Alright, Blazer fans, are you ready for some super advanced basketball analysis? OK, here goes. In the four months of the 2012-13 regular season that have come and gone, Portland has won three times in the first game of the month, and lost only once (beating the Lakers on Opening Night in October 31st, beating the Cleveland Cavaliers in December, beating the Knicks in January, and losing to the Thunder in November).
Of those three wins, two have come on the first night of the month (December and January). Right now, the Blazers are 2-0 when they face an opponent on the first night of the month on the road. Friday night, February the 1st, Portland takes on the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City. If my advanced statistical calculations are correct, the Blazers are pretty much a lock for a win.
All kidding aside, Portland is about to start an absolutely crucial stretch of the season, and they start that stretch with an unbelievably important home-and-home back-to-back with the Jazz. February and March are known as the dog days of the NBA. These are the months when between eight and 10 teams are already playing meaningless games, when injuries start to pile up and top teams begin tapering to prepare for the post-season.
They’re also the months when bubble teams get to decide their own future. As I said in my preview for February, a winning streak puts the Blazers in a good place with regards to playing at the end of April, a losing streak (of six or more) probably erases all the work they’ve done to get past the mid-point in the season with more wins than losses.
Starting February with at least one win against the Jazz is imperative; getting a win in SLC to start this Utah double dip could go a long way to set the tone for the penultimate full month of 2012-13 (the regular season ends for Portland on April 17th).
Blazers Starting 5: PG Damian Lillard, SG Wesley Matthews, SF Nicolas Batum, PF LaMarcus Aldridge, C J.J. Hickson
Jazz Starting 5: PG Jamaal Tinsely, SG Randy Foye, SF Marvin Williams, PF Paul Millsap, C Al Jefferson
The Blazers haven’t played the Jazz yet in the regular season. That might be why these two teams are facing each other twice in two nights. Whatever the case, Portland and Utah haven’t faced off since the last two games of the preseason. These are not the same two teams at the start of February that they were at the end of October. Because of that, whichever team starts Friday’s game the quickest will probably win.
We all know how quick starts have gone for Portland. The Blazers have shown a remarkable ability to makeup for slow starts and elongated droughts (Cardiac Kids blah blah blah), but Salt Lake City is not the place you want to have to try and dig your way out of a 21-point hole.
Smart money says the Jazz start Friday’s game by attacking Portland in the paint. Al Jefferson is the type of large, methodical center that gives a frenetic (also frantic) trial and error defender like J.J. Hickson nightmares. J.J. is going to have to find a way to stay at home against Big Al, not biting on his numerous pump fakes, to keep him off the line and keep himself out of foul trouble.
Hickson is also going to have to figure out how to rebound on the defense end. Jefferson is a big body who is a more than decent rebounder. Not letting Jefferson get a ton of easy put-back baskets will be just as important as keeping him from scoring in the half court offense.
Utah’s other inside force is Paul Millsap (Blazer fans might remember him from almost coming to Portland that one time). Millsap will have to work more since he’ll take on the task of defending LaMarcus Aldridge, but stopping him should also be very near the top of the Blazers’ to-do list. One of the best ways for the Blazers to limit Millsap will be to get him out of the game. LA can get Millsap in foul trouble by attacking the rim. I know he has been shooting a ton of mid-range jumpers, but LaMarcus has made an obvious effort in the last few weeks to get to the basket. If LA attacks the basket, I’m going to say there’s almost no way that’s a bad thing.
This game starts to get interesting when you look at the match-ups at the wings and point guard position. The Jazz roll out Jamaal Tinsley and Earl Watson at the one, Randy Foye at the two, and Marvin Williams at the three.
Damian Lillard has struggled more against young, quick, athletic point guards than he has against crafty veterans. I don’t imagine Tinsley or Watson will give Dame too many serious problems. I’m sure both guys will try as hard as they can to be physical with Lillard. They’ll also try to pull out any trick they can to get Dame into foul trouble. I feel like that would have been more of an issue in game 15 or 20, but here in game 46 of Lillard’s career, I don’t think he’s too susceptible to veteran gamesmanship.
As for the wing positions. I can see Friday becoming a stone-cold shoot out. Randy Foye and Marvin Williams are capable shooters. Much like Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum, Foye and Williams are streaky. The wing tandem that shoots better might well determine Friday’s winner.
What to Watch For
- Returning to Utah. Damian Lillard will be playing his first professional game in Utah, the state where he played his college basketball. Dame racked up 37 points in his return to Oakland, his home town. This game doesn’t carry that kind of emotional weight, Damian didn’t grow up dreaming of playing against the Jazz, but after losing in maybe the biggest game (for him) of his rookie year, you can bet he’s motivated to play well and win on Friday. Wesley Matthews is also returning to Utah. Matthews broke in with the Jazz. As an un-drafted free agent, Jerry Sloan and the Jazz took something of a flier on Wesley and turned him into a solid upper middle class NBA pro. Matthews has a ton of reverence for the Jazz. He knows no better way to show his appreciation for his first NBA home than to do everything in his power to beat the pants off of them. Expect Wesley to have a good game.
- Will there be minutes for Meyers Leonard. Most nights when Terry Stotts gets a question about why Meyers Leonard didn’t get more burn (less than three minutes against Dallas and none in the second half), Portland’s head coach points at match-ups. Some times he’s right. Some times I feel like he’s trying not to say that Meyers stayed on the sidelines because winning is more important than developing the Blazers’ “other” lottery pick. Utah has two formidable young bigs coming off the bench in Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors. Kanter averages 14 and a half minutes a night; Favors averages almost 22 minutes a night. Meyers is at 15:54 per in 34 games. Hopefully there will be minutes on Friday night for Leonard. At some point Meyers needs to get a chance to cut his teeth against the guys he’s going to have to face for most of his career.
- Nicolas Batum. It’s weird to say that Nic is mired in a slump. He’s still got two triple-doubles in the last five games. However, Nic barely shot the ball at all in Portland’s loss to the Clippers on the second half of their first home-and-home back-to-back, and even if he did come up with a couple very timely buckets in the Blazers’ miracle win over the Mavericks, he shot a pretty poor 4-of-14 from the field in that game. A big game from Batum could be a difference maker. Same goes, but in the other direction, if he doesn’t show up.