Insert generic compliment about Portland’s determination, grit and resiliency here. Seriously, what can be said about the Portland Trail Blazers that hasn’t been repeated by countless writers, bloggers, radio personalities and television hosts over the past few years? They’ve suffered countless injuries to key rotation players yet they keep grinding and plugging away, making the playoffs two years in a row and well on their way to making 2011 their third consecutive postseason appearance.
This year, the notable walking-wounded for Portland include last year’s leading scorer and three-time All-Star Brandon Roy, leading rebounder Marcus Camby and former No. 1 overall pick Greg Oden. They’ve had to rely on young, relatively inexperienced players such as Nicolas Batum and Wes Matthews for heavy minutes in the starting rotation. And they’ve played several close games without the luxury of having their crunch-time go-to guy on the floor.
The result? Pretty much the opposite of what you’d expect from an injury-riddled roster missing its best player, the guy who oft-dominated the ball in the closing minutes of games and willed the team to so many wins over the last three seasons. Portland is 40-30 with 12 games remaining in the regular season, winning seven of their last 10, and settled into the sixth spot in the highly contested Western Conference. And they’ve earned the distinction of being “that team nobody wants to face in the first-round” as they’ve tallied wins over the Spurs, Mavericks, Heat, Bulls, Magic, Nuggets and Hornets in the last 5-6 weeks.
Game of the Week: Portland Trail Blazers at Oklahoma City Thunder (Sun, March 27 8:00 PM EST)
The Blazers are getting the job defensively – since giving up back-to-back 100 point games to Houston and Sacramento after the beginning of the month, they’re giving up just 88.2 points per game despite opponents shooting 47.5% from the floor. Despite the relatively high field goal percentage they’re yielding, their aggressive rotations and one-on-one defense is yielding turnovers. Portland is forcing nearly 16 turnovers per game and leads the league in opponent turnover percentage (15.2% of opponent’s possessions yields in a turnover). They rank in the bottom third of the league in opponent FG percentage but are seventh in opponent FG makes per game, meaning their limiting possessions, forcing turnovers at opportune times, and taking advantage of those mistakes on offense.
And we couldn’t have a Portland-related discussion without mentioning LaMarcus Aldridge. Kevin Love puts up the numbers, Blake Griffin has the highlight reel plays, but Aldridge wins – no player has been more instrumental to his team’s success than him. He carried the Blazers through their injuries, continued to work on his back-to-the-basket game, and developed a swagger typically possessed by the elite players of the league. He came into the season lost in the shuffle of dominant West forwards; now he’s stated his case as a legitimate top-15 player in the league. He’s been that good.
For Oklahoma City, they got their first look at Kendrick Perkins in the lineup this week and had to be pleased with the results. Even though they lost a game they shouldn’t lose (at home to Toronto on Sunday), they’ve still won nine of their last 11 games, created some space between Denver and Portland in the division, and settled themselves in for the No. 4 seed in the West and homecourt advantage for the first-round of the playoffs.
Perkins played his first game as a member of the Thunder last Monday against Washington, putting up 6 points and 9 rebounds in just under 20 minutes of playing time. Much like he did with Boston, he anchored a tough OKC defense that yielded just 39.4% shooting for the opposition. The Thunder held opponents under 40% shooting for three consecutive games last week (Cleveland, Washington, Miami) and haven’t allowed a team to shoot over 48% in over two weeks.
Aside from the usual all-around terrific play from All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City has gotten their biggest post-All Star break spark from James Harden. He’s not getting a lot of national attention but, simply put, Harden’s been ballin’ over the last month. He has scored in double-figures in 16 straight games, cracking 20 points five times during that span, knocking down a three-pointer in 14 of those games and shooting over 50% from the floor 11 times. For the month of March, he’s averaging 18.2 points (51.2 FG%, 87.3 FT%), 2.9 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.8 three-pointers and 1.4 steals. The Perkins trade might not have just given the Thunder the rebounding and interior defensive persence they desperately needed, but it might have aided in Harden developing into the playmaker that the Thunder thought they were getting with the No. 3 pick in the ’09 Draft.
Oklahoma City has defeated Portland twice this season…by a combined three points. They won in the Rose Garden 107-106 and at home 110-108, but both of those games were in the first half of November. Both teams look different now, with Portland acquiring Gerald Wallace and bringing Brandon Roy off the bench while OKC now has Kendrick Perkins and a re-invigorated James Harden. With Portland trailing Denver by just one game in the West, this could very easily be a preview of the 4-5 first-round matchup of the West…and what a series that would be.
Other Games of Interest
San Antonio Spurs at Denver Nuggets (Wednesday, March 23 10:30 PM EST)
The Spurs still boast the NBA’s best record at 56-13 after back-to-back wins this past weekend. Everything hasn’t been gold though – after handing Miami their worst loss of the season on Mar. 4, they were thumped at home in what many considered a statement game by the Lakers. They reeled off a few wins over some weaker competition but went into Miami last Monday and the Heat returned the favor – San Antonio beat Miami by 30 a few weeks ago and Miami beat San Antonio by 30 at home on Mar. 14. But the Spurs rallied nicely last weekend with a road win at Dallas and a home win over Charlotte.
Denver continues to be the feel-good story of the league, and believe it or not they are an improved team without Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups. They may not have the two guys that primarily handled the ball in cruch time of close games but instead they’re more balanced, have a renewed defensive focus and are virtually two-deep at every position…a luxury most NBA teams do not have.
The Nuggets were 8-2 since they dealt Anthony to New York before suffering back-to-back losses in Florida to Orlando and Miami on Friday and Saturday, respectively. Still, the losses were by a combined eight points. At 41-29, they sit in fifth place in the Western Conference, leading Portland by a game and New Orleans by a game-and-a-half. They need to take advantage of a weak schedule over the next two weeks (four of their next five games are against the Raptors, Wizards and Kings) to help solidify their playoff spot.
New Orleans Hornets at Los Angeles Lakers (Sunday, March 27 9:30 PM EST)
Because of how tightly contested the Western Conference race is, especially between the No. 5 and No. 11 spots (just five games separate seven teams), any game between a Nos. 1-4 and a Nos. 5-11 seed could be a potential first-round playoff preview. That’s the case on Sunday night when the Hornets travel to L.A. to take on the Lakers.
If the playoffs began today, this would be the No. 2 vs. No. 7 matchup. And while the Lakers are 12-1 since the All-Star break and appear to be finding their postseason groove, a best-of-seven series against Chris Paul might test their mettle right off the bat. The Hornets are a slow-it-down, halfcourt team that thrives on defense and Paul’s playmaking, but they’ve struggled significantly as of late. They’re just 9-15 in their last 24 games and 4-9 in their last 13 games against opponents that are .500 or better.
The dry spell has brought the health of Chris Paul into question as well, who has been up-and-down this month. After a three-game stretch where he shot 7-of-29 from the field and averaged 5.7 points and 9.0 assists, he rallied with an impressive stretch against some of the league’s weaker defensive teams (Cleveland, Sacramento, Phoenix) by averaging 24.4 points (55.1 FG%), 11.8 assists, 4.6 rebounds, 3.2 steals and 1.6 three-pointers over a week-and-a-half period. He followed that up with an 0-of-9 performance against Boston. Simply put, the Hornets need a dominant Chris Paul if they want to get in the playoffs, let alone compete.
Dallas Mavericks at Phoenix Suns (Sunday, March 27 9:30 PM EST)
The Suns are one of the seven teams clumped in the race for the playoffs in the West, currently tied with Utah for the No. 10 spot and trailing No. 8 Memphis by just two games. After reeling off seven wins in 10 games at the end of February/beginning of March, they faced a tough four-game losing streak against quality competition (Denver, Orlando, Houston, New Orleans).
Five of Phoenix’s next seven games are at home but it won’t exactly be a cake walk – New Orleans, Dallas and Oklahoma City will all come to town fighting for playoff position. Afterwards, they go on the road for five straight games to kick off April: at San Antonio, at Chicago, at Minnesota, at New Orleans and at Dallas. They have the toughest remaining schedule of any of the West’s playoff contenders and already face an uphilll battle trying to fight for a postseason berth from the outside.
Dallas is still very much alive for the second seed in the West, trailing Los Angeles by just a game. But they’ve dropped some winnable games over the last few weeks, including home contests against Memphis, Los Angeles and San Antonio. Overall they’re just 4-5 in their last nine games and will kick off a six-game road trip this Saturday at Utah before returning home for four of their last five games. However, the road trip may not necessarily be a bad thing for the Mavs – they’re tied with San Antonio for the league’s best record away from home and are 7-2 in their last nine road games away from Dallas.