The NBA is a strange place. One night a team can blow out the best team (record-wise) in the Western Conference on the road, and then two nights later that same team (the one who perpetrated said blowout) can find themselves going head-to-head with the worst team (record-wise) in the Western Conference. To make things even more strange, the team that gave the best team their worst loss of the season is the same team whose worst lose of this same season came the last time they faced that worst recording owning team.
Confused yet? Well, that’s the situation Portland finds themselves in Sunday evening in New Orleans. On Friday night the Blazers whipped the Spurs by 30; back on February 13th, on the eve of the All-Star Break, the Hornets thrashed Portland by 36. Using Portland as the B variable in the transitive property of equality equation (if a=b and b=c then a=c) The Hornets should be able to beat the Spurs by 66 points, even if San Antonio currently is 27 wins better than NOLA.
Like I said, the NBA is strange.
Nothing has been decided with regards to the Blazers post season future. Likely, Portland misses the playoffs by a game or two (or five). But beating San Antonio in San Antonio while getting almost half a C in the fourth quarter and playing just about the best up and down basketball of the season in the process can change some perspectives in a hurry. All isn’t lost if Portland follows up a big win in Texas with a loss in Louisiana, but a 1-2 road trip late in the season is still a 1-2 road trip, even if that one win came against the top team in the west.
Blazers Starting 5: PG Damian Lillard, SG Wesley Mathews, SF Nicolas Batum, PF LaMarcus Aldridge, C J.J. Hickson
Hornets Starting 5: PG Greivis Vaaquez, SG Eric Gordon, SF Al-Farouq Aminu, PF Antony Davis, C Robin Lopez
NOLA absolutely pasted the Blazers in Portland’s final game before taking vacation time for All-Star. LaMarcus Aldridge talked openly about being tired, which made sense considering he and his team were closing out a tough road trip that included very close losses to the Miami Heat, the Dallas Mavericks, and the Orlando Magic, a blowout loss to the Rockets in Houston, and basically the end of the playoff dream.
Sunday, the Blazers won’t have exhaustion as an excuse, just as they won’t be able to claim being already checked out for the break. In fact, it’s highly unlikely that Portland will have another chance this season to build on a win quite like the one they got on Friday. In short, the Blazers need to win on Sunday. Not because a 2-1 road trip puts them in the playoffs (it doesn’t), but because the Hornets are a long-term building project who will likely be in the lottery, or close to the lottery, for at least the next few seasons and Portland isn’t. At least, the Blazers don’t want to be. If Portland wants to keep their name out of the list of teams vying for the number one pick (the Sacramentos, Charlottes, Washingtons, Orlandos, and Phoenixs of the NBA) they have to beat bad teams.
The Hornets are a grind-it-out team. They’ll try to keep the score low, making Portland work in the half court and forcing the Blazers to earn every bucket. Portland hasn’t been able to impart their will on many opponents this season. The Blazers tend to match whatever type of game is being played against them. Friday, Portland played San Antonio’s game (getting up and down, taking a lot of shots, generally pushing the pace). It worked in part because the Spurs were without Tony Parker but mostly because the Blazers are a jump shooting team who on Friday shot 61% across the board (total field goals, two-point field goals, and three point field goals) and had an Effective Field Goal Percentage (an advanced stat that reflects the difference in value between twos and threes) of 69%. Sure the Spurs were short their best play maker, but Portland beat the best team in the West because they made shots.
If the Blazers shoot in NOLA like they did in San Antonio, the Hornets don’t have a chance. It’s unlikely Portland’s hot shooting will cross state lines with the team, but if the Blazers can turn Sunday’s contest into an up and down affair, avoiding the grinding half court game the Hornets will want to play, they should be OK.
What to Watch For
- Can the Blazers start hot. Portland scored 46 points in their last 12 minutes of game time. The odds they do the same again in their next 12 minutes of play are long. Forty-six shouldn’t be the number the Blazers shoot for, but it’s out there. This team can score, as they proved by hanging 136 on San Antonio. If they can start Sunday’s game with scoring, they’ll be able to set the tone for the entire night. The Hornets are not a high-scoring team, but they do have guys like Eric Gordan, Ryan Anderson, and Anthony Davis who may not be huge scorers but can put points on the board. I don’t think the team that wins the first quarter wins the game on Sunday (San Antonio led by two after 12 minutes on Friday), but if the Blazers can score in the high 20s or even into the 30s, Portland will give themselves a huge leg up.
- Defense and rebounding. In all likelihood, Sunday’s game will be decided based on which team plays better defense. That better defense will also include finishing defensive possessions with rebounds. Scoring is going to be at a premium on Sunday. If Portland can keep NOLA from scoring and off the offensive glass, they’ll be in good shape.
- Damian Lillard versus Anthony Davis. That Dame and the Brow won’t face off one-on-one has little relevance. Lillard and Davis are the cream of their draft class. They’re the two guys everybody is going to watch for years to come. Damian has separated himself from the rest of the pack (winning all four Western Conference Rookie of the Month Awards and doing a lot of things that haven’t ever really been done before by a first-year NBA player), and that has led to a bit of a mixed bag media-wise. There are some who claim that maybe he isn’t as great as his relative greatness would suggest. There are others who disagree. What’s almost without debate, though, is how good Anthony Davis is/is going to be. I haven’t seen much of Davis this season, but it makes sense that national writers would lavish praise all over the number one overall pick. Davis comes from the University of Kentucky having won a National Championship, so he has the amateur bona fides Damian lacks (Lillard never played in the NCAA Tournament at Weber State). Davis also has basically unlimited potential considering that he’s 19, still learning the game of basketball, and still growing into his body. There’s almost no possible way Damian has hit his ceiling in his first season, but it’s not hard to see that Lillard growth potential isn’t quite that of Davis. That being said, claiming that Damian isn’t that good or that his record breaking season hasn’t been phenomenal, smacks a bit of trolling and is certainly not a sentiment I agree with.