Before we get too deep into Wednesday’s game, which has potential blood-bath written all over it, let me give you this:
— Joe Freeman (@BlazerFreeman) April 3, 2013
This Tweet for The Oregonian‘s Joe Freeman followed this tweet:
Which, of course, followed this tweet (same tweeter):
That tweet followed this tweet:
Batum injured his right shoulder during Monday night’s loss to Utah. He’s had X-rays and an MRI, and the tests did not reveal major damage.
— Joe Freeman (@BlazerFreeman) April 3, 2013
There are very few meaningful games left in this season, meaningful in the sense that winning them might extend the season. Tonight very well might be the last of those meaningful games. And tonight is starting to look quite bleak.
The Blazers have been in a unique position for almost the entire season: they are too good to finish in the top-half of the lottery pool, and not good enough to compete for the post season. Even if Portland is all but out of the playoff race, their unique situation doesn’t change. That being said, April is a unique situation within a unique situation. The Blazers have nine games left, and each of those nine games, their opponent has something very important to play for.
Whether it’s the Memphis Grizzlies (Wednesday’s opponent) playing for an outside shot at home court in the first round, the Golden State Warriors (Portland’s final opponent of 2012-13) trying to hold off the hard-charging Houston Rockets (who play the Blazers at the Rose Garden later this week) for the six seed and avoidance of a first-round date with the Oklahoma City Thunder (in Portland April 12th), or the LA Lakers (April 10th), every game this month has implications for the other team. Portland will not get an easy night until the 2013-14 preseason, that a couple of their starters (and best players) are likely to be sidelined for the remainder of this season won’t make anything any easier.
Blazers Starting 5: PG Damian Lillard, SG Wesley Matthews, SF Victor Claver, PF J.J. Hickson, C Meyers Leonard
Grizzlies Starting 5: PG Mike Conley, SG Tony Allen, SF Tayshaun Prince, PF Zach Randolph, C Marc Gasol
On their very best nights, Portland can compete with the Memphis Grizzlies. They’ve beaten them once (on the road no less), and played them close on two other recent occasions. The match-ups favor the Grizzlies, almost across the board, but the Blazers have played this team very well all season.
Throw that out the window. The Zach Randolph/LaMarcus Aldridge one-on-one is up there with the best in the league. Nicolas Batum versus Tayshaun Prince is a very exciting match-up too. With both of those match-ups off the board for Portland, Memphis has a distinct advantage. Add to that the Marc Gasol pasting Meyers Leonard will probably take and that J.J. Hickson’s worst attributes on both ends of the court will be exposed by Z-Bo, and as I said, it’s bleak for the Blazers.
Portland’s best opportunities will come from the back court. Damian Lillard will have to score a lot of points (something he can do), and Wesley Matthews will have to shoot the lights out (something he can do too) if the Blazers are going to have a chance Wednesday night. Mike Conley torched Portland last time these two teams played, but Tony Allen isn’t much of an offensive threat. The Blazers will have to take advantage of any edge they can get at the guard positions.
The real problem, of course, will be Portland’s bench. Pulling Victor Claver and Meyers Leonard into the starting lineup greatly limits the Blazers already limited bench. Will Barton might see minutes (which isn’t a bad thing really), so might Luke Babbitt or Nolan Smith. Barton needs the minutes, even if it comes at the expense of the game’s outcome. Luke Babbitt and Nolan Smith, though, are probably done as Blazers and have very little to add as far as development for next season is concerned.
What to Watch For
- Damian Lillard. Damian just broke the record for most three pointers made in a season by a rookie. He’s played remarkably well and consistently down the stretch even as his team is losing. His frustration level seems to be going up though. Damian wants to win, finishing the season with 13 straight losses (which is very possible) might tarnish his sterling rookie season just a tiny bit. We haven’t seen Lillard take over a game from start to finish yet this season. The Grizzlies are not exactly the type of team Damian can beat by himself, and I’m not sure if he should even try. What would be nice to see, though, is Dame putting his stamp on Wednesday’s game from the start. I know he wants to. Lillard has eight games left to prove that he can lead the Blazers all by himself. I think he can do it.
- Shooting and taking care of the ball. Portland lost to the Jazz in Utah on Monday while shooting 58% from the field and giving up 54% shooting from the field. The difference was that the Blazers turned the ball over 16 times and Utah coughed it up only six times. If Portland can limit the turnovers and keep their shooting percentages relatively high, they could stay in this game for awhile.
- Protecting the paint. Keeping opponents from scoring around the hoop has been very tough for the Blazers as of late. Utah scored at will inside, Memphis will probably be able to do the same. If Meyers Leonard can push Marc Gasol out to the elbow and make him shoot jumpers, and if J.J. Hickson can limit the number of second-chance points Zach Randolph gets, anything is possible. That being said, Gasol is an All-Star and Meyers is a rookie whose most obvious deficiencies are on the defensive end, and Zach Randolph has made himself an All-NBA talent by capitalizing on the failures of lazy rebounders and bad defenders. Hickson’s not really a lazy rebounder, but he struggles to rebound in traffic and has a tendency to not block out. We all know about J.J.’s problems with man-to-man defending. Gasol and Randolph will set the tone for this game. As the Grizzly bigs go, so to will go Memphis. My guess is they and their team go well on Wednesday night.