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Game 56 Preview: Hornets vs. Trail Blazers--The Return of Significance

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Game Time:  7:00 p.m.  TV:  CSNNW

When the 2010-11 season started the Portland Trail Blazers were supposed to contend for one of the top spots in the Western Conference and plow deep into the playoffs.  In a conference packed tight with good-to-great teams every game was crucial for a team casting covetous gazes at premium playoff seeds.  Game 1, Game 8, against the Mavericks, Timberwolves, or Clippers, they all mattered, as any one of them could have proved the difference between home court and a premature exit from the post-season.

Fast-forward about a month and a half.  Greg Oden, on the brink of returning, chips his way through another knee and takes on his second microfracture surgery.  Brandon Roy's knees are diagnosed as Twinkies without the filling and he takes a seat for months.  Joel Przybilla, slated to return six months earlier, makes his way back playing at 70% of normal speed and 3% of normal vertical leap ability.  Marcus Camby goes down.  The team resides in perpetual limbo, sitting in a bus stop of pain as those once-graspable high seeds zoom by like so many Lamborghinis.  Even when the old Greyhound is ready to board you know it's not getting there fast enough.  Compared to the outlook at the start of the season, no games matter.  Beating Denver, L.A., Houston...all victories become short-lived respites in a backwash of woe and mediocrity.

Much like chronically ill patients, the Blazers have now adjusted to their new normality.  Nobody expects a #1 or #2 seed.  The focus is climbing as high as possible in the lower rungs, trying to find a semi-favorable playoff matchup that gives a ghost of a chance of pulling a Game 6 at least, if not a Game 7 and a long shot at advancing.  The sights are now set firmly on a handful of teams:  Denver, Utah, New Orleans, Oklahoma City.  Every game impacts the standings but games against those teams count more.

The Hornets are in town tonight.  It's game 56 of 82.  The road to the playoffs has taken shape.  Welcome to the first really significant game of the 2010-11 season.

While the Blazers have been playing reasonably well lately behind the beast-o-matic production of LaMarcus Aldridge with occasional help from a guard or two, the 33-24 Hornets have been in free fall.  They've dropped 8 of their last 10, bowing to such NBA luminaries as New Jersey, Minnesota, Washington, Sacramento, and most recently the Golden State Warriors.  They've topped 100 points twice in that stretch, both times in losses.  They've held opponents below 100 three times, accounting for their two wins and a loss to Chicago.  Checking my Basketball Basics textbook the equation goes like this:

L(o) + L(d) = YNWM

For the lay folks among us, that's Lack of Offense + Lack of Defense = You No Win Much. 

Take that Hollinger.

Chris Paul is having a nice enough season at 16.5 points and 9.7 assists per game along with 48% shooting from the field, 44.3% from the arc, and 90% from the line.  With anyone else you'd be ecstatic over those numbers.  But they're well off his All-Deity pace of a couple years ago.  In truth his points and assists are down on a per-36-minute basis from last season (down a ton from 2008-09) as are his shooting percentage and field goal attempts.  He's still a game-changer but he's not a game-breaker most nights.  He's topped 20 points only once in the last 8 games, many of those against defensively-challenged teams.  His shooting has bordered on abysmal.  He just doesn't look the same.

Forward David West has been doing quite well this year at 19.0 and 7.7.  Center Emeka Okafor has also contributed, but he's out due to injury.  This has left Aaron Gray starting at center.  If you're asking, "Wait, didn't she star as the deliciously lovely Colonel Wilma Deering on the 70's remake of Buck Rogers?" give yourself a pat on the head and a big old "Bee-dee-bee-dee", but you're wrong.  That Erin Gray spelled her name differently.  This guy rebounds kind of like her but looks a lot worse in full-length spandex.   Small forward Trevor Ariza has returned from an ankle injury but somewhere along the line he started believing his own free agent press clippings and has become as much of a chucker as a defender.  He shoots 38.8% from the field, 28.4% from the arc but takes only 1 less shot per game than Paul does. 

After the Big Four come a herd of talented, but two-dimensional, players.  Marco Belinelli shoots 38.6% from the arc and 41% from the field but can't defend.  Jarrett Jack has a nice body and all-around game but can't shoot.  Willy Green breaks the mold by being able to shoot and defend but he's a 6'3" shooting guard.  Swing guard Marcus Thornton has made serious strides defensively but his shooting percentage has dropped from a fantastic 45 to a mediocre 41.  And don't even talk about the guys New Orleans fields at center and power forward off the bench.  Most of them should be spelling other players for about 5 minutes of rest.  Injuries have forced them to spell each other, which is not good.

As a team, the Hornets are jump-shot reliant.  They don't break.  They don't pound it in.  They don't over-shoot the three.  They're skilled and they pass the ball to open mid-range shooters.  Lack of variety (and lack of easy buckets) keeps their shooting percentage, offensive efficiency, and point total in the mediocre range despite their talent.  They're capable of great nights.  They're just not capable of great nights consistently, falling prey to the vagaries of the jumper.  As you might expect with a lack of big guys and shots spraying long off the rim, their offensive rebounding is no more than passable.  Their main claim to offensive fame is that anybody can and will take a shot for them so you have to expect scoring at all times from any angle.

On the other end their guards get back and, at least while Okafor is present, their bigs are quite good at keeping you out of the paint.  (Again, Okafor is not present tonight.)  With those defensive wings they can guard you all the way out to the three-point arc.  When injuries aren't a factor it's hard to find a serious hole in their defense.  They don't even foul much!  (Again, though, injuries are a factor tonight.)  They're one of the best teams in the league at defensive rebounding.  Their motto is "Make 'em miss and clean it up" and they do it well.

The Blazers will want to remember that New Orleans is seriously compromised inside tonight.  The first order of business should be to attack the rim, ignoring any threats at shot-blocking (minimal) and going for easy buckets and possible fouls.  Chances are such attempts will suck in the perimeter defense, at which time Rudy Fernandez, Nicolas Batum, and Wesley Matthews had better be ready with some nice shooting.  If Portland obliges these guys by missing open shots they'll have a hard time getting enough interior offense through the multiple double teams to compensate.  At that point the offenses become a wash.  Then we start comparing Paul and West to Aldridge in terms of scoring power.  LaMarcus has been playing fantastic ball, but two-to-one will be hard for even him to overcome.  Portland's bench has been a chronic issue and even with the lack of big men on the other side, this will be a challenge.  Monty Williams isn't afraid to play anybody.  Chances are somebody off the pines over there will get hot.  The Blazers need to respond in kind, even if only a couple of Portland reserves see the court.  The bridges between quarters 1 and 2, 3 and 4 could prove critical if this game is close.

The other problem for Portland is that no matter how the Hornets are playing, they always seem to relax and have good games against the Blazers.  Portland will have to throw in a defensive wrinkle or two plus some tough rebounding to disrupt them.  A sure sign of this game going south will be New Orleans getting easy hoops, either on the break or off of offensive rebounds.  This team is at a low ebb.  If the Blazers help them get any confidence they'll have lost a key advantage.

All in all this is an intriguing, and probably even, matchup.  Not only will this game be significant, it should be plenty exciting and hopefully fun to watch.  Let's see how the Blazers respond to (hopefully) their last truly short-handed game for a while, their last game before a long layoff, and their first obvious, circled-in-red test of the season.  Enjoy the meaningful basketball!

See the N.O. prep at At The Hive.

Enter tonight's Jersey Contest form right here.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)