Talk about dramatic effect. After Saturday night’s 105-99 win over the Utah Jazz, LaMarcus Aldridge proclaimed that this upcoming six-game road trip will “make or break our season, really.” No gray area in that quote, El Capitan believes the playoff push begins tonight in Minneapolis.
“We play a lot of guys in the West and a lot of guys we’re going to be fighting for so this road trip is big for us,” Aldridge continued.
L.A. has a point. Portland, at 24-23, starts the new week one game out of a tie for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot behind the Houston Rockets (26-23), who the Blazers have beaten twice this season. Even more, the suddenly surging Los Angeles Lakers (22-26) are now 2.5 games behind Portland and while the Lakers face a slew of decent to bloody awful Eastern Conference teams on their current extended road trip (Brooklyn, Boston, Charlotte), the Blazers’ six-game trip consist of four Western teams.
So let’s play along with Aldridge and count the six things on this trip that could either Make or Break the Blazers’ season.
A healthy Wesley Matthews
Matthews missed his seventh game of the season on Saturday but said he was “optimistic” he’d return for the road trip.
Although a hip flexor injury slowed him down earlier this year, this time Matthews decided to sit out after experiencing a right ankle sprain during the Friday night game in Utah.
“I didn’t feel confident in going if I was guarded in a shot-clock situation to break somebody. I didn’t feel like I could get past anybody if I had to,” Matthews said, explaining why he decided to sit after pregame warmups. “That was another thing at first, would I be able to play defense and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to chase off screens and be able to dig. We have a lot of responsibility helping our bigs out and I wasn’t sure I would be able to do that.”
Yes, the Blazers won on Saturday night with rookie Victor Claver in the lineup but clearly, Matthews is who you’d want with the starters. When Claver is on the floor, the Blazers often play 4-on-5, not even looking his way. But with Matthews, not only do the Blazers have the top scoring starting five in the league (80.3 ppg) but they have a more stable rotation.
On the road, when sometimes energy can get left behind in the previous city, the Blazers will be better suited with a guy like Matthews. His defense, ability to knock down open threes and overall presence will be necessary over the next week.
About that rotation…
We’re beginning to see the trend of early Will Barton sightings, along with the front-court pairing of Jared Jeffries and Meyers Leonard. And we’re still seeing a mixed bag from this bench.
They’re not judged by point production – so the 28 the reserves contributed on Saturday night is likely a mirage – but they should be graded by this: easing the stress from the starters.
So that means, Leonard can’t keep racking up the fouls like he has – he hasn’t logged more than seven minutes in the last two games but has collected three and two fouls, respectively. And it means, Saturday’s super sub Nolan Smith needs to build upon his confident moment against the Jazz and partner with Damian Lillard in the backcourt since Ronnie Price (ankle) may not be available. Without positive contributions from the bench, this trip will become a long, burdensome affair for the starters.
“I think it’s just less responsibility. When you have the ball, you’re responsible for the ball,” Lillard said, explaining how the bench helps him. “Usually when I’m in the game, I have the ball a lot. I’m in charge of getting us into the offense, initiating the offense with the first pass. When I’m off the ball, I’m coming off pin downs or I might be coming off a post entry or I may not be involved in the play somehow.”
“When Nolan can come in like he played on (Saturday), it takes a lot off me.”
Keep hope (and the comeback) alive
No other team in the NBA rallies like the Blazers. So if the starters sleepwalk through the first quarter or the bench can’t tread water, there’s still a belief that the team will be alright.
The Blazers lead the league with 11 comeback wins when trailing at halftime. The team is 7-5 at home in those situations and 4-11 on the road.
Sleeping on the Mavericks, Magic and Hornets of this trip
While Houston (Feb. 8) and Miami (Feb. 12) may get the red circle on the calendar, the Blazers can’t forget how difficult it will be to get wins in Dallas (Feb. 6), Orlando (Feb. 10) and the trap of all trap games, New Orleans (Feb. 13). Now, each one of those teams are floundering under the .500 mark but all possess unique challenges.
Think the Mavericks will be a little salty after the controversial ending of their buzzer-beating loss in Portland?
The bottom has fallen out in Orlando and the Magic are only 14-33. This isn’t the same team that pushed the Blazers to overtime on Jan. 7 but still you can’t overlook an NBA team.
Finally, that Hornets matchup could be the hardest simply because its the sixth and final game of the road trip… the last one played while everyone’s attention will be on the upcoming All-Star break.
When L.A. talks about “make or break,” losing two of these games would be detrimental to a team that is fighting for a playoff spot.
Nicolas Batum remembering he can shoot, too
Batum came oh so close to getting another triple-double on Saturday (10 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists). When asked if the was disappointed he didn’t get it, Batum held up his index and thumb close to each other. So, yes, he was a little disappointed but: “If we win the game, I’m OK,” Batum said.
Batum should remember that sentiment., because actually his pass-first mentality hasn’t always helped his team to a victory.
When Batum attempts 10 or less shots, the Blazers are just 3-8 in those games. On Saturday, the exception ruled the night as Batum recorded just seven official shot attempts, but of course, the Blazers won. Batum was aggressive at the start of the Jazz game – likely to pick up the slack with Claver in the starting lineup – and hit three of four attempts through the first quarter.
The Blazers average 91.7 points on the road, seven less than at home. Simply put, they’ll need Batum’s offense. So while they can definitely use swiss-knife Batum on this trip, even more the Blazers need the Batum who doesn’t pass up those corner threes.
Protect the rock
One of the telling road statistics: Blazers commit 15.4 turnovers per game while away from the Rose Garden. While there’s subtle change through the other stats on home versus road production, the turnover average increases when the Blazers play in the black unis.
For a young team, that makes sense – especially since the primary ball handler is a first-year player. Still, going with this “make or break” trend, ball security will have to be a priority if the Blazers want to win tough road games.