Hello and welcome to this week’s Portland Trail Blazers Weekly Preview, wherever you may be. Due to time constraints and illness, I’m just gonna jump right into it this week.
All games are available on AM 620 Rip City Radio.
Tuesday, Dec. 11: @ the Houston Rockets, 5:00 PM, NBA TV, NBCSNW, Blazers Pass
The Skinny: When last we saw the Rockets, they were mired in a pool of suck so deep, it would take them the whole season to lever themselves out of it. Twenty-five games in, Houston is head and shoulders out, but they’re still levering. In fact, they cut some dead weight that was dragging them down (COUGH Melo COUGH), and were starting to pull themselves up to waist-height from the bog, but a three-game losing streak knocked them back below .500, down to 14th in the West (at 11-14…the West is insane), and now they’re clinging onto a branch just to stay at armpit-level in their Pool O’ Suck.
James Harden has great traditional and advanced stats, but he’s below 10 free throws per game and his 8.3 assists per is somewhat negated by his putrid six turnovers a contest. Clint Capela is shooting 65 percent, but even though he’s averaging a very good 17-12, the Rockets aren’t constructed in a fashion that lets their rim-running, defense-first center be second on the squad in scoring. Chris Paul has been banged up and ineffective at scoring, and he’s probably seething every time Harden isolates and dribbles the ball off his foot, leads Capela too far to the rim, or makes a lazy pass.
The problems extend far beyond the big-money guys, as well. The Rockets are next to last in the NBA in defensive rating and they had to entice retired assistant coach and defensive guru Jeff Bzdelik to un-retire and try to fix their broken defense. Eric Gordon is shooting nine 3s a game and making a mere 31 percent of them. Gerald Green plays 17 minutes a game and is shooting 30 percent from three while playing D+ defense. Some guy named Gary Clark is playing 17 MPG for Houston and shooting 29 percent from the field(!). Their bargain-bin replacements for the departed glue guys have been hurt or ineffective. And any team that gives Michael Carter-Williams run is just asking to get stomped by 40.
The Rockets still have time to get themselves together; they still have the reigning MVP in Harden, even if his stats this season are less meaty MVP-caliber numbers and more like Rice Krispies Treats. They’ll make the playoffs thanks to their powerful offense and any moves they make before the trade deadline (and Daryl Morey will make some moves).
Their defense may well torpedo their run before it really begins, but we’ll get to that when the time comes. It doesn’t do to think about how fast you can run when you’re chest-deep in a peat bog.
Matchup to Watch: Clint Capela vs. Jusuf Nurkic. Despite Capela having a substantial athleticism advantage over the Bosnian Bear, these two play similar styles: rim-running, screen-setting, rebound-vacuuming big men with a nasty streak.
Whoever is better at leveraging his advantages over his opponent—Capela with his speed and leaping ability, Nurkic with his skill and outside shooting—will play a major factor in this game.
Prediction: Houston gets off the schneid as Harden drops a 50-burger.
Wednesday, Dec. 12: @ the Memphis Grizzlies, 5:00 PM, NBCSNW
The Skinny: As the Rockets have fallen from grace at the start of this season, Memphis has risen from the ashes of a lost season. Like a phoenix, point guard Mike Conley has returned from his injuries as good as ever—and that’s only one piece of good fortune for the Grizz.
Their tentpole center, Marc Gasol, has been revitalized. With the return of his good buddy Conley to the court, the departure of coach David Fizdale (who’s currently redefining the term “try-hard” in New York) and the drafting of rookie power forward Jaren Jackson, Jr., Big Spain is producing like a high-caliber big man. At age 34, the three-time All-Star is as good as he ever has been in some areas; his rebounding is at its highest since his second year in the league, and he’s shooting an even 40% from three-point range—on 4.4 attempts per game.
Conley, like Gasol, is also enjoying a near-career year. Despite his poor shooting from the promised land (34 percent), Conley is the Grizzlies’ leading scorer, using a crafty style and a beautiful floater (47 percent on shots from 10 to 16 feet from the basket) to average 20 PPG for just the second time in his career. Stats have never been the defining aspect of his career, however.
While a stat line of 20-3-6.5 is nothing to sneeze at—even in the point guard-saturated modern NBA—it’s Conley’s steadying hand and influence that Memphis missed so badly during their 22-win campaign a year ago. Those intangibles led the Grizz to offer what was at the time one of the richest contracts in NBA history to a frail point guard who never made an All-NBA or All-Star team, only made one All-Defensive team despite Memphis’ reputation for stifling defense, and currently has a 0.2 percent chance of making the Hall of Fame. That’s how much this guy means to Memphis, the basketball team and the city.
Jackson, the teenager from Michigan State, is quickly establishing himself as an impact NBA player and a foundational talent for the Grizz. With absurdly long arms, a high motor, and a penchant for being in the right place at all times, Triple J is a key part of the sixth-best defense in the Association, and is even the Grizzlies’ third-leading scorer—and their field-goal percentage leader. He also leads the team in blocks, and is ninth overall in the entire NBA.
He still fouls people at a rate that would make Zach Collins blush, but you’d rather have a kid be overaggressive and learn his limits after, then have a kid be overly passive and have to constantly fire him up. Collins is learning his limits, as is Jackson.
Jackson is impressing this season, but his true value is this: he represents a path forward after Gasol and Conley retire. Much like Luka Doncic in Dallas, Jackson is being groomed to take over from the current franchise icons when his time comes. For now, I’m sure he’s enjoying winning; the Grizz are already seven wins away from tying last season’s wins total…in December.
Matchup to Watch: Mike Conley vs Damian Lillard. Lillard has had plenty of struggles against the Grind before, especially in the Grindhouse. Conley might not have the accolades of his larger teammates on defense, but he is still a pest who’s as persistent and annoying as a scrotal itch. He’s never had to deal with Apex Lillard, however, and Mike now has a squeaky wheel, and is on the wrong side of 30.
Getcha popcorn ready.
Prediction: I’m feeling pessimistic about Blazer road games nowadays. Portland loses.
Friday, Dec. 14: vs. the Toronto Raptors, 7:00 PM, NBCSNW
The Skinny: Even after a recent two-game losing streak, Toronto has been the model of dominance so far this season. A stellar offense, a stifling defense, a true superstar in Kawhi Leonard, several diamonds unearthed from the rough of the draft by team president Masai Ujiri, Kyle Lowry averaging a double-double in points and assists, and a manic fan base desperate for the franchise’s first-ever Finals berth are the ingredients of the most compelling storyline in all of basketball. Unless you’re ESPN and just want to have Brian Windhorst sort through LeBron’s garbage for something he can turn into a story.
I applaud Ujiri’s testicular fortitude to trade DeMar DeRozan, a franchise icon, for a guy in Leonard who is a substantial risk, equal to his prodigious talent. Not only did Leonard have his mysterious injury issues last season—and poisoned his relationship with San Antonio in the process, a revered franchise in professional sports—but the Klaw is also in the last year of his contract. He’s also a Southern California boy…and there are two teams in Los Angeles that will have the proverbial boatload of money to dump in his lap this summer.
Whether Leonard leaves or stays, Ujiri and the Drakes are going all-in on this season. This is the kind of move that turns a talented executive into a legend, and if Toronto bucks all the odds, shuts the doors on the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty, and brings the Larry O’Brien Trophy north of the border, everyone associated with the Raptors will be national heroes in Canada for the rest of their lives.
It could happen—as long as Leonard is healthy. We are talking about a man who shut down Prime LeBron James, after all.
Matchup to Watch: Jonas Valanciunas vs. Jusuf Nurkic. Toronto has either Valanciunas or Pascal Siakam at center, depending on the matchup. With the beefier, slower Nurk manning the middle for the Blazers, I’d expect Valanciunas to start.
Platooning with Siakam hasn’t harmed the Lithuanian in the numbers department; he’s setting career highs in PPG, field-goal percentage and free-throw percentage. Head Coach Nick Nurse is showing an aptitude for putting his guys in the best positions to succeed.
Prediction: Raptors wreck Blazers.
Trail Blazers’ Record Last Week: 2-1
Trail Blazers’ Record Overall: 15-11
Jared’s Picks Last Week: 1-2
Jared’s Picks Overall: 11-15 (woof)