Welcome to Week 7 of the NBA, and of these game previews. After 20 games, the Blazers stand at a very solid 12-8. That’s no mean feat considering the schedule for them is front-loaded with quality teams throughout the end of 2018. The sked softens up some after the turn of the New Year…just in time for one of those patented Portland runs through the dog days of the winter.
For now, I’m just happy about the good start; Rip City had seen some very poor starts to recent seasons. I’d planned to review each Blazer player’s performance today at the quarter-mark of the season, but I want to do it justice without penning a novel.
We’ll have that up another day. For now, we do have some interesting games to check out this week. So, in the immortal words of Mario: “HERE WE GOOOOOO!”
All games are available on AM 620 Rip City Radio.
Wednesday, Nov. 28: vs. the Orlando Magic, 7:00 PM, NBA TV, NBCSNW
The Skinny: The Magic are a surprising 9-10 out East, which is impressive given that this is a young, mismatched team with a new coach in Steve Clifford. While there are several reasons why the Disney Crew is hovering around .500–Clifford’s good coaching and the all-around versatility of Aaron Gordon chief among them—the main one is the stellar play of their veteran center, Nikola Vucevic.
Vucevic looks like a plodding dinosaur on the court, like many other European centers (think Jonas Valanciunas and Jusuf Nurkic). His feet are slow, his movements on defense clumsy, and he’s had the center position on the Empty Calories Team for most of his career. He’s put up some numbers, but they never meant much because he was always on such crappy rosters with clueless people behind the scenes.
This season, Vooch has brought the heavy artillery. He’s diversified his game, working on averages of 20 and 11 with an insane 55/40/82 slash line, and he is in the top three on the Magic for almost every statistic I could find—over three dozen in all. He’s 11th in the league in rebounds per game and eighth in the entire Association in Player Efficiency Rating. (While PER is weighted toward 5s, your league leader in PER is Stephen Curry. Lillard is 12th, between Nurkic and Clint Capela. Lillard and Curry are stupid good.)
I do expect Orlando, and Vooch, to cool off some as the season progresses; while it is the quarter-mark for most teams right now, we’re still several weeks from Christmas. We got a long way to go, and the Magic are relying on hot shooting from guys who aren’t proven commodities from three-point range (D.J. Augustin, Portland native Terrence Ross, Vucevic). Orlando is also one of the very few teams that somehow doesn’t have a solid point guard in the Point Guard Era; Augustin is the Jeff Fisher of NBA point guards, somehow staying in the league for countless years despite constantly wallowing in mediocrity.
Still: The Magic have some hope. After all, it’s not like the East (improved though it may be) is brimming with challengers for the eighth seed. The Wizards are a broken-down car about to be stripped for parts, Miami has underwhelmed, Brooklyn lost Caris LeVert, and no other teams below the Magic are serious challengers for a playoff spot.
It may sound a little counter-intuitive, since the Magic are still a couple perimeter pieces from truly being a rising team, but earning the right to get destroyed by Toronto and the Claw in the first round would actually be a huge success for them. It sure would give Clifford some leeway.
Matchup to Watch: Nikola Vucevic vs. Jusuf Nurkic. The last time these teams played, Lillard destroyed the Magic with 41 points. Vooch had a slightly better game than Nurk (24-11 with two steals for Vooch, 18-10 with three blocks for Nurk), but Nurk handily won the war.
Given Orlando’s point guard situation, Lillard just might go crazy again. If he does, Vucevic will need a monster game of his own to counter. Nurkic will have to clean the boards and make Vooch work on defense in the pick-and-roll with Lillard.
Prediction: Blazers complete the season sweep.
Friday, Nov. 30: vs. the Denver Nuggets, 7:45 PM, ESPN and NBCSNW
The Skinny: It’s been a long time since the Four-Letter Network deigned to air a Nuggets-Blazers game, but this one is deserved. Denver and Portland are essentially deadlocked near the top of both the Northwest Division and the Western Conference, with Oklahoma City right with them. Exciting times so far.
Examining the Nuggets as a squad, you can see right away these aren’t the same Nuggets of years past. Coach Michael Malone has them playing solid defense without sacrificing that explosive offense; as of Saturday night, Denver was seventh in the NBA in both Offensive Rating and Defensive Rating. A very odd stat is their pace ranking—they’re just 27th in pace (to be fair, this might be because Will Barton, a whirling dervish in a basketball player’s body, has missed almost all the season with a hip injury).
Denver has a very balanced attack, with six players in double digits in scoring per game, and Nos. seven and eight averaging nine and 8.5 PPG. Nikola Jokic (7.3 assists per game!!) is getting more comfortable controlling the action from the center position, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray are cutting and slashing off of Jokic’s actions, and the spot-up shooters are hitting enough shots. Juan Hernangomez in particular has been a huge help in Barton’s absence, nailing a spectacular 44 percent of his threes.
The Nuggets should be a factor as the season marches on—if they can hold up; injuries have been their bugaboo lately.
Matchup to Watch: The Nuggets’ backcourt vs. the Blazers’ backcourt. Lillard and McCollum are now the undisputed second-best backcourt in the NBA, in my opinion (you know who the top guys are. They’re brothers who like to splash.) Harris and Murray are slowly getting there, but there are still some holes in their games they need to fill.
Harris is 24, and Murray is just 21. Both guys still have time. But to me, it’s not the best situation when your starting guards both suck from beyond the arc (32 percent for Harris, 30 percent for Murray), and that Jokic has as many assists as both of them combined. I know the Joker is perhaps the most gifted big man passer in NBA history, but come on! He’s still a freaking center!
One thing the Denver duo doesn’t lack, though, is courage. They’re eager to test themselves against Dame and CJ, on national television, on the road, in a division game. Should be a great show.
Prediction: The way the games have gone between these two teams, historically, is that both teams are dominant at home. The game is in Portland, so I’ll go with the Blazers. The Joker gets a triple-double as Jeff Van Gundy pines for the days when centers were 300 pounds and backed to the paint on a post-up while eight other guys stood around.
Sunday, Dec. 2: @ the San Antonio Spurs, 4:00 PM, NBCSNW and Blazers Pass
The Skinny: Strange. The Spurs have been down and out before, but they’ve always made a move—and had good fortune—to vault right back into contender status. This time, though, it feels like the Spurs might not recover back to contender status in the near future.
David Robinson goes down with a knee injury? Draft Tim Duncan, win a championship right after Michael Jordan retired for the second time. The Shaq-Kobe Lakers stymie a dynasty with one of their own? Draft Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, wait till the Lakers implode, then ride a dominant Duncan to three titles in an era where if Shaq and Kobe didn’t want to murder each other, L.A. would have won somewhere between six and eight titles. Age limits Duncan? Swap George Hill for Kawhi Leonard on draft night, vault right back into contention, and win another championship.
The Spurs have been remarkably consistent for the last two decades—excluding 1999, while Duncan played, they never won fewer than 50 games, even in the lockout-shortened season of 2012—but winning five championships took greatness. It took great fortune. And now, finally, San Antonio may be out of cards and out of luck.
Duncan, Robinson, and Ginobili are all retired, and though they still hang around the organization some (Robinson bought a stake in the Spurs some years ago), it isn’t the same as playing. Parker is in Charlotte, in the twilight of his own playing days. Leonard proved to be as selfish as any other NBA superstar; refusing to be the dutiful progeny of Robinson and Duncan, Leonard made the Spurs trade him after he and the team disagreed about the handling of his injury issues. The player Leonard was traded for, DeMar DeRozan, is a throwback to 2006—which is how legendary coach Gregg Popovich likes it, even if the NBA as a whole has evolved since then.
Pop’s approach has always been heavily influenced by his players. The thing that makes him a Mount Rushmore coach is his prodigious adaptability, from embracing a brutish style that nearly killed the NBA in the mid-aughts, to leaning on Parker as the best player in a proto-pace-and-space system predicated on shooting all those threes Pop hates so much, to giving Leonard complete control of the offense and letting him be a better Scottie Pippen.
Nowadays, with DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, Popovich is molding his players into a team that is very outdated and outclassed, shooting long two-pointers instead of threes. DeRozan is doing his thing (nearly 25 PPG), but Aldridge is scuffling through the worst shooting year of his career. At a mere 42 percent from the field, it seems the law of averages has finally caught up to LMA; he made six All-Star teams and five All-NBA teams due to his ability to hit tough 20-foot fadeaways, but those shots are no longer falling.
The Spurs are hovering around .500 currently. If Aldridge doesn’t get back into his groove, and San Antonio can’t play good defense (19th in Defensive Rating), they may be stuck there. In the West, that would send the Spurs into the lottery.
Matchup to Watch: LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Jusuf Nurkic. I’m curious to see if Aldridge will try to take Nurk off the dribble. LMA is getting up there in years and has been taking a beating playing the 5, but as we in Rip City all know: Nurkic is slow.
Easy buckets have never been Aldridge’s thing, but as he ages, and the Spurs struggle to stay afloat in the West, he’s going to need to get creative. Or, just hope more of those fadeaways fall through the net.
Prediction: The Blazers have gotten tar-and-feathered twice on the road recently. However, that was against the Milwaukee Bucks and the Golden State Warriors, arguably the two best teams in the Association. San Antonio is not in that august company. Portland takes it.
Trail Blazers’ Record This Week: 1-3
Trail Blazers’ Record Overall: 12-8
Jared’s Picks This Week: 2-2
Jared’s Picks Overall: 9-11