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 92Post-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!
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