I was asked recently to contribute my thoughts on what Blazer fans have to look forward to in what remains of the 2012-13 season. It’s a tough question, what is their left to look forward to, considering that Portland is very very likely out of the Playoff race, hasn’t won a game in their last seven tries, and still have the Knicks, the Nets, the Lakers, the Thunder, and the Warriors to play at home, a four-game swing against four Eastern Conference playoff teams, and road dates with Oklahoma City, Golden State, and the Los Angeles Clippers left on their schedule.
Things could very easily go from bad to worse for the Blazers. It’s hard to convince the fan base that they have anything at all to look forward to.
But the truth is, there are at least a few things we should all try to feel positive about. Two of them are going to be on display when Portland takes on the Boston Celtics on Sunday in the Rose Garden. First among those two is that the Blazers tend to play their best basketball at home against the best teams in the league. Second: Eric Maynor.
When 2012-13 is laid to rest in the middle of April, we’ll all look back at what went down this season and remember that the Blazers beat both the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat at the Rose Garden in two of the best games of the season. As of this writing, the Spurs’ 44-13 record makes them the best team in the NBA. Incidentally, the Heat, with a record of 39-14 are the second best team in the NBA. Portland has proven that they can play with and beat the best two teams in the league.
Sunday, with the Boston Celtics in town, the Blazers will have another chance to best one of the better teams in the NBA. Boston is no longer one of the elite Eastern Conference teams, but they are still a damn sight better than Portland (at least record-wise) and in a lot of ways are the LA Lakers of the East (for this season and many others). Right now the Celtics are a heroic team, playing through injury, fighting for seeding at the bottom of the Eastern Conference Playoff picture. They’re also going to be the team coming out of the East that will be given the ever popular, SportsCenter headline favorite, “team nobody wants to face in the first round,” especially if Boston hits that magic number and ends up opposite the New York Knicks to kick off the Playoffs. Sunday should be a fun game. Blazer fans have that to look forward to.
Rebuilding is a long process with many ins and outs. General Managers have to balance what they have with what they can give with what they want to have. It’s a delicate act that go wrong in so many ways so quickly that some teams would rather be losers forever than risk leveraging the present in sake of the future. Neil Olshey came to Portland with the mandate to make this team better, to get this team back into the Playoffs on a regular basis, and to get this team COMPETING once they get to the Playoffs.
Olshey also has to do all that without jeopardizing what was developed before he showed up, and he also has to make everything work without the Blazers going over the salary cap. Portland is a small market team and its big market owner isn’t going to ignore that fact any longer.
Enter Eric Maynor. By trading basically nothing, and cutting a player making basically nothing who was doing basically nothing, for a guy who not even that long ago was considered the best back-up point guard in the NBA is a move that makes the team better (probably in the long-term, since I imagine Olshey and the brass look at a 25 year-old as not being just a rental player) without costing then anything. It’s the kind of move that Neil Olshey was hired to make. Blazer fans have the play of Eric Maynor (now and in the future) to look forward to starting Sunday.
Blazers Starting 5: PG Damian Lillard, SG Wesley Matthews, SF Nicolas Batum, PF LaMarcus Aldridge, C J.J. Hickson
Celtics Starting 5: PG Avery Bradley, SG Courtney Lee, SF Paul Pierce, PF Jeff Green, C Brandon Bass
Portland has two tasks on Sunday. First, they need to stop Paul Pierce, and second, they need to figure out a way to score.
Paul Pierce is getting up there in years, but he is still one of the best and most dynamic scorers in the NBA. He is also the heart and soul of this Celtics squad. As he goes, so goes his team. Figuring out a way to keep Pierce from having a huge night will be the Blazers’ most important job. That means a couple of things. First, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum will have to play strong perimeter defense. Second, everybody else will have to work to keep Pierce off the line. And third, the entire Portland roster will have to crash the defensive glass. Letting Paul Pierce get more than one look at the rim on any given offensive possession is a recipe for disaster.
After stopping Pierce, the Blazers’ second-most important task will be figuring out how to score. The Celtics have been and will always be a defensive minded team. They’re going to try to out muscle Portland, they’re going to try to bully Portland, and they are going to make scoring almost impossible. To counter that, the Blazers need to focus on getting good shots (that means smart ball movement), they’re going to have to try hard to get to the line, and they need to crash the offensive glass. Second chance points could be a determining factor Sunday night. The team with the most second effort scores very well could win this game.
What to Watch For
- Who plays, for how long, and how well. Kevin Garnett sat out Boston’s win in Phoenix. I’m not listed KG among the starters for that reason, but there’s no reason to think he won’t be in action against the Blazers. Whether or not Garnett plays is important, how well he plays is just as important. LaMarcus Aldridge and KG have a history. The winner of that match-up is going to be important. Also how much and how well Eric Maynor plays is going to be important. I think Maynor will finish his 27 games with Portland averaging in the neighborhood of 25 minutes a night. Nolan Smith averages 8.3 minutes per game in the 31 games he’s played in; Ronnie Price averaged 13.1 minutes in his 39 appearances as a Blazer. If Maynor hits 25 minutes per, that will be about twice what Price played and just below three times what Smith has played. Many many things can be done with those minutes. Sunday could go a long way to showing how getting significant minutes from a back-up point guard affects the play of the Blazers. Another guy to watch RE: how much and how well they play is Meyers Leonard. Meyers will benefit the most fro the added minutes that come with meaningless late season games. He played well against the Lakers. Boston also doesn’t really have a center. Leonard still hasn’t had a break out game yet. He doesn’t have that many chances left.
- Will the Blazers realize how important winning this game is. The Playoffs are probably out of the picture, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something left to play for. Pride is one thing. Also, keeping fans in the seats. Sunday there is going to be a lot of Celtics’ green in the Rose Garden. It happens when popular East Coast teams come to Portland. If the Blazers want their remaining home games against the Knicks, the Nets, the Lakers, and the Thunder to feel like home games, they have to win.
- Eric Maynor. I’ve already mentioned him a couple of times, but pay close attention to the reaction he gets when checking into Sunday’s game for the first time. I expect a standing ovation.