The first week of the NBA season is in the books, and the Portland Trail Blazers were big winners in Week 1.
Any win is a good win, as the tired old saw goes. Two early wins over Western Conference foes, foes that are still integrating major new pieces (the Los Angeles Lakers with LeBron James, the San Antonio Spurs with DeMar DeRozan), are especially good wins. With the West looking to be as closely contested as ever, getting a couple cheap victories simply because of continuity and youthful energy could be very significant in five months’ time.
I’m not especially interested in wins and losses at this point, though. I’m looking at the players themselves, both the new arrivals and the old hands, to see if they improved on anything over the summer or see what they are bringing to the team. Two games aren’t enough time to make any judgments about a player one way or the other—20 games aren’t enough, honestly—but there have already been some significant changes to Portland’s modus operandi.
These changes have influenced the bench for the most part, and three players in particular have so far rewarded the trust that Blazers coach Terry Stott has placed in them. Evan Turner, Zach Collins, and Nik Stauskas (the Great Sauce Castillo) have been very early standouts on that Blazers bench, which was one of the worst in the NBA last season.
Portland has historically had deep benches; from the time of Bill Walton to the days of Brandon Roy, the Blazers have gone at least nine deep in quality rotation players (though not always quality people; thanks, Trader Bob). Last season’s bench was an embarrassment compared to the second units of Blazers past. While Shabazz Napier, Ed Davis, late-season Collins and healthy Mo Harkless were occasional exceptions, the Portland reserves generally were as effective on an NBA court as a eunuch in a bordello. Napier’s effectiveness came and went, while Collins was a rookie and Harkless was in Stotts’ doghouse.
Turner moving to the second unit, and not having to play with either Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum, has freed him to be the initiator of the offense. While he sometimes does call his own number—posting up Lonzo Ball was a clever idea, given that young guards like Ball haven’t ever played post defense before arriving in the NBA—he acts as the helmsman for the reserves.
Whether it’s finding a rolling Collins at the rim, finding a shooter amid a scrambling defense, or being a somewhat viable option when the shot clock is nearing zero, Turner has finally found his happy place in Portland. Hopefully Stotts can resist putting him back in the starting lineup, no matter how many times Jake Layman gets dusted by an actual NBA small forward.
Stauskas gave us all reasons to spam #SauceCastillo on Twitter during Opening Night with a scintillating display of shooting that got them back into the game versus the Lakers, then eventually broke it open. Against the Spurs, we got a sobering reminder of why the Sauce was passed around like a piece of fruitcake among the league’s teams, then left to gather dust on their benches like that bottle of rice wine vinegar you bought to cook that one dish for your girlfriend five years ago.
The book on Stauskas has been to make him beat you off the dribble, and against NBA competition, he hasn’t ever been able to do that. The mere threat of a Sauce explosion, however, should be enough to make him a part of the Blazers’ rotation if his defense doesn’t veer from “bad” to “cover your kids’ eyes.”
Defense has been the focal point for Collins the last two games. Looking spry, active, and bouncy, the second-year big man from Gonzaga has shown an aptitude for protecting the rim, making himself available near his own basket at offense, and being a 7-foot pest at all times. It also looks like he’s crammed on some film; the boneheaded fouls that plagued him during his rookie year, and at Gonzaga, haven’t shown up in the two games he’s played.
Those fouls might return. You can’t be as active—and as big—as Collins is without some contact happening. But against the Lakers and Spurs, Collins closed out the games instead of the slower, more offensively-inclined Jusuf Nurkic. The Blazers’ defense was good with Nurk doing the Robin Lopez in the middle, but if Collins can give Stotts this kind of effort consistently, Zach closing out games could be an every-night thing—and might make Nurkic trade bait on that cheapo contract down the line.
Again: This is only two games in. The Stauskas we saw on Saturday is more representative of the player he is than the Laker-killing, ghost pepper sauce-spitting devil of Thursday. Collins is only 20, and big men need more time than that to learn truly elite defense; he’s merely picked on the anachronistic attack of L.A. and the slowpoke Spurs.
But I do have faith that Turner, who gets all kinds of crap from Blazer fans—myself included—can succeed in his role, and Collins’ potential and talent will win out eventually, if Stotts is patient enough to let the young fella learn through his mistakes. If the Blazers’ bench can be an asset instead of dead weight attached to Lillard’s ankles, Rip City might see more playoff basketball this season.
(All games available on 620 Rip City Radio.)
Monday, Oct. 22nd: vs. the Washington Wizards, 7:00 PM, NBCSNW
The Skinny: The Wiz are a team teetering on a precipice, according to folks more familiar with the team than I. I have no reason to doubt them; even though the antagonizing Marcin Gortat is out of town, the Wizards still employ Dwight Howard, Locker-Room Cancer.
Howard hasn’t been playing much lately, though. He said he was experiencing back pain, but the Wizards eventually discovered that the source of his pain was a tightness of his posterior muscles. He hasn’t been able to play because he’s got a pain in his ass. My editor almost died from the irony; Howard’s been a pain in everyone else’s asses for years.
Anyway, despite John Wall and Bradley Beal playing like All-Stars, with Otto Porter, Jr. flanking them, the Wiz dropped two heartbreakers to the Miami Heat and Toronto Raptors. The Raptors, in particular, have come out of the corner swinging, and Washington just got in the way.
So naturally, the schedule gods make their first road game in the farthest flung of all NBA locales, Portland. They shouldn’t feel bad, though; the Blazers get to do the very same thing right after this game.
Matchup to Watch: Bradley Beal vs. CJ McCollum. Beal is a sweet-shooting wing who made his first All-Star team last year, expanding his game in the process. He can run the offense, execute a pick-and-roll, drive and kick, and take advantage of screens to worm his way to his preferred spots on the floor.
It’s fair to say that if McCollum and Beal switched places, CJ would be the All-Star and Beal would be the one in Lillard’s shadow; he’s spent his whole career in Wall’s shadow, and reportedly resents it. Lillard is a sure bet to match or exceed Wall’s production. McCollum needs to win his matchup with Beal, and stick to him as best he can on defense; it would suck if Al-Farouq Aminu or Mo Harkless had to switch to Beal, since Porter and Kelly Oubre are much bigger than McCollum.
Prediction: Blazers close out their initial homestand of 2918-19 with a win.
Thursday, Oct.25: @ the Orlando Magic, 4:00 PM, NBCSNW
The Skinny: Their game on Saturday against the Philadelphia 76ers might be a single-game example of the Magic’s season to come: a tough fight against a more talented/experienced team, with big games from Nikola Vucevic (a triple-double with 27-13-12), Evan Fournier (27 points, 6-10 3PT), or Aaron Gordon (20-12), some play from the kiddos Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba (Bamba had three blocks, but was a -25 for the game), and a loss to a team further along in their development.
Vucevic is on an expiring contract. He’s a very solid center who’s languished in Orlando along with Gordon and Fournier; Steve Clifford is their fifth coach in as many seasons, and Clifford’s slowpoke approach to the game (the Magic are 25th in pace in three games) might clash with a roster filled with freak athletes more suited to a run-and-gun kind of offense, where discipline and skill isn’t as essential.
Vooch and Gordon are good, and Gordon might be an All-Star eventually, but Isaac and Bamba are the future. It’ll be interesting to see how they’ll look once Vucevic leaves. For now, they’ll have to make do with what they have, again. And lose 50+ games, again.
Matchup to Watch: Nikola Vucevic vs. Jusuf Nurkic. Two mammoth European centers, I’m amusing myself by imagining them mauling each other under the basket over the ball like two polar bears brawling over a dead seal.
I imagine Nurkic plays more minutes in this game; Vooch is as slow as he is, and Clifford needs the big Swiss-born center in the game to have the best shot at beating the Blazers.
Prediction: Lillard explodes for 40, canceling out big games from two of the Magic’s three leaders. Portland picks up their first road win of the season.
Saturday, Oct. 27: @ the Miami Heat, 5:00 PM, NBCSNW
The Skinny: After dropping out of the Jimmy Butler “sweepstakes,” the Heat have gone back to the existence they’ve trapped themselves in for the last three years: fielding a roster of grinders and sub-star talents, praying Hassan Whiteside the man-child doesn’t throw a tantrum, and eternally waiting for Justice Winslow to do more than play good defense and brick jumpers.
This is Dwyane Wade’s final year in the NBA, as well. Kind of inauspicious for a three-time NBA champion, one of the five best shooting guards of all time, and a Miami icon to go out on a team like this, but we often don’t get to choose our ends in this life. Even if we happen to be multi-millionaire athletes.
As for the Heat at large, they will scratch, claw, bite, kick, and gouge their way through games; each of their three games so far have been decided by three points or less, the last two by a single point. They will make it close, boring, and painful to watch. They don’t have the talent to win pretty.
Matchup to Watch: Hassan Whiteside vs. the Blazers centers. I think Collins will get most of the run in this game, though Nurkic will start. Nurk plays closer to the basket, which does play into Whiteside’s strengths—one thing to watch is for the Bosnian to try to fake Whiteside into the air before going up toward the basket.
The Heat center only knows how to block shots, usually out of bounds. We call that the Dwight Howard Special, and it is a stupid basketball play; if you can swat it that far, sock that puppy to half court! Free two points for any guard who can chase the ball down! I’m not surprised that Whiteside hasn’t learned his fundamentals, however; he seems like an airheaded dumbass—Howard without the corny jokes and random farts.
Getting fouls on Whiteside is a good way to frustrate him, and a frustrated Whiteside will help the Blazers more than the Heat.
Prediction: Despite picking on Whiteside, Lillard, McCollum and Harkless party too long on South Beach the night before the game. Miami wins by double digits, and Dame battles a hangover.
Blazers Record: 2-0
Jared’s Picks Record: 1-1