There is one thing to never take for granted about the NBA season, and that’s the pace at which everything happens. It has been less than a week since the Blazers made a miraculous comeback at the Rose Garden to beat the Miami Heat, making talk of Portland in the Playoffs seem less like the delusional ramblings of blind-faith homers.
In the days since that big win, the Blazers have put up valiant losing efforts against the Golden State Warriors, and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Tuesday Portland travels to the Mile High City, a place they never play very well, to play a team, the Denver Nuggets, that doesn’t lose very often at home. The Blazers stand at eighth in the Western Conference, solidly in position to make the post-season, but five days removed from their biggest win of 2012-13, Portland is facing down a three-game losing streak.
I made a joke during the Blazers’ win over the Heat that Portland should think about resting their starters in Golden State. To me, there was no reason to put LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Damian Lillard, and Nicolas Batum through a second 40-plus minute night in what was likely to be a losing effort.
The Blazers’ head coach Terry Stotts didn’t exactly take my advice to heart. Dame logged almost 43 minutes in his best night out as a professional. Wesley Matthews played 36 minutes, LA 33, and Nicolas played 43. Tuesday isn’t the second night of a back-to-back, it’s the first night of a back-to-back. It also comes after yet another emotionally draining loss, and is being played a mile above sea level. I think it’s pretty accurate to say that Portland is going to be worn out after this game regardless of the outcome.
Which is why, I would suggest using this game to rest starters, or at least to not play starters upwards of 40 minutes. I understand Stotts not kneecapping his team on the first return to the hometown of one of his best players. But there are a few good reasons the Blazers should accept that they’ll probably lose on Tuesday and not try to kill themselves for one measly win.
Those reasons: the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Milwaukee Bucks, and the Washington Wizards. Those are the next three teams Portland will face. All of them at home. The Cavs and the Wizards have won a combined 16 games. The Bucks are in the Playoff hunt in the Eastern Conference, but are far from a stable contender at this point in the season. Winning those three games, and winning one or two of the next three home games (Indiana, LA Clippers, Dallas) is much more important than getting totally gassed in Denver against the Nuggets.
Blazers Starting 5: PG Damian Lillard, SG Wesley Matthews, SF Nicolas Batum, PF LaMarcus Aldridge, C J.J. Hickson
Nuggets Starting 5: PG Ty Lawson, SG Andre Igoudala, SF Danilo Gallinari, PF Kenneth Faried, C Kosta Koufos
When Portland last played Denver (December 20th), the Blazers were aided in the their 101-93 victory by a historic 0-of-22 shooting night from three by the visiting team. Expecting that the Nuggets will once again miss more than 20 straight three-pointers is not what I would call a very wise game plan. That night too, saw Denver outscore Portland 74-28 in the paint and 31-7 on the break. Again, numbers that if replicated will probably not lead to the same final score.
So what are the Blazers to do if they have to throw out their last meeting with the Denver Nuggets since nothing they did that game will help them with this one?
My first suggestion is to slow it down. Play as much as they can in the half court. Denver is built to get out and run. Andre Igoudala, Ty Lawson, JaVale McGee, Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, and Corey Brewer are all guys that play at their best in an up and down game. They are also guys who are much less effective when forced to try and score in half court sets. Half court play will help maximize Portland’s limited talent advantages (or minimize Portland’s talent disadvantages if saying it like that suits you better), will keep the home crowd from getting too jacked up from highlight dunks etc., and should help the Blazers avoid wearing themselves out completely.
When it comes to individual player match-ups for Tuesday’s game, Portland is at a bit of a disadvantage. The Blazers’ best weapon is LaMarcus Aldridge, and although he won’t be called upon to do a whole lot on the defensive end, Denver has more than its fair allotment of high-level rim protectors. JaVale McGee, Kenneth Faried, and Kosta Koufos will make sure Portland gets absolutely nothing for free at the rim. That means either LaMarcus Aldridge is going to have to get a lot of his points from the free throw line (something he doesn’t do all that well), or the Blazers’ shooters are going to have to knock down shots so the Nuggets won’t feel comfortable sending strong double teams at LA.
What to Watch For
- Ty Lawson versus Damian Lillard. Dame held his own on Sunday against Russell Westbrook. Sure Russ had an awful shooting night, and on the flip side he completely shut down Damian’s offensive game (his nine points on Sunday were his second lowest output of the season and only the third time in 2012-13 that he’s failed to score at least 10 points), but all things considered Lillard should feel pretty good about the way he played against the bigger and more athletic point guard from OKC. Ty Lawson is not as big as Russell Westbrook, but he’s as quick as they come and has developed a very decent jump-shot. So far the only major knock on Damian Lillard is that he struggles defensively. I don’t disagree with that, but I really think a lot of it has to do with his still learning the NBA. That being said, Dame’s biggest problems on the defensive end are losing guys on picks. Lawson is going to run at Damian with the ball in his heads, but he is also going to play off the ball some when Andre Miller is on the court. In the off the ball situations, Damian can not get lost tracking Lawson through picks, or else Ty is going to make it a long night for the Blazers.
- Portland’s bench. Inconsistency is the name of the game here with Portland’s bench. Sunday, Terry Stotts rode Sashs Pavlovic down the stretch instead of J.J. Hickson for the sake of match-ups. Even with the extra minutes, Sasha did nothing on offense. His lack of meaningful contributions didn’t hurt the Blazers too much, but mostly because Hickson is on a roll of being absolutely miserable finishing at the rim. Stotts is going to have to play his bench on Tuesday, he has to play his bench every night even on nights when four of his top five guys rack up 40+ minutes. I’m for the bench guys each getting at or around 12 minutes regardless of the score. And in those 12+ minutes, I would like to see them do some good on offense. Denver’s bench is deep. Portland’s bench needs to not get outscored by 20 like they did last time these two teams played (48-27 to be exact). When the Blazers and the Nuggets last met, Luke Babbitt collected a season high with 14 points. It was his third game in a row with 10 or more points. Portland fans could be forgiven for thinking he’d finally started to show that promise that made him the 16th overall pick. Since then, though, Babbitt has scored at least 10 all of one time. Though he’s played consistently (Luke hasn’t been DNP-CD’d since the end of November), he hasn’t played WELL in nearly a month. In fact, Luke’s last good game came against these same Denver Nuggets. Maybe he’ll have another good game on Tuesday.
- Can Portland get a lead or at least stay close. In all of their last three games (two losses and a win) the Blazers have gotten down by double digits before making runs to win (against Miami) and lose with dignity (at Golden State and at home against OKC). This team has talked all year about trying to figure out how to not play from behind all the time. Let’s see if they can back up some of that talk on Tuesday. Working to get back against Denver is tough because of the altitude. It’s double-tough too, since Portland will play again Wednesday night and should probably be thinking about staying fresh for that game.