Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Trail Blazers @ Clippers: Game 78

After yet another three-day layoff, Portland (47-30) heads back out onto the road again to take on the struggling, but dangerous Los Angeles Clippers (27-50). The Trail Blazers are 2-1 against the Clipshow this season with each team protecting home court, including the most recent 109-87 Blazers victory on February 16th. Like most matchups down the stretch, it feels like it should be the first meeting of the season due to all the changes Portland has gone through as well as the opponent. Although three games are in the record books, this will be the first time Los Angeles sees Camby in the red and black while it'll be the first time the Blazers see their friends and former teammates, Outlaw and Blake, standing in the opposite huddle. Portland may catch a break tonight though as Travis is listed questionable for tonight's affair with a strained right groin. As there are only five games remaining in the 2010 regular season, there is absolutely no margin for error when trying to move up in the standings. Personally, tonight's game is the scariest left on the schedule, because we should be favored to win the last three home games and most everyone will predict us to lose against the Lakers, so this game is sort of a wild card. It seems like games in the Staples Center against LAC are nail-biters, unpredictable down to the final possession. Not to mention the Clippers are a talented bunch, sporting past and present All-Stars in Baron Davis and Chris Kaman, a young pure scorer in Eric Gordon, and sharpshooting Rasual Butler. As it is with all non-playoff teams, it will be key for the Trail Blazers to get out to a hot start and, at the bare minimum, keep the game within three-five points through the first half until the team gets into their rhythm. With all the weapons Los Angeles obtains, it may be hard to single one player out to neutralize, but their squad seems to go as Chris Kaman goes. In the last Blazers thrashing of the Clippers right after the trade deadline, Juwan and LaMarcus absolutely negated anything Kaman tried to get going. I doubt he puts up 4 points (1-6), 8 rebounds, and 7 turnovers again, but the Blazers do have another asset to throw at him in Marcus Camby. What Coach Nate did brilliantly that night in his scheme against Kaman were the constant, unpredictable double teams thrown every which way. One flaw in his game is decision making under pressure, so look for more traps, double downs, and mixed coverages thrown at Kaman throughout the game to take him out of his offensive flow and force turnovers, hopefully leading to fast break points the other way. Finally, the Blazer bigs must put a body on him as each shots goes up. If we are confusing him with the defensive strategies, then the only other way to get into a rhythm is by crashing the glass and getting cheap, garbage points. The responsibilities don't all simply fall on Aldridge, Howard, and Camby, because if they are focusing only on boxing out Kaman, than the guards and small forwards must crash the boards hard to keep the other Clippers out. It sounds simple, but how many times have we seen a big do his job and keep the opposition's most prolific rebounder out of the way only to see a guard blow their assignment? Too many. Tonight Brandon needs to channel his inner Kobe Bryant and do work on the blocks. Defending him will be the much smaller Eric Gordon and not only is he at a height disadvantage by being three inches shorter but Gordon's M.O. is offense and probably hasn't heard the word defense mentioned in practice since November before their season went south. Gordon won't want any part of Roy so it's up to Brandon to just calmly take advantage and dissect the defense. If they allow the single coverage, Roy should be able to rise above Gordon and if they want to send doubles, Roy is talented enough to find the open man. It could all come down to the Trail Blazer role players shooting the ball tonight, because I just can't fathom any coach letting Gordon try to handle a player of Roy's caliber one on one. As worrisome as tonight's game is, the added veteran leadership just won't let us down tonight. If any added motivation was needed, the boys should know OKC lost last night and there is a great chance they could find themselves in 6th place after Wednesday is over and done with. Andre has been there all season when we need him for a boost, Camby should cancel out Kaman on the boards, and hopefully Juwan is healthy enough to provide our bench some offensive production. Watch out for Nico to have another huge night. Those double teams sent at Aldridge and Roy should leave him wide open for jump shots and possibly even some plays being ran for him in the 2nd half if his shot is dropping. If Marty is completely off again tonight, it would be nice to see Batum log 35+ minutes tonight, because not only will the offense be needed to pick up for the bench, but Butler is not joke from downtown and Nico needs to make his life miserable. I still think the bench will struggle but it won't be enough to derail the Trail Blazer train. Game 78 Prediction: Trail Blazers 103 Clippers 96 Coach, Batum, and Camby Preview the Clippers Post-Game Thoughts Had it not been for the dynamic duo of Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, this game could have gone either way. There's a reason they signed long, expensive extensions in the summer and they proved their worth against the Clippers, combining for 50 points. Much like the Sacramento game, Portland raced out to a nine point first quarter lead, only to see it shrink down to four at halftime. The bench wasn't terribly bad, scoring seven in the first half, but turnovers and spotty defense enabled the Clippers to make it too close for comfort. A great sign was Portland coming out of halftime with a purpose and rode the broad shoulders of LaMarcus Aldridge to a 27-14 advantage in the period, eventually pulling away 93-85. One player who will fly under the radar in terms of performance is Juwan Howard, who had 10 points on 5-8 shooting, but each basket felt like much more than two points, always either stopping the bleeding or boosting momentum. Roy had 23 points (10-17) and 6 assists, an average night by his standards, not taking over as much as I expected. He had a stretch in the 2nd quarter when I thought he was going to go off for 40, but the offense was ran through Aldridge all night long. It didn't really matter who L.A. put on LA, whether it was Kaman or Jordan, because he was in attack mode tonight. All in all he tallied 27 points (12-26), 12 rebounds, 5 assists, a block, and a steal in his team-high 42 minutes of action. There was just a relentlessness to his body language tonight, always the quickest to tip rebounds back to teammates or keep it alive on the cylinder. He simply outworked everyone on the floor tonight. Regardless of how his offense is flowing, if Aldridge can use his wingspan and height to be a force on the glass, life will be so much easier in Blazerland. Apparently the bench didn't get the memo I sent out about them, because they were still pretty lackluster again tonight, Howard excluded. Outside of Old Man River, the bench totaled 7 points (3-8), 3 rebounds, 4 assists, and 4 turnovers in a short lived 44 minutes between four players. In a game against an opponent who is more than 20 games under .500, the bench should have been able to log more minutes than they did tonight, but their play just isn't allowing Coach Nate to do so. They couldn't even hold a 21 point lead mid-way through the 4th quarter, giving up a 9-0 run in a span of two minutes. Early on it looked like the bench had a breakthrough as Martell hit two nice jumpers, but Webster didn't really get into that type of a groove in the 2nd half. Although Jerryd's 3 points and 1 assists will not make anyone look twice in the box score, I felt like he was more in control tonight and although it was a baby step in his progression, it was a step none the less. Bayless is looking more and more like a player who needs more than 10 minutes to produce. Don't give up hope on J-Bay just yet, he'll improve as he gets more mature and the minutes slightly increase. "We need to get our second unit to step up a little more if we want to be successful in the playoffs," Roy said. "We have been able to build good chemistry with the starting lineup and, again, we just need to get our second unit to that level." Tonight couldn't have gone much better for the Trail Blazers as the Thunder, Jazz, and Spurs all lost, placing Portland in a three-way tie for 6th place in the Western Conference with the Blazers holding the tie-breakers over both San Antonio and Oklahoma City. Utah losing is key, because they have a fairly easy schedule left and as long as they stay out of the 2nd or 3rd seed, Portland should be able to dodge that bullet. These next three games against Dallas, Los Angeles, and Oklahoma City are the biggest three-game stretch this squad will have faced this season and if they can find a way to come out 2-1, the 6th seed should be a lock. Everything outside of the backcourt reserves seems to be flowing and although Trail Blazer fans held their breathe late in the 4th quarter as Marcus Camby had to go back to the locker room with a slight right hamstring strain, it is said to be minor and Marcus would have gone back out on the court had the team needed him. For now, we can all collectively exhale. Currently, I don't think there is a team the higher seeds in either conference wouldn't want to see more in the first round than our Portland Trail Blazers. "It feels really good to be headed to the playoffs," Camby said. "It doesn't matter who we play, we can compete." Official Game Photos Box Score

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