There’s a team out west led by an All-Star power forward and a hot shooting young point guard that has taken the NBA by storm. They’re the fastest risers in the league, are directed by a potential coach of the year, they’ll make the Playoffs almost for sure, and given the right match-up they could very possibly make a deep post-season run.
Think I’m talking about the Blazers? LA’s an All-Star, Damian Lillard is a top-10 point guard, and over the last 15 games Portland (at 12-3) is tied for the second best record in the NBA. So you’d be right about those things. But a deep Playoff run? Sure if the Lakers don’t figure it out and the T-Wolves can’t survive without Kevin Love for two months and the Utah Jazz don’t get crazy hot when Mo Williams comes back, the Playoffs are certainly in play, but without a bench, the Blazers might be able to steal a game from the Thunder or the Clippers but not a series.
The hot Western Conference team, the sleeper pick to make the Western Conference Finals (depending on where they finish at the end of the season) is the Golden State Warriors. Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, David Lee, and Harrison Barnes are the backbone of a strong team that has jumped out to fifth place in the West. They play an up-tempo, inside-out game, and without Monta Ellis, they seem to have shed the rep of being the worst decision makers in the league.
Blazers Starting 5: PG Damian Lillard, SG Wesley Matthews, SF Nicolas Batum, PF LaMarcus Aldridge, C J.J. Hickson
Warriors Starting 5: PG Stephen Curry, SG Klay Thompson, SF Harrison Barnes, PF David Lee, C Festus Ezeli
In 2012-13, the Blazers have had trap games, get-right games, must-win games, and can’t lose games (which are different than must-win games). However, they haven’t quite had a game like Friday’s.
Here are the specs: Portland is on the second of a back-to-back, Thursday night (for those will HORRIBLE short-term memories) the Blazers led for the most important 26 seconds of their game against the Miami Heat, four of Portland’s five starters are 24 hours removed from logging 40 minutes of smash-mouth basketball. The Blazers almost never win in Oakland. And Golden State is staring down a three-game losing streak that could undermine all they’ve done to open the season.
And here’s the kicker, Damian Lillard will be playing as a profession in his hometown for the first time (in case you didn’t know, Damian Lillard grew up in Oakland). Portland should be totally depleted, both emotionally and physically, and one of their most important players is playing probably the biggest game of his life. Who knows what to expect.
What to Watch For
- Will the combination of Curry and Thompson shoot the Blazers out of Oracle. For my money, there is no better young back court combination than Klay Thompson (in his second season) and Steph Curry (in his third). Thompson is a dead-eye, spot-up shooter; Curry is maybe the best young point guard in the league (he’s not quite Damian Lillard’s ceiling since I think Dame is a better traditional point guard, but he is certainly the closest comparison I can think of). Both guys can flat out shoot the ball. Portland’s perimeter defense has had its Swiss cheese moments this season. If Thompson and Curry are not defended well, if they are allowed to get lots of open looks, the Blazers will put themselves in a hole very early. Here’s the good thing though, Portland is coming off a pretty impressive defensive night. Maybe LeBron James was just off on Thursday, or maybe Wesley Matthews really is a stopper on the defensive end. Either way, this team should probably be pretty pumped about how they kept Miami from hitting shots down the stretch that would very easily would have kept Portland at arm’s length. Klay Thompson is not LeBron James. Wesley Matthews should be able to disrupt his game a little bit. Curry one-on-one with Damian Lillard will be a little more interesting. Dame struggled a bit against Mario Chalmers at times on Thursday. Curry doesn’t play D like Chalmers does, but if Dame tries to get into a shooting contest with Steph it could be a long night.
- Are the Blazers over their biggest win of the season. Thursday night I asked Wesley Matthews how this team can carry the momentum from beating the Heat into beating the Warriors (you can watch a bit of his response here, I’m the guy over Wesley’s left shoulder who is made up mostly of hair). He said, as he tends to do, that the team will enjoy it until midnight and then get onto the next one. He says it. He believes it. But can Portland play like they actually mean it? I submit as exhibit A proving that maybe they cannot, the second game of 2013 for the Blazers played in Toronto against the Raptors.
- What will Damian’s homecoming be like. Dame has done absolutely nothing wrong throughout his 35 games as a professional. Thursday he missed two free throws and a three in the fourth quarter (two big misses). I asked him if he was feeling pressure for the first time with the ball in his hands trying to sink the defending NBA Champs. Of course he said no. The ball goes in sometimes, and sometimes it doesn’t, is what he said. Oakland means a lot to Damian. This game is important to him, even if he pretends that it isn’t. So, if Friday’s game is important, will Dame shine or will he finally fail to deliver with the spotlight on him.