Blazers: 9-6 (4th Northwest Division)
Pistons: 3-13 (5th Central Division)
Game Details: The Palace of Auburn Hills, Auburn Hills, MI. 4:30 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 Pistons Starting Lineup: PG Brandon Knight (#7, 6’3”, Kentucky), SG Ben Gordon (#8, 6’3”, Connecticut), SF Tayshaun Prince (#22, 6’9”, Kentucky), PF Ben Wallace (#6, 6’9”, Virginia Union), C Greg Monroe (#10, 6’11”, Georgetown)
It’s not uncommon to hear those individuals closely involved with the NBA–coaches, players, color commentators et al.–say that every game matters. That no single game can ever be overlooked. It’s true up until a team is mathematically eliminated from the Playoffs or has secured their final seeding regardless of future wins or losses. At this point in the season, the Detroit Pistons have not yet been officially ousted from the post season. They too have 50 games yet to play. It’s unlikely that the Pistons will finish 53-13, but anything is possible.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that Detroit does have something to play for, every night of the week, until they decide they don’t. The first full month of the season is too soon for even the most woebegone franchise to scrap it.
We all know what Portland has to play for. Consistency on the road. The Pistons are a bad team, but they’re an NBA team nonetheless. The Blazers are coming off a good win, not a great win, and a pretty outstanding performance from LaMarcus Aldridge. That, however, is not enough for this team to be satisfied.
In Toronto, Portland had a chance or two to get a bona fide blowout. They were unsuccessful in that regard. In a perfect world, I would say that getting that legit, 20-point, LA sits for the fourth quarter win should be the Blazers’ goal on Saturday evening in the Motor City. Realistically, that outcome is easily within reach. But I’m not ready to say that Portland will be able to make good on that kind of promise. I know I’m sounding like a bit of a pessimist here, but look at it like this: Detroit is right now on a four-game losing streak, having dropped games in succession to Golden State, Houston, Minnesota, and Memphis. The Grizz have sneaked into the eighth spot in the Western Conference (the current top eight in the West does not include the defending champion Dallas Mavericks), but the Warriors, the Rockets, and the Timberwolves are all probably heading to the lottery.
On the horizon for Detroit are games with Oklahoma City, Miami, Atlanta, and Philadelphia, four of the best teams in the league. Portland comes as the hinge-point between four bad teams and four great teams. The Blazers can be grouped with the latter collection of teams, but they aren’t quite at the level of the Thunder and the Heat, and lost to the Hawks on this very trip that ends Saturday. If I’m the Pistons, I’m looking at this game as the chance to avoid turning a four-game slide into a nine-gamer.
The Blazers need to prepare for the possibility that their opponent might think of this game as an opportunity to get a win they don’t deserve.
At this point, Portland’s game plan should be pretty simple. Feed LA early, establish an inside game, then, when the Pistons start sending two or three defenders to help in the post, get the outside shooting going. That’s the offense in a nutshell. Defensively, the Blazers need to get Detroit to turn the ball over, and they need to make those turnovers into baskets. In 16 games, the Pistons have not gone over 100 points a single time. This is an offensively challenged team. If Portland can get out and score early, they’ll have a pretty good shot at controlling, and thus winning this game.
The Blazers have a nice little stretch coming up to finish out the month of January. Following Saturday’s game the team returns to Portland for a home back-to-back Monday and Tuesday with the Sacramento Kings and Memphis–two very very winnable games–and then finish their first back-to-back-to-back the next night in Oakland. The Blazers always have trouble with Golden State, especially in California. But that team has struggled to find its way early, dealing with injuries to Steph Curry and Kwame Brown. Portland closes January at home against the Phoenix Suns and in Salt Lake City against the Jazz. Utah is a surprise early, but the Blazers should have a good opportunity to exact some revenge when they get the Suns on their home court.
A favorable projection is that Portland finishes this month by beating Detroit, Sac, Memphis, and Phoenix, and splits their two remaining road games. But I could push it so far as to say I think they can win out. This team HAS to be frustrated with the way they’ve played on this trip, and they have to believe that they are good enough to compete with the top tier teams in the NBA. There will be no better way to prove that than finishing out the month with a nice little six-game burst of wins. How’s that for not being pessimistic?
One quick note before I give you a couple things to look for during tonight’s game. I’m going to say it now, hopefully before anybody else does, the Northwest Division is the best division in the league. OKC has the best record in the West (notwithstanding their loss to the Wizards), Denver is the second-best team record wise in the conference, and Utah and Portland are five and six respectively.
Every division has one or two teams at the bottom that throw the entire division’s winning percentage off. In the Northwest it has historically been the Minnesota Timberwolves. Not so much anymore. I’m not totally sold on that team, but they are no longer one of the worst teams in league. Friday night, they played and won a sloppy game against the Clippers at the Staples Center–a Clippers team that didn’t include Chris Paul who sat with an injury and lacked Mo Williams at the end due to ejection–that finished with a pretty amazing deep game winner from Kevin Love.
The TWolves have a long way to go, but they’ve got some really nice pieces. I apologize to Ricky Rubio for saying that he lost Eurobasket over the summer. He looks like he could be a real player at the point guard position. Darko showed up in the win against LA, Wesley Johnson and Wayne Ellington have developed into serviceable wings, Derrick Williams has some work to do but he’ll get there too. Luke Ridnour plays like Luke Ridnour.
Minnesota will have to jump at least two teams to make the Playoffs, which I don’t think they’ll be able to do, but by not being as bad as they were last year, when they finished dead last in the NBA with a record of 17-65, they’ve helped the Northwest Division to the best win-loss record in the league at 48-27. The Central Division is the only other division to have a winning percentage over .500. The Southeast would be there too if they didn’t have to deal with Charlotte and Washington, teams with a combined record of 5-25.
OK, back to the game. Here’s what I’ll be watching for Saturday:
- What kind of game LaMarcus Aldridge has: Teams in the NBA are great at scouting during the season. Scouting has probably improved over the years as much or more than any other element of the game. Detroit’s advanced scouts will already have prepped Lawrence Frank on the dangers of LA, but there’s no doubt that following one of his best performances as a professional, he will be the focus of the Pistons’ defensive schemes. There isn’t really one guy that can stop LaMarcus on the Pistons’ roster, but guys like Greg Monroe and Ben Wallace can certainly bang him around in the low post. LA will be seeing double-teams all evening, so he’s going to have to be able to find shooters, and those shooters will have to find their stroke. I imagine we’ll see another good game from LaMarcus, probably not a 30-20, but this is another team that is very thin at the front line, and LA has shown thus far that he can get it done inside and outside. If Detroit tries to force LA to beat them with his jumper he will. If they try to bully him in the block, they’ll likely have to reach deep into their roster due to foul trouble. The only thing I’m worried about is LaMarcus coming out and trying to do everything on his own. We’re in new territory here. LA is on his way to becoming an out-and-out star. Dealing with that change is going to be the next step for him.
- Can Portland finish this team off if they get the chance: The responsibility of stepping on the throats of an opponent, in my mind, falls more to the shooters and the second unit scorers. I’m looking for Wesley Matthews, Jamal Crawford, or Nicolas Batum to have a big evening, or at least make a couple of run extending threes. The Blazers need to get a convincing road victory to end this trip on a high note.
- Gerald Wallace, once again: It’s never too late for Gerald Wallace to start playing well on the road. Wallace is scoring 20 points per game at home and eight per game on the road. That needs to change. Like LA, the Pistons don’t have one player that can guard Crash. If, at any point in the evening, Wallace is one-on-one with matchstick thin Austin Daye, he has an obligation to take him hard to the hole. Same with Jonas Jerebko or Tayshaun Prince. In fact, Detroit probably has, pound-for-pound, the skinniest collection of small forwards in the league. Gerald Wallace should be looking at that and thinking about how he’s going to make them pay.
email me: [email protected]