Remember Black Friday. Two years ago the Blazers and Sonics were locked in a battle for the 6th worst record in the conference, and the day late in the regular season that they faced off was met with much horror and ruination. The Blazers won. Fans cried and cursed Zach Randolph. “You just couldn’t suck enough,” they said. It was a dark day that threatened to ruin the enlightening year of Sir Brandon Roy.
Today is like that day — the single regular season game that could affect everything more than any other losses or reason just because of how close the teams are in the standings — only the opposite. Call it Sunny Sunday? The Blazers currently sit in 4th place in the Western Conference, meaning they would have home-court advantage for the first round if the playoffs started today. I don’t need to tell you how important that is for a squad that is 31-7 at the Rose Garden. The problem is that the Rockets are lurking just a half-game back, ready to leapfrog Portland if they can just protect their house.
Oddly enough, the Phoenix Suns play at 3:30 ET today, and if they lose the Blazers clinch a playoff berth no matter what happens at 7 ET. Whether that would have any motivating factor, we can’t be sure, but LaMarcus Aldridge seems to be pretty good at using anything and everything to hulk out.
Game-wise, the Rockets pose a similar threat to the Utah Jazz with their size, toughness and rebounding. But since Greg Oden has come into form and Aldridge told the league that he was Godzilla and they were Japan, all three of those have become of less concerns than in the past year. But Yao can still shoot over everyone (Not worried about Joel, but there will be plenty of foul opportunities for Greg), Artest can knock you off your game (We need you, Batum) and Battier is one of the best defensive players in the game (Roy is going to need some help, fellas).
But you already knew most of that. At this point in the season, everyone has their reputations and their general weaknesses. Everyone thinks the Blazers are a bad road team, which they have been at times (17-20), but they are also one of the only squads actually taking their game to a new level (along with maybe the Magic). They have recently developed a sort of Hesitation Offense, where they push the ball at every opportunity, probe the defense, pull back if it’s set, probe once more, and then get into the offense if there aren’t any easy buckets to go for. Like a drive with a hesitation move, it could end in a layup or dunk, but it’s going to make the defense react.
This isn’t going to be another 20-point blowout, but we haven’t seen this rejuvenated group play a good team on the road yet (@Cleveland was just before they turned the corner) so I’m throwing my previous expectations out the window. This is the game where we see a hint of what the Blazers might offer in a grinding playoff series.
As sort of an aside, I’ll remind you that this game is hardly the end-all. The Spurs (only a game ahead of Portland) are currently losing to the Cavs, so Portland’s matchup with them on Wednesday could end up having the same ramifications as today. We don’t want to have to deal with that. When you get chances to give yourself a home-court cushion, you take them.
I’m just as excited as all of you to see what the Blazers serve up tonight.