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Game 21 Preview: Blazers vs. Celtics

Rewind the memory-o-meter to Wednesday, January 16th, 2008.  The young Portland Trail Blazers had surprised the league by rattling off 18 wins in their last 20 games.  Though the 23-15 record was still somewhat modest by NBA elite standards it was still good enough for the division lead and there were whispers around the league that the Blazers just might be for real.  Those whispers were all but shouts among Blazer fans.  Right here on post after post trumpeted this matchup between elite teams, most excited about the possibility of putting down the Celtics and claiming our rightful glory, many predicting exactly that happening, some even saying this would be a prelude to a playoffs matchup (which, of course, could only happen if both teams made the NBA Finals).  Both nerves and anticipation reached a fevered pitch as the teams took the floor.  You could hear it clearly in the voices of the TV announcers.  You could read it in the tide of comments that came across our main page and sidebar.  This was it!  Finally the Blazers had a chance to claim their due.

The net result?  A 100-90 victory for the Celtics in a game where the Blazers led early but pretty much got squashed like a bug when it mattered.  It was only a 10-point loss, but the way we got manhandled down the stretch made it seem like twice that.  Everybody talked bravely afterwards.  “It’s just one loss.  We’ll get them next time.”  In truth it would be a month and a half before the Blazers even managed consecutive wins again.  They never won more than two in a row after that point.  Their record following the Boston loss was 18-26 and they missed the playoffs entirely.  They didn’t even manage to get the Celtics back, losing by 10 on their home floor five weeks later.

Now fast-forward back to today, Friday, December 5th, 2008.  Ten and a half months later the Blazers’ record stands at 14-6.  Though the current six game winning streak seems paltry compared to 18 of 20 the caliber of opponent in this stretch has been much tougher.  The whispers are more pronounced among national media folks.  The Blazers really are looking like they’re for real.  Yet the groundswell of confidence about this game is not as evident among Blazer fans.  Maybe they know instinctively that more is at stake here…that we’re not just making flippant predictions about playoff position anymore…that these matchups are not terribly far from becoming reality.  Maybe the rings Boston won last year have a sobering effect.  Maybe Portland’s memory is just long.  Or maybe we’ve smartened up.  Any way you slice it, this is bound to be a tough game.  Portland may be moving towards the head of the class, but there are a couple of huge bullies yet in the way.  The dismissal bell just rang.  It’s time to see if we can make it to the bus without getting our clocks cleaned as we step into the courtyard.

A Look at the Celtics

The easiest way to explain this matchup is to say that most things the Blazers do well the Celtics do at least a little bit better.  The Blazers are 15th in the league in scoring at 98.7 ppg.  The Celtics are 11th at 99.4.  The Blazers are 7th in points allowed with 93.2 ppg.  The Celtics are 1st at 90.3.  The Blazers are 9th in field goal percentage, the Celtics 5th.   The Blazers are 20th in field goal percentage allowed, the Celtics are 1st.  (Big gap there.)   The Celtics draw more fouls and force more steals and turnovers.  They also defend the three-point arc better.  The teams are virtually tied in defensive rebounding, assists, blocks, and free-throw percentage.  That leaves the Blazers few clear advantages in a game where they need them.  The Blazers are a better offensive rebounding team.  The Blazers take and hit more threes.  That’s about it.

Those two particular advantages do open the door a crack, however, in that they have the potential of generating extra points.  Extra points are exactly what you need while playing the Celtics.  You’re not going to out-defend them. You’re not going to out-grind them.  You’re not going to win if the game comes down to a couple of critical possessions with your guys against theirs.  They have Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen.  I wouldn’t say it’s impossible to outduel those three in a two-critical-possessions game but I would never, ever put my money on it.  Denver scored 94 and Indiana 95 in the only two games the Celtics lost this year plus they’ve had a couple close calls with lesser teams who scored in the 100’s.  Topping the century mark is no sinecure, mind you.  The Celts also win when scoring in the 115-120 range.  They can win any kind of game.  That’s what makes them great.  Nevertheless you’re going to need to put points on the board and build a lead to beat them.  If this were wrestling they would want to put you in a hammerlock submission with that 41% field goal percentage allowed.  You better come with the Hurricanrudy off of the top rope and add a Flying Sergio off the ladder for good measure.

Boston’s three stars need no introduction.  All you need to know is that they’re seamlessly blending together once again.  All of them score.  All of them rebound well for their positions.  All of them pass.  Ray Allen’s shooting is back near normal levels after a down year last year.  Paul Pierce’s shooting has fallen off.  No matter, they do what they have to do in order to win.  Rajon Rondo is also having a great year, averaging near 8 assists and 5 rebounds plus shooting 52% from the field.  Their other starter, Kendrick Perkins (or K-Perk, as I like to call him) is shooting 57.5% from the field on the few shots he takes and also grabbing 8 rebounds per game in fewer than 30 minutes of play.  Guards Tony Allen and Eddie House plus forwards Glen Davis, Leon Powe, and Brian Scalabrine round out the regular rotation (thought Allen is day-to-day with an ankle injury).  Most of that supporting cast knows what it’s doing.  Occasionally someone will take a flight of fancy (House, Perkins) or no-show (Powe, Scalabrine) or just plain suck (Davis) but with such a strong core the bit players can’t do too much damage even on their worst nights.  You are going to have to fight all game long to end up close, let alone on top.

Worst of all for the Blazers the Celtics are not going to get rattled.  Should the Blazers come out and build a 20-point lead in the first the Celtics will probably figure they’ll catch them in the end.  They’re the champions.  They’re used to being the biggest game on everyone’s schedule.  They’re handling it marvelously.  You’re not going to backdoor a win here.  If Boston has an off-night they only beat you by 5 instead of 15.  Barring a weird Garnett ejection or something of that nature the Blazers are going to have to earn this honestly.

Keys to the Game

1.  Don’t get destroyed early.  This game can’t be won in the first 20 minutes but it could be lost there.  If Boston gets up big you may see the Blazers make the typical underdog comeback but the Celtics will just lower the boom when it matters.  Portland needs to stay in contact the whole way.

2.  The outside shooting has to be there tonight.  The Celtics are not quite as adept defending on the perimeter.  Hitting those shots will make them commit defenders and free up the rest of the floor.

3.  The Big Three all have to come strong.  Greg Oden could be a huge wildcard with his rebounding, offensive rebounding, and putback abilities.  If we hit a couple of deep shots and he starts tearing up the middle the dam could burst on the Celtics.  Brandon Roy has to drive past whoever the Celtics put on him.  Lamarcus Aldridge just has to play Garnett within shouting distance and not get obliterated.  Sometimes he rises to these challenges surprisingly well.  It would be nice if tonight were that night.

4.  This is not an opponent like the Knicks or Wizards where you have to remind yourself to respect them enough to play your game.  With Boston you have to remind yourself not to respect them too much.  This is a game.  They are an NBA team just like we are.  They are good and you need to be on point but anyone who says a win is impossible hasn’t watched the NBA very long.  Do not put too much pressure on yourself to make this game special.  Do not be in awe of the opponent.  Do not feel you have to make every possession perfect.  Go out, share the ball, take your shots where you get them, crash the boards, and hustle back to defend.  You could still lose doing those things but if you get distracted away from doing them or start thinking instead of executing you’re going to lose for sure.

5.  Energy, hustle, and confidence are always keys when facing a superior opponent.  Sometimes they snowball into a win.

Final Thoughts

So…back now to the story of Friday, December 5th, 2008.  This is a big game for fans, quite understandably.  We’re all going to be extra excited tonight when the teams take the floor.  I bet the Blazers will be a little extra excited too.  But as soon as the ball goes up it’s down to business.  And putting on our business hat we have to understand that this is one game among many and really has few permanent consequences.  Winning tonight would be a nice feather in Portland’s cap, of course, but it doesn’t go much further than that. 

I know people are going to argue with me about this but trust me…we cannot become an elite team by winning this game.  That only comes by winning 55+ and then performing really well in the playoffs.  Those landmarks come in April and May, not December.  Anyone who remembers the Drexler years can tell you that winning games against opponents in the regular season means bubkus when you get into the post-season.  It’s a whole new world and as soon as Game 1 commences nobody remembers what happened before.  The only thing that’s going to markedly change if the Blazers win is that the national pundits are going to ooh and aah and maybe some other fans will say, “Portland is for real.”  Those last exactly until Sunday when we play Toronto, when we are once again capable of losing all of that with one bad performance.  That’s about what it means…a temporary high.  It would be nice, to be sure, but if you’re a Portland fan you’ll know already not to hang your hat or your pride on what other people say about your team because they’ll always say it louder and longer about somebody more famous.

The opposite is also true.  We cannot lose the season or our status by losing this game.  The only real danger here is that the emotion of testing ourselves against the World Champions gets out of control and we get deflated if we come up short, letting it affect us like a triple-bogey affects some otherwise good golfers and ruins their entire round.  This team is on FAR more solid ground than last year’s team was when they met the Celtics so I don’t think that’s too big of a danger.  It would be nice to know the fans were on that solid ground as well.  Just like the effects of winning this game could be blown in Toronto the effects of losing it could be made good in Toronto…or anywhere really.  One win and it’s back to neutral.

Is this a big game?  Sure, for December.  But that modifier “FOR DECEMBER” is crucial, win or lose.  It’s great that this game is exciting, but what makes it exciting is not just the opponent, but the position we’re in as we approach the game.  That position will not change too much no matter what the result tonight.  The position--the play that brought the Blazers to it and that hopefully will continue on after tonight--is what truly excites me, not just one game in December.

Check out the Celtics’ point of view at the always-popular (and newly renovated) CelticsBlog

Enter the Jersey Contest form for this game here.

This game starts at 5:00 p.m. Pacific and is televised on ESPN as well as CSN KGW locally. 

--Dave (