After winning their fourth straight game and ninth in their last 10, Portland (46-29) heads to the Mile High City to take on a struggling Denver (48-27) squad who has lost five of six without their head coach who is undergoing cancer treatment. The Trail Blazers went 11-2 in March but only went 3-2 against teams above .500 including a complete beating behind the woodshed to these same Nuggets on March 7th, 118-106, in a game which the score was not indicative of how badly Denver dominated the contest from start to finish. Similar to games in Phoenix and Oklahoma City these past couple weeks, tonight's game is a de facto elimination game for the 5th seed. After losing to Phoenix, there is now no shot at catching them while winning at OKC gives the Blazers the upper hand at the 6th seed. A win tonight puts Portland only one back in the loss column of the Nuggets and lays down the path for the team to possibly run the table the rest of the season.
The absolute biggest key tonight is Brandon Roy. At the Rose Garden, the role players are usually in more of a comfort zone and can be relied on to produce more, lightening the load for B-Roy. On the other hand, when the Blazers head into the Pepsi Center tonight, where the Nuggets are an intimidating 30-6, and Portland has only won once since 2003, the team needs their superstar to lead the way tonight. Brandon is the franchise and has done very few things wrong during his tenure with Rip City, but he should shoulder most of the blame for the loss at Denver three weeks ago. He came out very casual and looked like a zombie out there for most of the night, going 3-14 while Denver's stud, Carmelo Anthony, took the game over with 30 points on 11-19 shooting. As the leader, the team followed Roy's suit and the game was over before the 1st quarter. Roy was told the honest truth by Webster at the half and since has been playing like the 2nd Team All-NBA player he is. This Denver team is slumping, struggling and without their leader; they are ripe for the picking. Roy needs to be the aggressor early like he was in New Orleans and make sure Portland is in the thick of things come the 4th quarter, but he needs to keep us afloat for three quarters.
Just as important as getting Roy off on the right foot, stifling and frustrating Melo needs to be defensive priority #1. In three games this season against Portland, Anthony has gone bananas, averaging 34.3 points on 52.4% field goal shooting while finding himself at the foul line nearly 14 times a game. Batum is obviously going to get the first crack at Carmelo, but what makes him so difficult of a cover for Nico is Melo's brute strength to match his cat quickness. Once he gets the rock in the triple threat position, he is arguably the most lethal cover in all of the NBA. He's quick enough to blow by for the lay-up or get to the line and he is probably the best mid-range jump shooter in the league. What Nico has to do is get physical with him, much a he did against Durant by trying to deny him the ball. A lot of the time, you must simply pray he doesn't have the offensive juices flowing on the night. If he does catch fire, Portland needs to adjust on the fly and force others to beat them by either double teaming him or trapping him in the corner. Going by recent history this season, if Anthony is able to score in the 35 point range, Portland will lose. The one time we negated it occurred when Roy had to outscore him on Christmas when he dropped 41, but scoring in bunches like that is not Brandon's M.O. Defense wins the game tonight.
Without Kenyon Martin, the Nuggets lose almost all of their toughness. Tonight, Portland must get nasty and punch Denver in the mouth (figuratively speaking). Lately when the Nuggets have been getting hit first, they back down and crumble for the rest of the game. Make sure all loose balls are won, keep Denver off of the offensive boards, and be strong in takes to the bucket are facets of the game the Trail Blazers must do to ensure they have a shot at the 5th seed. I want to see hard fouls by the Blazers if Denver gets into the lane, making them thing twice about trying to score inside again. By doing all of this, it could get into their mind and cause an explosion. Without George Karl, these Nuggets are a ticking time bomb, ready to go off at any minute. Adrian Dantley just doesn't have the strong personality to keep these guys in check. Last year, I doubt Portland would have the savvy or experience to be able to adapt to their surroundings and find holes in the opposing team, but with added veterans in Camby, Howard, and Miller, who have all been there, done that allow for this strategy to be more than just a dream.
Denver averages 111 points at home and we all saw how well Portland does when they try to outscore the Nuggets in the Pepsi Center; it just doesn't work. The Trail Blazers have only scored 111+ six times in 75 games this year. Its safe to say defensive stops wins the game tonight, not taking part in a 120-110 wild west shootout. Rotations to their three-point shooters must be quicker, because the last thing the team needs is Afflalo or Smith heating up from behind the arc due to open jumpers, which occurred way to frequent in the previous meeting.
One thing to take note from during the last meeting was the fact Marcus Camby was not available due to injury. At the time, it didn't seem like much of a loss as Camby was taking a while to get acclimated with this current team, now looking back, it was a monumental loss. Outside of Roy, Camby will be the difference maker tonight. He should be able to keep Birdman from put-back dunks, Nene from wreaking havoc on the glass, and dare I say contain Johan Petro who pulled down 10 boards in Martin's absence. As long as Portland can weather the opening storm Denver will bring down upon Portland, as they are tired of losing and are out to prove themselves once again, look for the Blazers to slowly take control of the game as it progresses deep into the 4th. Roy leads the charge on offense, Camby on defense as the Trail Blazers exercise yet another road demon and stay in the race for 5th.
Game 76 Prediction: Trail Blazers 106 Nuggets 101Post-Game Thoughts
The curse of the Mile High City continues to loom large over the Trail Blazers as they couldn't even keep it a respectable score, losing 109-92, despite Denver playing without starting forward Kenyon Martin, not having their leader Coach Karl on the sidelines, and even losing Chris Andersen to an ankle injury in the 2nd half. While Denver looked like a starving dog that hadn't ate in three days, Portland nonchalantly went about this contest like a stroll in the park, shown by 11 backbreaking turnovers which seemingly lead to a fast break dunk or an And-1. The passing was sloppy, there was no fire in the eyes of our players, and no one outside of Miller even attempted to attack the hoop. It was a near carbon copy of the March 7th game in the Pepsi Center and was a reality check for Trail Blazer fans worldwide.
"We didn't have that sense of urgency," Roy said. "You could tell our energy was a little zapped."
Hopefully we do not see Denver in the playoffs, because whatever they are doing on defense, it certainly flusters Brandon Roy. Again, he had a terrible night, shooting 3-13 and only his 7-7 night at the foul line made his 13 points look sub-par at best. I give Denver a ton of credit for bracketing Roy at all times, but some of the blame needs to fall on #7's shoulders. In our last three road tests against elite foes (3-7-10 @ DEN, 3-21-10 @ PHX, 4-1-10 @ DEN), Brandon has been invisible, averaging 16.3 points on 14-52 (26.9%) shooting from the floor, compared to his normal 21.9 points on 47.3% shooting. This team just is not talented enough to beat the upper echelon teams, on the road no less, when Brandon gets passive out of the defense. Instead of backpedaling, I'd like to see him pass the ball quickly and make a cut to the hoop. If there are two on Brandon, someone else has to be open; swing the ball! While I don't think Roy should be the scapegoat for the defeat as it was a team loss, his teammates need to give the opponent a reason to think twice about doubling.
"Some of it's them and some of it's I'm just missing shots," Roy said. "I'm getting some looks, they're just rimming out."
If there was one positive which came out of last night's debacle, it had to be the re-emergence of Martell Webster. Webster's 17 points were only second on the team to Dre's 24 and he did so on 6-9 shooting, including 2-3 from downtown. The injuries look like they have taken a toll on Rudy, so he may not be the same player we're used to seeing the rest of the year. If Marty can fill the scoring void off the bench which Rudy was used to do so well, this loss could be a blessing in disguise if it means the Marty Party has returned. It wasn't only an offensive show Webster provided last night, rather it was the defense on Anthony which should raise the eyebrows. Getting most of the playing time at small forward last night, Marty was able to use his strength to disrupt Melo and he, along with Batum, forced him into 9 turnovers, 10-21 field goal shooting, and only five trips to the line.
You know that fan swagger I had going into last night's game? Well, it's completely gone. It was really a step back to reality after seeing one of the most struggling teams in the NBA, not even play that well, yet still able to control the game the entire way through. Portland said all the right words after clinching a playoff spot, "Our job isn't done...No time to celebrate yet..", but their actions spoke louder than words. There was no focus and thee Batum plays exuded this. He had two lazy, one-handed passes, one an entry pass in the post to LA, the other out top trying to get it to the point guard, and both were picked with ease, ending in points for Denver. The other happened in the 3rd quarter. He was open for a three and for some reason he decided to stand there and pose with his follow through held up high. While the shot ultimately missed, Anthony high-tailed it down court and received a bullet pass for the wide open slam. Coach Nate tried to get through to his troops at halftime, but I think mentally they were using playing last night as a crutch for not going all out. Hopefully this game serves as a lesson so close to the playoffs, letting them know they aren't as good as they thought they were and they need to show up every night the rest of the way. Teams aren't just going to give Portland W's, we will have to take it from them!
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