The Portland Trail Blazers return to the hardwood tonight, making their Rose Garden debut versus the Denver Nuggets. The game is scheduled for a 7:00 p.m. start and will be televised on CSNNW.
This game marks the median of pre-season for both teams. Each follows a divergent path. The Nuggets stand at 3-0, a meaningless mark in the abstract but at least a sign that a few things have been clicking for them. Danilo Gallinari and Corey Brewer have been lighting up the pre-season for a lineup that expects to contend in the Northwest Division, if not the Western Conference. At 1-2 the Blazers have watched All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge struggle, rookie sensations Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard play with wildly varying effectiveness from quarter to quarter, and the rest of their team range from mediocre to awful. The Blazers don't have designs on a Denver level of success this year. Their lineup isn't build that way. But they need to develop some consistency heading into the regular season. When is the pre-season not just the pre-season? When you have no clue how you're going to play or how you're going to play together and you need to work that out before the opposition starts using live ammo. Portland is at that point now. There's no better place to take your stand than at home against a tough division rival.
Here are some things to watch tonight. Note that most of the things we've been looking at in the prior three games--the performance of Aldridge, the play of the rookies, the flow of the offense--still stand paramount. But in the interest of not repeating ourselves incessantly we'll shake the 8-ball and ask different questions this time.
1. Is Nicolas Batum planning on stepping up anytime soon? Say hello to Mr. Andre Iguodala, the new small forward bully in the division. He's been adjusting a little, perhaps easing off the throttle, with his new team this pre-season. But he's perfectly capable of wadding you up like a hankie and stuffing you in his back pocket. Batum might want to get off to a good start against this guy. Taking a submission posture is a poor introduction when a tough new guy comes to your neck of the woods.
2. Oh my gosh, can the Blazer bigs play against any center? Phoenix's Marcin Gortat and Sacramento's DeMarcus Cousins are one thing, but Timofey Mozgov and Kosta Koufas shouldn't cause you inordinate problems. That's no disrespect. They're just pretty...average. If the Blazers can't rebound, protect the paint, or score at the rim tonight...oy. Portland cannot afford to get dominated in the middle here.
3. How are Nolan Smith and Will Barton doing with those back-up minutes? Smith is going to play point guard in the absence of Ronnie Price, but don't let that fool you. He's competing with Barton and the veterans for minutes at the 2. He doesn't have to be perfect but he does have to play effectively and with some measure of control. Heretofore he's been spastic or nothing on the floor. That won't do. Barton makes his visual debut for Blazer Nation, which seems to be pinning high-ish hopes on the guy. Will he be able to wrest minutes away from Smith?
4. Among those mushy veterans, it's time for someone to step up if they really want a job. Sasha Pavlovic has probably been the most consistent guy statistically. Luke Babbitt has been rebounding but has had trouble sinking shots. Like Babbitt, Adam Morrison has fallen victim to good-outing/bad-outing syndrome. Right now the answer to "Which one do you want?" is "None of the above." Will anyone have the moxie and skill to change that?
5. The Nuggets have been rebounding MONSTERS in their last two games. Will Portland's gang rebounding overcome Denver's natural superiority in that category? The Blazers must find a way to rebound and run if they want to create easy shots. Games like this will go a long way towards showing whether Portland's new offense has a prayer in the regular season. It all starts on the boards.
Bonus 6th Item: Free of Charge!
6. Watch Ty Lawson too. The gaping holes in Portland's defense are center and point guard. Lawson is quick and offensive-minded. You expect him to score but, as we said with the bigs, if he starts dominating like mini-Jordan this starts to bode ill for Portland's outlook.
Note that Item 6 may be amended by the news that Damian Lillard will miss this game with a bruised left foot.
Join the GameDay Thread in this very spot an hour before tip-off. Enjoy the game!