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Portland Trail Blazers vs. New York Knicks Preview

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The empire state strikes back with RoLo in tow along with a 7-foot-3 wonderkid freakshow. In other news, Raymond Felton irritates everyone who will watch this game.

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers (10-14) vs New York Knicks (10-14)
Saturday, December 12
Moda Center | 7:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNW; 620 AM
Portland injury report
: Chris Kaman (Questionable - ankle | New York injury report: None
SBN Affiliate: Posting and Toasting | Blazer's Edge Night 2016

Both the Trail Blazers and Knicks come into tonight's matchup probably a bit travel-weary, having each faced some less-than-ideal scheduling recently. Both teams have also routinely struggled to finish games, having suffered many close defeats and blown leads, yet both still are surprisingly hanging around the periphery of the playoff picture. So like the rest of the season so far for these squads, tonight might be a bit of a wildcard.

The Knicks are a much different team from the past last couple of seasons. This team actually plays defense, with a big change being the ability to close out on the perimeter thanks to increased athleticism, resulting in allowing the league’s lowest 3-point percentage at 30.9 percent. It features Carmelo Anthony playing the most team-oriented ball of his Knicks career and a shooting-star lottery pick in Kristaps Porzingis who definitely isn’t just New York hype.

But this is a limited team that would be a surprise to make the playoffs. They are currently in the bottom third of the league in Pace and Offensive Rating while third-worst in eFG percentage, thanks to a large helping of mid-range jumpers afforded by both their triangle offense and modern defenses.

A Reunion With RoLo

Tonight’s most anticipated matchup will be Robin Lopez vs. Portland mascot Blaze the Trail Cat; it will be interesting to see how this plays out. Will the reunion be amicable, hostile, or perhaps a bit of both with a WWE-style ‘surprising turn of events’? Tune in early to find out.

It has been only two days since Lopez's latest outburst against a mascot, this time against Sacramento's Slamson in front of a horrified national television audience:

What is certain is that RoLo will get a warm reception from Blazer fans…at least during introductions. While his personality has certainly been appreciated in the Big Apple, he doesn’t have near the cult-ish devotion that developed for him in Portland. As reluctantly predicted, he has become just another player, and one whose numbers are down pretty much across the board at that, including minutes played (23.7 MPG, 6.9 PPG, 5.5 REB).

He is used similarly to the way Terry Stotts used him on defense, mostly patrolling the rim in a scheme meant to elicit mid-range shots. On offense he has a higher usage rate than he ever did with the Blazers (16.3 percent) because he is relied on to pass more in the triangle. This has resulted in nearly tripling his assist percentage from the past two seasons (up to 12.2 percent) while launching his turnover numbers sky-high (20 percent TO rate), and dropping his O-rebound rate. The big complaint is that he is slow in making his decisions with the ball in his hands, which leads to ‘fumbling and bumbling’ as Knicks’ announcer Walt ‘Clyde’ Frazier would say. He usually sits out the fourth quarter of games.

The other recent Blazer who jumped coasts in the offseason, Arron Afflalo, has definitely found a better fit for himself in New York. He has hit two-pointers at the second-best rate of his career (54.3 percent) and he regularly has free license to "post and toast" (thanks Clyde), en route to 12.5 PPG in a support scorer role. If Derek Fisher ever figures out that he desperately needs a primary scorer in his second unit, Afflalo might see his per-game numbers go way up—he did score 31 in a game against Houston when Carmelo Anthony sat out.

A third recent Blazer is also a point of connection between these two teams: the fans of each hold a palpable degree of animus towards Raymond Felton—who, thankfully, will be nowhere near the Rose Quarter tonight. New York actually had him on their roster twice in recent years; translate that how you will.

Zinghis Khan emerges

The fourth pick of this year’s draft out of Latvia, 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis, is what Meyers Leonard wants to be when he grows up. He is humble and deferential as a young player yet still swaggalicious with confidence and mental toughness. He has shown off an impressive scoring arsenal and seems to be adapting rapidly to the pro game at 20 years old:

2015-16 season FG% 3PT %
Games 1-8 37.9 21.7
Games 9-16 43.5 40
Games 17-24 53.2 47

He started off struggling on D, as he has a narrow frame with high estimates claiming only around 240 lbs, so he can be pushed around.  However, he has improved exponentially in short order, proving to be an astute student of the game. Porzingis recently had a game where he blocked seven shots, and followed that up with six more two games later. He had 10 double-doubles in his first 20 pro games, and looks like he has a chance to be a game-changing player.

In short, he’s the real deal. That’s what comparisons to the rookie years of recent greats with a similar build says (hat tip to businessinsider.com for making the comps):

Per 36 minutes (scroll right for more numbers):

Anthony has meshed well with Porzingis, and looks like a (slightly) more mature player in coming off of knee surgery.  He has the lowest usage rate since he was new to the league, as well as his second highest defensive rebound percentage (18.7) and third highest assist percentage (18.5) of his career.  Yet he is still a dangerous scorer who possesses as many ways to finish as anyone in the game.

When the Knicks offense is at its best, the team works the ball around to get open shots for Anthony, Porzingis, Afflalo, PG Jose Calderon (40.7 percent from three) and second-year undrafted surprise and combo guard Langston Galloway (43.2 percent from deep). But just as often it devolves into poor isolation play.

Coming off the bench, No. 19 pick of the 2015 NBA Draft Jerian Grant, OKC castoff Lance Thomas and No. 2 overall pick Derrick Williams give the Knicks energy off the bench, but only Thomas has shot reasonably well from outside (36.2 percent from the great beyond) and played consistently good defense. Enigmatic big men Kevin Seraphin and Kyle O’Quinn each average about 12 minutes a game and one bad play for every good one.

Derek Fisher is ostensibly a rookie coach this year, given that he did not coach a pro team last year. However, he is not enjoying the type of growth as his Latvian Superman (and tellingly also has one less rap song written about him.) Fisher gets along with players well, but has struggled with lineup construction, play-calling, possible beard dye, and generally promoting a modern offense or coherent defensive philosophy. For example, he ran a strange "switch-at-all-costs" defense against Dallas the other night and got torched; three nights ago in Utah the marching orders seemed to be to go under every pick, and New York accordingly got smoked by the Jazz on the perimeter. In all, they’ve lost four in a row and eight of the last 10.

To be fair, Fisher doesn’t have enough on his roster to be truly competitive, but he hasn’t shown any capacity to make best use of what he has. I mean, the year started with Sasha Vujacic (AKA "The Walking Dead") in the starting lineup for the first eight games, and he and his 29.6 percent FG percentage still plays sometimes (16 GP). What up with that?

What the Blazers need to do to win

Don’t let the Knicks’ second team run: Fisher has favored hockey-style substitution patterns so far, bringing in five bench guys together for swaths of every game: a lineup of Grant-Galloway-Thomas-Williams-Seraphin has been the team’s third most-played lineup and one where O’Quinn replaces Seraphin is the fourth most played. This all started out quite well, with the Knicks’ second unit surprising people in transition and racking up points at the rim early on. Then everyone figured out that you just had to get back on defense and lure them into shooting from the outside and then they couldn’t score. More often than not, opponents open up big leads during these ‘hockey shifts’ now. The first lineup mentioned above has the worst offensive rating in the league (83.0) for any lineup that has appeared in as many games as it has—by 5.4 points.

Neutralize Porzingis on the boards: You have to box this man out. Otherwise, this happens.

Again, given his weight for his size, putting a body on him should be all it takes to keep him from being a threat on the offensive boards. On the other side of the floor, an option could be to draw him away from the basket with Meyers Leonard, therefore giving the athletic young Blazers bigs a chance to get around the Knicks’ other, more lumbering rebounders.

Exploit the 34-year old Calderon on defense: While still a passable team defender, Calderon’s "3-and-no D" rep is well-earned as far as manning up. And he will have to guard either Damian Lillard or C.J. McCollum for 27 minutes or so, which is plenty of time to carve him up like some delicious Iberico ham.

Plus Vujacic has played the last two games. So...

Outlook

This could be a close one for a while as both teams feel each other out, given they haven’t seen each other in their current incarnations before. ‘Melo will get his points, Porzingis is a match-up nightmare, and getting clean looks at 3-pointers may be tough. Yet given the Knicks’ recent struggles, along with the Blazers’ home court, West Coast, and offensive advantages, it’s not hard to foresee a Portland victory in the end.

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