I’d like to spend a minute talking about the idea of a “must-win” game. I’m of the opinion that there are very few single games that an NBA team literally must win. Although each game matters and is important in its own way, the season is long enough that very infrequently is a team’s post season fate determined by the outcome of one single game.
The only games that are “must win” are elimination games in the Playoffs. So why then do teams, players, and media members like to talk so much about “must win” games? Well, first it makes for interesting copy, bulletin board material, and motivational speeches. But more than that, it is very true that some games are more important than others. Saying a game is a “must win,” instead of calling a game a “pretty important to win for the betterment of the near future” is sexier, even if it’s less factually accurate.
For some teams, let’s call them competitors, the “must win” games are those against the other elite teams in the league. These are the marquee match-ups. The regular season prelude to very important, literally “must win” games, that will come in the post season.
For teams like the Blazers, let’s call them up and comers, the “must win” games are a little harder to define. Games against elite squads are important. Getting a win against a good team can make a bad week, a bad month, or a bad season a little more bearable. Also, not getting blown to bits by the best guys in the NBA is a good way to keep young egos (or old egos for that matter) from falling to pieces. But putting too much emphasis on beating the best teams in the league is an easy way to set a young team up for failure. It’s not going to happen that often, or ever.
So does that mean that games against bad teams are “must win” games for the Blazers? As I said, the answer isn’t quite so clear. Beating bad teams is important, especially if you’re like me and you think Portland is actually in the second-to-last tier of the NBA, and not the last tier. The flip-side of that, of course, is that beating the very worst teams in the league is a disservice to the Blazers’ future.
All that being said, if there ever was an important game for these Trail Blazers to win at this moment in time, it would be Monday when the face off against the team tied for the second worst record in the league. I say this not because it will have an impact on the future of this season, and also knowing full well that Portland and Toronto are going to be in a dog fight for ping pong balls this spring. I think the Blazers need to win Monday to prove to themselves that they still can.
Portland has had a number of “pretty important to win for the betterment of the near future” games already this season. Last month the Blazers played the Rockets at home after starting the season 1-3 at the Rose Garden and having lost all three games in a short home stand. They won that one. On the road, Portland played a win-less Washington Wizards team after losing to a bad Detroit Pistons team. We know how that went. So, as far as these games go, the Blazers are 1-1.
Monday is as good a time as any for a rubber match.
Blazers Starting 5: PG Damian Lillard, SG Wesley Matthews, SF Luke Babbitt, PF LaMarcus Aldridge, C J.J. Hickson
Raptors Starting 5: PG Kyle Lowry, SG DeMar DeRozan, SF Linas Kleiza, PF, Andrea Bargnani, C Jonas Valanciunas
It’s kind of strange to say this, but Toronto has a couple of guys on the roster who could give Portland fits Monday night. Kyle Lowry played a number of great games in the Rose Garden as a Rocket. DeMar DeRozan is the kind of rim attacker who will benefit from the fact that the Blazers don’t have a shot blocker on the roster. I feel like last time I checked in on Linas Kleiza, he could shoot threes, and everybody who has watched Portland at least once this season knows that shooters playing the Blazers tend to not miss very often.
The match-up that the Blazers can and should take advantage of, and could swing this game in Portland’s favor, is going to be LaMarcus Aldridge versus Andrea Bargnani. LA and Bargs will always be linked. Bargnani was taken first overall in the 2006 NBA draft by the Toronto Raptors, LaMarcus was taken second by the Chicago Bulls and then immediately traded to the Trail Blazers. It was Andrea’s five-year $50 million contract that turned the power forward market on it’s ear and led to a difficult negotiation for LaMarcus’s extension.
Monday when the two face off, one has become the albatross around his team’s neck (NOT LA) and the other is basically the only thing between his team a 10-win season (now I’m talking about LA). LaMarcus should be able to dominate Bargnani. Whether or not he will, or whether or not Bargs will be able to stretch the defense with his shooting and have some kind of positive impact on his team, is why this game is going to be played.
What to Watch For
- Who plays, how much, and how well. As of this writing, it has been announced that Nicolas Batum is out and Wesley Matthews is a game-time decision. So far no starter as been announced to replace Nic. I’m going with Luke Babbitt. If Wesley doesn’t play, things could get ugly in a hurry for Portland. That is unless Babbitt can knock down 25 straight three-pointers. I would say that Matthews wants to play, considering how poorly his team did Saturday, but he said this morning to Joe Freeman that he understands the danger of getting hurt for real. The good news is that Will Barton and Victor Claver are back from the D-League, so at least with two down there are two more coming. **UPDATE** It has been announced that Wesley Matthews is also a scratch for Monday’s game. The starting SG, SF for tonight will be Sasha Pavlovic and Victor Claver. I’m no D-League historian, but I bet there have been very few instances of a guy playing in the D-League one night and starting in the NBA the next.
- Can Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge win this game on their own. They couldn’t beat the Kings by themselves, but at least they know coming into the game Monday that they’ll be down a couple very potent weapons.
- Are people going to show up. When the Blazers’ brass announced the re-birth of the sellout streak only a few games after announcing the original streak’s demise, I thought it was a bit premature considering that games such as Monday’s existed. If it were my team to run, and my streak to start and stop with impunity, I would have waited to get it going again. The RG wasn’t empty empty on Saturday night (not empty like Charlotte, Detroit, or Washington) but it certainly wasn’t full. My guess is there will be fewer fans on hand Monday than there were Saturday. It will be hard for management to justify juicing the numbers this early in their new campaign. Maybe there’s a book out there that says five or six three-game sellout streaks are more important to a growing franchise than one dubiously extended sellout streak. I don’t know. I’m not President of the Trail Blazers.