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Looking WAY Ahead

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While most of you were enjoying Fan Fest Jeremy from the Snowy Midwest was perusing the last month's articles on Blazersedge.  Points for diligence, Jeremy.  He wrote a wonderful e-mail with about 32 different questions and topics to cover but perhaps the most provocative came out of a post we did in mid-September on a potentially difficult head-to-head matchup with the Denver Nuggets.  Jeremy paired the assertion that a major goal for the Blazers is getting out of the first round of the playoffs with the Nuggets piece and asked for a rundown of how I thought the Blazers would fare against  the slate of Western contenders.  It's a little preliminary, of course, but no more so than any conclusions drawn from an inter-squad scrimmage, so what the heck.  Let's run down the tougher teams in the West and forecast both regular and post-season possibilities, given the state of the teams currently.

Northwest Division

DENVER NUGGETS

We did this one already, so I'll reiterate briefly.  I think it's entirely possible, perhaps even probable, that the Blazers outstrip the Nuggets in the regular season this year and take the division.  The top four seed and almost certain first round homecourt advantage that would provide would go a long way towards ensuring a two-series minimum in the post-season.  However if and when the Blazers and Nuggets meet up in the playoffs Portland will be in for a heck of a fight.  The Blazers didn't handle Denver's big men well last year and they have to pay attention to Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups to boot.  Many are claiming Denver lost depth this year but in the playoffs depth is not as important as matchup superiority.  Denver doesn't possess that clearly but they create trouble for the Blazers.  This would be a coin toss with the edge to the homecourt team.

UTAH JAZZ

I respect the Jazz.  I am well aware that a couple seasons ago they were forecast as the semi-official Team of the Future in the West.  The Blazers also have a heck of a time winning in Salt Lake City.  However I don't like the Jazz against the Blazers in the post-season for the same reason I am wary of the Nuggets:  matchups.  The Jazz have some super-fine players, including and especially Deron Williams, but I don't believe they have the physicality or the fortitude to bully the Blazers the way Denver might.  Mehmet Okur creates a nasty matchup for Greg Oden with his perimeter game but a developed Oden could create worse problems for Okur on the other end.  Aldridge should be closer to Boozer this year, providing Carlos is still around in May.  I don't like anyone on their roster against Roy nor against a three-guard lineup as long as our bigs are taking care of the boards.  The regular season battle may well be closer than a post-season face-off would be.

Pacific Division

LOS ANGELES YOU-KNOW-WHOS

This mirrors the Portland-Utah matchup in reverse.  The Blazers beat the L*kers as much as any team does in the regular season.  But the L*kers care far less about the regular season than the Blazers do.  They know it doesn't mean squat once the second season begins.  The Blazers should have learned something from last year's tilt with the Rockets but they haven't learned enough to cope with the champs in a seven-game series when it matters.  Too much Kobe.  Bynum does enough against Oden.  Odom gets nasty.  The role players do what they're supposed to.  The Blazers should win a game or two but ultimately it's still too much experience on L.A.'s side plus a huge trump card in Bryant plus homecourt advantage.

PHOENIX SUNS

As long as the Suns have Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire they'll be respected, at least on the offensive end.  The Blazers haven't handled either of those players well historically.  But especially in a long series it's a case of too much water rushing over the dam and the Suns only having so many fingers to plug holes.  It would be a significant disappointment not to finish ahead of Phoenix in the regular season standings.  To quote the immortal Don Johnson, losing to them in a playoff matchup would be major uncool.

Southwest Division

SAN ANTONIO SPURS

Now this would be a serious contest and a major test of Portland's growth and resolve.  The Spurs aren't what they used to be but the Blazers aren't yet what they're going to be.  It's classic old lion versus young lion.  Tim Duncan is getting easier to deal with which is a great advantage to the Blazers compared to what they had a couple years ago.  Then again Tony Parker remains harder to solve for Portland than a Rubik's Cube in a tumble dryer.  Richard Jefferson is a wildcard.  If he meshes with them he's another physical guy to occupy Portland's small forwards and punish the defense in general.  If not the Spurs are banking on Ginobili scoring enough that he and Parker offset Roy and Fernandez. God knows who matches up against Greg Oden.  Homecourt advantage should be huge in this one.  It would be an epic matchup.  With the question marks it's too close to call right now.

HOUSTON ROCKETS

This was a bad matchup for the Blazers last year, one that many saw coming.  That was last year.  With Yao Ming out for some or all of the season, Ron Artest gone, and Tracy McGrady up in the air the Rockets are reshaping their identity.  Even if they play the plucky, surprising team in the West and get Rick Adelman coach of the year consideration it's still going to cost them some regular season games.  Portland should have homecourt advantage.  Who knows what Houston team would show up to meet them?  Even at their best they would probably have trouble with this more experienced version of the Blazers.  And then there's the revenge factor to consider.  The Blazers should win this one if it happens again.

DALLAS MAVERICKS

This could be this year's sneak-up-and-bite-you matchup for the Blazers.  I'm not necessarily pro-Shawn-Marion but I do know that the Blazers have always had trouble with Dirk Nowitzki's offensive game, leading them to pay inordinate attention to him, which makes the players around him look better.  Marion...Josh Howard (if he's still there)...Jason Terry...these guys know their way around.  I don't like them to finish ahead of Portland in the regular season but I'm not so comfortable with the Blazers' invulnerability at home in the playoffs that I'd depend on it solely to get past these guys.  As we saw last year, all it takes is one game.  Each side has a couple matchup advantages.  Dallas has experience, the Blazers have depth and more places from which to attack.  Right now I'd rate this matchup pretty even were they to go head-to-head.

NEW ORLEANS HORNETS

The Paul-Okafor-Stojakovic trio should be decent.  Almost everybody would consider Paul the best player on the floor for either team.  But the Hornets don't have so many offensive threats that the Blazers have to leave Peja open from deep.  And Okafor has no choice but to operate in Greg Oden's wheelhouse.  I don't see Paul outrunning the Blazers for four of seven games and I don't see the gap between their backcourt and ours being so wide as to break this series open.  The Blazers should have homecourt against these guys too.  This should be a Portland win.

The biggest questions in the conference right now from Portland's post-season perspective are how well Billups holds up and whether Marion and Jefferson blend or rend on their new teams.  Obviously the more those answers go Portland's way the less they have to worry about.  Considering four of the top eight opposing teams beatable and having three others listed as a toss-up is a huge improvement for the Blazers though.  Slowly but surely the Blazers' prospects are becoming less about their opponents and more about their own strengths and talents.  That's a great sign.

Enjoy the onset of winter, Jeremy.  I hear it starts on Thursday.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com