March 6, 2013; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; New York Knicks point guard Raymond Felton (2) reacts after a basket in the third quarter against the Detroit Pistons at The Palace. New York won 87-77. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Game Preview: Portland Trail Blazers (29-34) Vs. New York Knicks (38-24)

There’s a basketball game that will be played Thursday night in Portland. It will be between a team that started 2012-13 blazing hot, looking like world beaters, who have spiraled in the second half of the season, will limp into the playoffs, and could very well get bounced in the first round without winning more than a game or two (the New York Knicks), and a team that yesterday had nothing left to play for but due to an ankle sprain sustained by a guy that doesn’t even play for them might (emphasis on MIGHT) still have a puncher’s chance at the post season (the Blazers).

This game has all the drama it needs to get people interested. New York is going to be without its best player (Carmelo Anthony) and it’s most important player (Tyson Chandler) and have been blown out twice in their first two of five road games. Portland has played well and lost in their last few attempts against good teams, they’ve got very few scheduled wins left, and with Kobe Bryant missing some time, if there is a window left on the Blazers’ playoff hopes, it’s now or never.

That’s a story line right there. That’s enough. But nobody is going to care. Thursday’s game is about one thing and one thing only: Raymond Felton.

Step into the Blazers’ way-back  machine. A year ago we were counting down the minutes until Ray Felton was no longer a Blazer. He had come to Portland as a younger Andre Miller (a passing point guard who could really run an offense) with a better long-range shot. He was the solution at point guard the franchise had desperately needed (even more desperately needed once Brandon Roy announced his retirement at the end of the lockout). He might not have been the best choice, but he seemed like a serviceable option.

It didn’t take long for the Felton experiment to fall apart, just as it didn’t take long for a promising lock-out shortened season to go the way of the Dodo bird. It also didn’t take long for Raymond Felton, the staring point guard and potential team leader, to become Raymond Felton, the sideshow, freak show, and scapegoat for what turned out to be one of the most excruciating seasons in at least the last 10 years.

Now, 64 games (more games than Ray played as a Blazer) into 2012-13, the story is that Felton was the catalyst for Portland’s collapse. He was a locker room cancer, they say. It was his seeds of discontent that grew into the mutiny against Nate McMillan that very well could have changed the course and history of the franchise, they also say.

For Felton, his angle is a little different, if not quite so well crafted or as pointed. Ray claims, sort of, to be the target of a smear campaign, or at least the beneficiary of some less than objective journalism.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Ray Felton was out of shape when he came to Portland and never really recovered. The Blazers had been using a piecemeal, band-aid, method of correcting for major roster holes that were a result of injury upon injury. The bottom was bound to fall out sooner or later, fate chose last season. Some members of the media took a hard line stance on Felton, one Ray didn’t back down from. This not backing down led to more “not backing down,” which eventually led to thinly veiled threats of physical violence that I am willing to bet any future earnings I may ever have will not happen.

But regardless of who is to blame for starting the beef, or whether or not Raymond Felton should be held solely responsible for sinking Portland’s season, or how good or how bad you actually think Raymond Felton is, Thursday the Blazers’ former point guard will be the center of attention. Whether Portland wins or loses will be secondary to every fan in the Rose Garden pelting (verbally one hopes and not physically because come on we’re living in a society here) Raymond Felton with hatred, purging their pent up rage in an act of group catharsis.

It should be quite the spectacle.

Blazers Starting 5: PG Damian Lillard, SG Wesley Matthews, SF Nicolas Batum, PF LaMarcus Aldridge, C J.J. Hickson

Knicks Starting 5: PG Raymond Felton, SG Iman Shumpert, SF James White, PF Chris Copeland, C Kenyon Martin

Because I spent so much time talking about Raymond Felton, I’m just going to jump into:

What to Watch For

  • Who plays. LaMarcus Aldridge missed shoot-around with a migraine. His status Thursday is game-time decision. Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler went down with injuries in New York’s blowout loss to the Nuggets on Wednesday. LA could play. Melo and Chandler will not play. If Portland can take advantage of New York being without two key pieces, they’ll be in good shape. The Knicks can go a lot of different ways with the roster they have. If they choose to play Chris Copeland at the four, LaMarcus, should he play, can have a big night. If Kenyon Martin starts at center, the Blazers should be able to get inside looks with relative ease. What Portland has to watch out for is a lineup made entirely of shooters. Steve Novak and J.R. Smith can shoot the lights out. If those guys are in the starting lineup, or if they play additional minutes to account for the PT that would co to Melo and Tyson, the Blazers have to make sure they don’t give them too many open looks.
  • Can Portland push the pace and put the pressure on New York. The Knicks got blown out in Denver because the Nuggets are a running team who got up and down the floor with ease in the third quarter. The Blazers have been at their best as of late when they push the pace. They are as good at turning a game into a track meet as the Nuggets are, and they haven’t been able to blow up a grind it out team yet. But New York isn’t Memphis, they’re also not the Hornets. They don’t want to grind. Portland will win Thursday if they can convert on turnovers and get baskets in open play, thus forcing New York to play transition defense, something they couldn’t do in Denver.
  • Damian Lillard versus Raymond Felton. Ray isn’t responsible for getting Damian to Portland, unless you count his part in the Blazer implosion of last season that led to the trade of Gerald Wallace, but there is no way fans are going to be able to refrain from comparing last season’s point guard to this season’s. In a perfect world, Lillard would go for 40, burning Felton over and over and over as the Rose Garden crowd climbs to unspeakable levels of mass hysteria. It could happen. I’m not going to say that it’s going to happen, but that’s easily what everybody is hoping for.

@mikeacker | @ripcityproject | [email protected]

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