In case you hadn’t heard, the Portland Trail Blazers defeated Dwight Howard and the Houston Rockets last night. The performance will bring about the typical chatter about being a “signature win” or “statement game” and will be the catalyst for some way to soon speculation of playoff positioning. Before we look that far ahead, let’s notice that any question of playoff seeding and if the Blazers can contend for a title will become reasonable after they finish the second quarter of the season. Let take a look at this 18-game stretch and what the Portland needs to do to push themselves into the title conversation.
The schedule has the Blazers facing a four game trip along the Great Lakes (starting tomorrow in Philadelphia) that they can’t sleepwalk through. The pressure kicks up during a three game home stand against an upstart and two solidified contenders. New Orleans might be tricky and Miami still is a juggernaut, but the middle game against the L.A. Clippers (Dec 30th) will be the game you should focus on. If Portland ends up being a top-4 seed, there is a high chance that they will have to go through Lob City in round two or three. The Clippers present multiple challenges when they have the ball (most notably with Chris Paul running the pick and roll and that alley-oop thing they like so much) but LaMarcus Aldridge and Co. will have to assert their dominance offensively against a team that is still in the learning stages under Doc Rivers’ tutelage. They cannot allow CP3’s ability to pressure the ball affect Lillard’s production and will be in trouble if they are as sloppy passing the ball as they were in the first half against the Rockets. Instead Aldridge must continue to demand double teams, the second unit (and not just Mo Williams) must produce points to keep up with the Clippers’ deep bench and Lillard must be more decisive in the lane. During the last few games, Damian keeps finding himself in the paint with a full head of steam and no signs of a plan, leading to either easy pickings for help defenders or wild passes back to the wing. Lillard needs to either finish strong of the pick and roll or use a hesitation move while as he deciphers the defense to create both space and time, commodities he needs to be effective.
The next key game will be Jan 11th at home against the Boston Celtics. Yes, I am aware that these aren’t the Celtics of recent years. Yes, I am aware that Boston will be on game two of a road back-to-back and Portland will have rest before and after this one. No, my flu has not created a fever dream where Rajon Rondo receives a German stem cell treatment to regain his health, only to find that mistake in the dosage caused him to grow to 6’9” and turn him into Magic Johnson 2.0.
Then why is this game so important? The Celtics are a two gear team. They start out games clunkily, taking bad shots while waiting for a call to go their way for someone to catch fire so that the team can ride that momentum and hang around ball games. When they can hit that second gear they can be pesky enough to beat even Miami. However, if they don’t hit that gear, they are as bad as they look on paper. The most important battle will be fought in the first 18 minutes. If the Blazers can start hot and make Boston play from behind, then they can rest their starters and prevent a catastrophic injury against an inferior eastern conference team.
The last chunk of this quarter of the season features a trip through Texas. While the Blazers have to play at two possible top four seeds (three if you count Oklahoma City in game 42), the team they absolutely have to beat the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavs present Portland with the double-whammy of identical schemes and starting two heat-check guys. Dirk Nowitzki is still unguardable and Monta Ellis isn’t awful anymore. If Coach Terry Stotts can’t figure out a way to beat his former team, he might have to pray they don't get slotted together in the first round come April.
The scary part of rooting for a possible contender is the ever looming possibility of a loss to an also-ran. If you are a Ducks fan, you probably just nodded while sneering and throwing another dart at that photo of Rich Rodriguez you’ve got hanging up. Let’s check out which games catch the Blazers napping.
At the New Orleans Pelicans (Dec, 30).
The incomparable Anthony Davis is out with a hand injury and in four games without him, the Pelicans have either lost or needed overtime. The jury’s still out on how this team will hold up, but I don’t like the prospect of having Robin Lopez chasing Ryan Anderson for 30 minutes or Eric Gordon getting to the lane against spread out Blazers bigs. The Blazers will have two big ones at home (the Clippers and Heat) leading into this one, so a packed New Orleans Arena (which holds the title of Worst Arena Name, Non-Sponsor Division) could be in for a close one.
Vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers (Jan, 15).
Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters might reconcile and start playing “buddy ball,” but in a good way. If so, watch out. They also might still hate each other at this point, in which case they might invent “one-upsmanship ball” which still might be scary considering Kyrie Irving is involved. Or they will continue being a Cleveland team, in which case hit the snooze button and do your No-Knee-Injury Dance.
Vs. the Charlotte Bobcats (Jan 2nd).
Sure, the Bobcats just beat Golden State in a kinda convincing fashion, (I watched the first quarter and they played surprisingly efficient basketball), but this is only here because it follows…
DECEMBER 31: AT THE OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
This is easily the biggest and most important game of the first half of the season, if not the entire year. The Blazers have beaten the three top challengers for the title (San Antonio, Indiana and OKC), and yet none of those where on the road. The Thunder may still be struggling to find their best five players and they still might believe that Kendrick Perkins is one of those best five players. None of that matters when Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and two other full-grown humans are on the court together with the best crowd in the NBA is roaring behind them. I know that the NBA changed the playoff format a little bit, but no matter where they are seeded they will still have to play road game. Unless the Homophobic-Chicken-Hatewich Bowl goes to overtime, all NBA League Pass owning eyes will be watching this game, waiting for the Blazers to answer the question we are so eager for them to address: Are they that good? If they lay an egg we will have to wait for April to know for sure. If they make it close then that will at least put them in the conversation. If they win? If they win, then we will be in for some great days to be a Blazer.
Blazers to Watch:
The Small Forwards
Nic Batum has been solid, but hasn’t had a standout performance for a while now. Dorell Wright has been a nice pickup, but goes long stretches on the floor without impacting the game. They are the only guys getting minutes at the three, so they can’t cool off or getting nicked up during this stretch. If Allen Crabbe is going to work his way into some playing time, he should start doing that soon because Batum’s minutes are starting to creep up.
This year’s backups have been leaps and bounds above last season’s squad, yet Portland is still just 27th in bench points. Robinson has played well in spurts but seems unsure with the ball in his hands. Robinson is an athletic power forward, but he should not take that to mean he is a stretch power forward. I’d like to see him used more in the pick and roll game when Aldridge is sitting, and when the two are paired he should be closer to the baseline so he doesn’t end up launching “Sure, why not?” jumpers from the elbow.
Blazer to Fall to Earth:
Honestly, I have never been a Wes Matthews fan. During the last two drafts, I advocated to use him to trade up to get Andre Drummond (instead of Meyer Leonard) in 2012, and Victor Oladipo this year. Matthews is making me look bad on both accounts, upping his game and playing hard-nosed unselfish basketball. He has been on fire from the floor, over 50 percent from three before cooling off this week. I don’t think he will stay over 43 percent for that long, but with CJ McCollum still out, there is no chance of fulfilling my fantasy of trading him to Mavs for a pick, seeing them collapse and end up in the lottery and that pick becoming Jabari Parker. A man can still dream though.
The Blazers have been mentioned as potential trade partner with Houston as a part of the impending Omer Asik deal, but it seems as if that isn’t happening. Due to the lack of picks and expiring contracts, I think GM Neil Olshey will be hesitant to make a player for player moves unless someone on the he can move someone (*coughwesleymatthewscough*) who is already over-performing to a desperate team. If McCollum comes back and shows promise, would a godfather offer of Ray Allen, Michael Beasley and picks be enough to draw Matthews to Miami? Probably not, especially since I seem to be the only person who is down on Wes and he might be Portland’s best perimeter defender.
There really isn’t that one hole that Portland needs to fill, nor is there an available asset that would fit well with the team. But if this front office has shown us anything this last year and a half it’s that they know how to find the bargains and they know how to pull the trigger. Whether they do this by helping a team clear cap space or filling in as the third or fourth team to make a bigger deal work, the bargain asset the Blazers have to pull is a mid-second round pick. This is shaping up to be a historically good draft at the top, but as in any year, there are going to be the hot prospects that fail to live up to expectation due to a bad fit or being slow to adapt to the college game. The Harrison brothers are having a slow start and have fallen from possible lottery picks to being mocked in the mid-20’s (Andrew, the point guard) and second round (Aaron, the shooting guard). A disappointing showing in the tournament could push both to the second round and both would create interesting mismatches with their physicality and playmaking ability. CJ Fair has potential to be a usable three-and-d wing and is a good enough passer to be effective immediately in the Blazers offense. Also projecting in the second round are Channing Frye clone Isaiah Austin, the always frustratingly intriguing James McAdoo and your token overseas guys who might not be awful, any of which are worth the trade market value of a measly second rounder.
If… they lose in Oklahoma City, they’ll probably lose some of their confidence and the bench will show cracks leading to five or seven losses.
If… the injury bug catches up to them, the bench will give way and we'll wonder where the heck Nolan Smith came from.
If… the Blazers stay healthy and beats OKC then all bets are off until football comes to a close and the second half of the season starts with another big game in… you guessed it: Oklahoma City.