There are many differences between the NBA’s Eastern Conference and Western Conference. For my money, the biggest differences pertain to respective playoff races and how these playoff races are a reflection of the relative depths of each conference.
The West is basically wide open at the top with approximately a dozen games remaining to be played. Oklahoma City and San Antonio are separated by a game and a half for the top seed in the conference; Memphis, Denver, and the LA Clippers are fighting it out for home court with a game and a half to play with. Golden State and Houston are within a game of each other, but they’re kind of on an island. The Warriors are seven games behind the Grizzlies for the fifth seed, and the Rockets are maintaining a three and a half game cushion over the Lakers or whichever team backs in to the eighth seed.
Across the country, the East is all but decided. Apart from the Knicks and the Pacers locking horns over who gets to face the Heat in the second round (unless the Knicks finish with the two seed and end up losing to the Celtics in the first round), the top of the conference is cemented. Same with the bottom of the conference. Chicago and Atlanta are fighting over the five and six seeds, but other than that, nobody’s going anywhere.
So those are the differences in the two playoff races. Here’s the differences between the relative depths of the East and the West. The Western Conference has at least three teams (maybe as many as five) that can probably win the title; the Eastern Conference has one team that can (and will) win the title.
What does this have to do with Portland’s face-off with the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday at the Rose Garden, the Blazers’ last game against an Eastern Conference opponent in 2012-13? The Nets have little to play for, they’ve locked up home court with the four seed (which they are unlikely to cough up this late in the game), and they aren’t part of the NBA’s elite.
The Blazers’ playoff race is mostly in their minds, but that doesn’t mean they have nothing to play for. Combine that with the fact that Portland plays well against the best teams in the NBA and can sometimes beat those over .500 teams that aren’t the Oklahoma City Thunder, and Wednesday could be a huge opportunity for the Blazers.
Blazers Starting 5: PG Damian Lillard, SG Wesley Matthews, SF Nicolas Batum, PF LaMarcus Aldridge, C J.J. Hickson
Nets Starting 5: PG Deron Williams, SG Keith Bogans, SF Gerald Wallace, PF Reggie Evans, C Brook Lopez
The name of the game Wednesday for Portland will be to try and not let Deron Williams beat them all by himself. Williams has that ability (just ask the Washington Wizards) but it’s not something he does very often. If the Blazers can play a bit of defense to start Wednesday’s game, they’ll be in pretty good shape. Williams is going to try and go after Damian Lillard, and that’s going to be a tough match-up for Portland’s rookie point guard. The key for Lillard is going to be to stay out of foul trouble and to attempt to keep up with Williams in the scoring column.
Williams is one of the few top PGs in the league Lillard hasn’t been compared too. It makes sense since Williams and Lillard have very different playing styles. From a shooting stand-point, though, Dame and Deron are not that different. Damian’s main goal Wednesday night should be to not let Williams abuse him. His second goal, though, should be to outscore him.
If Deron Williams is Portland’s number one defensive assignment, Brook Lopez is number one A, especially considering that the Blazers really don’t have a real center. J.J. Hickson should get a lot of rebounds, but if his defensive rotations are slow (as they usually are) Lopez is going to get a lot of easy baskets. Hickson won’t be able to stop Lopez, but if he can push the Nets’ All-Star center to 15 to 20 feet, that might be enough.
Wednesday isn’t going to be all about defense though. Portland has a couple offensive weapons Brooklyn doesn’t in its current form (sans Joe Johnson with a leg bruise). Wesley Matthews is going to be hounded by Keith Bogans because hounding shooters is how Keith Bogans makes his living. But Bogans won’t contribute much on offense. If Matthews can get hot, the Blazers will be able to get significant points from a position that could be a bit of a black hole for the visiting team.
The same is true for the power forward position. Reggie Evans hits hard, flops, and gets a lot of rebounds, but there isn’t anything he can do that will make up for what the Nets will give up in offense to the Blazers in the LaMarcus Aldridge/Reggie Evans head-to-head.
Two match-ups favor Portland and two favor Brooklyn, meaning the x-factor on Wednesday will be Gerald Wallace versus Nicolas Batum. There’s a bit of intrigue here too, obviously, considering Batum and Wallace were running mates last season. Nicolas has flourished in 2012-13 without having to share time with Crash, so there’s a good chance he’ll be extra motivated Wednesday night taking on Wallace at home for the first time since last season’s trade deadline fire sale.
What to Watch For
- Meyers Leonard. Brooklyn brings two bigs off the bench, Kris Humphries and Andray Blatche. There’s no reason at all either of those guys should scare Meyers Leonard. Meyers has played well as of late. He needs to continue to play well in what remains of this season to convince management that it might not be wise to go all in on a free agent center in the off-season. Wednesday could be a big night for Meyers, of course saying that might mean he ends up doing nothing.
- Can Portland start fast. The Blazers have been up and down in their last few first quarters. Fast starts have been favorable for Portland, but that doesn’t mean they’ve figured out how to achieve them on a regular basis. Brooklyn would certainly love to win this game (even though Chicago will probably lose to Miami on Wednesday), but they don’t absolutely have to (like I said the Bulls are playing the Heat). If the Blazers can take the Nets out of this game early, they’ll give themselves a chance.
- Three-point Shooting. Portland has been winning games lately with their deep, but the Nets are a shooting team too. My guess is Wednesday’s winner will be the team that makes more threes.