On Thursday, the Portland Trail Blazers took off on a 4-game road trip that has the chance of defining their season. Starting Friday night, the play four Western Conference contenders in five days. This is a worst-case-scenario type of a road trip.
Thus far in the season, the Blazers have surprised fans and spectators across the league and silenced a lot of critics. However I see this road trip as a trap that will rile up some of those critics. Chances are that Portland will be an underdog in each of the four games they play. If they can head home with at least 2 wins, I think that would be a success. But this is a trip that could very quickly turn into a three of four game skid, and that would only enhance the argument that this offensively driven team may just be a flash in the pan.
Personally I think that this team is incredibly talented and has the potential to be one of the best teams in the Rip City for a long while. It’s all well and good when you’re playing weaker opponents, winning games and enjoying the confines of your home court. That is why I think this trip will be a defining moment for this year’s squad.
Following is my preview on each matchup on the road trip …
Friday January 17th, 2014 – Portland Trail Blazers @ San Antonio Spurs (31-8)
The trusty Spurs are kind of like that old guy at a pick-up game that is so crafty and can shoot the ball, no one wants to guard him. Led by the original Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the Spurs are dangerous on any given night. The scary part about this Spurs team is that not only do the vets lead this team, there is a new crop of athletic talent in San Antonio. The bench is very deep and Coach Greg Popovich relies on a balanced attack. The Spurs are currently the best 3 point shooting team in the league (Portland is 2nd).
The first time these teams met was in November in Portland where the Blazers came away victorious in a 115-105 game that was dominated by offense. Both teams shot better than 50% from the field and Nicolas Batum recorded his third career triple-double.
Matchup to watch: Nicolas Batum vs. Kawhi Leonard – Both very well rounded small forwards that fill up the stat sheet. Either one of these two guys could have a big game.
Saturday January 18th, 2014 – Portland Trail Blazers @ Dallas Mavericks (23-17)
Monta Ellis delivered the knockout punch in Portland on December 7th when he hit a game winning shot to give the Mavericks a 108-106 victory. In this down-to-the-wire victory, the Mavericks really dominated the Blazers. In a game that comes down to a buzzer beater, you would expect that the game would have been fairly even throughout. Statistically, this game wasn’t.
Dallas shot 53% from the field, Portland shot 45%. Dallas outshot Portland from the 3 point line, 50% to 30%. And Dallas outscored Portland in the paint 54-36. For Portland to win this game in Dallas, they need to tighten up some of these very important aspects to their game.
Matchup to watch: LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Dirk Nowitzki. In the first matchup, Dirk shined with 30 points, 6 rebounds and 7 assists, while Aldridge had 19 points and 13 rebounds. Aldridge has a good track record playing in his hometown of Dallas so it’s always worth keeping an eye on him there. I would bet that Aldridge comes out with a bit of added energy Saturday night against Nowitzki and the Mavs.
Monday January 20th, 2014 – Portland Trail Blazers @ Houston Rockets (26-15)
Houston and Portland have split their two games so far this year, both played in Portland. The first game on November 5th was highlighted by Houston absolutely dominating the middle. The outrebounded Portland, 47-30. And the points in the paint battle was even uglier, Houston won 54-28.
Houston’s second visit to Portland was a bit more favorable for the Blazers as they won 111-104 on December 12th, despite being outscored in the paint 66-36. In this matchup however, Portland won the rebounding battle 52-48. Behind a big game from Aldridge, Portland was able to pull it out down the stretch.
Matchup to watch: Robin Lopez vs. Dwight Howard. Nine nights out of ten, Howard will have a better statistical output than Lopez, however Lopez has the ability to otherwise neutralize the opposing big man. As detailed above, the team to win the rebounding battle in the last two matchups has won the game. If Lopez can hold Howard to less than 10 rebounds, the Blazers will win this game.
Tuesday January 21st, 2014 – Portland Trail Blazers @ Oklahoma City Thunder (29-10)
Ending this grueling 4 games in 5 nights trip, the Blazers enter Oklahoma City to face off with their divisional foe the Thunder. The Blazers have won both meetings so far this year against the Thunder, one in Portland and the other a New Year’s Eve thriller in Oklahoma City. For OKC, Russell Westbrook is still out with a knee injury and the Thunder have been struggling.
Since Westbrook went down, the Thunder are 8-6, compared to their 21-4 mark before he was injured. It has been a major hit to this team to lose their number 2 guy, an All-Star. However, this team has one of the best players in the league in Kevin Durant. Durant is so dangerous on the offensive end of the court. He is a 7-footer that can space the floor, shoot threes, and run an offense. Look around the league and there really is no comparison to Durant.
Matchup to watch: Nicolas Batum/Wesley Matthews vs. Kevin Durant. Guarding Durant is a nightmare for any perimeter defender. Batum and Matthews have proven worthy of the challenge before. It is very tough to guard such a long and athletic perimeter player like Durant. Batum possesses the length to challenge him but sometimes takes a few too many risks trying to cut off passes. Matthews does not have the length, but what Matthews has is heart and sheer determination. I love watching Matthews play defense on the big stage, against one of the NBA’s elite offensive players.
My Prediction: My prediction is they split the road trip. There is no way other way to say it then this is an absolute grueling road trip. The Blazers will be playing elite teams, on the road, on tired legs. Not a very good equation. In years past it would have been hard to pick the Blazers to win any of the coming 4 games. This team is different and I think they come home with 2 more wins.