OK, folks...let's talk playoffs for a minute. We haven't done that too much, other than to say the Blazers are going to make it. They're well on the way to backing up that claim. This week brings the first batch of truly important games as far as fulfilling the goal. We've had intriguing games before, to be sure. We've also had important wins. But these are the first group of games that are at least marginally late enough in the season, are well-timed, and are against division/conference rivals. It's not like the world would fall apart or the playoffs would be out of reach if we performed poorly this week. But winning in the next few games would set us up nicely for the final stretch of the brutal early-season run and go a long way towards making the new year bright.
The three games in question here are back-to-backs against Denver followed by a Christmas Day game against the Mavericks. These are mid-to-low conference seeding teams, much as we aspire to be. Also if you look past these teams on the schedule you have one interesting game against Toronto (which could be added to this group but for the conference issue) followed by four brutal games: Boston, New Orleans, L*kers, Detroit. Some of those latter four games could be winnable, but you don't want to have to depend on it. After that stretch the schedule gets marginally easier immediately and quite a bit easier soon after. The only thing that could put a crimp in the way we've handled the beginning of the year would be a 1-7 or 2-6 showing in the next 8. We could still make the playoffs heading into the second week of January with a record around .500. We increase our odds substantially if we head into that same week 7-8 games over .500. The key is going to be our performance this week. 2-2 or 3-1 and we're well on our way. 1-3 makes that murderer's row straddling New Year's look intimidating.
First up on the docket, the Denver Nuggets...
A Look at the Nuggets
One week ago you could have claimed solidly that the Nuggets' season could be divided into two clear eras: B.C. ("Before Chauncey" of course) and A.D., which is Latin for "Year of Domination". Denver was 16-4 since Billups started playing. Their offense had been in fine fettle for the better part of a month. Carmelo Anthony and Billups were dominating everyone. Whatcha gonna do when the Nuggets run wild on...ooops! Started playing some good teams all in a row this past week. Denver is 0-3 in their last three, registering losses against the Suns, Rockets, and Cavaliers. That makes them 6-7 against good teams in the Billups era...not shabby, but not 16-4 either.
Depending on how you look at it, this could be good or bad news for the Blazers. On the one hand you'd say we're likely to manage at least a split. On the other hand Denver is probably turrible tired of losing by now and they're not likely to give up more than one loss without having to go into some major therapy.
How do the Nuggets operate? Much smarter than they used to, that's for sure. In the Iverson years the Denver offense was a mano-a-mano duel between a couple of their stars against whatever defender you decided to throw against them. Now the Nuggets make a lot of passes, risk a lot of turnovers, but get their shots, hit their shots, and draw a ton of fouls in the process. You have to guard five men now instead of two and Billups' passing sense plus Carmelo's scoring prowess sometimes make it seem like you're guarding six instead.
Don't let the new team play fool you, though. The Denver smalls can really crank it up. It's been a solid month since anybody taller than 6'8" has led them in scoring. But why should they? The scoring rotation of Billups, Anthony, and reserve J.R. Smith are all shooting decent percentages, are all phenomenal from the three-point arc, and all draw plenty of foul shots. They're too quick, athletic, and skilled. They just murder you inside and out. Relax on any of them and they'll light you up.
Not that the Denver bigs are slouches, mind you. They start with Nene Hilario, whose explosiveness often seems to give the Blazers fits, along with Kenyon Martin. Kenyon shoots 50%+, Nene 60% plus, and this is from two guys known as defenders. They force steals, block a few shots, rebound a little...good all-purpose players with talent. They shuffle in scorer Linas Kleiza, and two rebounders in Chris Anderson and Renaldo Balkman. That's a solid all-around frontcourt rotation.
You'd think with all of those stallions plus the team's lineage that Denver would be operating in run-and-gun mode. They're actually not. They like to play smart instead of just fast. They'll work for the percentage shot, play off the screens, and run when they have the opportunity. Unless challenged they will easily pour in 100+. You have to work to make them give up the pass and start reverting to the one-on-one offense they used to play. When they lose trust they start to break down. That's when they become beatable.
Part of the reason they're beatable when the offense breaks down is that they have a few leaks in the ship. Turnovers are a main bugaboo. They cut down on Denver's margin of error. Offensive rebounding gets almost no attention. They have some good defensive rebounders but as a team they're still anemic. Make them miss and you have a good chance to control the game. They play decent team defense but have trouble when you force them into mismatches. They're the type of team that either allows 85 or 105. When the defense is good it's rollin'. When things break down they break down hard. The key in any case is to put them under pressure.
Keys to the Game
1. The key to this team right now is Chauncey Billups. Denver is 8-0 when he scores 20+, 8-7 when he's under 20. Portland needs to get the ball out of his hands and make somebody else run that offense. Forcing him into difficult shots, especially if he feels like he has to be the savior, is also a decent plan.
2. The Blazers must defend well enough inside that they can spare defenders for the three-point line. Denver isn't prolific shooting them but they make the ones they take. You cannot leave them unguarded out there to help in the middle.
3. Unless the Blazers move their feet and put a ton of energy into defense foul shots are going to be a problem. Denver draws them, Portland doesn't. It's all about keeping in front of those backcourt players. Let them get a step on you and your only choice is whether your wing or your big man is going to pick up the foul.
4. You must make the Nuggets make decisions defensively. They will break down if you make them switch or make multiple rotations. If you just let them sit waiting for you they are more than capable of doing the job. Passing, sharp cutting, and hitting enough open perimeter shots to keep their defense spread and guessing will be important.
5. The Blazers should be able to dominate on the boards.
6. Denver knows what the records are. Denver can count 9 playoff-worthy teams and 8 seeds as well as we can. Denver also knows that we're young and tender while they're hard-bitten and have been there before. (I know, I know, Carmelo isn't exactly tough. He's hardcore the same way Chia Pets are thoughtful Christmas gifts. But he's not the only guy on the team.) Plus they've lost three straight. They're going to come out swinging. This is going to be a tough contest. They will try to bully us. Portland shouldn't get baited into psychological games but they're going to have to win some other way besides pretty and show some grit doing it. If physical play derails the Blazers they're not going to do well tonight.
The general idea should be to split the series with Denver and then win versus Dallas on Christmas to set up the possibility of a 3-1 run. Whether we win the home game or the away game matters not as long as we win one of them.
Check out the Denver point of view at PickAxeandRoll. Seriously, that is one fine blog.
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