The All-Star Break is over, which means that for approximately half of the teams in the NBA, the actual season has just begun. Sixteen teams make the Playoffs. On a good year, 20 teams fight it out down the stretch for those sixteen spots (or more accurately four or five teams fight it out for the eighth or maybe seventh spot in both conferences, considering that the first through sixth teams are basically jockeying for position which isn’t quite the same thing).
2012-13 has been a bit top heavy. Teams like San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Miami, and the LA Clippers have been on top almost the entire run. Conversely, teams like Sacramento, Charlotte, Washington, and Portland’s Tuesday opponent Phoenix have basically been stuck at the bottom of the heap since day one. The Blazers, though, fall right into that sweet spot. They are neither the top nor the bottom. They are neither (legitimately) fighting for the post season nor trying to tank for a shot at Shabazz Muhammad, Victor Oladipo, or any of the one or two other blue chippers who could be franchise-level draftees.
Danny Nowell of Portland Roundball Society wrote briefly about the implications of the Blazers’ one foot in/one foot out standing, and what the team should do moving forward. I wrote about it too in a post about why and how Portland should deal J.J. Hickson.
But the real question isn’t what should the Blazers do with regards to trades or rotation moves to make a play in one direction or the other. The question is, how is Portland going to physically play out the string? The Blazers suffered maybe their worst loss of the season in New Orleans before taking off for some much needed R&R. More games like that one, and Portland might be able to play themselves back into their first round pick. More games like that one, though, and the Blazers are going to be finishing the season in an empty gym.
Phoenix has the worst record in the Western Conference and is a few games off the pace set by Charlotte for worst record in the NBA. Losing to Phoenix, pushing the Blazers’ losing streak to six, might very well set the tone for how this season closes out. My guess is Portland will want to win this one at almost all costs. Some fans will find that approach deplorable, putting the future in jeopardy for the sake of keeping the rubes interested.
I don’t totally disagree with the Blazers packing it up and trying to lose for draft positioning. But my educated guess is Portland is going to keep putting guys on the floor with the intent of winning basketball games. If they want to win basketball games, the best place to start is against the worst team in the West.
Blazers Starting 5: PG Damian Lillard, SG Wesley Matthews, SF Nicolas Batum, PF LaMarcus Aldridge, C J.J. Hickson
Suns Starting 5: PG Goran Dragic, SG Jared Dudley, SF P.J. Tucker, PF Luis Scola, C Marcin Gortat
This is a tough one to call, believe it or not. The Blazers and Suns have faced off two times in 2012-13. They’ve split the two meetings, with the home team winning both times. The interesting element of those two games this season is that in Phoenix the Suns whipped the Blazers by 27 and in Portland the Blazers squeaked by with a three-point victory. On aggregate, the team with the worst record in the Western Conference is still 24 points better than the Blazers.
It makes sense, though. Phoenix is the kind of team Portland matches up poorly against, and as we all know the Blazers have a serious tendency to play down to their competition.
Match-up wise, Luis Scola is the kind of power forward who can be a real headache, because the Blazers have limited effective rim protection Marcin Gortat can and will get a lot of easy looks, and shooters like Jared Dudley and Goran Dragic are going to get open looks because every shooter is always open against Portland.
The key for the Blazers on Tuesday is going to be figuring out a way to make the game as easy as possible. That means, basically, taking care of the ball and limiting the number of possessions that end in terrible shots. Phoenix is going to want to get out and run. They’re not quite as well equipped to get up and down the floor as they once were, but they’re going to try and push the pace nonetheless. Transition defense is going to be important, and more than that, limiting the number of possessions Phoenix has on which to get out in transition is going to be even more important.
What to Watch For
- Wesley Matthews and/or Victor Claver. Wesley is injured, and Portland is trying to decide when, where, and how best to play him so he doesn’t kill himself before the end of the season. I vote for Wesley playing if he’s healthy. I also vote for not trying to press too much when it comes to bringing him back. If he plays, that’s good for the Blazers. He is one of their more consistent offensive weapons, and his match-up with Jared Dudley is one of the more favorable match-ups for Portland overall. If he doesn’t play, though, there are going to be some good minutes available for Victor Claver. The final lap of this season can be determined either successful or not based on the progress of guys like Victor Claver. As far as the end of the bench rookies, Claver and Will Barton have been the best. Barton has had better nights than Vic, but the Spaniard might be just a touch more consistent. I feel like Claver is poised to break out one of these nights. The sooner that happens, the better.
- Who shows up for Phoenix. Basically I mean Michael Beasley. If Mike Beasley shows up, his team always has a chance. If you don’t believe me, ask Kobe Bryant.
- Portland’s role players. LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard are coming back for the All-Star Break. They had no time off. In fact, they spent their break competing with the other elites of the NBA in front of a pretty big national and international television audience. I think it was Chris Webber during the BBVA Rising Challenge who said guys usually come back from the All-Star Break motivated to play better, and in turn end up playing a lot better to close the season. The thing to look out for then, is how all the non All-Star participants come back from break. I know most guys went somewhere with their days off. That means they might not have gotten back into Portland until Sunday and that they might not have picked up a basketball for a couple of days. If the Blazers are rusty, they could find themselves in trouble early. The nice thing is, nobody from the Suns played any part in All-Star Weekend. They should be a little rusty too.