Got to have this one… Quick nap and we back at it again…
— JJ Hickson (@Hickson21) November 26, 2012
The nap mention isn’t the important part of the above Tweet from one James Edwards “J.J.” Hickson Jr. Such are the swings of this Blazer season in general and this seven-game road trip in particular. Sunday afternoon, the Blazers did the thinkable while almost achieving the unthinkable: they played neck and neck with the Brooklyn Nets without arguably their best player (I’m saying arguably because at this point LaMarcus Aldridge is still Portland’s most potent weapon) and managed to compete and lose and not ever embarrass themselves. I thought they could hang for awhile. I didn’t think they would ever have a chance.
Monday is a different task altogether. Portland’s opponent Monday evening is the Detroit Pistons. These Pistons started the season with eight straight losses. Although they did get a victory over the Boston Celtics, they have lost twice to the Magic. They’ve also lost twice to the Rockets, once to the Lakers, and once to the Kings, teams that Portland has beaten this season. Sunday, the Pistons lost by 21 to the Knicks. This is not a good team. And because this is not a good team, the Blazers must win.
I know it doesn’t make a ton of sense that beating a bad team is a whole lot more important than beating a good team, but that’s just kind of where we are right now with the development of this Blazer squad. I’ve said it before, but in my opinion it’s worth repeating. I believe that Portland will finish the season in the second tier of the NBA. Better than the worst teams, but not quite good enough to make the Playoffs (or at least not quite good enough to have a ceiling higher than the eight seed). To avoid that bottom rung of the league, the Blazers need to beat the teams below them. Considering that bad teams will also lose to good teams, the difference between finishing 9th or 10th in the West and 12th or 13th will be winning games against the Detroit Pistons of the world.
Blazers Starting 5: PG Damian Lillard, SG Wesley Matthews, SF Nicolas Batum, PF LaMarcus Aldridge, C J.J. Hickson
Pistons Starting 5: PG Brandon Knight, SG Kyle Singler, SF Tayshaun Prince, PF Jason Maxiell, C Greg Monroe
The position-by-position match-ups Monday aren’t nearly as bad as they have been Portland in their last two games. Minnesota and Brooklyn are examples of teams, the Los Angeles Clippers are another, with skilled big men who tried with varying degrees of success to exploit the fact that the Blazers don’t really have a center. Brooklyn had to deal with Meyers Leonard, who has the height of a true center but not the skills. Minnesota dealt with Hickson. J.J. is turning into a pretty good rebounder, but he can’t really muscle up with the bigger centers in the league.
Detroit has bigs, but they aren’t the kind of bigs Portland has faced in its last two contests. Greg Monroe is a serviceable third-year center who can carry the offensive load for a bad team but doesn’t have some of the more veteran moves and skills that make Brook Lopez or Nikola Pekovic such tough covers. Should Monroe be matched-up much with Meyers Leonard, there will be a good chance he’ll have a decent scoring night. Against J.J. Hickson, he probably won’t fare quite as well. Jason Maxiell is the kind of player who reached his potential early, when his team was still one of the best in the league, and has been in steady decline ever since.
Just as the Pistons do not have the level of front court as the Brooklyn Nets, so too do they offer a different type of back court. Where Deron Williams tried, and basically succeeded, to overpower Damian Lillard, second-year point guard Brandon Knight will try to use his speed to score. It’s not just at the point guard position where Detroit differs significantly from Brooklyn. Whereas the Nets again tried to overpower Portland on the wings with Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace, the Piston’s starting two and three are wispy over-the-top shooters.
In fact, it’s the wing positions where Portland has the biggest advantage when it comes to the starting five. Kyle Singler shouldn’t really be able to stop Wesley Matthews. Tayshaun Prince is a once great defender who is no longer so great. Nicolas Batum should, like Wesley, be able to get to the rim one-on-one. Nic should also be able to shoot over the top of Prince. Big games from the wings could lead the Blazers to a convincing win.
What to Watch Four
- The bench. Always the bench. Detroit’s bench is probably the worst thing Portland wants to see. The Piston’s reserves aren’t good, but they aren’t the Blazers’ bench either. Charlie Villanueva, Corey Maggette, and Will Bynum aren’t amazing players at all, but they are veterans who probably look at Portland’s bench as a glaring weakness waiting to be taken advantage of. Guys at the NBA level don’t need much motivation to have a big night, especially guys like Corey Maggette who in his opinion has never taken a bad shot in his life. If the Blazers bench can maintain or build on any lead the starters get (or should get) Portland wins.
- Meyers Leonard vs. Andre Drummond. Andre Drummond was one of the guys Portland was targeting in the draft. The Blazers would have had to take Drummond with the 6th pick (Detroit grabbed him with the 9th pick) meaning they would have passed on Damian Lillard. Considering that there is absolutely no way Lillard would have been around at the 11th spot should have Portland gone with Drummond, the Blazers would have very likely taken North Carolina’s Kendall Marshall. Kendall’s been buried on the Suns’s bench (which doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have gotten the chance to play in Portland) and Drummond is averaging 6.5 points in 16.6 minutes per game. Leonard’s stats aren’t as good, fewer points (4.9) in more minutes played (19.2), but clearly the Blazers made the right choice going with Lillard and passing on Drummond. Watching Meyers Leonard face off against Drummond, though, might, emphasis on might, have some Blazer fans thinking if Portland maybe should have decided to build around a center and not a point guard. For the record, I’m glad they went PG over C, even if it’s true that you can’t teach height.
- Can Portland make this a blowout. The Blazers only have a few big wins, score differential wise. Getting those wins on the road is important since if a bad team is allowed to stick around on in their own home there’s always a chance they’ll be able to sneak out a win. Usually comebacks are driven by home crowd support. Luckily for Portland, nobody is going to be at the Palace of Auburn Hills. Should the Blazers get up double figures, maybe even 20, there’s a possibility this game is over in a hurry.