As most people expected, or at least as most rational people expected, the world did not end in December of 2012. In fact, December might very well have been the best month of Blazer basketball since the opening month of last season. And we all remember how that went.
When 2012-13 was rolling around, and Portland’s roster was rounding into form, things looked bleak. November had it’s up and downs, lots of downs on the road, but a few things were made sparklingly clear: Damian Lillard is a star in the making, LaMarcus Aldridge is probably still and All-Star, and J.J. Hickson playing for a contract can do some serious damage.
If November was dominated by a bad road run, December showcased a fantastic home stand. January however will be a proving ground. Portland has proven they can play well and win games at home, especially against inferior opponents. They have yet to prove, though, that they can get wins on the road. The first month of 2013 isn’t going to be this team’s biggest road stretch (there are only four home games in February), but January will have its fair share of games that will test the will and ability of this team.
The NBA season is a grind. The first two months young teams can subsist on adrenaline alone. It’s when the season flips over into the second calendar year that things begin to matter. This 2013 (as opposed to next season’s 2013) we’ll see the Lakers make tremendous strides, we’ll see the Heat start to play like they mean it, and the Thunder and the Clippers will continue to distance themselves from the rest of the Western Conference.
And here’s what I think will happen for Portland this January.
What Happened in December: The Blazers’ second month went better than probably they even expected, and they lost to the Sacramento Kings TWICE. Portland finished December with nine wins and four losses. As I said, a full half of those losses came at the hands of a team that will likely finish the season with one of the league’s worst records while being run out of their hometown. The other two losses were to a Laker team in desperate need of a win and to an Indiana Pacer team with a lot of vets who took advantage of some bad stretches by a young group of guys struggling to finish a tough road trip.
All things considered, seven straight home wins, a big win against the Spurs on TNT, and a bounce-back win against the Sixers to prove getting busted up in the Staples Center isn’t enough to send the squad into a tailspin, showed this team could turn out to be something after all, even if we’re not sure what that something might turn out to be.
A more detailed breakdown of December’s positives: J.J. Hickson racked up a ton of double-doubles, LaMarcus Aldridge put together a bunch of very nice performances, Damian Lillard backed up his Rookie of the Month from November with another award-worthy month that included a fantastic show against the Spurs and a game-winner against the Hornets and his chief competition for Rookie of the Year Anthony Davis, and Nicolas Batum collected a five-by-five and start showing some more offensive versatility.
Again, a good month isn’t also without a few negatives. Portland’s bench is still a pretty big question mark, even if Luke Babbitt and Will Barton are starting to look like guys that deserve regular reserve minutes. Wesley Matthews has been down for a long stretch with a hip flexor injury. And now Meyers Leonard might need to have his leg replaced after it apparently fell off Saturday night against the Sixers.
But like two losses to the Kings can be mitigated by nine wins, a few injuries and a couple outstanding questions don’t take away from all the good that happened in December.
Number of Games in January: 16
Game Breakdown: 1/1 at New York, 1/2 at Toronto, 1/4 at Memphis, 1/5 at Minnesota, 1/7 vs. Orlando, 1/10 vs. Miami, 1/11 at Golden State, 1/13 vs. Oklahoma City, 1/15 at Denver, 1/18 vs. Cleveland, 1/19 vs. Milwaukee, 1/21 vs. Washington, 1/23 vs. Indiana, 1/26 vs. Los Angeles Clippers, 1/27 at Los Angeles Clippers, 1/29 vs. Dallas
Games to Watch: January is full of them. Portland plats the Clippers twice in a home-and-home back-to-back. Over two months, the other LA team has emerged as maybe the best team in the NBA. The Clips could regress in 2013, but I doubt it. The Blazers’ opening road-trip could very easily end up 0-4, the Knicks are on fire, the Grizzlies are a threat for the top two spots in the West, Toronto has turned things around a little since last month, and the Timberwolves are right there in the playoff hunt.
If I were a Blazer fan, I would pay particular attention to Portland’s showdown in Oakland with the best young team in the league. The Warriors are the team these Blazers should try to emulate. They’re built inside out with an All-Star power forward and a tandem of young dynamic guards who could very likely rule the Western Conference for years to come. There’s an extra wrinkle to this game, though. Oakland is the childhood home of Damian Lillard. I would be very shocked if he didn’t have a huge game playing in front of those people closest to him who helped make his long-shot NBA career a fantastic reality.
But it’s not just two match-ups with the Clips and a homecoming for Damian Lillard that we should look out for. Portland has another crack at the Western Conference Champion Oklahoma City Thunder, chances for redemption against the Washington Wizards, the Indiana Pacers, and the Dallas Mavericks, and a point guard of the future tête-à-tête between Damian and last season’s Rookie of the Year Kyrie Irving.
Game of the Month: Well, this one is really a no-brainer. On the 10th of January, the Miami Heat make their one and only appearance at the Rose Garden. It probably won’t be Portland’s best game, my guess is Miami wins it going away, but when a team wants to test their mettle, it’s always good to do it against the top team in the NBA.
Prediction: 8-8. I’m going to blow up my prediction percentage this month I fear. But that’s what happens when you make a prediction that seems to go way over in the win column and ends up being one win short.
Portland starts the season in a bad place, a four games in five nights double back-to-back road trip. It’s generous to say the Blazers will split the trip, but this is a team very motivated to get a couple of road wins, so I’m going to give them wins at Toronto and Minnesota with one close loss and one blowout (hoping for the close loss in MSG because more people are going to be watching) to make four. After that it gets a little hairy. A home win against the Magic, followed by losses at home to Miami, at Golden State, at home again to Oklahoma City, and then at Denver. I’d love to give the Blazers an upset over one of those four teams (OKC at home would be the best, but a win at Golden State would also be pretty huge), but I just don’t see it happening.
Following that little four-game slide, I think Portland gets right (but maybe not in a HUGE way) against Kyrie and Cleveland at home, and then gets two revenge wins against the Wizards and the Pacers to even up those season series.
After that, the Blazers will likely lose both ends of the Clippers home-and-home back-to-back. But fear not, Portland will close the month on a win, bringing their January record to .500.
What it All Means: If the Blazers finish the first month of 2013 with eight wins and eight losses, they’ll be at 23 total wins and a game above .500 with just a little more than half of the season over. Certainly that’s better than even they thought they’d be.
February is going to be a tough month. The month after next, Portland plays four home games and eight road games. If there’s a time for them to figure out the road, it’s going to have to be this month where the road/home split is not so weighted towards home games as December was, but is more even than February will be. Figuring out the road could turn a nicely developing season into something this franchise could be proud of.
If the Blazers can hang around .500 into February, there will be plenty of talk about competing for the Playoffs. That kind of talk is bound to make some Portland fans a little sick to the stomach. I certainly think the Playoffs are a pipe dream, but if dangling that carrot can motivate this young team, then I’m all for it.
Of course, January can go sour. The nice thing about a bad January is that Mike Rice will stop mentioning the Playoffs so we can all be spared the possibility of serious facial damage due to extreme eye-rolling.