Welcome, and Happy Holidays! Today, we’re going to be doing something different. The guys that work on the Portland Trail Blazers Weekly Previews (me and our editor) are going to be taking a two-week vacation to celebrate the holidays, and relax a bit.
Does that mean you’ll have to go without my questionable analysis, laughable predictions, and garbage logic for two whole weeks? Hell no!
We’ll cover all the games from Sunday to January 5, 2019 in this here column. That includes the first Christmas Day game the Blazers will play in since 2010, when the Golden State Warriors beat them 109-102. Apparently, having Damian Lillard on your team isn’t good enough to get a holiday game until this year. Ah well, we got one now—even if it’s on the road.
Grab some popcorn, fill up your drink, and snuggle into a blanket. This is gonna be a long one.
All games, as always, are available on AM 620 Rip City Radio.
(Prediction records addendum: The Blazers and I both went 2-0 over the last two games; I’ll count today’s game with these ones I’m covering in this space. Portland is 18-13, and I am 15-16 on the season so far. Slowly climbing.)
Sunday, Dec. 23: vs. the Dallas Mavericks, 6:00 PM, NBCSNW
The Skinny: When we had these guys in this space earlier this month, we highlighted Luka Doncic and the excellent rookie year he’s having. As the calendar prepares to turn, Doncic is starting to go from “excellent rookie year” to “excellent year,” and is drawing some interesting comparisons.
Top rookies get hyped all the time, and they get pushed to the moon. Especially in the current age of information overload and sharing anything and everything, it’s easy to build someone up—and tear them down. That said, I haven’t heard this much hype around a rookie since LeBron James. Looking back farther in history, it reminds me also of what folks were saying about Larry Bird back in 1979.
Is Doncic going to be as good as the two best forwards of all time? Probably not. But in terms of sheer impact on a team, Luka is having a similar impact as a rookie on the Mavs that LeBron had on the Cavaliers his rookie year. Bird took a terrible Celtics team to the Conference Finals his first year, but Doncic has a snowball’s chance in hell of doing that for Dallas this season.
Regardless, a playoff berth is feasible for the Mavericks this season, and they were a hot bag of garbage before they traded up in the draft for Doncic.
The Slovenian teenager is definitely the best rookie this season. With slash lines of 18-7-5 and 43/35/77, he’s separating himself from every other new guy in the NBA. He’s tops in rookie scoring, second in both rebounding and assists, and is in the top 10 for pretty much every statistical category we have. He’s getting some All-Star hype (which is BS; he’s not there in the West yet), and he’s preparing to take the torch from Dirk Nowitzki.
The trade with Atlanta to bring Doncic to Dallas will be scrutinized for a long time, particularly if Trae Young flames out. The Hawks are really, REALLY hoping Young doesn’t flame out, needless to say.
Matchup to Watch: Luka Doncic vs. Maurice Harkless. I might have wanted to highlight Dennis Smith, Jr. here for posterity’s sake, but let’s be real: going from Dirk Nowitzki to Luka Doncic might end up being basketball’s version of going from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers. Stupid lucky.
Prediction: Blazers get revenge and win this one.
Tuesday, Dec. 25: @ the Utah Jazz, 7:30 PM, ESPN, NBCSNW
The Skinny: To those of you who celebrate the holiday: Merry Christmas!
The Blazers have a sterling history on Christmas Day, going 10-4 overall on Xmas games even with the loss eight years ago. After it was clear Greg Oden was a bust, I suppose Turner and Disney just forgot about Portland. Unfortunate, since I’m sure no one wanted to see the New York Knicks and L.A. Lakers get pantsed on national TV on an annual basis.
Here’s the formula for Christmas Day games, as close as I can figure: Knicks game, exciting teams game (Eastern edition), LeBron game, Lakers game, exciting teams game (Western edition). Now that LeBron and the Lakers have fused together into a media-consuming entity, that frees up a slot for a couple other teams…like the Blazers.
As for Utah, Portland will play them tonight. Two games in four days against the same team is rare, but not as rare as a home-and-home….
Matchup to Watch: Rudy Gobert vs. Jusuf Nurkic. Nurk has a well-documented habit of being a finesse player despite also being the human equivalent of a polar bear. If he’s ever going to be a stronger finisher, this game would be a good time to be so. Even after falling off some compared to seasons past, Gobert is still pretty good at protecting the rim.
Going strong into the taller player’s body and getting fouls on him would be a good way for Nurkic to impact this game in a positive way for the Blazers.
Prediction: Blazers celebrate Christmas with a win.
Thursday, Dec. 27: @ the Golden State Warriors, 7:30 PM, NBCSNW, Blazers Pass
Saturday, Dec. 29: vs. the Golden State Warriors, 7:00 PM, NBCSNW, NBATV
The Skinny: Yup. The Trail Blazers tanked the big present out from under the tree, opened that puppy up, and found that Santa had gifted them a home-and-home against the defending champions, and one of the defining dynasties of NBA history. Merry effing Christmas.
The platonic ideal of the Warriors that the common fan carries in their head is a group of five guys perfectly in sync with each other, seamlessly pinging the ball back and forth until they get a wide-open shot either at the rim or from three-point range. It’s basically a basketball coach’s wet dream, and poetry in motion.
This year’s Warriors are very different from that egalitarian ethos. Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and Klay Thompson average a combined 80 points per game for this team, while the next closest player is maligned reserve Quinn Cook, at a mere 8.6. While Draymond Green impacts the game in other ways, he’s not scoring much, and the other role players for Golden State have aged into hoops dotage. The Warriors are no longer hoops porn. They are very, very top-heavy, like Durant’s old Oklahoma City teams.
To be very clear, a healthy Big Three plus Draymond for Golden State is still enough to win the championship this year; no one else has two of the top three layers in the world on the same team, with a sharpshooting stoner sidekick in Thompson and the Evolutionary Dennis Rodman in Green. If either one of their top guys go down, however, look out.
Between Durant and Curry, Curry seems to be the more important, and the more fragile. Seeing Durant just take over when Steph was injured earlier this season, I was strongly reminded of those Thunder teams he was on…and why it was a good idea for him to leave Oklahoma City. That approach to the game won Durant a heaping pile of regular-season games, four scoring titles, a few playoff series, and an MVP. It also threatened to turn him into this generation’s Jerry West, an uber-talented basketball demigod that could never really get over the hump.
So, he left to join the team that would have cockblocked him for the bulk of his prime, and while he caught a great deal of grief over that decision, it benefited him immeasurably because he had to play with Stephen Curry. It made Durant focus on the other parts of his game, and he’s now a better passer, better rebounder, and a much better defender now than he was when he first arrived at the Bay. Still, without Curry to balance him, Durant falls back into those old habits.
Golden State with Curry and Durant can’t be beat, in my opinion. Golden State with Durant and no Curry? That team can be beat. After all, teams have been beating up on that version of Durant’s teams his whole career in the postseason until he left OKC. The Warriors better hope Steph reaches April largely intact.
Matchup to Watch: Kevin Durant vs. Al-Farouq Aminu. Chief always plays top scorers tough, but defense doesn’t really matter versus scorers on Durant’s particular plane of existence.
Watching Durant is like seeing Michael Jordan in the triple-threat, or Nowitzki with his back to the basket. You can’t defend them, you can only hope to annoy them, like a fly buzzing around the eyes of an elephant.
Chief will try his best to pester Durant, body him, stay with him…and pray he misses his shots. That’s all you can do.
Predictions: Warriors take both games.
Sunday, Dec. 30: vs. the Philadelphia 76ers, 6:00 PM, NBCSNW
The Skinny: Speaking of top-heavy teams, I present to you the 2018-19 Philadelphia Sixers!
I get why Philly made the trade for Jimmy Butler. I do. The East feels liberated after LeBron took his talents West, freed from a near-decade of Kingly dominion. Acquiring star-level talent is difficult to do (as the Sixers found out last summer), and a team in the Sixers’ position feels obligated to push while that title window is open. Butler is a top-15 player, as is Joel Embiid (who made the leap to top 10 this season as he’s demolishing the NBA); developing or signing or trading for two players of that caliber has been the whole point of Philly’s Process, and they feel that all the losing and embarrassment has finally paid off.
Thing is, ripping apart their bench for Butler, who has an option on the last year of his contract he’s going to decline this summer, might come back to bite them, this season and beyond. Even with Embiid’s best efforts, something about this current Sixers team feels…off.
The Sixers are third in the East right now, but of the teams at the top of the heap out there, they carry the most questions. Ben Simmons is still reluctant to shoot beyond five feet, a quirk that punished his team against Boston in the playoffs. Markelle Fultz is looking like possibly the biggest first overall pick bust outside of Anthony Bennett, at least in Philadelphia. JJ Redick is getting overworked trying to create space for Butler, Simmons and Embiid (when he posts up) to cook without the rim getting wrapped up in a five-man straitjacket.
The Sixers are playing very well when all three of their stars play together, but Embiid can’t go for 35 minutes per game unless you want to hear the sound of overlarge human bones cracking under the strain. Butler has Tom Thibodeau miles on him, is almost 30 and has a long injury history himself. Simmons can’t be a first option on a championship team. When one of their top guys sits—especially Embiid—the Sixers’ performance craters.
External obstacles are abundant as well. Toronto is looking like the top team in the East this season, and if they somehow win the NBA Finals and Kawhi Leonard says, “You know what? I like this patch of grass! This is MY grass now!” and re-signs with the Raptors, Philly will be in trouble. Boston is starting to get their act together. Milwaukee has Giannis Antetokounmpo. Indiana is scrappy.
I’m not optimistic about the Sixers’ chances this season, and if Jimmy Butler decides to take his ball and go poison another team’s locker room, their gamble, the Process, and Embiid’s prime will all be wasted on the Treadmill of Mediocrity. No pressure.
Matchup to Watch: Joel Embiid vs. Jusuf Nurkic. Shaquille O’Neal thought of every other center in the league, and especially Arvydas Sabonis, as barbecued chicken. I wouldn’t be surprised if Embiid treats Nurk and Meyers Leonard like Shaq treated Sabas—even if Jo likes them.
Prediction: Two home games back-to-back aren’t as strenuous as a home-and-road, or two road contests. I think Portland takes a close one.
Tuesday, Jan. 1: @ the Sacramento Kings, 6:00 PM, NBCSNW
The Skinny: Um, what is this? The Kings are above .500 at 31 games into the season; the last time this happened, Chris Webber was still playing for them and I was a fat teenager surviving the dial-up days. Wow. Good job, Kangz.
The prime reason why the Kings are decent so far is a young point guard named De’Aaron Fox. The fifth overall pick in 2017, Fox was overwhelmed at the point for the most dysfunctional and scatter-brained franchise in basketball. He and his coach were at odds, and the speedster Fox was bogged down by oldsters like Zach Randolph, Vince Carter, and George Hill. It’s hard to run a fast break when you have the plodding Randolph huffing and puffing 50 yards behind you, threatening to blow Golden 1 Center down.
This season, something has clicked for Fox. Guys his age are playing more with him, including the second overall pick in 2018 Marvin Bagley III, and coach Dave Joerger has allowed Fox to run and gun. The Kings are second in the NBA in pace, and though that frenetic pace has led to only an average offense (exactly average, in fact: 15th out of 30), Fox individually has been a huge beneficiary.
Almost every stat for the point guard has spiked upwards, and dramatically. Most encouraging is a gain in assists (from 4.4 per game to 7.4) and three-point percentage (from 30 percent to 40 percent). It’s always awesome to see a young fella reach another level in his game; the NBA is more fun to watch with more great players in it, and thanks to my generation (and the one after) mostly learning from the mistakes of those we grew up watching, more young players are maximizing their potential than ever before.
(The day I’m writing this, the 20th, happens to be Fox’s 21st birthday. I hope he doesn’t give in to peer pressure and refrains from drinking the dreaded AMF. I stuck to beer and whiskey, and survived. My editor paid for his bleeding heart and weak will with the kind of headache that makes you want to drill a hole in your own head. Be like me, De’Aaron. Your brain will thank you.)
Matchup to Watch: Marvin Bagley III vs. Al-Farouq Aminu. I’m guessing Chief won’t initially be defending Fox, who’s roughly the same height and about 30 pounds lighter than Damian Lillard, so Bagley is next in line. The rookie big man has been as good as advertised on offense, but is still a defensive liability.
I expect the Blazers to mercilessly target Bagley in the pick-and-roll, especially if Bagley matches up with Nurkic on defense. If Chief can limit him on offense, Joerger will have to give Bagley the hook.
Prediction: You know what? I’m drinking the Fox Kool-Aid. Besides, Portland has always splayed like crap in Sacramento, even when the Kangz Kangsed. Blazers get upset.
Friday, Jan. 4: vs. the Oklahoma City Thunder, 7:30 PM, ESPN, NBCSNW
The Skinny: OKC is sitting at No. 2 in the Western Conference and is a very good 20-10. And a big reason for that success is my man, Paul George.
Anyone who knows me knows I love me some Paul George. He’s my favorite non-Blazer player, my platonic ideal as far as what I look for in a basketball player. The five-time All-Star and four-time All-NBA player chose to stay in Oklahoma City this summer despite persistent rumors he’d scurry off to his native Southern California, but apparently George prefers cattle ranches and plains to breathing in that LA smog.
His loyalty has been rewarded with the best season of his career; he’s setting career highs in points, rebounds, assists, and steals per game, as well as Player Efficiency Rating. As long as they have PG putting up 25 a game, the Thunder will be a force—and they don’t even have Andre Roberson, their defensive ace, back yet.
Matchup to Watch: Russell Westbrook vs. Damian Lillard. This is always a good matchup, but since Westbrook is a psycho and Lillard backs down from no man, it also has the kind of heat and spice you don’t get among today’s buddy-buddy, fellow AAU alum NBA stars.
The really good part is that last year, Russ was on the All-NBA Second Team despite averaging a triple-double, and being the only player in NBA history to average a triple-double in consecutive seasons. Two guards made it above him on the First Team. One was the reigning MVP, James Harden—totally understandable, since the damn MVP has to be on the first team.
The other guard? Our own Damian Lillard.
Westbrook is going to go at Lillard. Hard.
Prediction: OKC takes it.
Saturday, Jan. 5: vs. the Houston Rockets, 7:00 PM, NBCSNW
The Skinny: At 16-14 and currently riding a five-game winning streak, the Rockets seem to finally have their feet under them. And all it took was exiling the washed-up Carmelo Anthony.
Maybe they cool off when they play this game two weeks from now. Maybe they’re destined to float around .500 for most of the year, despite James Harden averaging 31 PPG (and dropping a fat 50 on LeBron and the Lakers last Thursday). I don’t know. And I don’t even want to watch to find out; only James Harden can make watching a 50-point game feel like a chore for a fan.
Matchup to Watch: James Harden vs. CJ McCollum. All I ask of poor CJ is not to pull a Wesley Johnson. I’m not CJ’s biggest fan, but no man deserves what the Beard did to Johnson last year.
Prediction: Portland lost the only game that Harden played against them this season. I would expect the MVP to make the difference again, as Houston goes up in the season series 2-1.