by Jared Wright, Oregon Sports News
As the Portland Trail Blazers jockey for playoff positioning in the Western Conference, they were treated to a very welcome, very overdue display of scoring from CJ McCollum … until the Dallas Mavericks game, but we’ll get to that.
In the three games prior to Sunday’s major letdown, McCollum averaged 31 points a game and hit a total of 17 three-pointers. He also had a triple-double against Atlanta with 28 points. He was accurate, confident, effective, and playing at home for all four of those games. Against the Mavs, McCollum went 6-of-17 for 14 points; the Blazers and some of the media associated with them will blame the referees for the one-point loss, but how about, you know, hitting your damn shots? Portland should never have been in that situation in the first place. The Blazers let their feet off the gas and got railroaded—deservedly.
Home/road splits have been a huge problem area for the Blazers, and for each of them not named Damian Lillard in particular. They have a 23-8 record within the comfy confines of the Moda Center—and a weak 10-14 record away from the Northwest. This isn’t unusual in the NBA, or sports in general, by the way; all teams but the very best tend to play much better at home, though some rare exceptions do crop up, like last year’s Blazers.
The issue right now is that the Blazers are going to have a seven-game road trip after the All-Star break, mostly against Eastern teams, and the number of games they have at home are a mere 10—with games against Golden State, Oklahoma City, Denver and Luka “Blazer Killer” Doncic among them. Say the Blazers go 7-3 at home the rest of the way. They’ll have to go 10-7 on the road from here on out to break the 50-win barrier, which seems like the absolute baseline for home-court advantage, and after watching Rip City rip air molecules instead of nets in that God-awful fourth quarter Sunday, my faith is officially shook.
Maybe I’m worrying too much. This was a great road team last season, and the All-Star break will begin for the Blazers after Wednesday. Lillard is having an incredible year, and with the falloff of Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook being treated like that drunken uncle at the family reunion, Kyrie Irving IRL subtweeting his team, and Ben Simmons getting canceled out by his more assertive teammates, it’s a safe bet that Lillard will make the All-NBA second team at least and further establish his Hall of Fame credentials.
The pre-All-Star portion of the road sked, however, hasn’t been pretty—the second Dallas game is just the ugliest and most recent example. At home, the Blazers have an Offensive Rating of 115.1 and a Defensive Rating of 107.2; the former number would be second in the NBA, and the latter would barely edge out the Warriors’ league-leading 108 DRtg.
Away from the conifers and coffee? Portland sports ratings of 108 (offense, would be 20th in the NBA) and 111.8 (defense, would be dead last in the league). And that’s the team that the fans will be seeing most of during the stretch run. Gulp.
Given those extremely severe splits, it would behoove the Blazers to earn home-court in at least one round of the playoffs. I just don’t see how they could get there, unless they improve so dramatically on the road that the question would be moot anyway. And even then, it’s not as if Moda helped them last postseason. At least Anthony Davis won’t be in the playoffs this year.
Coming up short against the baby Mavs could either be a rallying point for the team (their rock bottom point before rebounding), or the start of the kind of collapse that gets players traded, coaches fired, and general managers ridiculed. We’ll see.
Monday, Feb. 11: @ the Oklahoma City Thunder, 5:00 PM, NBCSNW/Blazers Pass
The Skinny: While James Harden—AKA the most dominant offensive guard since Young Michael Jordan—is running away with the Most Valuable Player award race in terms of stats (though his team needs to win more), and Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best player on the best team, it’s nice to see that the clear No. 3 this season is my favorite player, Paul George.
In a season where Westbrook is averaging a triple-double (and just tied the NBA record for most consecutive triple-doubles with Wilt Chamberlain, who has about 69 different ridiculous records) and is crapped on for his poor shooting, George has raised his game to lofty heights. He’s the main perimeter spoke of a stifling defense, is shooting 45/40/84 with a Usage Rate of 30 percent, is averaging 28.3 points per game, is currently leading the Association in steals, and is in the top 10 in points (second in total points behind Harden), steals, Win Shares, Box Plus-Minus, field goals, three-pointers (third at 207; for reference, Lillard is ninth with 147), minutes played, Defensive Rating, and Value Over Replacement Player.
It isn’t just the stats that makes me heart George, however. It’s the grace and smoothness of his game, like a young Scottie Pippen. PG isn’t nearly as good as Scottie was (Pippen was perhaps the most stifling perimeter defender ever, and his passing was worlds better than George’s), but they play the game with the same precision and artistry. I also like George’s attitude, the way he actively attacks and seeks out the best player on the other team when he’s on defense despite being his own team’s top offensive option, the fact that he’d rather commit to Oklahoma City (where there’s little more than cattle, dust, and plains) than flee to his native Southern California.
Paul George is quickly making himself a folk hero among the rabid fans of OKC, the guy who did what Harden never wanted to do and Kevin Durant refused to do. Despite being a young, rich, handsome African-American male, he chose to stay in the small market instead of going to the big city.
The icing on this particular cake? Basketball Reference lists one of his nicknames as Batman. Paul George is so boss, so badass, that people call him the freaking Batman.
Well, if people can talk about Michael B. Jordan as maybe being the first black Superman, perhaps after his playing days are done, Paul George can make a bid to be the first black Batman.
Matchup to Watch: Paul George vs. Everybody. Pray for Everybody.
Prediction: The Thunder have owned the Blazers this season, and that’s likely going to continue with the Blazers on the second night of a back-to-back after that horrific loss to Dallas.
Also, Portland doesn’t have Paul George. That matters, too.
Wednesday, Feb. 13: vs. the Golden State Warriors, 7:30 PM, ESPN and NBCSNW
The Skinny: After spending a couple months looking shaky with frayed chemistry, the Warriors are right back on top again. Despite the fabric of the team threatening to come apart, with Durant likely gone after this year and pivotal role players aging with the grace of an ice-skating rhino, Golden State has reasserted dominance over the league.
The two reasons for that are the steadying influence of Stephen Curry and the introduction of All-Star center turned minimum-salary flier Demarcus Cousins.
Curry is perhaps the most beloved player in the game today, in addition to being the best shooter to ever lace up a pair of sneakers. I consume at least two hours of NBA media a day, and my memory is excellent—I cannot ever remember anyone talking negatively about Curry. Ever since he put his ankle issues behind him (for the most part), he’s been the linchpin of one of the great dynasties in his sport. His influence is steadying both on the court and in the locker room, and it doesn’t hurt that he is such a prodigy—a 40-foot jumper is still considered a good shot for him.
Meanwhile, Cousins’ recovery from an injury that has either ended or altered the careers of every player unlucky enough to suffer it is, frankly, astonishing. His lateral quickness is shot—though he wasn’t able/inclined to move side-to-side with alacrity anyway—and his mobility has yet to truly be tested, but his revival has been nothing short of amazing.
Cousins’ skills seem to be intact, no worse for wear after a year on the shelf. His passing has come to the fore, giving Golden State yet another player who can ping the ball around with accuracy and intelligence. His ability to score and pass from the post is a weapon Steve Kerr has never had during his time in the Bay (unless you count a random Shaun Livingston post-up, but Livingston is a single-digit scorer while Boogie hung 27 a night during his peak). He can shoot the three well enough to be a threat (36 percent), which is just what this team needed, yet another outside shooter.
The minutes restriction put on Cousins, even as he’s playing with the starters, is easing him back into playing NBA ball. (Oh, I’m sorry—let’s use the more PC term: “load management.” I could spin that into a joke, but I’m practicing restraint. My poor editor already has a hell of a time keeping this space PG-13.) Another factor to consider is that Boogie is a fresh face; this is the first time he’s playing for something other than his numbers. He wants to be a part of the Warriors’ championship lineage, even if he’s going to be nothing more than the bastard second cousin that’s extremely lucky to sleep in the keep, never mind being in line for the throne.
I would still bet on the Warriors winning the title, but for the first time in years, the field might have a shot. The Rockets have Apex Harden and would have knocked off the Warriors last season if they didn’t get historically unlucky from beyond the arc and/or if Chris Paul didn’t have the constitution of a cardboard box. Oklahoma City has stifling defense, two top-10 players, and would be HIGHLY motivated to punish Durant. Denver is precocious, with the Serbian Bill Walton, Nikola Jokic, anchoring their team. Whoever comes out of the East will be very battle-tested, and each of those teams presents their own unique challenge to Golden State.
And hanging in the background is the dark cloud that is Durant’s free agency, and the consensus feeling that this is his last year playing ball in the Bay—maybe even playing in the West.
Golden State will probably win anyway. But unlike prior seasons, there are cracks. If Curry gets hurt again, those cracks might become crevices or ravines.
Matchup to Watch: Stephen Curry vs. Damian Lillard. From many playoff matchups and regular-season duels, these two are very familiar with one another. Lillard is the closest human equivalent to Curry that exists today. (Steph is an alien. Just go with it.)
Prediction: I’ve been too negative lately. Let’s jump out on a limb, but in a positive way: Portland defeats Golden State, and goes into the All-Star break in very high spirits.
Trail Blazers’ Record Last Week: 1-2
Trail Blazers’ Record Overall: 33-22
Jared’s Picks Last Week: 2-1
Jared’s Picks Overall: 32-22