Saturday’s the day. The Trail Blazers will be taking on the Dallas Mavericks for what will be the beginning of the team’s third straight appearance in the Playoffs. So, because it’s officially Playoff time, and because everybody else is doing it, I thought I would contribute a brief Playoff preview. I’ll leave the statistical breakdowns to those writers that are better equipped; this preview will be dedicated more to how I feel about the upcoming opening round series.
I’ll start it like this. The first year I lived in Portland, the Blazers lost in the first round of the Playoffs to the Dallas Mavericks. Some will remember that series; some won’t. The short recap; Portland lost three, then won three, then lost one. Immediately following the Mavericks’ victory, the Blazers began to dismantle what was left of the team that reached the Western Conference Finals in 2000 and 1999, and the following season failed to make the Playoffs for the first time in my lifetime.
The rebuilding process began with the hiring of Nate McMillan, and seemed to come completely to fruition with the Blazers claiming the four seed and home court advantage in the first round of the Playoffs following a 54-win season in 2008-09. We all know how that ended.
It’s seems like poetic justice, then, that Portland’s best chance for advancing past the first round in the last decade comes against the team that effectively dropped the final nail in the coffin of one of the most successful franchises in professional sports history. That’s just one reason why Portland’s series against Dallas is going to be huge.
Here’s another: the Blazers actually have a fighting chance, probably better than a fighting chance if you really think about it. Portland and Dallas split their regular season matchups, each team winning twice at home, with no single game decided by more than eight. The Blazers had the biggest win, at the Rose Garden on April 3rd, and have beaten the Mavericks twice in the last month.
Part of the Portland’s success against Dallas, and no small part of why some of the more out spoken Blazers were open about wanting to meet the Mavs in the first round, has to do with how well Portland matches up against this team. Neither team has a dominate center, Tyson Chandler may be more effective on offense than Marcus Camby, but he doesn’t light up the scoreboard, which helps mitigate the fact that the Blazers severely lack for size.
Portland also has three guys that they can throw at Dirk Nowitzki on defense, each giving the big German a different look. Nicolas Batum has the length to contest the jumper, Wesley Matthews has the athleticism to hawk Dirk around the perimeter, and Gerald Wallace is a combination of the two.
Beyond stopping Dirk, the Blazers and Mavericks both play the kind of guard game that is basically a push. Jason Kidd is an older version of Andre Miller, or Andre Miller is a younger version of Jason Kidd if you want to play it like that. JJ Barea is quick and can score, but isn’t the kind of slashing, score-first guard that makes Swiss cheese of Portland’s defense, exhibits A and B Steph Curry and Monta Ellis. The Maverick wing player that was hardest for the Blazers to stop in Portland’s two wins, one Rodrique Beaubois, might be sidelined for a while with a sprained foot.
So if guard play and front court scoring don’t favor one team over the other, LaMarcus Aldridge cancelling out Dirk Nowitzki, and Dallas not getting too much of a boost at center, this series might very well come down to bench play. And, believe it or not, this might be where Portland has an advantage. Nicolas Batum, Rudy Fernandez, and Brandon Roy have all had big games off the bench against Dallas at home. On top of that, the Mavericks bench isn’t all that deep. Jason Terry can still be a killer, although his game isn’t what it was a couple of seasons ago. With Beaubois out, DeShawn Stevenson is bumped into the starting five, taking one more scorer off the bench, Ian Mahinmi is a big body, Brain Cardinal is an old body, Peja Stojakovic is old. A consistent Blazer bench might be enough to pull the upset.
That’s my match-up breakdown, here’s my emotional breakdown. Part of why I think Portland can, and will, take this series boils down to this: these Blazers have more basketball left to play.
It’s been a tough season, the second one of those in a row, but in the last month or so the load seems to have lightened some. Portland has looked at its most consistent in the second half of the season, and on more than one occasion has been able to play the kind of basketball that includes taking it to some of the very best teams in the league. Since February, the Blazers have beaten the best team in the NBA, the Bulls; the second best team in the NBA, the Spurs, twice; two of the hottest teams in the West, Denver and Oklahoma City; and the likely favorite to win it all, the Los Angeles Lakers. You wouldn’t be wrong if you said that Portland is playing like a team that isn’t ready for this thing to be over just yet.
As for my prediction: Portland is peaking at just the right time, not counting bad loses to Golden State. Rudy Fernandez might be coming out of his extended shooting slump. LaMarcus Aldridge will be playing in front of home crowds both in Dallas and in Portland. And this team and its fan base are primed and ready to blow the roof off the Rose Garden. I can see Portland stealing one of the first two in the big D, maybe not Game One, but if not that then Game Two, and holding court at home.
Call me a homer if you want: Blazers in six.