The confines of the Moda Center were good to the Portland Trail Blazers over their latest homestand. After a 100-94 victory over the Boston Celtics on Sunday, the Blazers finished a six-game stretch at home at 5-1 (10-3 overall).
Taking care of business at home is necessary for any good team in sports, but the Blazers have been doing that for years. What interests me at the moment is whether Portland has or can make the jump from “good” to “elite.” It’s not just me that’s wondering that; I bet most of the folks associated with the Association are trying to figure that out, as well.
Thirteen games is not a large sample size, but the latest game versus the Celtics provided some insight. There were things to like and dislike about Portland’s play on Sunday, signs that the Blazers have elevated themselves to another level…and signs that they’re still being chained to Earth by big iron balls on their ankles.
Favorable signs included their play in the first half. Boston came in as one of the few teams that had a legitimately good defense; their starting five includes three players who are very similar in size (Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum) and who can seamlessly switch pick-and-rolls (though Hayward still looks a little slow), and Al Horford is an ideal 5 in the modern NBA.
You know who isn’t 6’8” and fast in that lineup, though? Kyrie Irving.
Damian Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic picked on Irving relentlessly in the first half, running the bread-and-butter play of basketball to perfection. The pick-and-roll went pretty much like this: Nurk screen on Irving, Lillard drive, pass off, Nurk dunk. Nurk screen, Dame drive, dump to Nurk, Nurk layup. Nurk screen, Dame drive, Dame layup. Nurk screen, Dame drive, kick-out to open shooter on the three-point line. Nurk screen, Dame drive, Dame misses, Nurk gets rebound and yams on Brown or Tatum. … Ad nauseum, wash-rinse-repeat, and what do you know, a huge 17-point halftime lead on the best defense in the league. This is why Lillard and Nurkic both had double-doubles; Nurkic had his by halftime.
What makes me nervous for the team later on this season is how they came out after the half. I was lying on my couch, wrapped in a blanket cocoon (my furnace is broken) after my third Old Fashioned of the night, ready to drowse to the soothing sounds of a Blazer beatdown. I was at peace.
Ten minutes later, I’m sitting upright, stunned that Boston—at the end of a long West Coast trip, and plainly sluggish during the first half—was daring to make a game of it. Portland had left its foot off the proverbial gas, and the Celtics were punishing the Blazers hard for it. Though the lead was at 13 entering the fourth quarter, the Celtics eventually tied the game.
If it weren’t for two Al-Farouq Aminu moonshots from 3 (including a bomb so deep, I still think he fired that puppy from Gresham), Portland might have lost the game. It would’ve really sucked to have to go out on a six-game road trip with an epic fail like that hanging over you, especially with some of the national media already being skeptical about the long-term prospects of the Lillard-era Blazers.
Truly great teams come out in the third quarter and step on their opponent’s throats; the Golden State Warriors are famous for this trait. Exhausted and battle-weary as they were, staring down a large deficit against one of the most potent offenses in basketball, the Celtics still sensed weakness and lethargy on the part of the Blazers and pounced. A rash of turnovers, forced jumpers, and erratic passing and the Blazers went from comfortably coasting to fighting tooth and nail to preserve a win.
Portland is still young as a whole, but Lillard and CJ McCollum have been around awhile now. They needed to do a better job of setting a positive tone after halftime—teams like Boston don’t just roll over and wilt. They knew the Celtics would come out swinging, and the team responded poorly. Dame and CJ need to get better at both rallying the Blazers when that happens and counterpunching with their own prodigious skills.
To me, a truly elite team that arrived is the Milwaukee Bucks. They obliterated the Warriors on their own floor, making one of the greatest teams in history look utterly helpless in the process. It was a masterclass of domination. THAT is how an elite team takes care of business.
Rip City? You ain’t there yet. Not after letting an exhausted and offensively confused Boston squad take you to the wire like that.
(All Games available on AM 620 Rip City Radio.)
Wednesday, Nov. 14: @ the Los Angeles Lakers, 7:30 PM, ESPN
The Skinny: Yes. These guys again. Sigh.
When I took a look at the schedule for the first couple months of the season, my first reaction to seeing the Lakers on the slate three times in a month was that this was a huge plus for the Blazers. The reasoning behind my thinking was that Portland would catch the LeBron James-led Lakers while they were still trying to figure out how to play together.
Opening Night, the Blazers got a victory, but Los Angeles struck back a couple weeks ago. Now with new addition Tyson Chandler in tow, and now fully realizing the benefits of having two actual centers on a team, the Lakers are winners of three straight, above .500 at 7-6, and are looking to establish themselves as a team to watch in the crowded West.
JaVale McGee was already doing the Lord’s work as a rim protector, but he was getting ridden too hard. His conditioning never was the best to begin with, and 26 minutes of always working his butt off per game would have been terrible for him; either he gets hurt or is ragged and useless by the time the games truly matter. Now with Chandler on board, the Lakers can have their cake and eat it too—as usual.
20 minutes of McGee, 20 minutes of Chandler, and the rest spent playing small-ball sounds like a solid recipe to me.
Matchup to Watch: Tyson Chandler vs. Zach Collins. Chandler is a sage of the first order, a big man who was stellar in his prime. As the starting center for the 2011 Dallas Mavericks championship squad (which also had Portland coach Terry Stotts as an assistant coach), Chandler was vital. The prototype for every modern rim-running center who protects the basket on defense is this guy.
Chandler also gives good effort on the glass, so young Collins will have to be on his A-game whenever he’s on the court, whether it’s McGee (who Collins has played well against this year) or Chandler tussling with him in the paint.
Prediction: The Blazers start off their odyssey with a win.
Friday, Nov. 16: @ the Minnesota Timberwolves, 5:00 PM, NBCSNW
The Skinny: They finally did it. On Saturday, the Wolves found the fortitude—and the team willing to deal rotation players—to trade the disgruntled, volatile Jimmy Butler.
Butler is going to Philadelphia, but this is about the Wolves, not the Sixers. Minny got back Dario Saric and Robert Covington; the former is a skilled 4 with three-point range, while the latter is the platonic ideal of a 3-and-D player. Tom Thibodeau will LOVE Covington, but to reap the full benefits from this trade, he’s going to have to play Saric substantial minutes.
Saric has struggled from beyond the arc this season, but he does have a successful history of NBA shooting. I doubt Thibs will give him a chance, honestly—he doesn’t like European forwards and probably prefers to play Derrick Rose and worship at the altar of sub-40 percent shooting.
Matchup to Watch: Karl-Anthony Towns vs. Jusuf Nurkic. Towns should be totally invigorated and revived by the Butler trade. He hated and feared Butler and can now focus on improving his game on both ends of the court without a homicidally competitive maniac about to be on the wrong side of 30 constantly hounding him.
It’s easy to forget that Towns is just 22 years old and is already one of the most offensively skilled bigs in the NBA. His defense sucks, but defending takes time for all young bigs to learn; Towns may be a slow learner, but it likely doesn’t help that he had Butler breathing down his neck—and still has Thibodeau roaring in that hoarse scream/groan.
Prediction: The Wolves are at home, and should still be riding the high of getting rid of Jimmy. They surprise the Blazers as Towns drops a 50-burger.
Sunday, Nov. 18: @ the Washington Wizards, 3:00 PM, NBCSNW
The Skinny: Things sure got ugly fast in D.C.
The Wiz sit at 4-9 after beating the Orlando Magic yesterday, a start this frail team did not need. If you want to learn more about the Wizards’ chemistry problems, ESPN’s Zach Lowe wrote an excellent piece detailing their issues several days ago. If you don’t feel like it, let’s just say the politics aren’t the only thing that’s toxic in Washington.
John Wall and Bradley Beal are putting up stats that will probably get them both into the All-Star Game this year, but hidden beneath them are some troubling signs, mostly about Wall. Beal has proven he’s capable of being a first-option kind of player, if not the kind of leader that player should be. He’s more content to just shoot and sulk; Ray Allen was never much of a leader either.
Wall is set to make obscene amounts of money after this year. You might want to hold onto your butt before reading this table:
All that cash for a guy who has the reputation of a speedster yet spends the most time walking around on the court in the entire NBA. All that cash for a guy whose athleticism is already declining, who has regressed from the three-point line (under 30 percent for the year), and who is perhaps the poorest excuse for a team leader I’ve ever seen.
I used to be a John Wall fan, but his laziness and his role in the pollution of the Wizards’ locker room—and the resulting squandering of that roster’s potential—has soured me on him. And has made me extremely grateful for Damian Lillard.
Matchup to Watch: Dwight Howard vs. Jusuf Nurkic. More big man highlights! Nurk has deserved it so far this season; as detailed above, the pick-and-roll game he’s developed with Lillard has become a fine-tuned weapon, a bitter spear designed to be driven right through chain-link armor into the heart.
Howard hasn’t had time to develop any such chemistry with Wall—in fact, all he’s ever wanted to do is park his oversize rear on the block and shoot 35 percent from the post…while taking 20 attempts from there. Still, Howard is a walking double-double who can scrounge some second-chance points from broken plays.
Howard didn’t play when these teams met in Portland, so this adds a new wrinkle to what the Wiz can do. Nurkic can stay on the court against Dwight, though—D.C. ran him off the court when they went small last time. He should be able to have a bigger impact than futilely waving a bear mitt in Markieff Morris’ face.
Prediction: Blazers get revenge.
Trail Blazers’ Record Last Week: 3-0
Trail Blazers’ Record Overall: 10-3
Jared’s Picks Last Week: 1-2
Jared’s Picks Overall: 5-8 (It’s a hard life, boss)