You no doubt looked at Portland’s April schedule and came up with the same conclusion I did: the Blazers simply can not catch a break. It seems like every other team in the NBA has at least one cream puff left on their schedule. Not Portland. Not only have the Blazers faced a playoff team (or a very close/relatively close playoff hopeful) every night of this month, every opponent they’ve had in April has had something to play for.
Sunday and Wednesday the Mavericks and the Lakers were playing for their playoff lives (since that time Dallas is done and an injury to Kobe Bryant has thrown the Lakers post-season hopes into peril). Friday the Oklahoma City Thunder, the top team in the Western Conference, were playing to maintain the half-game advantage over the San Antonio Spurs that will give them home court advantage in the Conference Finals. On both ends of the spectrum, there are important things on the line.
Sadly for Portland, the trend of facing a strong, playoff-bound team with something on the line doesn’t change Sunday afternoon in Denver. The Nuggets are in, they’ve racked up a super impressive 54 wins, they have a fighting chance of living up to some of the borderline ludicrous computer prognostications of the preseason. Even so, Denver is working through a couple big injuries, and though they might be in the three spot in the West, they’re still only a half-game up on the Grizzlies and the Clippers respectively.
And here’s the kicker, because of the vagaries of playoff seeding, all four division champions are guaranteed a top four seed and therefore home court advantage in at least round one. The Clippers have locked up the Pacific Division, but neither the Grizzlies (Southwest) nor the Nuggets (Northwest) will win their division, therefore if Denver wants to hold on to home court, they have to finish 3rd in the West. To finish 3rd in the West, the Nuggets have to keep winning.
Also, Denver lost their last game. A two-game losing streak could be the difference between starting the playoffs at home (giving the Nuggets a huge advantage), or having to go on the road to face a top-three team.
Denver is going to be motivated Sunday afternoon.
Blazers Starting 5: PG Damian Lillard, SG Will Barton, SF Victor Claver, PF LaMarcus Aldridge, C J.J Hickson
Nuggets Starting 5: PG Andre Miller, SG Andre Iguodala, SF Wilson Chandler, PF Kenneth Faried, C Kosta Koufos
In the end, Sunday’s game is going to come down to execution. Denver is a veteran heavy team with a savvy coach, and they know how to make plays and when those plays need to be made. Portland is a young team, starting three rookies, that is still trying to figure itself out while also clawing like mad to avoid a season-ending 13-game winning streak.
The difference in personnel between Portland and Denver is evident; the difference in ability to do everything necessary to win basketball games between the Blazers and the Nuggets is obvious. Portland can give themselves a chance Sunday if, and only if, they make almost no errors. An error-free basketball game, even for the best professional basketballers in the world, is a big ask. An error-free basketball game for a group of young players trying to get motivated to play a highly motivated elite-level team is impossible.
Execution will determine how this game ends, but match-ups will dictate what this game will be like when it starts. The best match-up for Portland is going to be at the point guard spot. Andre Miller is likely to get the start again as Ty Lawson continues his slow and calculated return from a foot injury. Miller is the definition of veteran point guard, but he won’t be able to do too much to stop or even slow down Damian Lillard. My guess is Dre will do everything in his power to get Lillard in foul trouble early, but even then, it’s unlikely Lillard will have his minutes curtailed.
If Lillard/Miller is the best match-up for Portland, the combined match-ups of Will Barton/Andre Iguodala and Victor Claver/Wilson Chandler are by far the worst. Barton couldn’t do much defensively against Kobe Bryant, which was to be expected, though Iguodala is not on Kobe’s level he’ll be more than a handful for Barton. Chandler versus Claver might not be as bad as Barton versus Iguodala, but Chandler will try to over power Claver, and if Victor gets caught up on the help-side or doesn’t rotate back to the wings fast enough, Chandler could light the Blazers up with corner threes.
The match-up to watch is going to be LaMarcus Aldridge and Kenneth Faried. Get over for a minute that Faried could have been a Blazer, and just enjoy two of the best young guys at their position playing totally opposite styles. LA is going to drag Faried out of the middle with jumpers; Faried is going to bang LaMarcus in the post every chance he gets. Denver is likely to win this game going away, but if LaMarcus Aldridge can get super hot and also keep Faried from devouring offensive rebounds and getting easy points in the paint, the Blazers might have a chance to keep it respectable.
What to Watch For
- Points in the paint. Portland can’t defend the inside. Denver scores most of their points inside. Over the course of three games, the Blazers have surrendered a boat-load points in the paint to the Nuggets. There’s no reason to believe that will change Sunday. If Portland wants to stay in this game, they need to stay within at least a dozen points of Denver in the paint. OK, maybe a dozen is too close. At least 20. OK 25…you get where I’m going with this right?
- Three point shooting. When the Blazers beat the Nuggets in Portland, Denver shot and missed a record 21 three-pointers. That won’t happen again, but if the Blazers can significantly outscore the Nuggets from three, they’ll have a chance. With Danilo Gallinari out of the line-up, Portland won’t even have to contend with Denver’s best long-range threat, so there’s that.
- Second half scoring. Early in the season, it was slow starts that were killing the Blazers. Lately it’s been second half lulls. Portland played themselves out of games against both the Lakers and the Thunder by flat lining in the third quarter (seven points in the 3rd against OKC was a franchise low). A strong second half in Denver would be nice. A fast start and a health finish would be great, but lets take it one step at a time.