February is over. It’s the shortest month of the year, but it was long enough to dash any Playoff hopes more delusional Blazer fans may have had. There’s still the whole month of March, though, and then three weeks in April that this team has to slog through before we can all start looking forward to off-season free agency and the draft and all the goes with those things.
And because there is still basketball left to be played in 2012-13, there’s no reason to stop talking about it. Saturday will be one of the more highly anticipated Blazer games of the season, even if by now we’re basically over the meta narrative surrounding it that has run itself into the ground and neither team playing is in contention for anything meaningful.
Still, there are going to be things to watch when the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Blazers face off at the Rose Garden Saturday night. First, has head coach Terry Stotts succumb to the obvious fact that his team is not making the Playoffs and thus will play Meyers Leonard for 20 minutes or until he picks up six fouls (whichever comes first). Second, can Portland for the first time this season get a first round knock out of an OBVIOUSLY inferior opponent? And third, will the sight of Brandon Roy in the flesh make 20,000 Portlanders weep all at the same time?
Blazers Starting 5: PG Damian Lillard, SG Wesley Matthews, SF Nicolas Batum, PF LaMarcus Aldridge, C J.J. Hickson
Timberwolves Starting 5: PG Ricky Rubio, SG Luke Ridnour, SF Derrick Williams, PF Dante Cunningham, C Nikola Pekovic
From a pure match-up stand-point, Portland has a fair to decent advantage over Minnesota. Damian Lillard versus Ricky Rubio is going to be fun to watch; they’re both fast and smart young point guards on the rise. The advantage Damian has as a scorer is mitigated by what Ricky can do as a passer and a play-maker. I’ll take Dame over Rubio, to be sure, but if you’re being totally honest, for Portland this head-to-head is basically a push.
Shooting guard is a different issue though. Wesley Matthews is a traditional NBA shooting guard. He’s athletic, he can attack the rim and shoot, and he can defend his position. Luke Ridnour is a point guard, moved over a spot because Ricky Rubio is better at the one and there isn’t anybody on Minny’s roster to beat out for starting minutes at the two. Ridnour has an advantage over Matthews in terms of pace, but if Wesley takes Luke into the low block, no amount of speed with the ball can make up for the advantage Portland will get on offense.
The three and four positions are interesting too, but for my money trend in favor of the Blazers. Derrick Williams has benefited a lot from guys who were once ahead of him on the depth chart getting hurt. He’s proved to be a serviceable player. He’ll have trouble staying with Nicolas Batum, though, if Portland runs Nic off of screens. The other D-Will might also end up getting stretched out of the middle if Batum decides to spend the evening shooting threes. Keeping Williams out of the middle, and away from strong double teams, is going to be important for Portland.
Which leads right into the point at which the Blazers have their biggest advantage. LaMarcus Aldridge should be able to eat up Dante Cunningham. DC is a good player and a true NBA success story. He just isn’t in LA’s league. The way LaMarcus has been stroking the jumper, look for Cunningham to try and close out hard in and around the key/elbow area. The problem with doing that, though, is that Aldridge can very easily out muscle a hard closing Cunningham and get to the rim or even better to the free throw line. Portland needs to feed LA all night, that is where they are going to have their biggest advantage.
The center position is Minnesota’s best right now what with Kevin Love giving up professional basketball for the Entourage movie. Nikola Pekovic is the kind of center Portland fans which they had in J.J. Hickson. He’s a beast in the paint, he’s a smart defender, and he plays within his capabilities. Minnesota should, and will, go to Pekovic early and often. Sadly, he probably won’t be able to win this game all by himself. Due to an abdominal strain he suffered against the Lakers, Pekovic might not even play at all. If that’s the case, Minnesota is in real trouble.
What to Watch For
- Who plays and how much. This is always an important question. Minnesota is this season’s version of the Blazers circa 09-10 or 10-11. Everybody on their roster, basically, has missed time with injuries. Nikola Pekovic is the most recent Wolf to be sidelined in-game. As I just said, his status is key. For Portland, it’s not about injuries but about how minutes are allotted. It’s getting to the point where Stotts has to start playing his bench just to see who gets to stay for next season and who should be looking for new work. Eric Maynor, Meyers Leonard, Victor Claver, and Joel Freeland are the guys to watch on Saturday. In the 10 to 20 minute range for Maynor, Leonard, and Claver. Anything at all for Freeland.
- Brandon Roy. It’s happening, so pay attention to it. It upsets me some that he won’t be playing. But he won’t be playing ever again, so at some point we should all be allowed to show him how much he’s meant to us as a Blazer.
- Can Portland win. The question really should be, do the Blazers have it within themselves to continue winning even if winning and losing are now totally irrelevant.