Something that has been floating around out there in the NBA blog ether the last few days is this popular phrase/professional opinion: “People are sleeping on the Blazers.” I agree, and not just because I’m a fan of the team, a local Portland resident, and an Oregonian for life. I agree because I do think that some people are forgetting just exactly what it is the Blazers are capable of doing this season.
Tuesday night was a prime example of what makes this team so dangerous. As a group, they shot 45% from the field and 17% from three, and they still managed a 22-point victory, beating the Sacramento Kings and moving to 2-0 on the season. OK, so the Kings aren’t the greatest team in the world, but they do have some weapons. What Portland was able to do was neutralize those weapons with outstanding second half defense, and what they were also able to do was turn that defense into easy and frequent scores on the other end.
Oh yeah, and the Blazers have Gerald Wallace, in case you forgot. Crash came to Portland late last season, and in 23 games he produced plenty of great moments. This season, in two games he has already showed why he just might have been one of the franchise’s best pickups ever. Wallace is absolutely everywhere. And he does absolutely everything. The best example of the type of game Gerald had Tuesday game with 4:44 remaining in the evening, and the Blazers putting the final nails in the Kings.
The play began with Tyreke Evans–who had an abysmal second half–taking on two defenders at the top of the arc. He split these two defenders, and made a hard move towards the rim. From the weak side, Wallace, who had been laying in wait watching the drive develop, rose up and blocked Evans’ lay-up attempt at its highest point with the tips of his fingers, collecting the ball on his way down and starting a one-way fast break. A few steps beyond the half court line, Wallace rifled a one-handed bounce pass across the court to a streaking Nicolas Batum who finished the play, and the Kings, with an easy lay-up (a lay-up which to be fair should have been an and-one). The official stat book has that sequence down like so: Wallace Block, Wallace Rebound, Batum Lay-up (Wallace Assist). If that’s not filling up the stat sheet, I don’t know what is.
Gerald finished with 25 points to lead all scorers, and on a night when Portland’s guards were less than stellar with their jumpers, his 8-for-11 from the field game the Blazers the scoring efficiency that they desperately needed. Let me spend just another minute on Gerald before moving on to some other parts of Tuesday’s win that impressed me. Wallace is known around the league for being a scrappy player who gets his through hustle and toughness. But one thing that doesn’t seem to get mentioned all that much is his offensive capabilities. Tuesday Crash showed a number of weapons. He is almost impossible for small forwards to guard when backing down, and power forwards have almost no way of staying in front of him when he faces up and attacks the hoop. Add to that his ability to cover the court faster than should be possible, and Gerald Wallace is probably Portland’s most potent offensive weapon. Yes the team belongs to LaMarcus Aldridge, but Gerald Wallace is going to play a big part in most, if not all, of the Blazers’ big wins in 2011-12, and not just by getting blocks and rebounds.
Speaking of LaMarcus, he had himself a nice little ball game too. A quiet 24 points, done in the way that we should hopefully be able to expect from him all year. LaMarcus was able to combine both some low post play and some pick and pop, and managed to out play every big Sacramento threw at him. One big change in LA’s game last year was his commitment to catching the ball lower in the post. When he doesn’t have to take two or three hard dribbles to get within soft-hook range, he is incredibly hard to defend. When he has his low post game going and then switches to his mid-range or long-range jumper. and that’s going too, he is one of the best offensive players around. Tuesday he was still working out some of the kinks, but towards the end of the evening he was stepping out to hit jumpers that looked classic LA smooth. That’s a good sign.
Tuesday wasn’t all golden, of course. Outside of 15 from Batum no other Blazer reached double figures in scoring. Jamal Crawford is still working to find his shot, as is Wesley Matthews. The team missed too many free throws, and turned the ball over too many times throwing into the post. But Tuesday Portland did enough right to make up for anything they did wrong. And like I said, the Blazers have Gerald Wallace.
A 2-0 start is great, the best the team could hope for, but there are still a lot of things that need to be worked out. The rotation seems to be basically set. Seven guys logged 22 minutes or more, and those six are going to be Portland’s main players. With a roster as deep as the one Portland has, it is going to be on Nate McMillan to decide who best to play in what situation. Tuesday Nate closed the game with Wallace, Camby, Aldridge, Crawford, and Batum. It’s basically the same five that finished Monday’s game, and it will be that same group most nights. Wesley Matthews is the sixth guy in that group and Raymond Felton is the seventh. They are both interchangeable with at least two spots (Crawford and Batum) but could very easily take the place of anybody. For instance on Tuesday Batum came out at the 6:13 mark of the fourth quarter, being replaced by Marcus Camby. This group of seven is greater than the sum of its parts.
It’s a versatile bunch. And it’s that depth, specifically those six guys, that gives the Blazers a leg up on a lot of teams. It’s way to early to start polishing the Championship trophy after dispatching a team that might be best described as hapless. But there is some truth to the notion that teams in the NBA should overlook the Blazers only at their own risk. You sleep on this group of Blazers, and you’ll likely suffer the same fate as the Sacramento Kings.
Portland is back at the Rose Garden on Thursday to close out this home stand against Andre Miller, Rudy Fernandez, and the Nuggets minus a couple of guys that are stuck in China.
Just a couple of quick things:
- When working on my game preview I totally spaced that Travis Outlaw is now on the Kings. I was one of those Blazer fans that didn’t like Travis when he wasn’t good mostly because I wanted him to be good, then loved him when he was good and probably thought he was better than he actually was. Travis was picked up by Sacramento after being amnestied by the New Jersey Nets, and he seems like a shadow of Mr. Fourth Quarter. In 24 minutes Trout did very little. He missed all five of his field goal attempts, including two threes, managing only two points, both from the free throw line. Late in the third quarter Travis caught the ball on the wing without a Blazer in sight. In 08-09 he would have jacked up the shot without thinking twice. This time he passed to Jimmer Fredette, who also didn’t want to shoot and passed it back to Travis. Now with no other choice because of almost no time on the 24-second clock, Outlaw fired, and barely grazed the rim. It’s a little sad to see. But then I remember he stands to make $7 million this year, and I don’t feel too bad about it.
- Jimmer Fredette huh? He was interesting to watch. Following the game I had a brief chat with Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus about Jimmer and how he might fare now that he’s no longer running the show at BYU. Kevin said that he felt Jimmer’s biggest problem was that he can’t really defend–Nicolas Batum worked him all second half Tuesday–saying that a guy like JJ Reddick, with a similar style as a collegian, carved out a place for himself in the NBA by playing defense. If Jimmer wants to be a good pro he most definitely will have to learn to D up. Another thing that doesn’t bode well is that he has trouble creating for himself off the ball, and he has trouble creating for his teammates with the ball. He’s not an NBA point guard, and he doesn’t yet have the skills to be an effective NBA two. Luckily the Kings won’t be very good this year, so Jimmer will get a chance to play a lot, spending that time figuring out what kind of player he might actually be.
- Quick minutes watch. Everybody in the main rotation was basically even, with Crash and LA being the only two to creep into the 30-minute range. Here’s my minutes watch of the night: 17:35 from Kurt Thomas. This is great basically because it means more rest for both Camby and LA. Thomas is a very effective player, picking up three blocks and six points in his time out on Tuesday. If he can consistently knock down his mid range jumpers he should continue to get those minutes.
- Jamal Crawford struggled, ending his night 2-of-11 from the field 0-0f-3 from behind the arc. Jamal is a shooter, and he’s going to have to shoot. I have no doubt the shots will start going down, I just hope it’s sooner rather than later. Crawford will stay in the lineup though because he’s a smart player and he plays very good defense.
- Defense was key Tuesday. Nate McMillan mentioned it is his post game remarks, and holding Sacramento to 19 in the third quarter and 14 in the fourth was enough to turn a game that had been tied at halftime into a runaway.
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