When looking at the 2012-13 NBA schedule for the first time as a Portland Trail Blazer, I’m willing to bet Damian Lillard circled Sunday December 16th as one of the games he was most looking forward to. That would be his first chance to face off against Anthony Davis, the number-one overall pick and the pre-season favorite to run away with Rookie of the Year honors.
If I’m the Portland Trail Blazers of this moment, and not those of a month ago or three months ago, I’m looking at Sunday’s game for a totally different reason. Sure Anthony Davis is back from injury, but his early set-backs have been such that Damian Lillard is currently in a rookie class all of his own. That match-up is something of an after thought right now.
Two words should be at the front of every Blazer’s mind: trap game.
What’s a trap game you ask? Well, there is probably more than one workable definition. My favorite way to describe a trap game is a game in which one team is otherwise unprepared for their opponent (be it because that opponent has a bad record or whatever) and instead of winning, which is the outcome they expected, they get “trapped” and lose.
When the Blazers lost to the Kings in their first home game of December, that was a trap game. When in 2011-12 a 5-1 Portland team rolled out to Phoenix to face the Suns, that was a trap game.
Sunday is a trap game for two reasons. First, NOLA isn’t very good. At 5-17, they are two games worse than Sacramento, the second to last team in the West, and just a few percentage points ahead of Cleveland, the second to last team in the East. The Blazers tend to play to the level of their competition. Sunday’s opponent is bad; the Blazers could have a very poor showing.
And it’s that playing to the level of the competition phenomenon that leads to the second reason Sunday is a trap game. Friday afternoon a co-worker of mine asked how the Blazer game went the night before. I told this co-worker that it went well, in fact, it was probably the best game of the season.
Thursday night, Portland played a strong 48 minutes. They didn’t get intimidating by their opponent, they didn’t dig themselves a big hole to have to climb out of, and they got significant, game winning and award worthy, performances from Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, the two Blazers most likely to lead this team to victories in the future.
This team is still a work in progress. One great game against a good team doesn’t change that. However, young players coming off a big win might take for granted that good games are just going to come. They’re not. They take work, and they take effort. If the Blazers think Thursday night’s performance is just going to repeat itself, they are going to get trapped on Sunday.
Blazers Starting 5: PG Damian Lillard, SG Luke Babbitt, SF Nicolas Batum, PF LaMarcus Aldridge, C J.J. Hickson
Hornets Starting 5: PG Greivis Vasquez, SG Austin Rivers, SF Al-Farouq Aminu, PF Ryan Anderson, C Robin Lopez
Sunday night there are going to be a lot of match-ups that favor the Blazers, especially inside. Robin Lopez isn’t much of a threat offensively, and can be a bit of a liability on the defensive end. Attacking him and keeping him off the glass should be one of Portland’s main priorities. Forcing Ryan Anderson to defend LaMarcus Aldridge on the block should be the other.
The back-court match-ups also favor the Blazers. Austin Rivers is a project. Greivis Vasquez has grown into a solid point guard, but he’s not on Damian Lillard’s level. Those are holes in NOLA’s roster that Portland should be able to exploit.
What to Watch For
- Inexperience abounding: Both NOLA and Portland are young teams. Which ever young team gets the upper hand first will win.
- Anthony Davis versus Portland’s bench: The Brow came off the bench in NOLA’s last game, a loss to the Timberwolves. If he’s relegated to bench duty against Portland, he might have some easy pickings against the likes of Joel Freeland and Jared Jeffries. Hopefully Freeland’s stint in the D-League will have an immediate impact.
- Defense versus offense: The Hornets are known as a defensive team. Portland is known to struggle shooting the ball. If the Blazers’ offense can over power the Hornets’ D, the Blazers are looking at a relatively easy win.