Trail Blazers Weekly Preview – Sabonis 2.0, Dirk’s Rip City Swan Song, Blake Of House Piston Invades

So, the serious, long-term stuff first: CJ McCollum is maybe going to be okay for the playoffs. That, and his health in general (meaning outside of basketball), is the important thing.

Against San Antonio on Saturday, the Portland Trail Blazers star guard injured the popliteus muscle in the left knee. In case you’re wondering just WTF is the popliteus muscle, Wikipedia has a non-medical, all-anatomical explanation you can peruse if you want. You can also search it on Google. But basically, it’s the muscle that is most responsible for your knees unlocking; it lets your knees move, which helps let you walk.

This is the first time I’ve ever heard of the popliteus before, but if you’re a medical professional or a skier, you would know much more than the layman (and Jake Layman). Why would skiers know about it? Apparently, the popliteus only gets hurt by impact, and skiing is pretty high-impact. McCollum hurt his popliteus because someone—Jakob Poeltl—stepped on his foot at a very strange angle. He strained the muscle, and is currently walking around with a limp.

The fact that CJ is walking is a good sign, but it’ll probably be awhile before he starts running again. The Blazers said he’ll be re-evaluated in a week, with rest and recuperation the likely treatment. That means he’ll miss these upcoming games—though Indiana, Dallas, and Detroit aren’t a murderer’s row of teams to play. Portland is currently eight games ahead of Sacramento with 13 left to play; the Blazers are going to make it to the postseason, barring the kind of epic pratfall that would be at once amazing and horrifying to watch.

As long as the Blazers avoid the Golden State Warriors and finish better than eighth (beating the Clippers helped tremendously with that), their prospects for the postseason remain as good as they will ever get.

The focus right now is making sure the lesser half of their stud backcourt is coming along for the ride.

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

Monday, March 18: vs. the Indiana Pacers, 7:30 PM, ESPN and NBCSNW

The Skinny: I wonder how many times the ESPN crew is going to say the Blazers are going to fall to eighth without McCollum? My bet is going to be somewhere between 69 and 420.

The Pacers aren’t having the best of times currently. Nate McMillian’s boys are scrapping for home-court advantage, up a game on Boston for fourth in the East, but they’ve gone a mere .500 since the All-Star break and haven’t been able to separate themselves from the splintering Celtics.

Frankly, I find it less impressive that Indy has stayed in the home-court race without their star, Victor Oladipo, than it would usually be. Their competition is the aforementioned Celtics, who can’t stop fighting each other, and the East’s underbelly, which features a resurgent Blake Griffin, the callow Brooklyn Nets, and a heaping pile of meh jousting for the right to be squished between the Bucks’ hooves like a bar of used-up soap in the shower.

The Pacers’ upcoming stretch of games is brutal, as well. After their game here, they play the Los Angeles Clippers the next night, then they’re at the Warriors, hosting the Denver Nuggets, at Oklahoma City, and at Boston for a huge game. I’d be surprised if Indiana gets out of this still in fourth, though the Blazers not having McCollum is a boon for them. Indy has defied the odds before, but even the toughest stone cracks, the strongest steel bends, and the most stubborn people break.

Matchup to Watch: Darren Collison vs. Damian Lillard. With McCollum out and the team needing a spark after a deflating loss to San Antonio, look for Lillard to be very assertive, to the point of over-aggression. He can’t afford to go full throttle for all four quarters—and he’s not wired that way to begin with—but I get the feeling that he’s going to have a Dame Time kind of night.

Prediction: I’ll go with the hometown Blazers here.

Wednesday, March 20: vs. the Dallas Mavericks, 7:00 PM, NBCSNW

The Skinny: The future of the Mavs is set, for now. You have the young superstar, presumptive Rookie of the Year Luka Doncic (who’s been going through some bone bruises as the rookie wall is being hit), the big home-run swing in Kristaps Porzingis (whose talent is as undeniable as his injury history), and a blank slate coming up in 2020.

Today, I want to talk about the past of the Mavericks, though. I want to talk about one of my favorite players ever, Dirk Nowitzki.

The big German came into the league as a stereotypical Euro guy of that era: a little soft, a little skinny, a little disinclined to bang with the bigs in the post, and very white. Back at the turn of the millennium, the way centers and power forwards played was this: The better player of the two would camp out on the post and get fed the ball from the perimeter, while the other guy would fight for rebounds, box out, defend the other team’s big post threat, and do all the dirty work.

Kevin Garnett was another stereotype-buster, in similar and different ways, but since Dirk was the foreigner, he was singled out as the perimeter-oriented big man, the oddity, the guy who could never win a title. He was called too tall to be a power forward and too skinny to be a center, but that didn’t stop him from draining 20-footers with that trademark fadeaway, the most unblockable shot since Kareem’s skyhook, and splashing threes when the Splash Brothers were kids.

Even though he was well on his way to over 30,000 points and 10,000 rebounds (only Dirk, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Karl Malone have done that), an MVP award in 2007, and establishing himself as the best European player to ever play in the NBA, Nowitzki was missing a championship. The one black mark on his resume was a tendency to collapse in the postseason—the year he won the MVP was also the year the We Believe Warriors defeated the 1-seed Mavericks, the only first overall seed in NBA history to suffer the indignity of losing a best-of-seven series to an eighth seed. Couple that with his team’s collapse in the NBA Finals the previous year against Miami, and the reputation and career of Dirk seemed like it was set in stone. Regular-season superstar, postseason choke artist; soft, soft, soft.

Those same words were being uttered in Portland in 2011, after the Brandon Roy Game, when the icon that ushered the team out of the dark Jail Blazer days rose from the ashes to bury the Mavericks in Game 4 and send the series tied back to Dallas with the momentum squarely in Portland’s favor. The Old Dirk would have folded under the pressure. The Old Dirk would have said, “Not again.” The Old Dirk would have tucked his tail, turned around, and moped toward another offseason of what-ifs.

Unfortunately for the Blazers, what they saw when tip-off happened in Game 5 was not The Old Dirk. What they saw was a Goddamned fire-breathing dragon, scorching nets, defenses, and all the baggage and blame that was then associated with the name Dirk Nowitzki. From that Game 5 against Portland to Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the Mavericks went 10-1, crushing Portland in Games 5 and 6, sweeping the defending champion L.A. Lakers (who still haven’t gotten back into contention), brushing aside the callow Thunder like leaves, and with Nowitzki averaging 28 points a game on 46% shooting from three (!!!).

After the Mavs won the title, and Dirk was shaking hands with Bill Russell after receiving the Finals MVP, it was clear that he had to be re-evaluated. As the stats piled up, and his 2011 postseason passed into legend, Nowitzki took his place as not just the best Euro of all time, but one of the best players period.

Nowitzki is 40 years old now, and his body, for years slowing down to a crawl, has now all but given up on him. It takes him five hours of prep to play five minutes of basketball, but the pure joy he gets from being a part of a team, playing HORSE (albeit very woodenly), mentoring Doncic, is something that anyone can appreciate.

This game will be his last in Portland, the place where he suffered what could have been the last nail in his championship coffin, only to find the motivation he needed to shed those labels placed on him, and take his place amongst the greats.

He only needs one last three-pointer to pass Chamberlain for sixth all-time on the scoring list. It would be awesome if he got it in Portland. I’ll miss watching him play, but the Blazers fan in me is glad to see him on his way out…and pissed that he’s passed his Blazer-killing secrets on to Luka Doncic.

Prediction: Portland wins as Doncic is banged-up, and Dirk walks onto the court to an ovation, and makes a garbage-time three to raucous cheers.

Saturday, March 23: vs. the Detroit Pistons, 7:00 PM, NBA TV and NBCSNW

The Skinny: I bet ESPN wishes they had the option to delegate NBA games to a secondary channel; Indiana-Portland is not the kind of matchup the asshats in the Northeast like. Detroit-Portland is hardly sexier, but at least you got Damian Lillard vs. Blake Griffin.

Griffin has revived his basketball career in the Motor City (even if his comedy career has stalled out away from the capital of showbiz, LA), and revived the Pistons’ playoff prospects as well. Detroit is sixth in the East, a game ahead of the Nets and currently matched up against the Philadelphia 76ers in the 3-6 bracket, mostly thanks to Griffin. Andre Drummond deserves some credit as a rebound vacuum, and Dwane Casey has proved to be a very good coach despite being the thing that held Toronto back (the Pistons have swept their season series with the Raptors, for what it’s worth), but Griffin’s return to All-Star status has made the difference.

Averaging career-highs in points, three-point shooting and True Shooting Percentage while serving as the fulcrum of an NBA offense by himself for the first time, Griffin has put himself back onto the Hall of Fame track—just in time for the capped-out Pistons to waste his prime by not being able to give him help besides Drummond. Compounding matters is Griffin’s own massive contract, and his inherent untradability (despite the Clippers trading him in the first place, but Stan Van Gundy was clearly in No F**ks Given Mode by then). Though the newly-minted 30-something (he turned 30 on Saturday) is currently finishing a very productive and redemptive Year Two, there are three years left with a $39 million player option for Year Five that a 33-year-old Griffin will surely pick up. The Pistons are stuck with this team; sixth in the weaker conference may be the best this team will ever do.

That’s no reason why Griffin shouldn’t keep playing his very best, though. His legacy is at stake, and who knows—some team may want to ditch a toxic long-term contract and take on Griffin a couple years from now, and pay Detroit handsomely in draft picks for the trouble. A contract would have to be REALLY awful (like, John Wall-level awful) to consider an injury-prone 4 in his 30s making $36 million cap relief, but odder things have happened. Like Blake Griffin reviving his career in basketball purgatory.

Matchup to Watch: Blake Griffin vs. Al-Farouq Aminu. Jusuf Nurkic will be busy with Drummond, meaning that poor Chief gets a burly All-Star with few holes in his game as a cover. This might be a game where Zach Collins gets major run, particularly if Enes “Dead Weight” Kanter can’t box out Drummond.

(Kanter has been a minus in every game as a Blazer, except against Phoenix {which is an awful team} and New Orleans, where he was a neutral 0. Even his good games are dragging Portland down, and his bad games are reallllly bad. I wish Terry Stotts could play Collins more.)

Prediction: Pistons ride the Griffin into the open skies of victory, leaving the Blazers in the dry muck of defeat.

Trail Blazers’ Record Last Week: 2-1

Trail Blazers’ Record Overall: 42-27

Jared’s Picks Last Week: 2-1

Jared’s Picks Overall: 42-26

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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.