My esteemed colleague and friend Danny Nowell (of Portland Roundball Society and others) has positioned himself as something of a standard bearer for an argument that crops up every year in mid to late March. No, I’m not talking about the discussion on the relative merits of the band fun., I’m talking about the argument over which is better, college basketball or professional basketball.
Mr. Nowell, as any intelligent and practiced arguer does, basically says that the argument itself is incorrect. College basketball has its value; professional basketball has its value. The two are not mutually exclusive, but their relative values and purposes are very very different. I applaud Danny, and his ability to argue both sides against the middle, and though I think he may be significantly influenced toward the college game because of his personal biography (if I grew up in North Carolina and attended UNC I would love college basketball too) I struggle to find the college game interesting or engaging in anything close to the way I’ve found, and continue to find, the NBA game absolutely captivating on almost every level.
That being said, there is one thing the NCAA has on the NBA, especially in March: the importance of one single game. The NCAA Tournament is single elimination, win or go home. There is a fundamental paradox in the NBA. Although every game matters, and seasons are played “one game at a time,” to quote a favorite coach cliche, no single game is more important that any other game regardless of the outcome. Every year the NCAA Tournament sees a top seeded team struggle in their opening game and eventually fall. In the NBA, winning or losing one game does not have the power to turn a season one way or the other. In fact, one win doesn’t even really have an impact on the outcome of a playoff series.
Long story short, if the NCAA is win or go home, the NBA is win or lose, in the end it really doesn’t make that much difference.
That, of course, is a long lead-in to this: Portland beat the Bulls in Chicago, it was a big win, one of the best of the season, and it’s overall impact on what remains of 2012-13 is negligible at best. Whereas La Salle gets another game after their win over Kansas State (and in the process further ruins my already destroyed bracket) in the NCAA Round of 64 (I can’t in good faith call it the Second Round), the Blazers’ shortcomings weren’t forgiven nor were they given a free pass to the playoffs by winning in Chi-Town.
Portland is in Atlanta on Friday, another playoff team with the possibility of home court advantage to play for, win or lose, they’ll play on Sunday in Oklahoma City. Beating the Bulls was nice and fun to watch, and as meaningful as it was on Thursday, it doesn’t mean a whole lot today.
Portland Starting 5: PG Damian Lillard, SG Wesley Matthews, SF Nicolas Batum, PF LaMarcus Aldridge, C J.J. Hickson
Hawks Starting 5: PG Jeff Teague, SG Devin Harris, SF Kyle Korver, PF Josh Smith, C Al Horford
Like Chicago, Atlanta has a pretty small line-up. That’s good for Portland, the Blazers struggle the most against teams with big guys in the middle. The Hawks’ lack of size is made up for by the skill of Al Horford, just like the Blazers make up for not having a center by running their low-post offense through LaMarcus Aldridge, another multifaceted big guy who does a lot more than just pound it inside.
That LA and Horford probably won’t go head-up is an interesting wrinkle. If Josh Smith stays out on the elbow, pulling LA out with him, Horford should probably be able to tune up J.J. Hickson. If Smith works inside for offensive rebounds, or if he can’t knock down a jumper, LaMarcus might be able to help Hickson cover Horford. Regardless of how it goes, the foursome of Horford/Smith versus LA/J.J. is going to be a good barometer for this game.
The same goes for the four-way of Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews against Jeff Teague and Devin Harris. Portland’s back court is better from distance, but Teague and Harris are tough covers. Both Hawks guards can get to the rim. There’s a good chance either Dame or Wes will get into early foul trouble trying to stay in front of Teague and Harris. If/when that happens, Portland’s adjustment is going to be critical. Figuring out a way to make Teague and Harris shoot from outside is also going to be important.
The Hawks only real shooter in their starting five is Kyle Korver, he won’t beat the Blazers on his own, but that doesn’t mean he can be ignored. Nicolas Batum is going to have assert himself on defense. Batum is also going to have to find a way to make Korver work on the defensive end. The most important thing for Nicolas and the Blazers as a whole will be not letting Korver get open looks. Korver’s a knock down shooter, maybe the best in the NBA. He doesn’t miss when he’s open, and Portland can’t leave him open.
What to Watch For
- Outside shooting. As I just said, Kyle Korver is Atlanta’s main three-point shooter. Jeff Teague’s numbers from three have gone up this season, but he still doesn’t shoot that well from downtown. On the other side of the equation, Portland has shot pretty well over the last few games. The Blazers knocked down 10 threes in Chicago. If they can get close to that number in Atlanta (while not letting the Hawks also go off from long range), Portland could find themselves in this game.
- Taking care of the ball. Jeff Teague and Devin Harris thrive on creating and exploiting turnovers. Lillard, Matthews, and all of the Blazers’ ball handlers have to be careful not to get sloppy with the dribble or loose with the passes. Too many turnovers, and Atlanta will run away with this one.
- LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Al Horford. LA has been on a tear. Al Horford is the head of class of big guys in the east. The head-up winner of this battle will determine (probably) who wins this game.