Dec. 29, 2012; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard (0) tries to defend Philadelphia 76ers point guard Jrue Holiday (11) during the fourth quarter of the game at the Rose Garden. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Game Preview: Portland Trail Blazers (31-34) Vs. Philadelphia 76ers (25-40)

Way back in February, a Blazer six-game roadie was branded a “make-or-break” trip. That trip, which lead into the All-Star Break, ended with one Portland win and five losses. If the trip was make or break, as it was advertised to be, it certainly didn’t feel like a make.

So then what’s to be made of the Blazers’ five-game trip that begins this very evening in Philadelphia? If Portland’s season was broken by five losses in six road games a month ago, what can be accomplished over the course of the Blazers’ final extended road venture of 2012-13?

Well, first let’s postulate for a moment that maybe the season isn’t actually over over. I mean yes the current odds show Portland having about a 4% chance of reaching the post season, but there are currently two teams mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, and the Blazers aren’t one of them.

Until Portland’s playoff odds drop to zero and until there are not enough games remaining to make up the distance between the Blazers and the eight seed (likely the Lakers), 2012-13 is not LITERALLY over. A five-game win-streak on the road, and this stretch run will get really really interesting.

Does that mean that I think Portland is going to rip off five straight wins on the road? No, I don’t. The Blazers have nine total road wins this season. It’s unlikely, then, that they will get five more between now and next Sunday.

But I do think there are considerable gains that can be made on this trip. Four of the five upcoming games are against playoff teams. Apart from the final game in Oklahoma City, every one of Portland’s opponents is in the bottom-half of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket. The Blazers should be able to compete against those teams. If they can get one or two wins in their next five, they should celebrate. Doing that will prove that Portland may not be in the top 16 in the league, but they’re certainly not in the bottom eight either.

Philly is the only team on this trip with a record below .500. If the Blazers want this road trip to avoid being a death march, they have to win on Monday.

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

76ers Starting 5: PG Jrue Holliday, SG Damien Wilkins, SF Evan Turner, PF Thaddeus Young, C Spencer Hawes

Monday’s game is the fourth time in five nights that the Blazers will be facing off against a defensive-minded team that prefers to grind out wins in low scoring slug fests. Of the last three grind-it-out games Portland has played, they’ve won only once, Saturday at home against the Pistons.

The Detroit game might be a good template for Monday in Philadelphia. Portland won on Saturday by getting extra possessions (+10), converting from the free throw line (+7), grabbing more rebounds (+12, +5 on the offensive end), and knocking down more threes (+2). Basically, the Blazers beat the Pistons by forcing their style of play on the game, pushing the pace, and taking advantage of their opportunities. If Portland can do the same thing in Philly that they were able to do in the Rose Garden over the weekend, they’ll give themselves a chance.

However, there’s another recent, grind-it-out game against a sub .500 team on the road that might be more relevant to Monday night. Two Sundays ago, the Blazers fell to a not so good New Orleans Hornets team mostly because NOLA dictated the style and pace at which that game was played. It’s possible that this is a road issue. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is definitely a road issue. Portland plays better at home because they are more comfortable in front of a home crowd.

The Blazers have yet to figure out how to exist on the road. With few road games left and not enough home games remaining to offset all road losses, now is the time for Portland to figure it out. Dictating the pace of a game, forcing an opponent out of their comfort zone, is one way the Blazers can figure it out.

What to Watch For

  • LaMarcus Aldridge. LA was just awarded Western Conference Player of the Week honors. He’s rolling like crazy right now. Thaddeus Young can guard LaMarcus, but he’s going to have to work. Portland’s best offense right now is to dump the ball into LA on the block and just let him work. If Philly starts double-teaming LaMarcus, which they probably will, then the Blazers’ shooters will have to show up. Getting LA going, though will be the most important thing Portland does Monday, considering that if they want to beat anybody in the next five games, they’re going to have to ride LaMarcus.
  • Can Portland avoid a slow start or a long scoring lapse. The Blazers are known to start slow. They’re also known to basically go cold for long periods of time over the course of a game. At home, Portland can overcome a bad opening 12 minutes or get back up after letting a team into a game with a bout of bad shooting. On the road, however, they’ve not been so lucky. The Blazers don’t need to blow out the 76ers, they do need to stay connected so they don’t have to waste all their energy getting playing from behind.
  • Blazer bench. Eric Maynor has been solid and Meyers Leonard has continued to improve every time out. Victor Claver is not making the trip, but Joel Freeland gave some very very effective minutes on Saturday against the Pistons. All three of those players have to offer solid contributions in their minutes if Portland is going to get a couple wins on this trip. It’s probably best that they come out and contribute on the trip’s first night.

@mikeacker | @ripcityproject | [email protected]

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Tags: 76ers Blazers LaMarcus Aldridge

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