Fresh off an emotional victory against the World Champs, the Portland Trail Blazers head to Oakland tonight to face Team Rejuvenation, the Golden State Warriors, in a game televised on CSNNW beginning at 7:30 p.m.
The Blazers had problems winning by the bay even when the Warriors routinely sported records like 12-22. As we speak they're 22-12. The back-to-back, the post-Miami letdown, the prowess of the Warriors, and their own history in this building all conspire against the Blazers tonight.
On the other hand the Warriors have dropped their last two games straight, uncharacteristically failing to reach 90 points against the Clippers and Grizzlies. Golden State's big trio of Steph Curry, David Lee, and Klay Thompson all had horrible showings against the Clips. Curry and Thompson bounced back against the Grizzlies but Lee struggled.
Despite that, Lee is having a magnificent season with 20 points, 11 rebounds, and 53% shooting per game. Curry scores 20 and Thompson 17. Their shooting is more marginal but both excel from beyond the arc, as does Jarrett Jack, a great find for them at reserve guard. Rookie Harrison Barnes mans the small forward position as a jack-of-almost-all-trades. Carl Landry is a veteran scrapper in the frontcourt. It's a nice rotation, brilliant when it clicks.
With center Andrew Bogut out indefinitely, the Warriors are struggling to fill minutes at center. 6'11", 255 lb rookie Festus Ezeli gets occasional runs as has shown some shot-blocking ability but he's not performing with any consistency nor does he have a bankable strength to rely on. Andris Biedrins is day-to-day with a groin injury but the guy hasn't produced for years anyway.
So Golden State is doing what Golden State do: going small. They mix and match all of the above players, adding in small doses of another rookie, the horrible-shooting Draymond Green, and occasional appearances by veteran small forward Richard Jefferson. As long as the top 4-5 guys are going fine, the rest of the team usually follows.
The flow chart of Golden State's offense runs as follows:
1. Do you have a fast break? If yes, then take it. If no, go to 2.
2. Do you have a jump shot available? If yes, then take it. If no, then take it anyway.
3. Did that shot go in? If yes, nod and get back on defense. If no, hope that Lee or Landry rebounds and sticks it back in.
It's a credit to the skill of the Warriors shooters that their offense, while primarily developing outside the paint, is also reasonably efficient. On a bad day these guys are still a threat to make it rain. On a good day you've got a typhoon coming down on your head. Their field goal percentage, three-point percentage, and points per game scored numbers are all high. The only thing they don't do well besides score in the paint is its cousin, draw foul shots. You could criticize this offense as inherently less dependable but you're closer to the truth giving them credit for scoring over 100 ppg with it on average.
The big improvement leading to the gaudy record this year is Golden State's defense. They're downright stingy in shooting percentages: 3rd in the league in overall field goal percentage and three-point percentage allowed, 11th in defensive efficiency (up from 27th last season). They're miserable shot-blockers, don't force turnovers, and are only average defending the paint, but they make up for all of that with mobility, energy, and fantastic defensive rebounding. The biggest drawback to their style is the tendency to commit fouls, but they'll give that up to keep hands in the faces of shooters. Long story short, if they keep you to one shot their offense will probably provide enough points to keep them ahead.
The Blazers are going to have to match Golden State's energy and motivation tonight, both difficult tasks. Both teams want to prove that better-than-expected starts to the season are no fluke. But Golden State is at home, rested, has a bigger chip on the shoulder right now, and has the superior record to boot.
The matchup of Portland's small-ish lineup and the Warriors' small-ish lineup should be a sight to behold. If this were wrestling there's no Hulk Hogans and Brock Lesnars here. This is classic Hart-Guerrero-Jericho stuff. It'll be a good matchup if the Blazers remember to stay active on defense. If they let the Warriors score on the break this game could be over before it starts. Ditto if they don't cover enough of the court to catch up with those three-point shooters. I wouldn't stack up many teams against Portland in a distance-shooting contest but the Warriors are definitely one of the few. Keeping energy high without turning this into a freestyle game that the Warriors will excel in will be a challenge for the Blazers.
The marquee matchup of the evening pits Lee against LaMarcus Aldridge. I want to say Aldridge is the better overall player and I'd certainly prefer him to Lee as a Trail Blazer. That doesn't erase Lee's marvelous season so far, nor Lee's oft-demonstrated capability of taking it to Portland. LaMarcus may edge Lee in the career-arc battle but Lee could still deliver the knockout blow tonight if the Blazers aren't careful.
More subtle, but just as important, will be the performance of J.J. Hickson, particularly on the offensive glass. He doesn't have to worry about accomplished centers and paint scorers on the defensive end. This should be his kind of game. But as we just mentioned, the Warriors are great on the defensive glass. Portland's best chance of foiling their game could be offensive rebounds. Hickson is the guy for those. If he has a good showing Portland might be able to blast a hole in the side of the Warriors' ship. If Hickson is a non-factor the Warriors may end up lapping the Blazers.
This contest would be more fun at home and with rest, but it should still be a great one to watch...as long as the Blazers show up. And if they actually win tonight? Wow.
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