as their leader Chris Paul has returned from injury. Both teams have split the two previous meetings to date this season, with each team winning on the others home floor. Portland took the first matchup, 86-78 back on November 13th, behind 20 points and 13 rebounds from Aldridge, while New Orleans stole a sure Portland victory, 98-97, by coming back from 8 down in the final two minutes. It comes down to pride versus aspirations tonight. As their current records stand, Portland can eliminate New Orleans from the playoffs with a victory, and although the best the Hornets can do is delay the inevitable, I'm sure they don't want to get ousted on their home floor. On the other side of the court, Portland must keep their eyes on the prize of moving on up in the playoff standings. A quick two-game road sweep could have the Trail Blazers sitting pretty at the 6th seed out West. Trail Blazer fans probably thought, "Of course Chris Paul would return in time to play us!" when CP3 returned a little ahead of schedule from his ankle injury. Have no fear as it could be a blessing in disguise. First off, it means less playing time for outstanding rookie Darren Collison, who put up 18.2 points on 47.3% shooting, 9 assists, 3.5 rebounds, and 1.5 steals in 40 minutes of action over the span of 33 games. Secondly, CP3 is the best point guard in the league, hands down, but this will only be his 3rd game back after a two month hiatus from basketball, which means that not only will he not be as sharp as he'd like to be but the team needs to get acclimated to playing along side of him, which could shake up the chemistry temporarily. Finally, Paul just doesn't play that well against the Trail Blazers. In 15 career games against Portland, CP3's stats pale in comparison to his usual all-world self: 14.4 points, on 43.6 field goal shooting and 27.8% from distance, 8.7 assists, and 4.7 rebounds. The premier matchup will be the battle of the power forwards: LaMarcus Aldridge vs. David West. Both jump shooting first big men who, on occasion, find their inner ruthlessness and dominate inside. The key to victory for either team is who out-performs one another. Quite frankly, I'd take a push in a heartbeat, as our supporting cast is leaps and bounds more talented than theirs. Just like he defended Dirk, LaMarcus must get physical with West and force him out of his comfort areas on the floor. If he allows West to shoot a couple open mid-range shots and they fall, all of the sudden the tough, contested shots start to drop. He usually gets those open looks off of Paul drives to the hole, so it is imperative the team fights through all screens and keeps the action out of the paint. Portland's 12 game streak of scoring 100+ on the road fell hard this past Sunday in Phoenix as they only were able to muster 87 points on a Suns team which gives up a 3rd worst, 106.1 points per game. While New Orleans isn't that generous in allowing the opposition to score, they still rank 10th worst in points allowed at 102.4 per night. Portland is 25-8 when scoring 100 or more, and as cliche as it sounds, if they get to the century mark, they'll win. If not, it could be mean one of two things. First, NO effectively executed a zone defense on us as we failed to bust it with outside shooting. Or, it could just be your classic, sloppy game, where no one can hit the broad side of a barn and turnovers are plentiful, similar to the game back in November between the same teams. Its one thing to say score 100+ but how can the Trail Blazers achieve that goal? Look for Dre Miller to run at any opening he sees, but not be reckless about it. I thought the team played a perfect match of uptempo as well as half-court ball in last night's win over Dallas, surely pleasing both Roy and Miller. Brandon was a quiet assassin against Dallas, doing his job in only 7 field goal attempts, as he took what the defense gave him and his teammates were all filling it up, but watch out for him to be in beast mode against NO. With LA going toe to toe with West and the starting back court leading the charge, all the Trail Blazers need is to lock up win #44 is bench productivity, whether it be offensive or defensive. As CP3 returned, it moved Collison to the bench and for whatever reason Morris Peterson starts ahead of Marcus Thornton. I expect the bench to get outplayed by those two, but as long as the bench scoring is within a 6-8 point differential, Portland should be fine. The Trail Blazers looked too good against Dallas to go against them now. They are focused and know what is at stake. Portland will jump out on the Hornets, fight off a couple of valiant comeback attempts, but in the end, sow some killer instinct and swat the bugs away. Game 73 Prediction: Trail Blazers 103 Hornets 92 Post-Game Thoughts Only a quick 2-3 deficit in the opening moments of the game kept Portland from a wire to wire victory over New Orleans. In the end, the Trail Blazers jumped on the Hornets early, always maintaining at least a 5 point lead, and with 2:44 left in the half, Portland went for the kill. Knowing they could knock N.O. out of the playoff race with a win, the Blazers ended up outscoring the Hornets by 11 to take a commanding 57-41 lead into the half. Every player played their role to a tee, as Roy and Aldridge lead the way offensively with a combined 52 points, Andre handed out a game-high 8 assists, Camby was relentless on the glass to the tune of 14 boards, and Batum played lock-down defense on everyone from Marcus Thornton to Chris Paul resulting in a 112-101 Blazers victory. Although each player played to their strengths, make no mistakes about it, the entire team shot the lights out by going 57.3% from the floor and the starters shot 76.6%, highest percentage from the Portland starting unit since March 17th, 1985 against Atlanta when they shot 77.3%. (Courtesy of AGDuck) "It's nice to see the ball go in," Blazers coach Nate McMillan said. "We've got guys who can knock down shots. We want to establish the inside. I thought we did that with LaMarcus, Brandon and Andre. I thought we played from the inside out. We knocked down our shots. When our shots are falling, we get aggressive defensively." I felt Roy would be more assertive on the offensive end of the floor tonight after letting him teammates handle the bulk of the load against Dallas and boy was Brandon in beast mode tonight. Every shot he wanted, he got, he took, and he made. He was shooting threes, driving to the hoop, mid-range isolations, and posting up smaller defenders. When he went to the blocks, demanding the rock, and just did anything he wanted out of the triple threat position, it was like watching Kobe Bryant dissect the defense, only Roy does it so much more efficiently. One game after shooting 5-7 from the floor, Brandon scores 28 points on an absurd 12-14 shooting and found his teammates by passing out 7 dimes while committing zero turnovers. Sportscasters and casual fans may believe guys such as Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant are the most potent offensive pure scorers in the game, but they are high-volume shooters. Brandon lets the game come to him and has to be one of the most efficient players in the game and I'll take that over 30 points on 25 shots any day of the week. "Coming in I didn't feel over aggressive," Roy said. "I just tried to make plays. I know early on they put (Marcus) Thornton on me. I just tried to get something going more towards the basket. My mid-range was falling so I think any time that's going it's going to be tough to defend." "They were trying to push me in the middle. I just tried to take what they gave me. ... I felt good. From that first shot he hit my elbow but it felt good. I was pump-faking and jabbing and when that mid-range is kind of going for me I'm in a really good groove. Making shots early helps because it gives you confidence." For the second straight game, Portland excelled in three critical categories: free throw attempts, points in the paint, fast-break points. Portland was aggressive and unselfish all at the same time, which culminated in the extra pass being made as either foul shot attempts or an easy bucket down low were the end result. Once again, Portland outscored an opponent in the paint, 42-38, and they did it as a team. It wasn't one-on-one drives to the hoop, rather it was ball movement, swinging from one side of the court to another, followed by a great back cut to allow that extra pass to be made. A 23-17 advantage isn't much at the charity stripe, but an eight-point differential at the stripe is as the Trail Blazers hit 20 of their 23 while New Orleans only managed to hit 12 of 17, including one ugly air-ball from Okafor. Scoring eight fast-break points is nothing to write home about, even for one of the worst breaking team in the NBA, but stifling the Hornets to only three points in transition when they possess two of the top point guards in the game, who always hoop with their heads up, is down right amazing. The hot shooting of the Blazers negated any chances the Hornets had to leak out as well as great transition defense, always finding their man and applying pressure. Watch out NBA, Portland is finally healthy and clicking. The team chemistry which aided in their 54 wins last season seems to finally arrived over this past month, seen by winning 12 of their 15 games since the Utah incident on February 21st. What clicked? Personally, three players have made the difference: Marcus Camby, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nico Batum. Camby's last six games have seen rebound outputs of 17, 7, 6, 19, 16, and 11. No longer do the Blazers have to expend all of their energy on the glass, which has seen a stronger Aldridge emerge on the offensive end. Speaking on Aldridge, he out-shined West tonight, and in many instances when I get excited about his outing, it had to do with his body language and ways in which he scored. Tonight he showed his touch from the perimeter but also worked the smaller David West in the post and had multiple drives to the hoop, something that will take him to elite status. All in all, his stat line read 24 points, on 11-16 shooting, and 5 rebounds all while, along with Camby, helping hold Okafor and West to a combined 8 boards. Finally, what more can we say about Batum? Last game he defends Dirk and tonight he locks down CP3. At the end of the half, Paul tried to do his shake and bake, quickly dribble between the legs, then fall away for the mid-range jumper. He tried, yet got denied as the length of Batum deflected the ball. He was a big reason why CP3 only was able to score 7 points on 3-8 shooting and only two free throw attempts. Be afraid Western Conference, be very afraid! Official Game Photos Box Score

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Trail Blazers vs. Mavericks: Game 72

After a three day layoff, Portland (42-29) heads home for a quick one-game stay against a team they have had surprisingly great success against this season, the Dallas Mavericks (47-24). After being swept last season, 3-0, Portland has accomplished something no one thought possible, winning twice in American Airlines Center and doing so under the most improbable conditions. The first victory, 85-81, occurred two weeks after Greg Oden went down with a broken kneecap and in the 2nd quarter, Portland saw their rock, Joel Przybilla go down with a similar, yet much more devastating injury. To prove the win in December was no fluke, the Trail Blazers pulled an even bigger rabbit out of their hat by dethroning Dallas again, this time in overtime, 114-112, behind 52 points from Andre Miller. Oh, yeah, the Blazers pulled this miracle off without Brandon Roy as well as not having the two big centers inside either. Will the Cinderella run continue tonight against Dallas or will another long break between games get the best of the Blazers again? Although Portland defeated Dallas twice already this year, you may almost want to throw that out the window this time around. Both teams brought in entirely different personnel since the last meeting in January and its safe to say both teams are significantly better, whether it be through trades, health, or any other factor. Dallas robbed Washington in acquiring Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood, while Portland obtained Camby and now have a roster full of healthy players, including Brandon Roy. In a sense, this is the first matchup between Dallas and Portland this season and will go a long way to seeing how we truly line up against the Mavs if we end up facing each other in the playoffs. Right now Dallas is 2nd and with a win, Portland moves into 7th. If the Blazers can somehow win these upcoming two games at home against the Mavericks, there should be no reason why Portland should not be favored to beat them in a playoff series. If the Trail Blazers are serious about catching some of these teams above them, they need to show it tonight. Lay it all on the floor. Although the defense was pretty good against the Suns, too many times did I see Amare rip a rebound away from one of our guys or Robin Lopez out-hustle someone and come away with the board. Dallas, although a lock for the playoffs, if fighting for their lives as well. They are in a virtual dead heat for 2nd place in the West with Denver and Utah, and obtaining home court throughout the 1st two rounds of the playoffs is a immensely important. Dallas needs this win just as much as we do and if we don't come out aggressive, they'll come into our house and take it right out of our hands. I'm not singling out any one player, coach, or member of the organization. Everyone needs to play with a little desperation tonight. Brandon Roy. I don't think there is a bigger key to the game tonight than #7. Anyone notice lately how badly we struggle when he is off his game and how much easier he makes the game for everyone else when he is his normal Roy-Wonder self? Take a look at the Trail Blazers 7-2 mark in March, where in Portland wins, Brandon averages 24.1 points, shoots 46.2% from the field (55-119), gets to the foul line 9 times a night, and only attempts 3.1 three-point attempts. On the flip side, during the two losses in that span to the Nuggets and the Suns, B-Roy tallied a mere 17.5 points on a very un-Roy like 28.2% (11-39), only manages 7 trips to the charity stripe, while shooting 4.5 threes. There are a couple conclusions derived from these statistics. First, only one team above .500 was defeated in the nine-game sample (Memphis), and when the competition heated up, Roy played his worst. Now, I wouldn't shoulder Roy with all the blame, as teams have been known to pack in on Roy, sending double teams at him constantly, forcing his teammates to step up. Basketball is a team game, so we can give Roy a little pass there, but what is a little unnerving is the fact that when Roy performs poorly, the foul shot attempts go down while three-point field goals jacked up increase. What Brandon needs to do to take the next step in his game is to find a way to the line, no matter how poorly he is shooting on the night. Guys like LeBron, Wade, and Kobe always find ways to put pressure on the D, even if their shot has temporarily abandoned them for the night. For Portland to walk away victorious, Roy needs to get to the charity stripe 10+ times, score around his average, but do so efficiently. It is a Thursday night on TNT, so chances are The Natural will be out in full force tonight. Outside of Roy doing what he does, there is no magical stat barrier the Blazers need to reach in order to get win #43. They just need to play tough, out-physical the Mavericks, even a few hard fouls by Juwan would help, and force the action inside. Obviously, we have to hit better than 2-17 from I-5 to ensure the Mavs don't pack the paint and beg us to shoot from the perimeter, but any chance we get to run, go! I'm going to go the optimistic route tonight and say the rust won't hinder the Blazers too badly and the Rose Garden crowd will be quick to forget the last team appearance on Friday. Portland fights tooth and nail with Dallas, but Nico will once again harass Dirk on those tough, fade away jump shots while Brandon will have an answer every time down to the floor for the Mavericks. It's Brandon Roy, TNT Thursday night, how can you not think he won't impress? Game 72 Prediction: Trail Blazers 101 Mavericks 97 Post-Game Thoughts After falling behind quickly, 6-0, to start the game, I feared for the worst. Portland failed to come out of the gate strong, Dallas would catch fire, and it would be an uphill climb the entire night with moments of momentum only to be stopped short each time. Luckily, it was just a bump in the road as Portland countered the Dallas 6-0 run to start the game with a 32-21 run to end the quarter. Once the lead was achieved, it was never lost. It took an entire team effort for the Trail Blazers to win their third consecutive game over the Mavericks as LaMarcus Aldridge (20 pts, 10 rebs), Marcus Camby (17 pts, 11 rebs), and Andre Miller (19 pts and 10 assts) all recorded double doubles while Brandon Roy had a quiet, yet extremely efficient and effective outing by dropping 17 points on only 7 shots (made 5), got to the stripe 8 times, handed out 7 assists, and grabbed 4 rebounds. "I just tried to be patient and take the looks that were good," said Roy, who scored 16, well below his 22.2 average. "This was a team effort. Everybody stepped up tonight." Not only did Aldridge rack up a double-dip, but also pitched in with 5 assists, 1 block, and a steal. It wasn't his offense tonight that blew me away, rather the defense played on arguably the best power forward in the league, Dirk Nowitzki. Standing 7'0" tall with handles like a guard, the quickness of a small forward, and range unmatched by anyone in the game, sometimes you just have to hope and pray Dirk is off his game while trying to defend him. Aldridge did about as good a job you'll see though. He bodied him, got a little nasty with him, maybe forcing him out of his comfort zone. LA never, ever let Nowitzki get free for an open look to get his rhythm and confidence flowing. I've said it before and said it again, when Aldridge plays like the star he can be, Portland gets taken to an elite level. Finally, there is someone else to take the pressure off of Roy, allowing him to dissect the defense. "I was trying to body him, not let him catch a rhythm," said Aldridge, a Dallas native. "The team did a good job of attacking him from different spots. He never really figured out our schemes." Three stats tell the entire story about the game: points in the paint, fast break points, free throw attempts. While Dallas got hot at times shooting jump shots, mainly Caron Butler (11-19 for 25 pts), they were stationed out on the perimeter all game long. I was proud of the boys for not settling for long-distance jump shots, rather forcing the issue inside which lead to a unexpected, yet welcomed 44-35 interior advantage. Dead last in the NBA when it comes to points in transition, Portland turned the tables around on Dallas and pushed the tempo. After the dust had settled, Portland torched Dallas 16-0 in the fast break department, picking and choosing their spots to run brilliantly. Andre Miller, in particular, had his head up the whole game, always finding a fellow teammate leaking out ahead or contributing with a "hockey assist". Not only did we run and attack the paint, but by being the aggressors, Nate's bunch got to the charity stripe 17 more times than Dallas. "We played a complete game tonight," McMillan said. "Our defense was good. We were the aggressors on both ends of the floor." After watching the "new look" Mavericks, I am totally sold on playing them in the playoffs. Although, I wouldn't bank on meeting Dallas in the playoffs as the West is so bunched up from 2-5 and 6-8 so anyone trying to predict the end of the season standings would have better luck putting team hats in front of a zoo animal and seeing which two at a time they grab. What makes a matchup so desirable against Dallas is the fact we are two similar teams with one true superstar surrounded by a good, deep cast of players. Dirk and Roy are on the same level in my opinion, but I feel like we have more defenders to throw at him than the Mavs do at Brandon. Give me Andre over Kidd and Camby over Haywood any day of the week and I'll take my chances on Aldridge outperforming Butler. What really is tripping up Dallas right now is the down year Jason Terry is having as he is scoring 3 less a night (16.9 from 19.6) and shooting has plummeted from 46.3% in '09 to 43.8% in '10. If any one of our young, promising players such as Rudy, Batum, or Bayless match Terry on a nightly basis, I see no reason we can't pull off a first round upset. Official Game Photos Box Score

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Trail Blazers @ Suns: Game 71

After flirting with disaster Friday night against Washington, Portland (42-28) heads down to the valley of the sun to take on Phoenix (43-26). Normally the run and gun Suns have been a thorn in the Trail Blazers side, yet recently Portland has controlled the series, winners of four straight dating back to last season. Wins this season have included a thrilling, 105-102 come from behind win and a wire-to-wire 108-101 victory in US Airways Center before the All-Star break. Portland has exercised many road demons this year, San Antonio, Dallas X2, Golden State, and even Phoenix, where Portland had lost their previous nine trips. Recent history gives Portland the advantage going into tonight's battle, but it is extremely difficult sweeping a season series from a team, let alone winning twice in an arena known to be unkind to the visitors from the northwest. With only 12 games left in the season, every game counts ands means more as the season winds down, but I can't think of a more bigger game the rest of the year than tonight. The Trail Blazers are only 1.5 games out of 5th place in the Western Conference and only two games behind the Suns in the loss column. A win and the Blazers sneak within a game of the Suns while a loss puts them three full games back, nearly an insurmountable deficit with so little time remaining in the season. As mentioned, there are only 12 games left, and tonight is one of six swing games (Phoenix, Dallas x2, @OKC, @LA, @Denver), meaning Portland may not be favored to win but needs to pull out at least one or two of these "swing" games if they have any aspirations of getting as high as 5th in the West. Obviously the focus was lost somewhere between shoot-around and tip-off for the Wizards game, something that can not happen against the caliber of opponent like Phoenix. Two players will decide Portland's fate tonight, Nico Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge. If I were Coach Nate, I'd stick Batum and his long arms all over Steve Nash the entire game, hounding him at every opportunity, and making him work hard for everything he gets. The ageless wonder Nash has been battling back injuries and his stamina isn't once what it used to be. He is the ringleader of that offense, the pilot, engineer, etc, and if Batum can disrupt any of his rhythym, it could throw off the entire Suns offensive flow. While Nico will have his hands full with Nash, LA needs another gut check tonight against Amare Stoudamire. The L-Train was out in full force Sunday night in his head-to-head matchup with Chris Bosh, and he'll need to bring the same type of aggression and assertiveness needed to hang with STAT. Amare is coming off a once in a lifetime performance again Utah as he tallied 44 points on a insane 14-16 from the floor and 16-18 from the charity stripe. Its one thing if he's canning his jumper, but to contain him, Aldridge must not allow the blow-by drives to occur. Anytime you deal with the Suns, priority #1 is to defend the three-point line. As a team, Phoenix shoots the three at a .406 clip, good enough for tops in the league. Nash, Hill, Barbosa, Frye, Dragic, Richardson, Hill, and Dudley are all marksmen from deep and the Suns always have a minimum of three long-range shooters on the court at once, so the Trail Blazers can not be lazy on their rotations otherwise it'll be raining trifectas in the desert. I believe the key to victory is to hold them to around 35% from distance. Although Phoenix shot 47.6% and 36.4% respectively during the previous two meetings, allowing that type of shooting again is a recipe for disaster. I'm extremely excited for this matchup, more so than usual, considering I'll be in attendance tonight at the US Airways Center. I only wish we would have lost the last game in Arizona, because the chances of winning in the desert twice in one season are incredibly slim. I don't expect either Nash or Amare to completely take over, rather look for role players such as Grant Hill or Channing Frye to heat up and hit momentum boosting shots to keep Portland at bay the entire night. The Trail Blazers will be within striking distance, but the hot shooting Suns will always have an answer. Game 71 Prediction: Trail Blazers 98 Suns 105
Post-Game Thoughts
In a game the Trail Blazers just had to have if they wanted any shot at catching the Suns, they fell just short. The shooting eye deserted them the entire night, shooting a combined 32-88 (36.4%) and missing half of their total missed free throws with under five minutes to go in the 4th to seal the deal for Phoenix. Defensively, Portland couldn't have played too much better, outside of fighting through more screens, as they held a high-octane Suns offense to a miniscule 93 points and only allowed 7-23 from three-point range. Portland outplayed Phoenix in all other facets of the game, committing six less turnovers (10 to 4), stealing four more passes (5 to 1), blocking four more shots (7 to 3), and even winning the points in the paint battle by six (42 to 36). In the end, it was one strategic move by Coach Gentry which had Portland on their heels.
For about 42 minutes, Portland controlled the tempo by playing ugly and taking advantage of mismatches on the offensive end of the court. Andre was the catalyst to jump start the Blazer offense and tallied 22 points (7-2)),including 8-9 from the stripe, 9 assists, and 3 rebounds for the contest, doing most of his damage on the blocks against Stave Nash. As the jump shots weren't dropping, scoring in the interior was the only way to generate offense. Roy found his way to the rack a few times, Howard scored at least six of his eight in the paint, and the L-Train did most of his damage (16 points) by running the break or picking us loose balls for put backs. Through three quarters, this strategy was working, as the Trail Blazers lead, 68-64, heading into the final period. It was still a back and forth affair until Alvin Gentry caught the Blazers off guard by switching up his defense from straight man to man to a 2-3 zone.
Portland ended up only shooting a dismal 2-17 from three, which is why the zone was so brilliant. Really, the only way to break a zone is to shoot out of it. Portland seemed utterly unprepared for such a change in defensive strategy and failed to adapt on the fly. Instead of trying some high-low or flashing cutters to the open areas of the zone, the team got stagnant on offense and ended up forcing up contested jump shots as the shot clock winded down. While we struggled to muster any sort of offense in the 4th quarter (19 pts), Phoenix rode the hot shooting of reserve forward Jared Dudley for I believe eight straight points at one juncture of the 4th quarter to give the Suns the lead for good.
"Our defense was great; their defense was great," Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. "We did a great job in the zone. For the most part, we made them take tough shots."
What is most alarming/upsetting about this current groups of Trail Blazers is their philosophies on offense compared to their actual strengths. As a team, I'd say our biggest weakness is our outside shooting. Honestly, I think we lost three of our top four long-range shooters off of last year's team in Channing Frye, Steve Blake, and Travis Outlaw. Batum has become pretty accurate and has a beautiful stroke, but Webster, Rudy, and Aldridge seem to have taken a step back in consistency this season. Essentially, we are a jump-shooting team without any real sharp shooters. I know I harp on this a lot on this blog, but please, can we attack the rim a little bit more? Our guards especially, Roy, Miller, and Jerryd, are much more suited to get to the cup than simply stroke jumpers throughout the game. I'd rather see them initiate the offense by driving and setting up our more spot-up shooters in Marty and Rudy.
Notes: As mentioned, I did attend the game in Phoenix, AZ and must say that we, as Trail Blazers fans, should feel very blessed about our team, fan base, arena, and everything about the Blazers. The atmosphere inside US Airways Center was sporadically mediocre at best, as fans only stood for a few seconds when the jumbotron told them so. They have no Todd Bosma and their game operations during timeouts and halftime were uneventful. Even the famous Suns Gorilla hardly did any tricks at all and wasn't present for much of the game. Their fan shop was larger and much more roomer than ours and I love the fact they have an open concourse inside the arena for any fans, even ones without tickets, to use and take part in activities before the game. Finally, do not take for granted the stat board! While the RG has stats for both players and teams at your every disposal, in the US Airways Center, there were many boards, but they cycled through the different stats, meaning it took a while to see what you're looking for. Although, their out of town scoreboard knocks ours out of the park as it was much larger, easier to read, and actually provided the top performers for each team as well as the time and quarter. Overall it was a fun experience seeing a different venue, but it only made me appreciate the Rose Garden that much more.
Official Game Photos
Box Score

Friday, March 19, 2010

Trail Blazers vs. Wizards: Game 70

After what has seemed like a longer than four-day layoff, the Trail Blazers (41-28) head back to the grind of the NBA schedule to face the Wizards (21-45). If Portland can overcome the obstacle of being rusty after such a long rest, the perfect storm could be brewing in the Rose City. The Trail Blazers are Red Hot & Rollin', winners of nine of their last 11 while the Wizards have dropped nine straight and are a sub-par 9-23 away from home this season. Not to mention, Portland dropped one earlier this year in D.C., 97-92, in a game in which they had no business losing.
We will get to see just how well Portland practiced during the week, because if they come out flat and lackadaisical, the focus obviously wasn't there at the practice facility. On the other hand, if our boys can jump on them early and look crisp and sharp, the intent and attention to detail was made a priority throughout the week. I only harp on this so frequently, due to the fact the team is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde when it comes to the 2010 season. Portland owns an amazing 13-3 record on the 2nd half of back to backs, but always seems to trip over their own feet if they get more than 2 days rest, only going 7-5 in such scenarios. The team has two huge games coming up, at Phoenix and against the scorching Mavericks, so it is important to not overlook the 2nd worst team in the Eastern Conference. I have no doubts the Garden crowd will provide the energy tonight as they have been like starved animals over the course o these four days without Blazers basketball and are ready to make some noise!
One player who can ruin this night for the Blazers is young, big man Andray Blatche. Since the Wizards had their fire sale, Blatche has answered the bell for Washington, putting up 24.4 points, 9.5 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 1 block per night since the All-Star Break. Although he is shooting 53.2% from the field in the same span, there is still not a shot he doesn't like and with the green light stuck on automatic for the rest of the season, he should be letting them fly tonight. It wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to see Andray make his first couple outside jump shots, because then he may believe it is the spot for him to be shooting tonight and as the game stretches out, shooting percentages from outside tend to drop. LaMarcus needs to be physical with him in keeping him away from the paint and also make him work on the defensive end of the floor as well.
Honestly, Portland could get this win with their eyes closed and one arm tied behind their back, but if they want a solid building block, heading into the Suns game, the bench is going to have to lead the charge. Outside of Roy going postal on the rest of the NBA this past week, leading to Western Conference Player of the Week honors, the 2nd unit has really been clicking. If Rudy can continue not only his hot three-point shooting, but play-making ability in the open-court, Jerryd keeps working on that jumper of his to set up drives to the basket, and getting whatever we can out of Dante and Marty, the Trail Blazers will run away with this one quite easily. If the Blazer bench gets 30 or more points, this game will be a 15+ point blowout. I think the lower you see the bench points, the closer the outcome of the game will be.
After reading Marc Spears' piece about Brandon trying to find his inner ruthlessness, I have a feeling we are going to see B-Roy get downright nasty on the court the rest of the way. Look for Roy to assert himself early by getting into the heart of the Wizard defense, setting the tone right for the rest of his teammates. After he achieves that, the team will follow suit. Brandon could easily get 30, but he may not have to as the game could get out of hand quickly. Complimenting Brandon will be the L-Train. For whatever reason, I have a feeling this team is on a mission to not just make the playoffs but to be the hottest team heading into post-season play. Everyone, even Travis Diener, gets in on the fun tonight. Blazers win big!
Game 70 Prediction: Trail Blazers 110 Wizards 86
Post-Game Thoughts
"After (the game-winner), I was just laughing, 'Hey, I made a shot.' And it was one that won an important game for us."
Laugh. What more can you do after one of the sloppiest, most lousy performances ever staged on the Rose Garden floor? A game that saw a combined 150 points tallied, only three more than the snail-paced Spurs dropped on the Warriors the same night, on 35.4% shooting (55-155), including a dysmal 5-20 from long range, and a pedestrian 35-49 from the charity stripe (71.4%); a poor shooting display on all facets of the game. A game so poorly played and executed, the players should be ashamed for making the Basketball Gods roll over in their graves after watching it.
Portland looked as if they would run away with it after obtaining a 42-26 lead early on in the 2nd quarter. As usual, the Blazers failed to keep their foot on the gas pedal and let the Wizards of all teams sneak back into the game. Lazy rotations lead to Washington, sharp shooter Mike Miller heating up a bit, canning 5-11 shots for a team-high 16 points and a failure to fight through screens saw Rnady Foye heat up and nearly win the game single handily. He scored 7 of his 11 points all within the last three minutes of the game, including a three-pointer to give the Wizards their first lead of the 2nd half, 70-69. Time after time, each jumper was drilled off of the high pick and roll, so obvious even Brian Wheeler, Trail Blazers radio play-by-play analysis, knew the play was coming. It makes one wonder what is being watched at the practice facility, Spongebob Squarepants or game film?
Ever since being dealt for one another on Draft Day 2006, the two have been permanently linked to one another and for once it looked as if Randy Foye would enact some revenge and upstage Brandon Roy, seeing how Roy is known for his clutch game winners, team success, and personal accolades. Roy started out on fire, going 3-3 from the field, looking as if he was on his way to a monster night when the shooting eye deserted him. This was no normal mini-slump; Roy missed 14 straight shots after the torrid start. With the game knotted up at 74 and 20 seconds remaining, who else do you want to have the ball in their hands? "That's the guy you're going to live with," McMillan said. "He is very capable of making that shot. He plays in that situation a lot." Like the supertar he is, Roy confidently stpepped up and hit the game winning jumper, saving Portland from a terrible defeat in the ever-so-tight Western Conference race.
"We wanted to get Brandon in the pick-and-roll if they were playing him straight up," McMillan said. "Spread the floor and put the shooters out there and let him go. And he hit an unbelievable shot."
"I wanted to step back and shoot it, but he jumped so high, I had to step in. I could have tried to draw the foul, but he did a good job of jumping away from me. When it left, it felt good, but they all felt good. I was just happy it went in."
I'm not quite sure what to make of this current groups of Trail Blazers. Every time I expect them to figure it out and destroy a team they should, they play poorly and revert back to their old, terrible habits of being lazy on rotations and settling for outside, contested jump shots. On the other hand, whenever I seem to think they are overmatched, with not a prayer to win, they'll pull off a miracle. For whatever reason, we do not play crsip or sharp after more than two days of rest, so I'll chalk up this lackluster performance due to the long layoff, but only this one.What fans need to realzie, myself included, is the NBA schedule is a six month grind on the body, both physically and mentally, and over the course of an 82 game season, lapses are bound to happen. It's impossible to be 100% focused, 100% of the time. What separates the good from the great teams are the frequencies in which these lapses occur. Quite frankly, the Trail Blazers aren't a great team, yet, but with what has happened this year, I'll take a 42-28 record with a smile on my face.
Official Game Photos
Box Score

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Andre Miller: The Unsung Hero

If a poll asked Blazer fans about their take on Team MVP, I'm sure the majority of votes would go to Brandon Roy, rightfully so, a reigning 2nd Team All-NBA performer and 3-time All-Star. A handful would select LaMarcus Aldridge as the most valuable, due to his ability to take the squad to a higher level when he is playing to his potential. The remaining few may point out the Trail Blazers recent trend of winning 9 of 11 has to do with Nicolas Batum being inserted into the starting lineup. Just as he was overlooked and passed by during free agency, Andre Miller ended up being the top free agent signee of 2009 and, to date, Portland's MVP.
While the likes of Hedo Turkoglu, Charlie Villanueva, and Ben Gordon headlined the '09 free agent crop, each of those players has not lead their team to winning records through mid-March, have seen their numbers drop significantly, and all garnered immense, multi-year contracts in the $50 million range. On the other hand, Dre had no suitors. His former team Philadelphia decided to go in another direction and was even passed over by Portland twice, thought of more so as a backup plan than anything else. Even at the time of the signing, it was thought KP was trying to salvage something with the team's cap space after being burnt twice already.
Feeling slighted already by the fact no one mentions his name as one of the game's 10 best point guards, Andre went about his business, using the feeling of being unsought after in the open market to fuel his fire. Not only were many other GM's guilty of failing to notice Miller's value, so were many of the Trail Blazer fans. The signing of Andre divided fans as the Willamette does the city of Portland. One side represented supporters of bringing in Andre, knowing his veteran presence and rock-solid consistency would be an asset to an already young Trail Blazer team. The other viewed Dre as a horrible compliment to Roy, who prefers to play with the ball in his hands and arugued Steve Blake was a much better fit due to his ability to knock down jump shots, a knock on Miller his entire career (.212 from 3). Nothing new to Andre, rather increasing an already large chip on his shoulder used to drive his motivation.
As the summer-long debate blew up radio airways and internet message boards, Miller quietly went about his duties heading into training camp when it was time to prove he should be the starting point guard. After a pre-season in which he completely outplayed Blake, Miller was still delegated to the bench after it was rumored Coach Nate sat down with both players, letting them know whomever will start will win the job during the pre-season. Media tried to spin it as a better "fit" as Blake could play alongside Roy while Dre could lead the younger, less experienced 2nd unit. After a lethargic and unexpected 2-3 start to the season, Andre was inserted into the starting line which propelled Portland to win six in a row. Only one catch, Blake was the shooting guard, pushing Roy to small forward, a move forcing him to guarding bigger, stronger, and faster players. Although the move resulted in the Blazers longest winning streak of the season, many knew it wasn't a long-term fit. Roy was getting unhappy playing out of his natural position, so the Miller signing still felt like trying to stick a square peg into a round hole.
After being added to the starting lineup on November 6th, just 15 days later on November 21st, Andre found himself back on the bench, despite being 7-2 as the starting point guard, as Portland went with a more traditional lineup, moving Roy back to the 2 and Webster replacing him as the small forward. Not only did Dre's production fall off, averaging pedestrian numbers of 10 points, 3 rebounds, and 5 assists through November, but the entire team was inconsistent due to numerous factors, from having too many players needing playing time to undefined roles. Suddenly the once thought-to-be darkhorse team to dethrone the Lakers had to worry about simply making the playoffs. After a 1-3 road trip putting the Trail Blazers record at a uninspiring 14-11, it was time for change. Insert Andre Miller.
On December 15th, Andre was the given the keys to the offense and this time he had Roy alongside him, not Blake. Andre's steady hand has lead the Trail Blazers to a 27-17 record since his permanent fixture as Portland's starting point guard as well as putting the Blazers on pace to win 50 games in back to back seasons for the first time since 99-00/00-01, an amazing feat considering all the injuries this team has dealt with. A season that saw both centers, Oden and Przybilla, end their seasons in December with kneecap injuries, felt the absence of Roy for nearly a month with a nagging hamstring injury, and only had Martell Webster and Andre Miller as the only two Blazers to play in all 69 games to date. While Roy was out the majority of January, Andre did his finest work as a Trail Blazer, posting season-high month averages of 18.8 points on 50% field goal shooting, 6.7 assists, 4 rebounds, and doing so by logging 36 minutes a night on his 33 year-old body. Highlights included his 52 point, superhuman performance in a 114-112 victory in Dallas.
The bottom line is even though Portland has more talented players, without the consistency Miller brought to the table every night, with every other Blazers seemingly in and out of the lineup with injuries, Portland would be no where near the playoff race right now. There would be no Rip City Uprise 2010. At a point and multiple points during the season where it felt like all hope was lost for the 2010 Blazers, Dre always made that one important play to secure the win and always keep our heads afloat in the Western Conference playoff race, never allowing the Trail Blazers to fall below the 8th and final playoff spot. At 33, he still has impressive numbers, averaging 13.7 points, 5.4 assists, and 3.3 rebounds in 30.7 minutes per game. Based on his Per 36 minutes production, his stats are as comparable if not better than the previous 3-4 years (16 pts, 6.4 asts, 3.9 rebs) so I don't think Dre plans on slowing down anytime soon. I doubt there will be any more debates as to whether Andre can play with Brandon or who should be the starting point guard for the 2011 Trail Blazers. For once in his career, he won't be overlooked or underestimated; he's earned himself that much.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Projecting The Playoff Opponents: Uprise '10

With their ninth win in 11 games, Portland has earned themselves a 41-28 record, good enough to firmly entrench them in the playoff race. Barring anything out of the ordinary, it does seem like the Trail Blazers will be once again back in the NBA playoffs as they have a commanding five-game lead over 9th place Memphis (4 up in the loss column) and only two games back of the fifth place Thunder (4 back in the loss column). Realistically, I can only see Portland finishing as high as 5th and low as 8th, meaning there are only four teams we could end up seeing in the 2010 Western Conference Quarterfinals: Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets, Dallas Mavericks, and Utah Jazz. An argument could be made about the possibility of playing Oklahoma City in the 4/5 matchup since they are only a half game out of 4th, but it would require us to leap-frog a Jazz team that is four games up on us already in the loss column and owns the tie-breaker, essentially meaning we are five behind Utah, an unlikely scenario. Los Angeles Lakers If the playoffs started today, it would once again be Blazers vs. Lakers, a clash of the bitterest of rivals which would certainly gain a lot of media attention. L.A. is a full three games ahead of 2nd place Denver and I don't see them handing over the #1 seed, meaning Portland would have to stay right where they are in order for this matchup to occur. Due to the unbalanced schedule, these two only duke it out three times, two of which already took place in the Rose Garden with Portland winning 107-98 and L.A. breaking their nine-game losing streak in the Rose City with their 99-82 victory. I see a lot of Trail Blazer fans calling for this series, wanting it more than anything. Maybe it's a sense of having nothing to lose, so why not dethrone Goliath? Whatever the reasoning, it is a grave mistake hoping this series takes place. I understand the sense of security Blazer fans have in winning all the home games against L.A., due to their 22-7 record over the Lakers since the Rose Garden opened their doors, but the Lakers are a totally different beast come playoff time. In fact, a Phil Jackson coached team has never lost a first round series, which is why I'd rather see them past Round 1. If we had a healthy Oden, I'd give us a much higher chance of defeating them, but currently, they have too much firepower. All of us saw just how physical Artest was able to play Roy in last year's playoffs and now that he's on the Lakers, he can focus 100% on his energy on defense and let others take on the scoring load. Don't get me wrong, the Rose Garden would be as hostile as ever for this series and Portland could play their guts out, but L.A. is too good to not get at least one win in Portland. Chance of Series Happening: 25% || Series Prediction: Lakers in 6 Denver Nuggets The most likest scenario to occur, because I see Denver holding off the Mavericks for 2nd place while I only see the Spurs falling enough for us to catch. To date, three of the four games have already been played and recorded with the Nuggets holding a 2-1 season series lead with their 97-94 win in Portland in late October due to many missed Trail Blazer free throws and last week's 118-106 massacre in the Mile High City. Portland enacted a little revenge with a sweet, 107-96, Christmas night win aided by Roy's 41. Unlike most out there, I would embrace this series as Denver is a little banged up right now, with both Ty Lawson and Kenyon Martin out indefinitely and the fact Denver hasn't faced not only a Blazer team clicking on all cylinders but this current team in general. Batum missed the two earlier games and Camby was out of the lineup in Denver. If he can stay out of foul trouble, there's not many other wing defenders I'd want checking Melo than Nico and I absolutely love the Miller/Billups head to head matchup. Also remember the Nuggets held Roy and Aldridge to a combined 28 points in the last meeting where Roy looked like his body was taken over by a 37 year old, overweight couch potato. Since, he has been awoken by teammate Martell Webster and averaged 29 points on over 60% shooting. Unfortunately, if there is one arena I hate playing in more than any other, it is the damn Pepsi Center. Of all of our "House of Horrors", it's the altitude of Denver which gives me the least amount of confidence in winning at. On the other hand, I don't think Denver would be able to win here either. It took missed free throws down the stretch for them to get their only win here since acquiring Chauncey. If Martin is indeed out for the playoffs, one has to increase Portland's chances of pulling up the upset, especially considering how Aldridge likes to pour it on to end seasons. I believe this would be a home dominated series with each team protecting their home courts. Chance of Series Happening: 35% || Series Prediction: Nuggets in 7 Dallas Mavericks Quite possibly the most unpredictable pairing of all realistic playoff opponents would be the Dallas Mavericks, because not only have they drastically changed since we saw them last, but the Blazers have as well. Dallas swung and hit a home run in their deal which sent Josh Howard to Washington for Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood which was vindicated by their recent 13 game winning streak, propelling them to a half game out of 2nd in the West. After being swept 4-0 last year, Portland turned the tide and is currently up 2-0 in the series by winning two straight in Big D. A bittersweet W came in late December, 85-81, after losing Joel to a torn patella and then Andre's out of nowhere 52 point heroic performance leading Portland to a 114-112 victory. The next two matches between these two squads on March 25th and April 9th will tell a lot about how both these teams truly measure up to one another. Portland sweeps, fans should expect a first round advance. Dallas splits and more than likely Portland scares the living daylights out of them before gallantly bowing out similar to the 2003 series. What should give BlazerManiacs hope in a potential series with Dallas is their lack of a 2nd star to compliment Dirk Nowitzki. Terry is one of the best 6th men in the NBA but is on the slight decline this year in comparison to his 6th man award winning 08-09 season, Kidd is no better than Andre Miller in my eyes, and like Terry, Caron Butler has regressed in all categories across the board from his back to back All-Star seasons the previous two years. I expect Dallas to win at least one of the next two this season, still giving Portland the 3-1 season win. They have absolutely no answer for Brandon while Batum has proven he can affect Dirk's shots down the stretch. It would be a back and forth series, neither team seemingly able to take control until the final Game 7. In the end, Roy and Nowitzki would likely cancel each other out, leaving the series in the hands of Portland's young, yet talented supporting cast versus the playoff tested Maverick core. A slight nod goes to the Mavericks due to their veteran-laden team, having played in such situations before, and having the Game 7 played in their home arena. Chance of Series Happening: 30% || Series Prediction: Mavericks in 7 Utah Jazz I know a lot of Blazer fans have been dreading a playoff series against a Jazz squad which destroyed, dominated, and devastated us during their four-game sweep this season (108-92,106-95,118-105,93-89) but have no fear as this scenario has the least probability of happening. Utah is two games out of 3rd and three out of 2nd, but a notoriously sub-par road team will thwart any hope of them moving up. Although, a relatively easy 16 games remaining on the schedule including 10 of those teams being up .500 gives Utah a puncher's chance at moving up the Western Conference Totem poll. Call me crazy, but I would welcome this playoff series with open arms. Like Denver, Utah has not played us when we were gelling and playing up to our potential. The one game they played us with Camby we had a 25 point lead in the 3rd quarter. I realize we choked the lead away but give me that scenario any day of the week and twice on Sunday's and I'll take Portland all day. Dealing Ronnie Brewer and Eric Maynor really weakened their back court. As promising as undrafted rookie Wes Matthews has looked, he hasn't tasted playoff type basketball yet. Also, Utah is at a disadvantage by having two of their top three players playing the same position, power forward. I could seen Aldridge feasting off of either Boozer or Millsap and if they want to play both together, the Camby-Man would do some damage blocking shots and keeping possessions alive with offensive rebounds. Deron Williams would be the X-Factor. Throughout the four-game season series against Portland, D-Will put up some nasty numbers: 19.8 points, 11.8 assists, and 5.5 rebounds. As good as Williams has played against us, I'd like to see how he would handle a seven-game series with Nic Batum hounding him for 40+ minutes. If Batum could disrupt Williams at all, it would stall the potent Utah offense which has absolutely carved us up this year, shooting an absurd 54.9% combined over the span of four games. While we could at least throw out Batum to fluster D-Will, who exactly is going to step up on challenge Brandon? For Portland to shock the basketball world with this series upset, Roy would have to play like his 2nd Team All-NBA self of 09. I like the Blazers to steal one of the first two games in Utah and hold serve at home court like the Rockets did last year to get out of the first round! Chance of Series Happening: 15% || Series Prediction: Trail Blazers in 6

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Trail Blazers vs. Raptors: Game 69

March 14, 2010. A day Trail Blazer fans have been waiting for patiently since the NBA schedule was released. Tonight embarks the first time Hedo Turkolgu sets foot on the Rose Garden floor since he spurned the Trail Blazers (40-28) only instead to sign with his wife's choice, the Toronto Raptors (32-32). I truly didn't think anything would be able to surpass the level of noise exerted when Darius Miles returned last year with the Grizzlies, yet we may hear an all-time level of anger, frustration, and told-you-so at the RG tonight. See, many Blazer fans didn't want Hedo in the first place or were not upset we didn't end up with him. What pissed off Portlanders and Oregonians is the fact he turned our city down to go somewhere else. We are people who are very loyal to our region and take pride where we come from. If someone doesn't think it is good enough, we take offense. Although Hedo won the battle back on February 24th by scoring a game-high 24 points, Portland won the war by obtaining the 101-87 win.
Portland has caught some bad breaks this year in terms of playing teams who were scorching hot, but I couldn't have asked for a better time to be playing the Raptors. They are clinging onto the 8th seed in the East after losing eight of their last 10 games, are playing on the 2nd half of a back to back as well as this being their last game of their four-game road trip, and have not won a road game since beating the Nets in New Jersey back on February 19th. While the Raptors are in a free-fall, Portland hasn't been this hot or consistent since winning six in a row back in late November. The Blazers are 8-2 in their last 10 games and Brandon Roy has been awaken by the words of close friend Martell Webster, which has sparked Roy into averaging 29.3 point on 62.7% shooting.
Even though the statistics say Portland only scores 0.5 more points per game on the road than at home (98.5 to 98), the trends lately suggest a much wider disparity. Over the last 12 road games, the Blazers are en fuego, netting 107 a night compared to 92.6 points per night on the home floor over a similar 12-game span. For whatever reason, Portland has been down right disappointing this year at the Rose Garden. Their 21-13 record at home is 7th worst in the West and lowest winning percentage of all Western Conference playoff teams. We all saw the team flirt with disaster on Tuesday by only scoring 88 on a Kings team which gives up 104.8 points. Toronto possesses an even worse defense, allowing 105.9 points, bad enough for 5th most in the league. If Portland doesn't feel like bringing it for a full 48 tonight, this time they won't be so lucky as to walk away with an ugly win. Just as bad as they are defensively, Toronto is that good on offense, averaging an NBA 4th best 104.4 points, meaning the Raps have enough firepower on offense to sneak up on the Blazers tonight if Portland is in their usual lackadaisical Rose Garden ways.
There are too many key matchups tonight (Aldridge vs. Bosh, Miller vs. Jack, Batum vs. Turkolgu) to choose from. What did Portland do out of the ordinary over their last two wins? Shot free throws and lots of them. On the season, the Trail Blazers only average 25 attempts at the charity stripe, yet against Golden State they got to the line 37 times and matched it the following night with 32 freebies. Known to shoot too many jump shots for my liking, when I see the Blazers tally 30+ foul shots, it shows me they are being aggressive and assertive in going to the hoop. In some ways, its not the jump shot that upsets me, its the way in which it is being taken. If it comes off of dribble penetration and wide open, I've got absolutely no problem in taking it, but those one-on-one, contested jumpers or the "hot potato" shots where the ball is simply swung around the perimeter with no movement is what irritates me. The Trail Blazers are 3rd best in the NBA by shooting 79.1% from the foul line, and if they get above their average of 25 attempts at the line, it should lead to a Blazers win.
Toronto will come out fired up after their superstar Chris Bosh erupted in the locker room after the recent performance of his team, but if Portland can withstand the initial burst of energy and effort the Raps come out with, slowly but surely Toronto's will to win will be diminished. It should be a close game heading into the 3rd quarter, then B-roy will take over: mid-range jumpers, slashes to the hoop, spot up threes from distance, and creating for his teammates should turn a close game into a Trail Blazer route. By playing such a weak defensive team, with no interior threats at all, it should be a field day for our scoring-first mentality players such as Rudy, Jerryd, and Martell.
Game 69 Prediction: Trail Blazers 105 Raptors 91
Post-Game Thoughts
Portland got the memo, came out, and shot the lights out. In a total team effort, six Blazers scored in double figures lead by Aldridge and Batum with 22 a piece and Roy's 20. The Trail Blazers had multiple 15 point leads throughout the night, but could never put the Raptors away. Toronto, down 91-80, with approximately eight minutes left in the game was able to claw back within 93-91 before Portland decided to quit playing conservatively and attack the hoop to close the door on win #41 for good. While it's a tremendous sign to see us finally rip cord inside the Rose Garden, please do not expect to go 12-20 from I-5 on a nightly basis. Besides a half-quarter offensive lapse in aggression, the Blazers did a great job of getting to the line 23 times (not the 25+ I thought we needed), making 21 to cement themselves as one of the top 3 teams in shooting from the foul stripe. On a side note, I give the Rose Garden fan base a solid 6.5/10 for their booing efforts of Hedo Turkoglu. It wasn't even comparable to how loud Darius Miles was booed, but Hedo still got booed multiple times during the game. Maybe Blazer fans are just over the whole situation, because we got the better, cheaper free agent anyways? So Thanks Hedo for not coming here!
All it took was one Rose Garden sign which read, "Mrs. Turkolgu, Thanks For Andre" to sum up all of our thoughts and feelings towards the entire Hedo free agency fiasco last summer. While still a sharp shooter at times, Turk's handling skills and court vision seem to be the first to go as he enters his declining years. On a night which saw him shoot 5-7 from the floor, including 4-5 from 3 for a total of 14 points, his impact was not felt anywhere else on the court. 5 rebounds from a 6'10" player along with 2 assists compared to 5 turnovers is not something you would want from your 50$ million man. I must admit, I thought Hedo would have been a nice fit here, but we dodged a huge bullet on that one and found an absolute bargain in Andre Miller, whom we found on clearance for only 2 years and $14 million total guaranteed. It was another typical stat sheet filler for Dre last night, going for 13 points (5-12), 7 rebounds, and 5 assists.
Outside of the obvious Andre for Hedo swap we essentially made this off-season, there is another swap which inadvertently happened due to Hedo spurning us at the last moment. Nico for Hedo. Who knows if we are seeing Batum's star shine so brightly right now with Turkoglu hording up 30+ minutes a night at the small forward position. I'd go as far right now to saw Batum is the superior player and Nico proved it last night. He was ridiculously efficient, going 7-9 from the floor, 5-6 from downtown for 22 points and his usual 2 blocks. Brandon is our best shooter when we need it most as well as making the difficult shots, but right now, I wouldn't want anyone else taking wide open jump shots, because Batum has it stuck on automatic.
"Nic played really good tonight," Portland's Brandon Roy said. "He was knocking down his open looks, and defensively, speeding Hedo up and making his job tougher."
"Nic got back to focusing on the defensive end of the floor, and he allowed the offense to come to him," Portland coach Nate McMillan said. "He's going to get open shots just because of who he's on the floor with. It's a matter of knocking down the shots. Tonight he did that. If he can continue, which we think he can, he's going to help us."
"My focus is on defense," Batum said. "That is my first job. Even in the fourth quarter, I just tried to stop Hedo first. But I try to take my open shots, too. Roy drives, and I am open."
I've said it before, and I'll say it again, LaMarcus has the ability to turn this team from good to elite all by himself. Roy has brought us back into the playoff picture, seemingly being the only star on the team, but when LA is on his "A" game, we are damn near impossible to beat; a true dynamic duo for opponents to deal with. Tonight, he came out like few times I have witnessed him before, in full on "beast mode". 22 points (9-21), 12 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 block and quite possibly the best alley-oops I've seen LMA throw down courtesy of Rudy (seen below) propelled Aldridge into outplaying fellow Dallas-native Chris Bosh. He attacked the glass with a renewed sense of pride and purpose. If there was a rebound to be had, he made it clear it was his. His first few attempts at the basket were strong drives to the hoop or post-up moves which further fueled the L-Train. I'm not sure he can play with this type of aggression on a consistent basis (the $64 million question), but if he wants his jumper to flow better, I suggest he works inside-out instead of vice-versa. It seems when he gets a couple easy buckets inside, seeing the ball going through the hoop puts his jump shot stuck on automatic.
Official Game Photos
Box Score