OK Blazer fans, first the good news: we’ve been here before. Way back on November 25th 2009 the 11-5 Blazers hosted the 0-14 New Jersey Nets. That night, Portland avoided the ignominious distinction of being the team to snap a double digit win-less streak by handing the Nets a 93-83 loss.
I know, that Blazer team was playing at home, was coming off a big win at home over the Chicago Bulls, and had a starting lineup that included both a healthy Brandon Roy and a healthy Greg Oden (18 points on the night from GO and 13 from Brandon). So there really isn’t a whole lot of carry-over from that game in 2009 to Wednesday’s game in 2012 against the currently win-less Washington Wizards in D.C.
How about this then. On February 5th 2011 Portland (without Roy or Oden) showed up in Cleveland to face off against the recently made LeBron-less Cavaliers. The Blazers at the time were 26-24, they’d lost the night before the Indiana Pacers, and had managed only a single win in their last five games. The Cavs weren’t winless (8-42), but if you can remember, they had lost 23 straight games coming into their contest with Portland. Not only were the Cavaliers bad, they were historically bad, or at least they were on the verge of becoming historically bad. Coming into that Saturday night game, Cleveland was one loss shy of tying the record for the longest losing streak in the history of the NBA.
Portland looked like a good target for a streak breaker. A team straddling the line between the Playoffs and the Lottery, a mini losing streak of their own, slipping back towards .500, questions abounding with regards to injuries and depth. The Blazers were Cleveland’s best opportunity for a win in a long time. Blazer fans, this one included, were scared, and rightfully so.
What happened that night? Portland got scoring efforts of 31, 21, and 20 from Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, and LaMarcus Aldridge in that order, and put the 2010-11 Cavs into the history books (Cleveland would stretch their losing streak to 26 games, avoiding by one the worst losing streak in all of American professional sports). Blazer fans would all exhale.
Portland has been mired in the depths of a losing streak (if not a streak than at least a losing trend), on the road, facing a team with their backs against the wall and double-digit losing streaks, and come away victorious. Like I said, we’ve been here before. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that the Blazers are not a great team right now. Their weaknesses are exploitable, and the world is out on how to best exploit those weaknesses. Portland should win this game. There have no business not winning this game. But Washington isn’t going to roll over, just like nobody in this league rolls over for anybody else, and if the Wizards watched the Blazers futile effort in Detroit, they should probably have a good idea how best to beat Portland.
Blazers Starting 5: PG Damian Lillard, SG Wesley Matthews, SF Nicolas Batum, PF LaMarcus Aldridge, C J.J. Hickson
Wizards Starting 5: PG A.J. Price, SG Bradley Beal, SF Trevor Ariza, PF Kevin Seraphin, C Emeka Okafor
I said that the word is out on how to beat the Blazers. Here’s how to do it:
Step 1) Blitz Damian Lillard. It won’t get the ball out of his hands. He probably won’t turn it over either. What will happen though is that it will push Portland’s offense a couple extra feet from the hoop. Damian hasn’t quite developed the handle or the pin-point passing needed to thread the needle from 30 feet or effectively split a double-team head on, but blitzing Dame, especially when hedging off a high screen, is a good way to kill the roll part of the pick and roll because Damian is too smart to throw a pass he isn’t sure he can complete and doesn’t force the north-south drive. That’s part of the reason LaMarcus is shooting so many mid-range jumpers, he’s trying to make the offense as easy as possible for Damian. LA is a good shooter, and the LA/Damian pick-and-pop is a good play, but the percentages of shooting from 15 are low enough that gambling on the high screen is worth it if it keeps LaMarcus from rolling to the hoop without the ball for layups and dunks.
Step 2) Pound the paint on offense and pack the paint on defense (when not hedging out to double Damian on the high screen). Portland has no real center, or at least not one in their starting five. Teams that get into the paint on offense with regularity can and do beat this Blazer team. Not having a starting center doesn’t only impact the Blazers on defense. Portland’s offense has no way to score easily inside. When the Blazers get into their half court offense, basically the second thing a team needs to do, after blitzing Damian, is get as many big bodies as the can into the lane. Portland wants to attack the rim, because statistically it’s the easiest way to get points, but without a reliable inside scorer, that style of offense can be problematic. The Blazers have shooters, but they’re streaky. Keeping Portland out of the lane on offense and making them sit back and launch jumpers is a pretty efficient defensive strategy.
That’s how to beat Portland. The good teams have done it. The bad teams have done it. The Blazers can still win should the Wizards double Damian, force the ball inside on offense, and stack their biggest bodies in front of the hoop, it just narrows Portland’s margin for error. Against Detroit, the Blazers shot around 40% from the field and 30% from three. Those numbers have to go up if Portland wants to win Wednesday.
What to Watch For
- Can the Blazers avoid getting down early. You know that old saying? “It’s hard to beat a team 13 times in a row?” It’s a joke, of course, but there’s some truth to it. When a team of professionals get beat a dozen straight times, they probably get pretty motivated to avoid that lucky number 13. That being said, a bad team on a long losing streak can also fall into the danger zone where losing becomes familiar and expected. Getting ahead early will be a key for Portland on Wednesday. If the Blazers can build an early lead, the Wizards will probably fold it up. They’ve lost so many times that coming back from a big deficit is no longer in their DNA. Portland lost to Detroit because they got down early in that game. They can’t let that happen again.
- Will Damian Lillard have a bounce-back game. Damian’s worst game as a pro was Monday. There are holes in his game. I don’t think fortitude is one of them. I imagine that Dame will have a good game in D.C., partially because he won’t be going head-to-head with Brandon Knight (a good young point guard who sliced Portland’s defense to shreds), and partially because he’ll probably be ready to deal with the double teams and blitzes.
- Does Portland have pride in themselves. Regardless of the ad campaigns and the public display of faith in this team’s ability to compete, there’s a good chance that the bulk of this roster knows Portland is not really a Playoff team, not this year. It’s not about winning this year, it’s about getting better and staying connected. HOWEVER, the Blazers are better than the Wizards by every statistic or piece of anecdotal evidence or anything at all the matters. Do these Blazers have the pride in themselves to take a punch like they did in Detroit, another team Portland is better than, and get back up and beat a very bad team? We’ll find out this evening.