One down, 81 to go. Portland’s first game was tough, but they persevered. Unfortunately, the Blazers’ first full month of the season is going to make Halloween Night’s runaway win over the Los Angeles Lakers look like a cakewalk.
The NBA’s Premiere Week has already had its fair share of narrative moments: Harden’s amazing debut, the Lakers failure to launch, and as of Thursday night Oklahoma City not looking quite like the world beaters we thought they would be prior to shipping off their third best player.
Luckily for Portland, the only part they’ll play in the many unfolding storylines is whether or not Damian Lillard will be able follow up his first night performance, an important story to be sure, but not one that will put too much pressure on the team as a whole.
November will have its twists and turns. By the time it’s over we should have a good sense of what is in store for the Blazers in 2012-13. So here’s my preview:
What Happened in October: October went as well as it could have gone, maybe even better. Portland wins their opening game against the Lakers, Damian Lillard threw down an unveiling matched only by two of the greatest point guards of all time, and the Blazers’ offense performed in such a way that might make some people think head coach Terry Stotts is on to something. For the second season in a row, the Blazers finish their first month undefeated.
Number of Games in November: 15
Game Breakdown: 11/2 at Oklahoma City, 11/3 at Houston, 11/5 at Dallas, 11/8 vs. LA Clippers, 11/10 vs. San Antonio, 11/12 vs. Atlanta, 11/13 at Sacramento, 11/16 vs. Houston, 11/18 vs. Chicago, 11/21 at Phoenix, 11/23 vs. Minnesota, 11/25 at Brooklyn, 11/26 at Detroit, 11/28 at Washington, 11/30 at Boston
Games to Watch: November is absolutely full of big games. Portland is going to be tested in almost every way and on almost every facet of their game. Like most seasons, the most important games for the Blazers will be the roadies. There are going to be a few road games that are going to be very hard, some of the hardest games of the year. Portland closes out the month in Boston on the 30th and opens the month on the 2nd at Oklahoma City. The Celtics and the Thunder will likely be in their respective Conference Finals. Putting up a good showing in both games will be key; winning one would be absolute gravy.
Apart from road games, the games to watch this month will be the ones against teams at Portland’s level or likely to finish behind the Blazers in the standings. It might be counter-intuitive (or just plain wrong if you’re among the group of people who think Portland should be losing on purpose to better what may be an inevitable Lottery position) but beating the bad teams might be more important than winning against the best in the league. In November the Blazers play three games against teams that will likely finish behind them in the standings: Detroit, Washington, and Sacramento; four games against teams that will have close to identical records as Portland: Houston twice, Phoenix, and Minnesota; and a single game against a team that will finish in the bottom half of the Western Conference playoff picture: Dallas. Beating the Wizards, the Kings, and the Pistons will be important, so will getting a couple victories from that Wolves, Rockets, Suns group.
Game of the Month: I want to say Brooklyn because it will be the ultimate war of who owns the hipster basketball kingdom. I want to say Houston because of Lin/Beard-Sanity. I want to say San Antonio, LA Clippers, OKC, or Chicago because if Portland can get a win against a marquee opponent we might have a real thing on our hands. But the no-brainer answer for November’s game of the month will take place the evening of the 23rd when the Minnesota Timberwolves make their first of two trips to the Rose Garden.
I had a vision years ago of a time when Brandon Roy would play a game in Portland dressed as a member of the visiting team. I imagined that in a best-case scenario it would be in the twilight of his career, Clyde Drexler style. As an old player chasing a title the city would welcome him back with no hard feelings and no mixed emotions. When Brandon announced his retirement at the start of last season, I have to admit I was relieved. He would never have to play a game not for the Blazers. I have no problem with the veteran leaving his team in his final years situation, but that doesn’t mean I would have been crazy about it. Now that Brandon is officially back, I’ve been dealing with it by avoidance. I made it through about three minutes of preseason T-Wolves highlights before I had to turn them off. I’ve avoided most of the video footage of Brandon giving interviews. On the 23rd, there will be no way for anybody to ignore Brandon’s second act in Minnesota. He will be on our court, and he won’t be playing for our team.
My prediction that night is a Rose Garden full of crying fans in Brandon Roy jerseys and a 30-minute standing ovation. I don’t even want to think about what it will be like should he have a big scoring night.
Oh yeah, there’s a chance Kevin Love will be back in action for the first time that same evening.
Prediction: 9-6. Spilt the OKC/Houston back-to-back with Lillard getting beat-up by Russell Westbrook then turning it around and handing a beat down to Jeremy Lin, drop a close one in Dallas then come home and get a statement win against either the Clippers or the Spurs (also losing one of those two nights), three game spurt with wins at home against Atlanta, in Sac against the Kings, and at home again against the Rockets who by this time will have been exposed as being a work in progress and not an actual threat to the conference’s hegemony, a disappointing loss against Chicago followed by wins in Phoenix and back at home in an emotional homecoming for Brandon, and then finishing the month with wins at Detroit and the nation’s capital bookended by losses in the hipster bowl and at Boston.
What it All Means: I know some people are going to read this and think I’m giving Portland way too much credit. Some others will think, no way will they lose to Dallas and the Rose Garden crowd is such an X-Factor that this team won’t lose at home for at least 10 games. That’s where we are right now. Half are looking at the opening night win as fools gold, blinding us to the problems in the roster that will send the Blazers once again to the lottery. The other half see Portland’s win against the Lakers as an indication that the naysayers are and have been wrong all off-season and this team is a force to be reckoned with. After a tough month, we’ll have a much better sense of how the season will shake out. If Portland wins nine games, or is plus or minus one game of .500, it might be time to find a way to put a package together to coax J.J. Reddick away from the Orlando Magic and turn a rebuilding year into a real shot at the post season. If the Blazers start to stumble and drop 10 games in November it might be time to start watching college ball to figure out which top blue-chipper should be wearing a Blazer cap on Draft Night.