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 90Post-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."
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