Just one week into the 2012-2013 NBA season, the Portland Trail Blazers are sitting at .500 with a 2-2 record. The Trail Blazers got off to a blazing start in their season opener at the Rose Garden against the new-look Los Angeles Lakers, beating them out 116-106, with sixth overall pick Damian Lillard recording 23 points and 11 assists in his debut, a feat only ever accomplished by the likes of Hall Of Famers Isiah Thomas and Oscar Robertson, and he is also the first rookie to score 21 or more points and record nine or more assists in his first game since LeBron James in 2003.
A highlight from this game was 7 straight points from one of Portland’s offseason acquisitions, none other than Serbia’s favourite Sasha Pavlovic! Although they were his only points of the night, he provided the spark for a 13-0 run that would take the game out of reach for the Lakers heading into the 4th, and Portland were able to put a strike in the win column to start the year.
Despite Portland being lead by Lillard’s historical performance, as well as a good scoring game from Wes Matthews (who shot 7-11 from the field including 4 threes), Dwight Howard still managed to have a massive night with 33 points, 14 rebounds, five assists, a steal and a block in his debut wearing purple and gold.
Portland would lose their next game against division rivals and defending conference champs, the Oklahoma City Thunder, behind Russell Westbrook’s 32 points, with Durant also scoring 23 and nabbing 17 rebounds and newly acquired Kevin Martin pouring in 19 points in his second game for Oklahoma City. An All-Star last season, power forward LaMarcus Aldridge got right back in to it for Portland, scoring 22 points and pulling down 15 boards, and Lillard continued his impressive form with 21 points and seven assists in the 92-106 road loss. Portland’s undersized centre with the athleticism to make up for it, J.J. Hickson, had a big double-double in just 26 minutes with 12 boards and 14 points. Nicolas Batum was a non-factor (after top scoring for Portland against Los Angeles the previous game) as he struggled to a quiet three points, shooting an awful 1-11 from the field (in 37 minutes of play!) against the Thunder.
The very next night, Portland would have to go up against 2-0 Houston and their hot recently acquired guard James Harden, who was coming off a pair of spectacular games scoring 37 and 45 points against Detroit and Atlanta respectively. This challenge was met with open arms, and with neither Portland nor Houston shooting the ball very well (42% and 35% from the field respectively) Portland was trailing 78-81 with under a minute remaining. Wesley Matthews came up big hitting a huge 3-ball to tie the game at 81, and Harden had the ball taken away from him during Houston’s chance to win the game. Blazers won the game in overtime outscoring Houston by 10 in the overtime period and “holding” Harden to 24 points while forcing him to commit five turnovers, proving that they don’t fear the beard. LaMarcus Aldridge had a big game, dominating offensively with 27 points, and he also recorded 11 rebounds, six assists and two blocks in 45 minutes. Lillard was once again impressive, scoring 20 points and dishing out nine assists to go with six rebounds to continue making his early season case for Rookie of the Year.
The Trail Blazers were looking to go to 3-1 against the Dallas Mavericks to finish off their three game road trip, but things did not go quite as planned. With the Mavericks leading from their first possession all the way to the middle of the second quarter, Portland hung with Dallas and took a one point lead (48-47) with under four minutes remaining to give the game its first lead change. The Blazers lost the lead the very next possession, and they would never gain the lead back. Portland kept it close all the way to the fourth quarter, but behind O.J. Mayo’s spectacular birthday game, the Mavericks lead continued to grow as Dallas seemingly cruised to a 114-91 victory, outscoring the Blazers 31 to 12 in the 4th quarter.
Lillard cooled off in this one, coming back down to earth with just 13 points on 2-13 shooting, including 1-8 from deep (although he was a perfect 8-8 from the charity stripe!), and he recorded a season low five assists in 33 minutes of play. Portland’s star Aldridge still had a nice game, scoring 20 points to go with seven rebounds, two assists and a block. Mayo set the American Airlines Center on fire with 32 points, including six threes, although (as usual) scoring was all he provided. The story of this game is told by the fact that Portland wasn’t sharing the ball, with the entire team combining for just 13 assists (a feat that Darren Collison accomplished by himself this game) compared to the Mavericks’ 29. Portland dominated the offensive glass pulling down 23 rebounds compared to the Mavericks’ two, which is expected as Dallas were shooting the lights out (62% FG, 50% from three) and there were no offensive boards to grab, compared to Portland shooting a fairly poor 39% for the game and just 22% from beyond the arc.
The stats really tell the story for this game as Portland struggled shooting the ball, particularly in the 4th quarter where they let inconsistent play turn a two point deficit in the fourth become a 23 point loss within 10 minutes. In the end, the Dirk-less Mavericks got the easy win at home, mainly due to Portland’s woeful shooting and O.J. Mayo’s birthday celebrations.
So that is a wrap on Portland’s season so far. Tonight they face a tough game against the Los Angeles Clippers, but the fact that the game is in the Rose Garden should help out the Blazers a huge amount.
Now to a preview of what we can expect from the Blazers this season:
1. We can expect lot of pick and roll/pick and pop plays between Lillard and Aldridge. Aldridge’s unblockable 20 foot jumper will allow Lillard and Aldridge to create a vast array of plays.
2. We can expect Damian Lillard to finish at least 2nd in Rookie of the Year voting (bar injuries).
3. We can expect LaMarcus Aldridge to have another All-Star season.
4. We can expect (hope) that Nicolas Batum will show up and play like he deserves his contract.
With rookie Damian Lillard showing great potential early, the future at point guard for Portland is bright. Lillard has been compared to Chauncey Billups because of his outstanding awareness, and has also been called a fat Russell Westbrook, due to his looks and scoring prowess, although I believe that Lillard is more traditional and better at playing point guard than Westbrook, where his dazzling scoring moves complement his passing abilities, whereas Westbrook is a pure scorer, a shooting guard in a point guard’s body.
Nolan Smith is a great first option off the bench for Portland, and as he continues to grow, if Lillard goes down I feel that he is talented and mature enough to take the reins.
Ronnie Price has been an okay bench guy his whole career and I don’t think that is going to change in Portland.
Incumbent starter Wesley Matthews is a great scoring option with the size and weight to guard at small forward. Wes has been solid for Portland for the last two years, filling the gap left by Brandon Roy. Wes has a solid three point shot, shooting at around 40% for his career, which means defenders are unable to sag off to compensate for a drive where he could throw his weight around and get to the hoop. Expect Wes to score in bunches this year, especially with Lillard always being on the lookout for the open man and a lot of double teams going towards Aldridge in the post.
Portland’s second option at shooting guard is Sasha Pavlovic. This is often not a good thing. Sasha has the tendency to catch fire but is really only good to hype up the crowd.
Portland’s third shooting guard Elliot Williams has struggled to find his feet in the NBA, the former first-round pick missing his entire first season with a knee injury. Williams will also miss the entire season this year due to an Achilles injury. So in three seasons he has appeared in just 24 games, averaging less than four points. It seems doubtful that he will ever be able to come back and contribute to this Blazers team.
France’s Nicolas Batum is still very young after four seasons in the NBA and is still tagged as having a lot of potential. The 23 year old has an excellent scoring ability, being able to knock down threes and light up the scoreboard. Batum’s presence on defence is also felt, as he is able to use his long arms to steal the ball and pull off spectacular chase down blocks. Should Batum finally develop into the scorer he is believed to be and play to the standards set by his massive contract, the small forward position is locked down for years to come in Portland.
Portland’s backup small forward is 2009 first round draft pick Victor Claver, who is coming over with Joel Freeland from Europe to play his first NBA season. Not much has been seen of Claver, so we will have to wait until later in the season to find out what he can do.
Luke Babbitt has been a fan favourite since he came to Portland with the 16th pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, but he has struggled to make noise on the stat sheet, save for last years' tank job. Averaging just 10 minutes per game for his career, we can still hope Babbitt develops, but he is struggling to find a position, often playing stretch 4.
Then there’s Will Barton. The rookie swingman was Portland’s second round pick, and he has struggled in his limited minutes thus far. With six minutes per game, Barton is yet to have an opportunity to showcase his skills, and Portland’s personnel feel Barton has a huge upside and lots of potential.
LaMarcus Aldridge is the team’s star. Coming off an All-Star season, Aldridge is expected to put up big numbers scoring the basketball, as well as grab a few rebounds and block a few shots. Regarded as one of the best power forwards in the league, Aldridge is the leader and franchise player in Portland, and he should help out young players like rookies Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard a lot this season. Aldridge will excel in the pick and roll and pick and pop with Lillard running the point this year. Expect Aldridge to be an All Star again this year (bar injuries) and make a strong case for the second best power forward in the league if he continues to expand his game and get better.
Portland’s backup power forward is Jared Jeffries, a journeyman who can cover multiple positions (the 6’11” 240lb forward started at shooting guard for Washington many times). He is a good player to come in for eight minute spells and get a few points and a few boards. Don’t expect him to have a huge impact this year.
6’9” J.J. Hickson is the man in the middle for Portland, which may seem “short” but the kid can jump. Hickson can sky for a ton of boards and second chance points, and on any given night can explode for 15+ points and 15 rebounds. He is naturally an athletic power forward so he runs the floor well and provides great energy and hustle.
Meyers Leonard is a giant. The 7’1” rookie is very raw, but has a lot of potential at center to develop like Indiana’s Roy Hibbert has in the last few years. Leonard’s size allows for a bunch of different line ups for Portland, and his natural skill and size should be enough to carry him through his first season as he continues to refine his skills.
Joel Freeland has finally come over from England after being a late first round draft pick in 2006. Coming off an impressive Olympic campaign, Freeland has been able to come into Portland and provide quality minutes at the five spot, with nice touch from outside and the ability to pull down boards. Freeland can easily switch between power forward and centre as well.
After firing arguably the best coach in basketball, Nate McMillan, Kaleb Canales stepped in as interim Head Coach. Once the season ended, Portland hired former NBA forward Terry Stotts as head coach, and Canales stepped down to assistant. Stotts has experience coaching four other NBA teams as well as a couple in Canada. He won a ring as assistant coach in Dallas in 2011, which shows that he has the experience and knows what it takes to bring a team to the top.
What we can expect in terms of season outcomes:
There are two scenarios that are possible for this Portland team in my opinion.
Scenario 1: Portland sneak in to the 8 seed of the West, manage to win a couple of games, make some noise and maybe pull off a first round upset (bit of a reach but hey, this team is unpredictable, and it happens (think 2011 Grizzlies/Spurs series)). That'd be as far as they'd go however, second round exit for Terry Stotts' men.
Scenario 2: Same as last year, season derailed by injuries, Batum doesn’t play anywhere near his contract’s value and Portland secure another lottery pick.
Ideal Scenario: Portland sweep the entire playoffs and win the championship, after having somehow traded with Charlotte to acquire the 1st overall pick and enter the next season as defending champs with a starting line-up of Lillard, Matthews, Shabazz Muhammad, Batum (whatever, he’s tall), Aldridge and Brian Scalabrine coming out of retirement to be 6th man.
Well, we can dream, right?