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Game 14 Preview: Blazers vs. Kings

Well, we were supposed to be doing a preview exchange with TZ at today, just in case you'd gotten tired of hearing my ramblings.  That may still happen and if we get something I'll post it, but since there's no word from them yet and since game day is here as a substitute I'll reprint for you the preview I submitted for their site.  This is supposed to be addressed to Sacramento fans.  Maybe you can see if you think I did a fair job explaining the Blazers to foreigners...

Most Kings fans are probably chalking up Saturday night's tilt against the Portland Trailblazers as an automatic win.  And honestly, who could blame them?  Last year the Blazers were awful.  And not just garden variety awful either...we're talking just-saw-your-grandma-in-her-panties-level horror here.  But a quick glance at the standings shows that this year hasn't started like last year ended.  Sweeping changes over the summer, the resurgence of a one-time star, and a new commitment to team ball have spurred the Blazers if not to respectability, at least to a point where you can't overlook them.

Individual Rundown

At the heart of the early season (relative) prosperity has been the play of Zach Randolph.  Now well removed from microfracture surgery, Zach is averaging 26 points and 10.5 rebounds while shooting 48%.  He's dusted off his old post moves and added them to last year's outside shooting capability.  The result is a guy who can score from anywhere inside the three-point arc.  Even more impressively, he's averaging a league-leading 10.2 free throw attempts per game and shooting 85% from the charity stripe.

Other key players for the new-look Blazers are:

--Rookie sensation Brandon Roy, who has a fantastic all-around game but is currently injured.  He plays at shooting guard but is really a second point guard on the floor.

--Second-year point guard Jarrett Jack.  He's 6'3" with a strong body.  His defensive footspeed isn't great but he's developed a very nice jumper and can also penetrate.  He's dishing 6.2 assists and he's good at swiping the ball.  Watch for him to penetrate unexpectedly, hitting the short jumper or layup.

--Rookie sensation part deux Lamarcus Aldridge.  He's 6'10" with a  great wingspan and quick jumping ability.  He will rebound a little, block a few shots, and has a marvelous turn-around jumper even at this tender age.  Watch for him to run end-to-end and also sneak along the baseline for some easy scores.

--Rookie reserve point guard Sergio Rodriguez.  He won't get a ton of playing time because he doesn't play defense or shoot well, but when he's in there watch his passing ability spark the offense.  He has an uncanny knack for getting the ball to anyone, anywhere and his teammates feed off him.  Like many young guys his games are either great or horrible, which makes him fun to watch.

--You probably won't notice the rest of the guys, as they tend to blend in.  Jamaal Magloire is supposed to get rebounds and score in the deep post.  Juan Dixon provides instant, clever offense.  Martell Webster stretches the floor with his shooting.  Travis Outlaw is the high flyer.  If you're a basketball purist keep your eye on small forward Ime Udoka, who does all the little things well and is a fine perimeter defender.

 What the Blazers will try to do.

The Blazers will want to employ an efficient halfcourt offense centered around Randolph.  They will not want to run with the Kings at all.  Look for Zach in the low post and either Zach or one of the centers in the high pick and roll.  Those are the Blazers' staple plays.  They want their guards penetrating and either scoring, getting to the foul line, or dishing to a wide-open wing man.  They do not want to shoot jumpers all night, especially without passing first.  The Blazers' defense is predicated on keeping people out of the lane, especially since shot-blocker (and King-Killer) Joel Przybilla has been injured and their interior defense is suspect.  They will try to force dribblers to the side and the baseline where they can give help and to contest jumpers from there.  Pick and rolls often mystify the young Blazer guards and they are vulnerable to the coordinated, ball-moving type of offense that has been the Kings' hallmark for years.

What the Kings will want to do

--The Blazers will absolutely fear the speed of Mike Bibby and Kevin Martin.  Without Roy on the floor they have no hope of matching them.  Their biggest nightmare would be those two slicing down the lane all evening, especially if that includes getting the Blazer backcourt in early foul trouble.  Martin could score 90 tonight if things bounce right.

--Zach Randolph will probably notch 20 no matter what, but there's a big difference between him shooting 40% while hogging the ball from a stand-still post position and him shooting 50% with a dozen free throws by catching it on the move in the flow of the offense. The Kings may want to slide Ron Artest over to front Zach and check his quickness, letting their bigger guys help from behind.  If you can get him double-teamed while motionless bad things are going to happen for the Blazers.  In fact this basic rule tells you almost everything you need to know about the Blazer offense in general:  moving, good...standing, bad.

--One sure way to throttle the Blazers is to make them turn the ball over and then sprint on them.  Their commitment to transition defense is sporadic at best.  Overplaying the passing lanes, perhaps via the zone, will also inhibit the team ball movement that is so critical to Portland's success.  Get them going 1-on-1, pick their pockets (or rebound the miss), and then run it.

--I've seen teams outshoot, outpass, and even outthink the Blazers and still lose games to them, but if you get more rebounds and make more free throws than Portland does you will beat them.

--You want to go up early to gain momentum, because this young team feeds on emotion. However do not make the mistake of letting off the throttle.  Portland has already come back from double-digit deficits to win several games this year.  If you've got them down, step on their neck.  12 up isn't enough.  16 up isn't enough.  30 up will probably be enough.

The Blazers came off their best win of the season on Wednesday, and young teams often go flat after an emotional victory.  Young teams usually have trouble on the road as well. And relatively similar records aside, nobody in their right mind would claim that Portland is as good as Sacramento right now.  However Portland is beginning to serve notice that it is no longer a patsy.  They have some talent.  They've shown some character, heart, and teamwork.  The Blazers are capable of beating teams that don't take them seriously and don't come to play.  That includes the Kings.  If Sacramento does not rebound, pay attention to defense, and hustle they will be in for more of a game than they bargained for no matter how well they shoot.  

The Blazers' growth and good play has not been so pronounced (or regular) that I am confident in this game.  I have no doubt that the Kings are quite capable of blowing us out.  That hasn't changed.  The thing that has changed is now you better blow us out when you're supposed to or, as Seattle, the Lakers, Minnesota, New Orleans, and New Jersey (twice) can attest, you may end up walking off the court wondering what the heck just happened.  The Blazers may very well lead the league this year in opponents' angry team meetings called the next morning.  A win in this game would certainly count as a moderate-to-large surprise and a feather in Portland's cap, but it would not be the impossible miracle it would have been the last couple of seasons.  

I hope everybody enjoys the game.  Sacramento fans are, and always have been, great.

--Dave (