When I was putting together my preview for the month of November, I landed on Friday’s match-up at the Rose Garden against the Minnesota Timberwolves as my game of the month. Ostensibly, this was Portland’s most important game because it was to be Brandon Roy’s return to Portland. Well, as we all know, Brandon will not be playing tonight. However, that doesn’t change the fact that this is an important game for the Blazers.
There’s a fair chance that as the regular season winds down the Western Conference will shake out with Portland, Minnesota, Houston, Golden State, and maybe Phoenix will be in the running for the eight, nine, ten, and 11 positions. Of course only the eight spot matters when it comes to the Playoffs, but should the Blazers maintain their status as part of the conference’s second tier (and not it’s third) by the end of the season, 12-13 can be considered a success.
To maintain that second tier standing, which Portland has achieved through some pretty inspired play through 10 games (I’m excluding Wednesday’s loss in Phoenix because it wasn’t really representative of this team), the Blazers have to beat the bad teams in the west and hold their own against teams like the Wolves that are at or just right above their level.
But there’s more to this game than just competing with a very solid team. Portland is about to embark on their first big East Coast swing. There are certainly winnable games in the Blazers’ next seven (this trip includes games at Washington, Detroit, Charlotte, and Cleveland), but anything can happen on the road to a young team. Winning a big game before hitting the road, especially considering the pathetic showing in Phoenix that killed a nice little three-game winning streak) could be the spark the Blazers need kick-off a winning trip.
Blazers Starting 5: PG Damian Lillard, SG Wesley Matthews, SF Nicolas Batum, PF LaMarcus Aldridge, C J.J. Hickson
Timberwolves Starting 5: PG Luke Ridnour, SG Malcolm Lee, SF Andrei Kirilenko, PF Kevin Love, C Nikola Pekovic
Minnesota is one of those teams that will be a match-up nightmare for Portland’s front court. Or more specifically, the Timberwolves have a center, the Blazers do not. J.J. Hickson sat out Wednesday in Phoenix, and although Meyers Leonard had a decent game on offense he was personally called out by head coach Terry Stotts for inferior post defense. Hickson should be back Friday. J.J. will provide a little bit of defense on Nikola Pekovic, who has grown into a very good low-post player, but it could end up being a long night for him. If Hickson gets in foul trouble, or if he’s still injured and doesn’t get the start, Meyers might have another difficult evening on defense. If Portland wants to win this game, they’ll have to dominate the back court, and hope Minnesota’s bigs don’t go all DeAndre Jordan and take the Blazers to the cleaners in the post.
What to Watch For
- The benches: Portland’s bench has had one good night under their belt, so we shouldn’t really expect too much from them. However, the danger of playing well one night is that it does in fact lead to expectations. Minnesota’s bench isn’t as short as Portland’s but guys like Alexey Shved and J.J. Barea can be a handful for a second string defense. If the Blazers’ second unit shows up like they did against the Bulls, Portland has a chance. Meyers Leonard’s time in the starting lineup (even if it was just one night) might help him make the bench stronger as a whole.
- LaMarcus Aldridge Vs. Kevin Love: There’s very little that needs to be explained about this one. Love is back early and showed very few signs that his lay-off took anything from his game. LaMarcus struggled mightily in Phoenix and needs to have a big night to prove to everybody that he’s still an All-Star level player. I feel like Friday might be the night for LaMarcus, but he’s going to have his hands full.
- Damian Lillard: Lillard had a rough night in Phoenix too. Damian will have to play some defense, but thankfully Luke Ridnour and Barea aren’t the best on the ball defenders. Barea’s already been warned for flopping. That takes away one of his very best defensive weapons.