Game Details: Rose Garden Arena, Portland, OR. 7:00 PM. TV: KGW. Radio: KXTG (750 AM)
Projected Portland Starting Lineup: PG Raymond Felton (#5, 6’1”, North Carolina), SG Wesley Matthews (#2, 6’5″, Marquette), SF Gerald Wallace (#3, 6’7″, Alabama), PF LaMarcus Aldridge (#12, 6’11″, Texas), C Marcus Camby (#23, 6’11″, UMass)
Projected Denver Starting Lineup: PG Ty Lawson (#3, 5’11”, North Carolina), SG Arron Afflalo (#6, 6’5”, UCLA), SF Danilo Gallinari (#8, 6’10”, Olimpia Milano, Italy), PF Nene (#31, 6’11”, Vasco de Gama, Brazil), C Timofey Mozgov (#25, 7’1”, BC Khimki, Russia)
LaMarcus Aldridge has gone on record as saying that he thinks Portland is one of the best teams in the Western Conference. Some agree, some don’t. Regardless of your opinion on how you think this season will end up, Thursday night’s game is Portland’s first big one of the year.
Opening night goes to Portland on pure adrenaline brought on by the tumult of the last few weeks of the off-season. Game two the Blazers played a decent half–the second–and that was enough to beat a team that in the Kings that is going to be spending most of this season trying to stay out of their own way.
Thursday night is a different story. The Denver Nuggets aren’t on most lists to make the Finals in 2011-12, but they are a Playoff team. They’ve thumped the defending Champion Dallas Mavericks, and they put up 117 on the Utah Jazz in their first two games. They go deep, they play defense, they’re fast, and they’re fit. Not only that, they play with a hive mind mentality, seeing as there isn’t a single dude on the roster that can be considered a superstar, and they are coached by one of the game’s best tacticians. Add those things together, and you’ve got a team.
So why is the third game of the season a must-win? Primarily because Portland can’t afford to take a night off at any point in this campaign. The Blazers are going to go 66-0, at some point they will lose, and conventional wisdom says that it might be better to lose to a good team than get broadsided by one of the league’s lottery elite.
I can get with that logic. But I also think keying in early on the best in the west will set Portland up nicely when it comes down to the final months of the season. 2011-12 is going to be about adjusting on the fly, preparing, and maximizing positive situations. Teams that are capable of making changes without practicing, and can tailor their game plans to each individual opponent will have a leg up the whole way. And teams that can get hot, and stay hot will be the ones left standing at the end.
Two wins doesn’t really make a streak, but building on those first two wins right now is crucial. That’s what I mean by Portland not having the luxury of taking the night off, even if they are one of only five teams left in the Western Conference without a loss.
To come out of December with a clean sheet, Portland is going to have to play a lot better than they did Monday and Tuesday nights. Here are the things I’m going to watching for:
- Who closes: I have a feeling that this is going to be the thread that carries through this whole season. Portland’s rotation is seven guys, but only five can be on the court in the game’s final minutes. That final five is going to be key each night. Nicolas Batum has said he wants to be included in that group, LaMarcus Aldridge is probably going to be there most nights, some combination of Jamal Crawford, Raymond Felton, and Wesley Matthews is going to be the back court. And of course Gerald Wallace. Tonight, pay attention to what Nate McMillan does with his final five. Against Denver, my bet is going to be that he chooses a longer, more athletic closing group to counter the Nuggets size and limit Nene’s easy baskets at the rim.
- Jamal Crawford, Raymond Felton, and Wesley Matthews: This trio is struggling with their jumpers right now. Wesley went 4-of-14 from the field in both Monday’s and Tuesday’s games, and missed all five of his three-point attempts against the Kings. Crawford fared a little better in the opener (5-of-10 from the field 2-of-3 from deep) but was about the same as Wesley in game two (2-of-11 and 0-of-3). Felton has also not been good: 4-of-14 from the field in the opener, 2-of-8 on Tuesday. Look for these guys to keep shooting, their outside game, and their ability to stretch defenses will get LA more open looks in the paint. Crawford is a shooter, so we know what that means. Wesley is pretty streaky so he too is going to have to shoot a lot of be effective. Felton is kind of the odd man out here, because his primary duty is to facilitate the offense. That doesn’t mean that he won’t be looking to shoot his way out of his recent slump.
- Carryover: Nate McMillan also preaches carryover. Let the good things that happened the last time out lead to good things this time. The Blazers did a lot right on Tuesday. They especially took advantage of mismatches and got out on the break. Those things will be big once again. The other carryover to look for is Gerald Wallace. There really shouldn’t be anything holding him back from being Portland’s best offensive weapon. He’ll have some favorable defensive match-ups on Tuesday–Gallinari isn’t quick enough to stop him Afflalo not strong enough–and that will hopefully lead to Crash putting together back-to-back stunners.
- Andre Miller and Rudy Fernandez: Neither start, so pay attention when they check in. Hopefully they come in separately so the crowd will get a chance to honor them individually. I bet Dre gets a standing ovation. With Rudy, it’s hard to say.
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