Game Time: 4:30 p.m. Pacific TV: CSNNW
Pop Quiz: Name a team that had reasonable playoff expectations coming into the season based on talent, had an outside chance of doing something special, but has fallen flatter than your grandma's flapjacks, slouching their way to a near-.500 record.
If you said "Portland Trail Blazers" give yourself a pat on the head. We would also have accepted "Boston Celtics" as an answer. At the beginning of the year Portland's star was moderately on the rise, trying out fancy new acquisitions and a minted star forward. Boston was moderately in decline, riding the last ripples of a championship roster. In recent weeks their arcs have inverted with the Celtics winning 5 of their last 6 and the Blazers dropping 4 of 5. No matter. They've both ended up in the mushy middle, leaving fan bases clinging to hope and demanding change at the same time. Welcome to the brotherhood of the disaffected.
Boston's offense desperately needs some iron supplements and a B-vitamin shot. Their guys know how to play. Rondo, Garnett, Pierce, Allen...you know they're good. They shoot a high percentage from the field and the three-point arc (7th and 8th in the league respectively, though they don't attempt many threes). But that's ALL they do. They shoot a high percentage on jump shots. Points in the paint? Awful. Fast break points? Nope. Free throws drawn? Don't ask. Their pacing is slow, their attack deliberate...it's like they're doing surgery on offense, each cut precise. The problem is they're operating while the opponent is smashing them with a club. Surgery takes more skill but the club ends up more effective. Throw in a bunch of turnovers and no offensive rebounding and you end up with an offense that's hard to recommend to anyone. It's an invention that works in theory but can't withstand the rigors of real life.
Fortunately the Celtics have not forgotten their defensive roots. They're 4th in the league in field goal percentage allowed, 1st in three-point percentage allowed, 4th in defensive efficiency. They're slightly weak in the paint and in committing fouls but they get back on defense well for old geezers. (They had to sacrifice that offensive rebounding for something, right?) They're pretty good at turnovers forced and blocked shots, though they're more bread-and-butter defense than cake and frosting. Their defensive rebounding is weak. That's about the only glaring problem though. They grind, they bump, they either make you work or make you tear your hair out in ugly frustration. What do they care? If ugly wins, ugly plays.
The Big Four still get the majority of minutes for this team. Garnett's production has fallen off from its height, naturally. Pierce is struggling with this three-point shot compared to normal. But Ray Allen has re-discovered his stroke and for the most part the quartet will give what you expect. More importantly for the Blazers, these guys know weakness when they see it. They're not going to give up games for free. If you play stupid or uninspired ball they'll happily show you what life was like when they were young and the league was bowing before them. If you think Ray Allen is going to miss wide-open threes or Kevin Garnett miss a chance to bark in your face, you're silly.
The main quartet is joined by Brandon "Who Said This Team Was About Defense?" Bass in the starting lineup. He's an anachronism, a score-first, score-always, black hole counterpoint to the refined Boston attack. Then you have energy or one-dimension guys like Mickael Pietrus and Chris Wilcox, Keyon Dooling or rookie shot-blocker Greg Stiemsma. This bench isn't going to win awards but they'll play well enough around the regulars to get by.
With a little bit of dad-gum stick-to-it play the Blazers should be able to claim a rebounding advantage tonight, usually a positive sign. They'll need to watch out for Rondo and for the Celtics' ability to score from deep. The Blazers run similar rotations no matter who the opponent is, often leaving men to double guys who have no business being doubled. Portland has to remember that the Celtics do not score in the lane. They don't have great post-up game. They're not as hard-nosed on offense as they used to be. Don't protect against things that aren't there. If your interior defense is so bad that they're going to punish you in the lane 1-on-1 or your transition defense is so lazy that they score on the break, you're going to lose this game no matter what. Have some pride, play it straight-up, and let them run that offense with hands in their faces.
On the other end Portland needs to speed the game up, get into that bench, and make the Celtics prove they can guard the lane on the other end. Settling for jumper versus jumper wouldn't be prudent. Boston will execute better than the Blazers will. The Blazers need to play with physicality, emotion, make the Celtics remember that they just got blown to heck by the 76'ers instead of letting them get revenge for it. Portland has the talent and the bodies to rip this game away. Who knows if they'll bother using either. When a flat team meets a flat team the team that shows more emotion and desire to win usually takes it. Paging Gerald Wallace. Hello Nicolas Batum and Raymond Felton. Why don't you help your man Aldridge beat up on some guys who used to spit on this team back in the day? The Blazers need to play like a steamroller, not safety flaggers. We'll see if they've got it in them.
CelticsBlog is your Boston hook-up.
Tonight's Jersey Contest Form is here.