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
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.
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