Fates change in the blink of an eye in the NBA. Prior to Thursday’s tip-off, all talk was about how the sprained ankle that put Kobe Bryant on the shelf “indefinitely” might have left the door open for Portland to make a play for the post season. A convincing win against the Knicks served only to further that line of thinking.
But here we are two days later, an off-day and the morning before the final home game of this three-game home stand, and Kobe’s indefinite time out was zero games (although he barely played in LA’s win against the Pacers but he still played), the Lakers are now a full game up on the Jazz for the eighth seed in the Western Conference, and it’s basically going to take one or two convincing losses for even the most delusional Blazer fans to finally admit that there might not be an extra games tacked on at the end of 2012-13.
With a five-game road trip looming that includes dates with four playoff teams and the Philadelphia 76ers, those one or two losses might come sooner rather than later. Which is why Saturday’s dance with the Detroit Pistons might be the most important game this season.
That’s certainly an overstatement. I’ve called plenty of games the most important game of the season so far in 2012-13, and in that company, Saturday’s is probably less important than others. A loss is devastating considering that Detroit has one of the worst records in the league and has already beaten Portland once, but a win doesn’t really mean anything. The Lakers, the Jazz, and the Mavericks all stand between the Blazers and the playoffs. Beating Detroit on Saturday is a must, but for Portland to reach the playoffs, they’re going to need a lot of help from all three teams ahead of them.
But just like fates change quickly, so do situations and circumstances. Under the current circumstances, Portland needs to keep winning if they want to even have the chance at extending their season. Therefore, Saturday is the most important game the Blazers will play in 2012-13, just as basically every game will be from now until the middle of April.
Blazers Starting 5: PG Damian Lillard, SG Wesley Matthews, SF Nicolas Batum, PF LaMarcus Aldridge, C J.J. Hickson
Pistons Starting 5: PG Jose Calderon, SG Rodney Stuckey, SF Kyle Singler, PF Jason Maxiell, C Greg Monroe
the BThursday’s game almost got away from Portland in the first half because they absolutely could not defend inside. Pick and rolls have been the thorn in the side of the Blazers’ interior defense this season. Meyers Leonard is still figuring out the nuances of defending in the NBA; J.J. Hickson isn’t much of an off the ball defender mostly because he prefers to pay attention to the ball at the expense of the man.
Detroit’s offense comes from the inside, and with the addition of Jose Calderon will play a lot of top of the key pick and rolls. It’s not quite a direct comparison to the Knicks, though. New York is older and craftier, their optimal pick-and-roll on Thursday was one that led to an open lay-up after a high pick, a delayed roll, and a pin-point pass in traffic from Jason Kidd, the best passer of his generation and one of the best pure passers of all time. Jose Calderon is a good pick-and-roll point guard, but he’s no Jason Kidd.
But as Calderon can’t do what Jason Kidd can, Greg Monroe can do things Marcus Camby and Kenyon Martin can’s. Monroe plays the kind of power game inside that left New York’s All-Star bigs in the early to mid aughts. Calderon and Monroe will play a different kind of pick-and-roll than Kidd and Camby or Martin. The Pistons’ PG/C combo won’t have to be as precise and they won’t have to rely on shaking Portland’s bigs completely. Even if the Blazers’ pivot players get their pick-and-roll D figured out, Calderon can still just dump the ball into Monroe and expect him to overpower J.J. Hickson or Meyers Leonard.
The inside game will be the most important. If Portland can win the battle of points in the paint, they’ll win the game. But the wing play will be important too. This Piston squad is now without Tayshuan Prince, who was included in the trade that sent Rudy Gay to Toronto and brought Calderon to Detroit. Nicolas Batum versus Kyle Singler at the small forward position very clearly favors the Blazers. The back-court positions favor Portland also. Match-up wise, Saturday’s is certainly the Blazers’ game to lose.
What to Watch for
- Can Portland get off to a hot start and put this game away early. The Blazers have not been able to carry many blow out wins from wire-to-wire this season. If they can jump on Detroit early, this team will probably not fight back. The Pistons have lost seven straight, and are very close to the mathematically eliminated threshold. Their season is over. The games that remain are perfunctory. All they have left to play for is an opportunity to play spoiler or beat a marquee team. Neither of those scenarios really apply to Portland. A quick lead by the Blazers, and this thing will be over in a hurry.
- Outside shooting. Portland has been shooting very well from three over the last few weeks and change. Detroit isn’t much of a deep threat. The Blazers can let the Pistons score inside if they off-set it by really demolishing them from three.
- Defense. Portland didn’t play much defense against the Knicks. It meant little since New York cares not for defense either. The Pistons play defense. If the Blazers don’t defend, they’ll be in trouble. Portland lost to the Hornets a week ago by not playing defense. NOLA is a team similar to Detroit: short on talent but long on defense. The Blazers shouldn’t try to grind this out and keep the scoring in the 80s, but they do need to defend.