Portland Trail Blazers Week Preview – Munching On Some Cupcakes Later In The Week

As the Portland Trail Blazers continue their march up the Western Conference standings, they’re facing some exotic defenses, getting some unlikely contributions, taking prodigious care of the ball, and are trying to teach their young big man the virtues of meditation.

The close loss at Sacramento does sting, but the Blazers took care of business in their other games. The Cleveland Cavaliers offered no resistance, on any level; in fact, they were so defenseless against Portland, the teams set the NBA record for fewest combined turnovers in a regular-season game. It’s not like the Cavs or Blazers took special care of the ball that night, either.

Players commit turnovers because of bad decisions, sloppy ball-handling, or plain human error. The lack of aggressiveness from Cleveland, and the lack of need for the Blazers to push the envelope, led to history being made. It’s less of a great exhibition of care with possessions and more about the Cavs’ limp noodle status. Tire fire indeed.

The Blazers carried over their good fortune with turnovers into the game against the New Orleans Pelicans, who went back to that hyper-aggressive trapping defense they used in the playoffs. To use a playoff-level tactic in some random NBA game in January shows a certain level of desperation, but it also could have been effective…on last year’s team. Jusuf Nurkic made passes, Al-Farouq Aminu made shots, and the Pellies had to play straight-up on Portland—only to then be smoked and rolled by Our Guy, Jake Layman.

The trapping of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum worked partly because Nurk was having an inconsistent season last year, and mostly because Chief choked on his three-point shots. This time against New Orleans, the Blazers made their passes, made their shots, and kept a slight advantage on the scoreboard. Portland probably would have won this game simply following that formula, but instead they blew it open behind a barrage of awesomeness from Our Guy, Jake Layman.

Layman spent the second quarter of Friday’s game channeling all sorts of superhuman entities—Superman, Thor, Chuck Norris, Paul George, God—and used those powers to obliterate the Pellies, denying them any chance to come back into the game. The Moda Center buzzed with anticipation every time he touched the ball, sucked in a huge collective breath when he shot, then yelled their heads off when he swished another three. The bench for the Blazers was going nuts, Alvin Gentry was burning his timeouts, Our Guy was out there jamming on fools and hitting 360 threes—it was incredible, and it was the most fun I’ve had watching a Blazer game this season.

Of course, with any good time, there is an undercurrent of discontent, this time from Zach Collins and his frustration over fouls. After a fairly clean several weeks starting in December, Collins is back to his hack-happy ways. He’s had four or more fouls in six of his last seven games, fouling out against Chicago and Cleveland.

During the Chicago game, CJ McCollum tried to teach his big fella meditation, half-jokingly. He was mostly ribbing Collins, and it’s safe to say Zach was not amused.

After Collins fouled out against Cleveland, CJ continued his meditations and ribbing, and got a sweaty towel in his face for his trouble.

Namaste, Zach. Namaste.

All games can be heard on AM 620 Rip City Radio.

(Note: Because I didn’t take as careful a look at the schedule as I usually do, I failed to realize the Blazers were playing on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day—and that OSN usually takes national holidays like MLK Day off. As a result, I couldn’t get a preview up for that game, and I won’t count it in my prediction record. Apologies for any inconvenience.)

Tuesday, Jan. 22: @ the Oklahoma City Thunder, NBATV, NBCSNW/Blazers Pass

The Skinny: While the Thunder have ridden the stupendous play of Paul George and a stifling defense to the third spot in the West as of MLK Day, this season hasn’t focused on that. Instead of singing George’s praises, or highlighting the prowess of OKC’s defense (without human straitjacket Andre Roberson), pundits are instead focusing on the Curious Case of Russell Westbrook.

Westbrook is averaging 21.8 points, 10.6 rebounds, and a league-leading 10.5 assists per game; he’s averaging a triple-double for the third consecutive season. Now normally, this would lead to lots of MVP talk and discussions about Westbrook’s place in history as one of the most prolific stat-stuffers we’ve ever seen. Instead, we have articles come out that have Russ barely making the All-Star team this season, let alone in any MVP discussion. We have opinions about him that show disgust in him, and saying that triple-doubles don’t matter as much anymore—basically saying that Westbrook has cheapened the formerly difficult-to-achieve milestone.

Why all this negativity toward a guy who’s averaged a triple-double since Kevin Durant left town? Efficiency, my dear Watson. Or rather, the lack of it.

When Westbrook won the MVP in 2017, he led the league in scoring with 31.6 PPG—the only time in his career Russ has eclipsed the 30 PPG mark. That year, he shot 42 percent from the field but had career highs in three-point percentage (34%) and free-throw percentage (84%) while having a Usage Rate of nearly 42 percent.

The next season, his scoring dipped to 25.4 PPG and his Usage fell to 34 percent. His overall shooting went up to 45 percent, but his freebies and long balls started clanking; his True Shooting percentage, which considers all shots a player takes, fell by three percentage points. Westbrook fell to the All-NBA Second Team, supplanted by Damian Lillard.

This current season, Russ’ efficiency has plummeted to all-time lows; the only high-usage players more wasteful of their possessions than him were post-Achilles rupture Kobe Bryant and Old Michael Jordan—not the company you want to be keeping when you’re a 30-year-old in the prime of your career. Westbrook is shooting a putrid 24 percent from three on five attempts per game from beyond the arc. His free-throw shooting has cratered to a terrible 64 percent—there are plenty of big men who shoot a freebie better than a former MVP. While his Usage has further dipped to 31 percent, it’s still a superstar-level rate, and with the way he’s performed, it’s a wonder Oklahoma City is doing as well as they are with Russ consuming so many possessions.

It’s a sign of how far advanced stats have come—and of how much the media can polarize a player—that a man who’s literally doing things we’ve never seen before on a basketball court, a man who’s leading the entire NBA in assists and steals this season (something not done since John Stockton and Young Chris Paul), is on the bubble to make the damn All-Star Game.

Efficiency is being prized in a player like never before, and in Westbrook’s particular case, it’s become a noose that the likes of Zach Lowe, Bill Simmons, and Kevin O’Connor are wrapping around his neck.

As for me, I think Westbrook is maddeningly inconsistent this season, and that he’s lucky that my boy PG is there to pick up his slack on his bad days. I think he should make the All-Star team as a Wild Card this year, that it was crazy and petty that Lillard made the First Team All-NBA instead of him last year, and that he did deserve the MVP he won, no matter other people’s queasiness and buyer’s remorse involved in voting for a guy who led the sixth-best team in a conference. Russ is still being punished for being a ball hog, and probably always will be.

All I know is, there’s going to be some guy 50 years from now who look back on this era of ball and celebrate LeBron James’ greatness, the Warriors’ dominance, and the fact that Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double at least three straight years. I very much doubt Future Dude is gonna give a rat’s bubonic ass about James Harden’s Free-Throw Rate.

Matchup to Watch: Paul George vs. Jake Layman. Our Guy is going to have his hands full. Even if Mo Harkless is healthy for this game, I imagine Our Guy will play about 20 minutes of his helter-skelter style of ball—most of them opposite one of the finest two-way players in the NBA.

Prediction: OKC beats Portland, again.

Thursday, Jan. 24: @ the Phoenix Suns, 6:00 PM, NBCSNW

The Skinny: On Basketball-Reference.com, for every team page, they have a Game Result bar near the top with 82 slots. A green bar pointing upward denotes a victory, while a downward red bar represents a defeat. At 11-37, the Suns’ result bar has more scarlet dripping down it than a wall in a slasher flick.

The only Western Conference team to be utterly noncompetitive this season, Phoenix fired its general manager at the start of the season and gave Trevor Ariza a $15 million contract to basically serve as a trade chip. They also did Houston a solid by absorbing Ryan Anderson’s millstone of a contract, letting the Rockets re-sign Chris Paul without costing their new owner a small island’s worth of cash in luxury taxes (though given Paul’s injury issues in Year 1 of that new deal, I’m not so sure the Rockets came out ahead….).

Even though it’s very easy to pick on a Robert Sarver-owned franchise (and trust me, there’s so much low-hanging fruit on that tree, a blind toddler could pick one), there are plenty of positives for the Suns in the year 2019. Devin Booker has taken another step toward becoming the Next Harden, averaging seven assists to go with his 24.5 points per game. Booker needs to get better at creating space for his shot (32 percent from three on more than six attempts per game), and he and Deandre Ayton still need to polish their two-man game, but the shooting guard is making progress.

While Luka Doncic has captured the hearts and minds of NBA fans the world over, the Suns’ selection of Ayton at No. 1 in the 2018 Draft is looking defensible. Half of that is the fact that the Suns already have about 23 young wing players on their roster (and just traded for another one, Kelly Oubre), while the other half of the defense is the play of Ayton himself. Averaging a solid 16-10 while shooting almost 60 percent from the field and posting a PER of 21.5 will go a long way toward banishing daydreams of Luka in the Valley of the Sun. Ayton’s defense has marginally improved, too; he has gone from “helpless clod” to “typical young NBA big man” on D. Progress!

The supporting pieces for Phoenix still need work, besides T.J. Warren and Oubre. Josh Jackson and Dragan Bender are busts, the 33-year-old Ariza is averaging 34 minutes a game for a young rebuilding team, and it appears that the Suns are giving 18 minutes per to the ancient Jamal Crawford. The real kicker, though, is that in the Age of the Point Guard, Phoenix somehow doesn’t have a starting-caliber point on its roster.

There’s still a great deal of work to do for the Suns, and given Sarver’s ineptitude, I’m doubtful it ever gets done—unless both Booker and Ayton develop into top-15 NBA players, with one of them in the top 10.

Matchup to Watch: Devin Booker vs. Damian Lillard. Ayton did hurt his ankle a couple days ago; if he can’t go for this game, Booker will double down on shots and drives to make up the difference. While the actual act of defending Booker will fall to Aminu, Harkless, Layman, and Evan Turner, Lillard will have the job of matching Booker’s production. If he can go toe-to-toe with the young fireballer, the Blazers’ superior talent and skill should make the difference.

Prediction: Blazers fatten up on some spicy cupcakes.

Saturday, Jan. 26: vs. the Atlanta Hawks, 7:00 PM, NBCSNW

The Skinny: Here, we go from the team that made a defensible draft decision in Phoenix, to one that took a HUGE gamble in the Hawks. I’m referencing the Luka Doncic trade, which saw Atlanta trade the rights to Doncic for the rights to point guard Trae Young and a future Dallas first-round pick.

Doncic has been worth the ransom paid for him so far by the Mavericks; he’s put up stats that few rookies ever have, and he’s getting some All-Star buzz (even if him being third in fan voting is slightly absurd). As for Young, he’s has some struggles creating offense for a crappy Hawks squad, even though he’s averaging a little over seven assists a contest.

The most worrisome thing about Young this rookie season, though, is easily his shooting. Touted as a prolific sharpshooter from beyond the arc in college, Young has been nothing short of garbage in the Association. His 16 PPG is due to sheer volume of shots; he leads the Hawks in field-goal attempts and Usage Rate.

Here’s a table of Young’s shot attempts and shot types. You might want to take this opportunity to hide the kids:

Type of ShotFGMFGAFG%3PT%
Jump Shot4213731%32%
Pull-up Jump Shot2911924%26%
Stepback Jump Shot72133%14%
Floating Jump Shot153050%N/A

He has a decent floater, which he needs since his frame is slight and his athleticism is modest at best. The problem, however, is he was drafted to be a Steph Curry facsimile, fair or not. So far, with an overall three-point percentage of 29 percent, he hasn’t delivered. Not even close.

The reason I’m being so harsh is because Doncic looks like the second coming of Brandon Roy, and Roy was a borderline top-10 player in the NBA at his peak, right around the Jimmy Butler/Kyrie Irving range. Doncic could be up there someday, and those players are as rare as me finding a date.

For the Hawks’ science project to work out, Trae Young either has to develop into a better version of Irving or 85 percent of Steph Curry. If he fails to do so—and if the Hawks fail to draft star-level talent to pair with him—the Doncic-for-Young trade could join passing on Chris Paul in favor of Marvin Williams in the annals of recent Atlanta epic draft fails.

Forty-six games in, results are not great. I do think Young can become a solid point, given time. The Hawks, unfortunately, need him to be a better Damian Lillard.

Matchup to Watch: John Collins vs. Al-Farouq Aminu. At 21, the 6’10” Collins is averaging a double-double with 19 and 10. He leads the Hawks in scoring, and might be too fast for Jusuf Nurkic to keep up with.

Chief, eat them Wheaties.

Prediction: Portland slurps down some milk to wash down those spicy cakes from Phoenix.

Trail Blazers’ Record Last Week: 2-1

Trail Blazers’ Record Overall: 28-19

Jared’s Picks Last Week: 3-0

Jared’s Picks Overall: 27-20 (object in mirror closer than it appears)

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About Jared Wright 68 Articles
Jared Wright is a Portland Trail Blazers writer for Oregon Sports News, though he also writes about other stuff when the mood takes him. He also apparently enjoys talking about himself in the third person. He lives in Southeast Portland.