The Portland Trail Blazers kick off their first serious road trip of the season Sunday, facing the Brooklyn Nets at noon, Pacific time. The game will be televised on CSNNW.
At first glace the Nets' 7-4 record makes them look intimidating to the 6-6 Blazers. In actuality 5 of those 7 wins have come against teams not expected to be good this season. Insert your own joke here about the Blazers' expectations, but every time the Blazers have come up against a decent-record team that's feasted on bad teams and struggled against good the Blazers have emerged victorious. Somehow in those contests the Blazers decide to play like a good team or the opponent takes them lightly or something funky happens. This kind of game has been the difference between Portland being 6-6 and 3-9. We'll give the Blazers the benefit of the doubt and not put too much weight on records.
Blazers scholars will immediately identify the Nets as intimidating for a whole other reason, however. Trail Blazers 101 says that Portland struggles defending centers and point guards. They can scheme to stop one or the other upon occasion (usually the point guard) but the slant allows other players to run free, putting up devastating numbers.
Say hello to Deron Williams and Brook Lopez.
Brooklyn's point guard-center tandem leads them in scoring with Williams averaging 17 a game and Lopez 19.5. Williams is actually struggling in the shooting department, typical of his performance since he left Utah. He's shooting an acceptable 42% in Brooklyn wins but under 39% in their losses. His three-point percentage is in the sewer and his attempts from range are far too frequent. He's still plenty dangerous with the pass, though, averaging over 8 assists per game. Lopez is hitting at a 55.5% clip from the field, averaging 2.5 blocks, and adding a couple of offensive rebounds. He's going to be a headache for the Blazers no matter which way you slice it.
If Lopez is the lion of Brooklyn's three-headed chimera and Williams is the wily serpent, then Joe Johnson is turning out to be the goat. He's shooting only 39% from the field, though his is at 38% from the three-point arc, his saving grace. He's averaging a little above 15 points per game and his per-minute numbers are down across the board...way down in field goal attempts and scoring. Johnson has been a Blazer-killer in the past, though. The main question for Portland tonight might be which is more reliable early in the season, Portland's inability to guard the 1 and 5 or Johnson's poor shooting? I'd bet on Johnson shooting better before I'd bet on Portland being able to handle both Williams and Lopez.
Small forward Gerald Wallace is working his way through an ankle injury but has played 4 games so far. He's a little slow on the floor. He's not getting shots or rebounds right now but he is on his way to recovery. Kris Humphries starts at power forward and provides the rebounding that Wallace and Lopez lack right now.
The main guys off the Brooklyn bench are guards C.J. Watson and Keith Bogans plus forwards Andre Blatche and Reggie Evans. Watson and Bogans are eating minutes while the starters rest. They're not great at anything but they won't lose you the game. Evans is the rebound-aholic that he's always been. Blatche is recovering from the chaos of Washington and is actually doing a credible job translating his athletic ability into percentage shots and rebounds. He's a guy to watch. If the Nets can succeed in this little reclamation project they all of a sudden become semi-deep. That depth may be added to by wildcard shooting guard MarShon Brooks. Like Wallace he's lost time to an ankle injury but he's been shooting the lights out (63% from the field) when not in street clothes.
Despite the shooting woes of a couple stars the Nets are quite efficient in their offense. They're not a big fast break team. They like to set up percentage shots in the halfcourt, looking to Lopez first but not afraid to fire a jumper if he draws extra attention. They can be devastating from mid-range but they're not great from distance, a handicap which the Blazers may be able to exploit as they sag towards the star center on defense.
The Blazers have faced a murderer's row of offensive rebounding teams lately and the Nets are no exception. The wrinkle here is that the Nets are a poor defensive rebounding team. Even if they score second chance points the Blazers may be able to get them back in similar fashion. Really, though, Portland has handled offensive rebounders pretty well this season. If that continues tonight the Blazers may be able to carve an advantage out of their own second chances.
The Nets don't allow fast break points and--Williams aside--they don't commit many turnovers. That may hamper Portland's easy scoring. They are quite permissive in the paint, which brings up the tree-in-forest philosophical conundrum, "If the paint is undefended but there's nobody there to shoot it, are any points scored?" According to the rulebook the answer would be, "No". The Blazers would do well to find some penetrating power tonight. That may not be LaMarcus Aldridge post up against their front line as much as Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum trying to blow by more veteran (read in this case: slow) defenders. The Blazers should really test the fleetness of Johnson's feet too. The problem, of course, will be getting into the lane with enough ball control to finish. (Sidelong glance here at every penetrating Portland guard and forward except for Will Barton.) If the penetration is straight or soft Lopez will shift over and swat those layup attempts to kingdom come.
Shuffle it all together and this will be a difficult game for the Blazers. They'll need to flex muscles they haven't flexed, contain positions they haven't contained, and deal with a team that can match them strength for strength outside of three-point shooting. No matter how much their mommas love them there's no clear blueprint as they face off against Brooklyn's Finest, just a million and one questions. They'll just have to say "Come and Get Me", try not to dig a hole early, give Damian Lillard the green light, let him say, "Who Gon Stop Me?" then hope the bounce goes their way and they can steal this game like '03 Bonnie and Clyde and not end up D.O.A. in da graveyard.
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