What better way to get over a loss to the Milwaukee Bucks than have the NBA’s best offense, the Portland Trail Blazers come into town? The Knicks have fallen back into a pit of despair, so rather than focus on that dreary subject I brought in Dane Carbaugh of Blazers Edge and Joseph Swide of Portland Roundball Society to preview tonight’s game.
After winning six of their first eight games in January, the Blazers have cooled off a bit losing three of their last four. They scored just 90, 81 and 88 in those losses. Could teams finally be figuring out how to defend this team better? What have you seen that’s resulted in these kinds of losses?
Dane: Teams have had time to scout the Trail Blazers and are really overplaying their passing lanes. They’ve not been good during the month of January in realizing the shift in defensive strategy, and coupled with the fact that the guys are just flat out tired it’s led to a 5-5 record over the last 10 games. They got some rest between games last week, which bodes well for them as they try to find their legs under them on offense. They’re still working together to figure things out. In their loss to the Wizards on Monday the Blazers had a lot of unforced turnovers and I don’t expect that to be the case again tonight. The NBA season is a long haul of push and pull. Right now teams are pulling Portland all around the floor, they need to get back to pushing.
Joseph: Sure, I think teams have seen what the Blazers have put on tape and adjusted their approach both offensively and defensively. The Blazers’ defense has never been particularly good, but it had been pretty effective at forcing opposing ballhandlers into isolated midrange jumpers. However, lately, it seems to not be forcing midrange jumpers so much as allowing ballhandlers to get into the midrange area and do just about whatever they want. Then on offense, Nicolas Batum and Wes Matthews cooled down (which was to be expected), and LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard haven’t been able to put the team on their back(s) to save games in which the rest of the squad struggled, as the two stars managed to do earlier. Overall though, we, as fans, allowed our expectations to raise with the torrid start, whereas this “slump” has looked more like the sometimes fun/sometimes maddening .500 season that most people expected before the year.
C.J. McCollum is playing roughly a quarter a night right now. Is he close to getting a larger role on the team? Likes/dislikes about what you’ve seen thus far?
Dane: As far as his role goes, that’s tough to say. He’s really shown an ability to create off the dribble and be a valuable spot-up shooter. However, his pick-and-roll game suffers since the Blazers’ second line up front isn’t adept as LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez. We should see more wing-screen action with McCollum as the season goes on to try and balance that out. I really like his ability to work off the dribble. Portland doesn’t have a lot of penetrators and they need that now more than ever as teams start to overplay the arc.
Joseph: There is a direct correlation between Mo Williams’ seemingly increasing propensity to do stuff that makes me wonder if he is in need of sedatives or exorcism, and the amount of hopeful expectation being heaped upon you CJ McCollum. McCollum has shown his pretty shot, as well as some shot-creating ability, and his scoring will keep him on the floor. But I think that asking him to take control as the point guard of the second unit is way too much to ask. For now, I think we’re still stuck with Mo Williams and the fickle demons that live inside him.
The Blazers starting five has a net total of +160 on the floor together this season. Why has this unit been so successful? Who has been the most important piece?
Dane: Honestly, a big reason is Robin Lopez. He allows Aldridge to save some of his energy for the offensive end of the court, which in turn allows him to dominate or create such spacing issues that it opens up the arc for the Portland shooters. He rebounds, be boxes out for others, and he can catch the ball in the pick-and-roll, a huge bonus as the Blazers offense looks to adapt. He’s probably going to win Neil Olshey GM of the Year by himself.
Joseph: Reasons for offensive success has been the usual: outside shooting, unselfishness, chemistry, clearly defined roles that compliment one another, and a system that plays to their strengths. Obviously, Aldridge is the most important piece, but he gets talked about plenty. I want to talk about the silent wizard, Batum. At the 3, Batum actually might be the most natural playmaker in the starting group, even moreso than Lillard. He’s usually the second most-utilized ball handler for pick-and-rolls and his passing is regularly brilliant. Plus, he can shoot, get to the rack, and has been known to go off for random scoring explosions. He’s also the best defender on the team, and will guard everyone from Tony Parker to Kevin Durant. But his true genius is his masterful use of spacing, little cuts, passes to open up other passes, and everything else that gets overlooked but is the vanilla extract in the delicious pancake batter that is the Blazers offense.
The Blazers have the best ORtg in the league, but are just 21st in DRtg. How can the Knicks exploit this team defensively tonight?
Dane: Portland’s defense is built to give up long jumpers, but is often soft when it comes to penetration, especially when Robin Lopez isn’t involved in the strong side of the play. Ray Felton and Tyson Chandler haven’t looked great together in the pick-and-roll so far this year, if I’m Mike Woodson I’m putting Carmelo and Prigs/Shump and making Aldridge and Matthews defend them. Portland also has trouble in the fastbreak, which is great news if you’re anyone but New York, who are 29th in pace and last in fastbreak points per-game. I’ve seen a few teams step up their transition game against the Blazers specifically, it will be interesting to see if the Knicks change their gameplan a bit and try to attack the Blazers weaknesses.
Joseph: Most teams that give the Blazers trouble do it with a point guard orchestrating from the midrange area, but the Knicks’ point guard is Ray Felton soooo…….Plan B: hope Mike Woodson works the lineups to get Melo (maybe even Amare too, can he still shoot?) on Aldridge (a great post defender but struggles against the stretch 4s of the world), and hope that Melo can shoot well and score a lot of points.
Who do you think wins tonight and why?
Dane: I think Portland comes out hot tonight at MSG and beats New York by 10+. They have had a day off hanging out together, getting rest and they have a tendency to show up for big games. The Knicks may not be any good but playing in front of the city of New York and on national television should have them ready to go. Blazers 115 Knicks 103.
Joseph: 111-105 Blazers. Melo scores 38. Lillard has 29. Aldridge has 24 and 9. Why? Clairvoyance.