I think there is a way for Blazer fans to get through what remains of the 2012-13 season without totally losing their minds.
By that I mean, there are going to be some fans who will get all bent out of shape listening to the local television and radio analysts who insist that Portland is still in contention for the playoffs, and there are going to be an equal number of fans screaming until they are blue in the face at the people who tweet and blog about how bad this Blazer team actually is and how homerish our homers are for the home team. Add to that mix those who will continue to appreciate how this season has gone while still trying to sound like they have some grip, however tenuous, on actual reality, and it’s clear that the stretch run is not going to be easy for anybody.
Because of that, I’m here to offer you a list of things to pay attention to so you can enjoy the stretch run regardless of what category of Blazer fan you fall into, beginning Wednesday evening in Memphis against the Grizzlies.
Meyers Leonard: What remains of this season should be dedicated to improving the play of Meyers Leonard. Right now Meyers is in the midst of his best extended streak of play. His minutes are up, his scoring and rebounding numbers are up, and his fouling has been curbed some. His defensive rotations need work, and he can certainly improve on rim protection. That’s why he needs to be playing. Head coach Terry Stotts has said that Meyers will continue to get minutes if he plays well. Over what remains of March and the half of April with scheduled games, Meyers needs to average about 20 minutes per game.
Eric Maynor and the bench unit: Eric Maynor has proven to be a pretty great signing. He has shown that he can play alongside Damian Lillard and maximize Dame’s off the ball abilities. He also has helped to limit the first quarter drop-off when Lillard goes to the bench (or the second quarter drop-off that was happening when Stotts decided to run Lillard 20 minutes in the first half). Those are huge things. That being said, what Eric Maynor really brings to the Blazers is an ability to successfully pilot Portland’s second unit. Going forward, the success of lineups such as Maynor, Victor Claver, Leonard, Will Barton, and Joel Freeland will be an important thing to pay attention to.
The continued growth of Portland’s top four: Through the first 59 games of the season, the Blazers’ top four (LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum, and Wesley Matthews) has been just about as good as any other top four in the league. It’s a paradox of sorts, considering that the play of the top four has enabled Portland to compete but has also limited the team’s bench development. However, Aldridge, Lillard, Batum, and Matthews are the future of the franchise. Even if the Blazers continue to lose more than win, watching the top four grow into a strong unit should be fun.
The evolution of J.J. Hickson: J.J. stuck around after the trade deadline mostly because he didn’t want to go anywhere. He likes playing in Portland. He’s done well for himself here. Hickson’s not in the long-term plans, but he can put himself in the future picture if he can evolve his game into something the Blazers can’t live without. That mostly means getting comfortable with fewer minutes and a smaller role. As Meyers Leonard reaches 20 minutes or more per game, Hickson will be the guy losing minutes. How he deals with that will go a long way to determine what his future situation will go.
Blazers Starting 5: PG Damian Lillard, SG Wesley Matthews, SF Nicolas Batum, PF LaMarcus Aldridge, C J.J. Hickson
Grizzlies Starting 5: PG Mike Conley, SG Tony Allen, SF Tayshaun Prince, PF Ed Davis, C Marc Gasol
Because I spent the first part of this preview telling you what to watch for (other than wins and losses) over the next few weeks, I’m just going to do a quick match-up break down for Wednesday’s game.
The Grizzlies are a tough cover for the Blazers. Mostly because Marc Gasol is the kind of center who can give J.J. Hickson fits. J.J. doesn’t really play defense so much as he hopes the dude he’s checking misses a shot so he (J.J.) can get another rebound. Gasol’s back to the basket game, facilitated by his height advantage, is not going to be negatively affected by Hickson in the least. How well Marc Gasol plays is likely to determine how this game goes for Portland.
To counter Gasol and his advantage over Hickson, is LaMarcus Aldridge and his advantage over Ed Davis or whichever back up four the Grizzlies roll out to replace Zach Randolph. That only applies, though, if Z-Bo sits this one out. Otherwise, Randolph/Aldridge will be the grind-it-out match-up of the evening. LA has the advantage, slightly, over Z-Bo, especially if he plays hurt. Rebounding and defense will be the numbers to look at here. If Randolph gets a ton of easy rebounds, especially rebounds on the offensive end that lead to easy buckets, Portland is in trouble. Conversely, easy buckets and rebounds from LA could swing Wednesday’s game in the Blazers’ favor.
I would hazard to say that the other three starting position match-ups are all pushes. Damian Lillard and Mike Conley are very similar (Conley is a better passer but Lillard is a better shooter), same with Tony Allen and Wesley Matthews (Allen’s the better defender but Matthews’ shooting levels that out a bit). Nicolas Batum and Tayshaun Prince are basically variations on the exact same player. If one guy in that group of six has an outlier type of performance (40 points or something like that), it could be a game changer. Likely though, these match-ups will basically cancel each other out.
Of these three match-ups, though, I would say Batum versus Prince will be the best one to watch. Prince is on his way out and Batum is back to playing great, but a mid-season trade from a bad team to a contender is just the kind of thing to re-ignite a dude like Tayshaun with championship bona fides. These guys might go at it a little bit, and that could be fun for everybody.