And Then There Was April


Hey Blazer fans, if you’re still here, watching this team on the 1st of April, give yourselves a big pat on the back. It hasn’t been easy, this 2011-12 season. It hasn’t been fun. It has been a test for even the most die-hard fans. And it has been, at least, very interesting to watch.

April is very likely going to be the final month of this season. Portland isn’t completely finished in the Playoff race, but there isn’t really enough time or enough games left for the Blazers to make a real push.

If Portland can’t make a Playoff push they can at least continue to play with heart and with effort, something the Blazers that survived the purge have been able to do very well in the last weeks of March, and hope that finishing a sub .500 season with something resembling a flourish will bring the more casual fans back for what will hopefully be a better season in 2012-13.

With that said, here’s my finally monthly preview of the season:

What Happened in March: Where should I start with last month? March 2012 was a season defining month for the Blazers. Some will say that it was a franchising defining month. Although I think that it might be wise to wait a while before bestowing that distinction on last month, I will go as far as to say March 2012 was certainly the end of an era.

March started off badly. Portland lost four of their first five games (six of their first eight), and after back-to-back blowouts in Indiana and New York, an extended road trip that everybody knew was going to be rough turned into Nate McMillan’s swan song.

While on the road, management blows up the team, fires the coach, waives Greg Oden, and promotes Kaleb Canales. Tanking, and wait until next year become the rallying cries of the fan base.

Canales wins his first game as head coach; a game won on pure emotion, but ultimately can do no better than 4-5 to finish a 6-11 month. For the third month in a row my prediction is way off, as if that’s important at all.

As March closes, Blazer fans can at least take solace in the emergence of J.J. Hickson as a potential full-timer, and in the fact that every loss might actually turn into a win when Portland heads into the 2012 NBA Draft holding all the high cards.

Number of Games in April: 14

Games Breakdown: 4/1 vs. Minnesota, 4/2 vs. Utah, 4/4 vs. New Jersey. 4/6 at Dallas, 4/7 at Milwaukee, 4/9 vs. Houston, 4/11 vs. Golden State, 4/13 vs. Dallas, 4/15 at Sacramento, 4/16 at Phoenix, 4/18 vs. Utah, 4/21 at Memphis, 4/23 at San Antonio, 4/26 at Utah.

Games to Watch: As of this moment, Portland is four whole games behind Denver for the eighth spot in the Western Conference. Of Denver’s final 14 games, only six are against Playoff teams. Between Portland and Denver are Utah, Phoenix, and Minnesota in descending order. The Nuggets play the Wolves and the Suns twice in the season’s final month, meaning those four games are a wash with regards to how the outcome affects Portland’s hopes at stealing the conference’s final Playoff spot.

Basically, what I’m saying is that the games to watch are going to be the ones that don’t include the Blazers. Denver, Utah, Phoenix, and Minnesota are going to have to lose a lot of games for Portland to get into the post season. So if you are inclined to believe the Blazers still have a chance of playing in May, watch those four teams play. But don’t watch when they play each other. That will just give you false hope.

As far as Portland is concerned, I would say that the games to watch down the stretch are going to be the roadies. The Blazers are 7-19 on the road. Next season, if this team really wants to be taken seriously, they have to find a way to win on the road. Portland has Dallas, Milwaukee, Sacramento, Phoenix, Memphis, San Antonio, and Utah all left to play on the road.

The Kings beat Portland in Sac at the beginning of February (02/02/2012). The Blazers were dealt their first blowout loss of the season in Phoenix, they lost a double-OT gut ripper in Dallas, and were outscored 34-18 to lose a game in San Antonio that they led in the fourth quarter. So there’s revenge motivation for at least three of Portland’s April road games. Not to mention that I bet J.J. Hickson would love to show the fans in Sacramento what they gave away for free.

If, and this is a big if, the Blazers want to play meaningful games in April, a road sweep would be a great start. In the likely event that that doesn’t happen, winning four of their last seven road games would at least show that this team understands the importance of winning games outside of the Rose Garden.

Game(s) of the Month: This one is a no brainer. Since we’ll take it as a given that the Blazers aren’t going to make the Playoffs, and games in which winning will jump them up the standings are really only bait for potential dream crushing, April’s two games to watch are going to be on the 4th and on the 9th when the Nets and the Rockets hit the RG respectively.

If you don’t know why those games are going to be important, then you probably aren’t really a Blazer fan. Let me explain: Gerald Wallace and Marcus Camby.

I don’t believe for a minute that the trades of Wallace and Camby had anything to do with them leading a mutiny against Nate McMillan. They were guys with expiring deals that were likely going to walk away from the smoking heap of the Portland Trail Blazers when 2011-12 ended. Management knew they needed to get something for them, and that’s what they did; they tried to do the same thing with Jamal Crawford and Raymond Felton, they just didn’t have takers

Crash gets his home coming first, which is good. Gerald played 65 games as a Blazer. That’s not that many. He had some great games with Portland (notably a 40-point night in OKC last season), but I never felt like he had the big-time impact that he could have had. That won’t matter to Blazer fans. From the first moment he showed his face in the Rose City, he was a fan favorite. He will get a very healthy ovation. My favorite memory of Wallace is bittersweet. In Game Six of Portland’s first round Playoff series with Dallas, Crash absolutely destroyed the Mavericks in the first quarter. He made the home crowd believe the series was headed for a seventh game. Unfortunately Wallace spent the second quarter in the locker room with a back or neck injury of some kind (I think it was back spasms but I’m not sure), and when he came back to the court the deficit was too much for Portland to overcome. The best part of that night was when the RG broke out into the Gerald Wallace chant (during the quarter when Crash was AWOL), begging for him to be put back into the game, knowing the Blazers needed him if they wanted to extend the series.

Gerald Wallace will get a standing ovation, there’s no doubt. I’m guessing that there will be some fans on Monday the 9th that will be petitioning for Marcus Camby to have his Blazer jersey retired on the spot.

Again, Camby didn’t play that many games with the Blazers, only about a season more than Crash, but from the drop he was a hero. It’s not hard to forget why Portland needed Marcus Camby (Greg Oden), but he did his absolute best to keep the Blazers relevant when they couldn’t keep a center healthy. Think about this too, Camby was traded for one of Portland’s major favorites (Travis Outlaw), and not for a second did anybody think it was a bad trade.

Like Wallace, Camby talked about ending his career in Portland. It seems like a lot of lip service in hindsight, but I truly believe they both enjoyed their time as Blazers. I know I enjoyed watching both of them, as did every Portland fan. It will be nice to see them again while they are still fresh in our memories. Need I remind you that Jerryd Bayless has yet to play in the Rose Garden since being traded in the pre-season of 2010-11? Who is going to remember him if and when he finally gets his Blazer homecoming?

Prediction: 6-8. I’m trying to be conservative and realistic for the first time this season. I may also be trying a reverse jinx, although I probably blew it by mentioning it. My picks for W’s are Sunday night the 1st against Minny, the 4th against the Nets and Gerald Wallace, the 11th against future hall of famer Charles Jenkins and the Warriors, and the 18th against the Jazz for home games, and the 15th in SacTown and the 16th in Phoenix for road games. Among the eight losses, there are winnable games too: at home against Houston and Utah, and on the road in Milwaukee, Memphis, and possibly San Antonio if Popp is resting his old timers.

What It All Means: Probably nothing, maybe a whole lot. If Portland gets ridiculously hot and finishes the final month with 10 wins or more, then they have a chance at achieving the unthinkable. It’s incredibly unlikely, not Mega Millions unlikely, but close. I know the staff and the players will keep talking about the Playoffs until the math says that they should stop, and that’s fine with me. You can’t sell the product of the NBA if you are admitting to not trying to be the best team you can be. What Portland needs to do is keep doing what they’re doing. They have no choice but to play the games. If they keep trying to get better, keep trying to figure out which guys to keep and which to junk, and keep at least attempting to stay engaged, then regardless of overall wins and losses, the final month of the 2011-12 season can be productive.

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Twitter: @mikeacker | @ripcityproject