NBA Season Preview: The Portland Trailblazers

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greg_oden_portland_trailblazers.jpgLast season: 50-32, a fantastic achievement considering the comical amount of injuries the Blazers suffered last season. What this team was able to accomplish with Juwan Howard and Jeff Pendergraph, and then later with Marcus Camby, a mid-season acquisition, at center was pretty amazing.

Head Coach: Nate McMillan, who, right or wrong, is no stranger to the term ‘hot seat.’ Based on the magic show his team put on last season, I’m inclined to go with wrong.

Key Departures: Juwan Howard, Martell Webster, Travis Outlaw, and Rudy Fernandez’s interest in ever playing NBA basketball again.

Key Additions: Luke Babbitt, Wesley Matthews, and hopefully, some better luck.

Best case scenario: Greg Oden comes back looking better than ever, Nic Batum blossoms, everyone stays healthy, and the Blazers mount an improbable run against the Lakers. They’d probably still fall a bit short, but it’s the mounting that counts, right?

For that to happen: In terms of the injuries, a lot of it comes down to chance. The Blazers can train appropriately and be cautious, but there’s no unfluking your way out of a fluke knee injury. Should the basketball gods choose to smite (or in the case of last season, attempt to smite) the Blazers once again, all they can do is roll with the punches.

As for the rest, it’s about returning last year’s most productive pieces while integrating new ones. Travis Outlaw only played 11 games for the Blazers last year, and they’ve clearly proven that they can get by without him. Juwan Howard’s production can easily be replaced by one of the other Blazer bigs returning from injury (Greg Oden, Joel Przybilla), and the combination of Wesley Matthews and Luke Babbitt will fill in for Martell Webster splendidly.

On paper, there’s no reason why the Blazers can’t do everything they did last season and more, which should make the coming year a pretty exciting one for the Blazer faithful.

More likely, the Blazers will: Be quite good, but a bit bogged down in the West’s second tier.

As has been mentioned many times before in these previews, the West is pretty tough. There are the Lakers, back-to-back champs in all of their team-to-beat glory, and behind them, a slew of talented and deep teams competing for the other spot in the Western Conference Finals. Oklahoma City is there. San Antonio is there. Dallas is there. Maybe Utah? Denver? Houston? Phoenix? It’s an absolute mess of promising teams, and somehow the Blazers will try to forage through that group for the West’s silver medal.

They’re certainly as capable of pulling off the feat as any team in the bunch…until that asterisk starts rearing its ugly head. Like it or not, health matters. Greg Oden matters. Marcus Camby has been ridiculously effective for the Blazers, but let’s not forget his deserved reputation of being somewhat brittle as well. There’s a lot riding on three centers with busy injury histories, and two of them won’t even be ready for opening night. I don’t want to rule the Blazers out by default because Brandon Roy is too good and this team is too good, but it’s something we have to keep in mind when evaluating Portland’s chances this season.

They’ll be good. Very good, in all likelihood. But so much of what they could be hinges on a clean bill of health that may not be coming, and that’s unfortunate. Even more unfortunate is that it overshadows just how quietly impressive LaMarcus Aldridge has become, how brilliant Brandon Roy routinely is, and how exquisite Nic Batum and Jerryd Bayless can be (and, to be fair to Nic, how tremendous he is as of this very moment). 

On the bright side, it’s clear that this team can function without depth in the middle, and they’ll be formidable regardless of what happens with Oden’s recovery. Portland was a shockingly good rebounding team last year (4th in offensive rebounding rate, 7th in defensive rebounding rate) despite often playing with undersized bigs, and there’s no reason why they can’t be similarly effective on the boards this season. .

On offense, Roy is one of the best in the game, and the Blazers on the whole follow suit. They have shooting. They have players who can get to the rim. They shoot a ton of free throws (relative to their pace), take care of the ball, and as mentioned previously, hit the offensive glass. It’s why the Blazers had the 7th best offense in the league last season, despite missing not just their centers, but also Roy, Batum, Rudy Fernandez, Steve Blake, and Travis Outlaw for significant stretches. Portland should have another successful offensive year with better health, internal improvement, and a few upgrades, and this year’s offense should be closer to the best-in-the-league outfit Portland fashioned for the ’08-’09 season than last year’s makeshift model.

The problem, as is usually the case with the Blazers, is their defense, and the root of that problem goes far deeper than a few injured centers. That’s not to say that the presence of Oden and Przybilla wouldn’t help things, but if Portland is going to sprint out of the crowded second tier, it’s going to take more than those two. The Blazers aren’t awful on defense, but a merely average mark won’t be enough. They need to get better, and that’s as much on McMillan’s system as it is on the players.

Prediction: 53-29. Good for a solid playoff seed, but possibly not good enough to keep them out of a second round date with Los Angeles. It’s a hard knock life, playing in the West.

NBA Three Things to Know: Gordon Hayward goes down, Warriors stumble

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Every night in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, like a good Star Wars movie (so not “Phantom Menace”). Every morning we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA. That starts with a wild opening night.

1) Celtics season turned upside down with traumatic Gordon Hayward injury. Just 5:15 into his first game as a Celtic, Gordon Hayward suffered as gruesome an injury as you will see on the basketball court — he landed awkwardly on an alley-oop attempt and his ankle was caught under him, ultimately twisting sideways in a way the foot was not meant to do. He suffered a dislocated ankle and a fractured tibia and was instantly flown back to Boston for more evaluation and eventual surgery on the foot.

There is no timeline yet on his recovery, and while some reports out of Boston suggested a sixth-month window that could have him back for the playoffs, that seems optimistic. We don’t know what the doctors will decide, but the Celtics and their Big Kahuna Danny Ainge have always thought long term, about contending not this season but in future ones, and they are not going to rush Hayward back for this postseason. I wish him the best in his recovery, but I’d be surprised to see him this year.

With Hawyard down, the Celtics fought back in the second half Tuesday to make it a game against the Cavaliers, ultimately falling 102-99 (LeBron James had 29 points, 16 rebounds, 9 assists). What we saw in that game was likely what we will see a lot more of this season, a Celtics team that plays a lot like last season’s Celtics just with Kyrie Irving in the Isaiah Thomas role. Irving is going to have a heavy scoring load (22 points in this one) plus be the primary shot creator for others. He doesn’t have a good secondary playmaking option now. Irving’s teammates stepped up in this one, starting with Jaylen Brown who led the Celtics with 25 points.

Celtics’ rookie Jayson Tatum had 14 (he got the start with Marcus Smart still injured). Marcus Smart stepped up some off the bench but was 0-of-4 from three, and as a team the Celtics were 8-of-32 from three (25 percent). This team is still going to take a lot of threes for Brad Stevens, but they are going to make a lot fewer of them now (the nights those shots fall they will be dangerous, the nights they don’t they can lose to anyone). Bottom line: Kyrie Irving can create shots but will the other players knock those shots down consistently? I had this team as a low 50s win squad, this injury probably drops now by five games (at least). They will miss Hayward on both ends of the court.

2) Draymond Green leaves game and Warriors stumble without him, falling to Rockets. Golden State was already without Andre Iguodala, who sat the opener out with back issues, then in the third quarter and with the Warriors consistently holding a lead Draymond Green tweaked his knee coming down on a shot. He was diagnosed with a knee strain, and while it’s not serious — he was not on crutches after the game and is not going to miss much time — he did not return in the fourth quarter of this game.

Without him the Rockets surged — they outscored the Warriors 34-20 in the fourth, they made plays down the stretch, and ultimately beat the Warriors 122-121. James Harden had 27 points and 10 assists, and he was making plays down the stretch, but the Rockets got a strong fourth quarter from Eric Gordon and Luc Mbah a Moute as well, each scoring seven points. The Rockets could not get stops, but they could score with the Warriors and that’s what they did.

The Warriors still almost won thanks to a Kevin Durant game-winner, except it was correctly waived off after review.

Of note for the Rockets, Chris Paul sat the final 4:30 of the game, he has been battling knee issues and wasn’t himself. Don’t be shocked if Mike D’Antoni gives him more time off.

For the Warriors, they got blown out by 29 last season on opening night (San Antonio), they are not going to read much into this loss (nor should they, but 82-0 is dead). What this does show is how much Green means to the team, he’s not their best player but may be their most important. It also shows how, once again, the teams that come back from the NBA’s annual excursion to China take a while to get their legs fully under them again.

3) The Bulls can’t even wait until the regular season to have things go very, very wrong. This was already going to ba a long season for Bulls fans. Yes, Chicago made a good move by ultimately committing to a plan and going all-in on a rebuild, but that doesn’t make the process pretty. The Bulls were going to lose a lot of games and probably be the worst team in the NBA. But they couldn’t wait until Thursday when the season starts for things to go wrong.

Bobby Portis sucker punched Nikola Mirotic, dropping the just re-signed player to the floor with a broken upper jaw and a concussion. According to multiple reports, this started out as a battle for position under the glass during a scrimmage, and that turned into a shoving match — nothing uncommon here so far, those happen all the time on teams. But after the players were separated Portis threw the cheap-shot punch and changed the start of the Bulls season. There are some reports Mirotic lunged at Portis before the punch and this was not a cheap shot, it depends on who you talk to. Not that it matters. The Bulls will likely treat it as one.

Mirotic will be out “weeks” I’ve been told. Portis might have been in line for the starting spot with Mirotic out but not now, he will be punished by the team, likely with a lengthy suspension. This will mean even more minutes for rookie Lauri Markkanen in Chicago.

Draymond Green goes down, Rockets rally to spoil Warriors ring night 122-121

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Draymond Green is not the best player on the Warriors. He’s third or fourth best, depending on what you think of him vs. Klay Thompson.

But Draymond Green is the most important Warrior — what they do defensively does not work without him (and their small ball playmaking suffers as well). Without him, the Warriors are not the same.

That was on full display Tuesday night in the season opener — the night the Warriors got their 31-diamond rings and the latest banner went up at Oracle Arena. Green tweaked his knee in the third quarter landing off a shot and did not play in the fourth, and that’s when the Rockets outscored the Warriors 34-20 to come from behind and steal a win, 122-121.

Green was diagnosed with a “knee strain” and was walking around after the game without a cast/boot/crutches, although with a slight limp according to reports. He said this is nothing serious, although don’t be shocked if the Warriors give him another game or two off to rest it.

Kevin Durant almost saved the day for Golden State with a baseline jumper as time expired — the referees called it good, but an official review showed the ball was still in his hands when the buzzer went off.

James Harden had 27 points and 10 assists to lead the Rockets. However, the real story was their revamped bench outplaying the Golden State bench — Eric Gordon looked like the sixth man of the year with 24 points, P.J. Tucker had 20 and shot 4-of-6 from three, and Luc Mbah a Moute added 14.

The Rockets made their final push with Chris Paul sitting on the bench. CP3 sat the final four-and-a-half minutes of the game, and the Rockets thrived with Gordon, Harden and an old-school (meaning, like last season) offense. After the game, coach Mike D’Antoni said that Paul was out there “playing on one leg” due to his knee problem, and Paul could miss more time.

Golden State was also without Andre Iguodala, who tweaked his back lifting weights over the weekend, according to coach Steve Kerr. Not having Green or Iguodala hurt the Warriors defense, especially against an elite offensive team.

Surprisingly, Nick Young led the Warriors with 23 points off the bench, hitting 6-of-7 from three. Stephen Curry added in 22, Kevin Durant scored 20 and Klay Thompson 16. However, in the fourth quarter the Warriors big three of Durant, Curry, and Thompson were 5-of-14 from the floor and 2-of-7 from three. Curry could not find the range.

Last season the Spurs blew the Warriors out by 29 on opening night, and the Warriors bounced back to win 67 games and the NBA title. Nobody should read too much into an opening night win. But for a Rockets team with dreams of challenging these Warriors in May, this is a good confidence boost to start the season.

Kevin Durant’s game winner waived off, he didn’t get shot off in time

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With Draymond Green sidelined after tweaking his knee in the third quarter, the Houston Rockets were able to make a dramatic fourth-quarter comeback and upset the Golden State.

But Kevin Durant almost saved the game for the Warriors.

Down one with 10 seconds to go, the Warriors were able to get Stephen Curry a good look at a three but he missed it. The ball was volleyballed around a little, and Durant got a hold of it and took a 15-footer along the baseline that the referees on the court ruled a game-winner — but when reviewed it left his hand a fraction of a second too late.

It was the right call. And this is a big boost for the Rockets as they try to find their identity going into a long season.

 

The Warriors’ championship rings have 31 diamonds in them (VIDEO)

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Tuesday night meant the return of NBA basketball, and of course what we all wanted to see: the Golden State Warriors.

In the second game of the evening, the Warriors squared off against the Houston Rockets. Before the teams tipped, the Warriors received their championship rings in front of their hometown crowd at Oracle Arena.

Wearing special Nike hoodies with the phrase “The Champions” on the back, the Warriors received their rings to a standing ovation.

Perhaps the best part of the ceremony was finding out the official gemstone count in the rings. According to Sports Illustrated’s Ben Golliver, the rings have 31 diamonds in them.

Via Twitter:

Hmm. 31.

3-1.

3-1 lead.

Nope, doesn’t ring a bell.