Game Time: 7:30 p.m. TV: CSNNW and ESPN
The next-to-the-last home game of the 2011-12 season commences tonight at the Rose Garden for the 28-31 Portland Trail Blazers. Their opponents are the 32-26 Dallas Mavericks. The Mavs are 5-5 in their last 10 games. The Blazers are too. Portland played one of its best games of the season a week ago tonight, clipping the Mavericks 99-97 in overtime courtesy of a graceful LaMarcus Aldridge elbow fade-away. The result no doubt made Dallas fans slap their foreheads in consternation, as the Mavericks are in the middle of a dead heat for the 6-7-8 seeds in the Western Conference playoffs and still in contention for the 5th seed (and theoretically still at risk of not making the playoffs at all). Avoiding those 7th and 8th positions is a no-brainer, so Dallas could have used those games. Portland had little to play for that night except lottery position. That the Blazers hung close and took the game is indicative of their mindset and a credit to their play.
Unfortunately the Blazers have suffered injuries in key positions in the last week. Team leader and All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge is due for hip surgery and done for the year. Fellow forward Nicolas Batum is hobbled with leg injuries. That leaves Joel Przybilla, J.J. Hickson, and Luke Babbitt manning major minutes in the frontcourt. Even if you figure Hickson's exceptional performances as a Blazer and Babbitt's prolific three-point shooting in the last month, that's a pretty thin lineup to be throwing out there against Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, Brendan Haywood, and Brandan Wright.
Portland's backcourt is intact, but may be a mixed blessing. Raymond Felton, Wesley Matthews, and Jamal Crawford have all had exceptional games in the last few weeks but synergy hasn't matched individual performances. Crawford, in particular, has made a living chucking everything he puts his hands on for better or worse. Felton and Matthews have been more team oriented but just as sporadic. Again you look across the court at Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Delonte West, Vince Carter, and Rodrigue Beaubois and you start sweating.
Not that the Mavericks have been perfect, or even that good. As we mentioned in last week's preview:
They're having trouble scoring, lacking points in the paint, fast breaks, free-throw attempts...anything resembling an easy shot. Their shooting percentage and three-point percentage are bottom-third in the league. Their free-throw shooting is only average even when they get the attempts. Their offensive rebounding is non-existent. "Anemic" is the best word to describe this offense. They lack the sheen their championship status implies. It comes out occasionally, but mostly it's buried under the patina of mediocrity. Their only claim to fame on offense is that they don't turn over the ball much. But with all the labored sets, they might as well. The clank of the rim plus no rebound is a turnover by default.
Their defense looks slightly better. They give up fast break points, as you'd expect from an older team. But their points in the paint allowed are quite modest and they're downright parsimonious with their shooting percentage and three-point percentage allowed. They force steals, block shots...they make you think and they make you work. They're also quite good at rebounding on the defensive end. It's not that they have more energy or athleticism when defending. They just play basic and smart...pretty much what's required of a winning team.
In the interim they have scored 89 against Memphis and 110 against Sacramento, pretty much proving the point that they can be as good or bad as they want to be on a given night. You never know which Dallas team is going to show up. At this point you don't know what kind of team Portland will field either. All we know is that Dallas has the proven talent and the reason to win. Those will stack the odds against Portland, even at home. Then again, the odds were stacked against them last week too and the Blazers pulled it out. But that was with Aldridge.
If the Blazers are to have a chance they'll need a monster game from Hickson plus plenty of shots falling for the guards. As we saw in Wednesday's game against Golden State, Portland's defense is suspect. The second unit is nearly incompetent on the defensive end at this point. That will require the Blazers to score enough to make up the difference. They'll also have to hope the Mavericks will sleepwalk through those bench shifts, not realizing they could probably score 80 against Portland's second-unit defenders.
At this point in the season as a Blazer fan I guess you hope for effort and figure results will be win-win either in victories or lottery standings. That's about all you can do against the Mavericks without your star. Here's hoping it's a good game.
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