Canadians love basketball, just not as much as hockey, or Canadian football, or curling. Photo courtesy of Fanster.

Game 15 Preview: Portland Trail Blazers at Toronto Raptors

Blazers: 8-6 (4th Northwest Division)

Raptors: 4-11 (5th Atlantic Division)

Game Details: Air Canada Centre, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 4:00 PM. TV: CSN 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 Toronto Starting Lineup: PG Jose Calderon (#8, 6’3”, Villanueva de la Serena, Spain), SG DeMar DeRozan (#10, 6’7”, USC), SF James Johnson (#2, 6’9”, Wake Forest), PF Ed Davis (#32, 6’10”, North Carolina), C Amir Johnson (#15, 6’9”, Westchester High School, Los Angeles, CA)

Well here we are. That time of the season when Portland’s play has fallen below expectations, execution has stalled, losses are piling up, scrutiny is intensifying. We seem to find ourselves in this situation on the regular in the last few years. So what does this team decide to do when things are about to reach critical mass, endangering the entire endeavor? Call a players-only meeting, of course.

We were here last year too. That player’s only meeting came in the midst of a six-game slide that saw the Blazers dip under .500. This player’s only meeting comes on the heels of another game in which Portland led in the fourth quarter, only to lose, and seemed to mostly address the salient fact that all these Blazers just like each other too gosh darn much.

I can get with that. The problems the team has been facing during this road trip stem from a failure to make plays down the stretch, and some of that comes from accountability. If everybody’s too busy being nice to one another, then there’s nobody to lay the smack down when things fall apart at the end of games.

There’s a difference, though, between this season’s player’s only meeting, and last season’s. In 2011-12, LaMarcus Aldridge is the leader of the team, not Brandon Roy. So maybe part of calling the meeting was for LA to flex his newly found leadership muscles. Another key difference: Last season, the Blazers’ rough patch included losses to the Nets, the Wizards, and the 76ers. This year’s 76er team is much better than last years; the Nets and the Wizards are still the Nets and the Wizards. Those were tough losses to teams that were not very good.

Portland’s suffered a couple of bad beats since reaching the top of the Western Conference, but Orlando, Atlanta, and San Antonio are all Playoff teams. Dealing with the issues that have kept this team from winning before they’ve dropped games to the bottom dwellers of the Eastern Conference is a proactive decision. Getting out in front of trouble is always the best way to go.

Which brings us to Friday afternoon’s international match-up with the Raptors in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Raps aren’t quite as bad as they come, but they are one of seven teams with fewer than five wins. Toronto is win-less in their last six, dropping games to a couple of bad teams (the aforementioned Wizards and the 5-10 Kings) as well as few good teams (Atlanta, Indiana, Chicago), and one team that is bad now but still might turn out to be good (Boston).

The Raptors were absolutely annihilated by the Celtics, ending a five-game skid for the Celts, and now back at home, Toronto is hurting for a win. Portland is too. By all accounts the Blazers should win this game. Toronto is not a good team. But if we’ve learned anything from the last four games, winning on the road, even playing well on the road, is a lot to ask at this point.

How should Portland do it? Forget about the last four or five games. Forget about the fact that a dismal road trip can end at even if they can only beat two teams that have already lost a combined 23 games. Forget about the struggles of Raymond Felton, Jamal Crawford, and now Wesley Matthews. Forget about all of it and just play. I promise you that if Portland comes out on Friday and just plays and doesn’t try to over think things or get ahead of themselves, they’ll win no problem.

If, however, they start the game tight, try to force shots, have eight or nine guys try to win it on their own, they will, once again, be in trouble. When Portland goose egged on the road in late November/early December of 2010 it felt like this team had rolled right up the cliff’s edge. At the time Portland had once again been stricken by injuries, they couldn’t get anything going at all, Brandon was just starting to show signs that his career wasn’t going to last much longer.  I remember preparing myself for the possibility that Nate McMillan might be cut loose, and that I would be covering a lottery-bound team.

That Blazer team turned it around. This Blazer team isn’t even close to being where that team was. Like I already said, having a player’s only meeting now shows that this team thinks highly enough of themselves and of their potential that they want to stop this trend in play before it gets any worse. My prediction is that at the very least, Portland makes good on coach Nate McMillan’s plea to play harder. Making a conscious decision to stop being nice and start being real might be just the right thing to get the Blazers back to winning and play themselves back into the picture.

Here’s what I’m going to be watching for:

  • The returns of Marcus Camby and Nicolas Batum: According to Joe Freeman, Marcus Camby and Nicolas Batum will be back in the lineup Friday. Camby missed the last three games following an ankle sprain in San Antonio. Batum played less than 10 minutes in Atlanta after getting gouged in the eye by T-Mac. Camby’s presence has been missed, although Craig Smith has made a pretty good case for himself with a couple good offensive nights, and against an undersized Toronto team, Marcus should be able to dominate the boards on Friday. Batum could have really helped Portland in Atlanta. Hopefully he won’t show any residual tentativeness when he returns. He’s been the Blazers’ lone highlight on this trip. Nic deserves a chance to finish what he started.
  • Nolan Smith: Nate McMillan has said that Nolan Smith played his way into some burn with a pretty decent evening in Atlanta. McMillan has mentioned Nolan before and then not played him, but I bet we see him in Toronto pre-garbage time (should it get there). My guess is inserting Nolan in the rotation is a combination of two factors. One is definitely Nolan’s play–when put in the game he doesn’t play shy and doesn’t make too many mistakes–but I think it also might be a bit of a move to make Raymond Felton tighten up. Nolan isn’t going to take Ray’s starting spot anytime soon, but if Felton knows there’s one more option at the point guard position he might start playing a little bit better.
  • Will Portland be able to find that next gear: I’m looking at Gerald Wallace here. LaMarcus is the leader of this team, but Wallace very often sets the pace. There isn’t a single guy on Toronto’s roster that can handle Crash one-on-one. If he can find that spark that lit up the LA Lakers, and find it early, the Blazers will cruise. If Wallace doesn’t show up, Portland should still be able to win, but it won’t be as easy.

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Twitter: @mikeacker | @ripcityproject

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Tags: Blazers Canada Craig Smith Gerald Wallace Jamal Crawford LaMarcus Aldridge Nicolas Batum Nolan Smith Raptors Raymond Felton Welsey Matthews

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