Starting Five: Trail Blazers at Dallas Mavericks, 5:30 p.m.


That’s a picture of Dallas homeboy LaMarcus Aldridge before the start of the Blazers-Mavericks 2011 first-round playoff series. It’s also a clever segue into the Question of the Day. Nice how I did that, eh?

Which team has Aldridge averaged the most points against in his career? Think about it. You’ll find the answer below the Starting Five.

1. Give the starters a break

Nicolas Batum was everywhere on Saturday night against the Houston Rockets. Blocking weak stuff by Jeremy Lin and James Harden, working the corner pocket for 3 and generally playing a well-rounded game in the Blazers’ 95-85 overtime win. It was like he never left the court – which kinda was the case.

Batum started in his usual small forward position as well as played the 2 spot when teamed with the reserves for a team-high 44 minutes and 43 seconds. He’s now sixth in the league in minutes played (40. 6 mpg) and Aldridge is 12th overall (38.3). And that’s a heck of a load for your two best players. This is the direct result of the Blazer bench not producing points as a whole. In each of the three games, only one guy in a reserve role has stood out. Saturday was Will Barton’s turn. Barton scored five of the six bench points. Now, tonight in Dallas, who will step up? Nolan Smith? Meyers Leonard? Victor Claver? Or how about something, anything from more than one player? My bet is that Ronnie Price gives the bum ankle more of a test run (on Saturday, Price played in two brief spurts for a little more than five and a half minutes) but we’ll also see more of the guy featured in No. 2 of the Starting Five…

2. Barton making a difference

With the Sasha Pavlovic injury, coach Terry Stotts had to turn loose the rookie and Barton did not disappoint in his season debut. Barton often looks like he’s out of control, which I think is only because he’s all limbs and length. He hasn’t mastered the playbook just yet, but he’s giving maximum effort and most importantly, showing basketball sense. Although he floated to the corner on most trips, he didn’t launch that 3-pointer unless he was open. And in the third quarter – my favorite Barton play of the game – when he did misfire on a top-of-the-key 3 and Leonard tapped the offensive rebound back, Barton grabbed the ball and instinctively attacked. But, this wasn’t an “Oh, No!” type of play. On the drive, Barton left his feet, found Batum with an over-the-shoulder pass and dropped off the dime. After Batum’s dunk, the Blazers went up 63-58.

Besides his five points on seven shots, Barton also contributed four rebounds, an assist, a steal and a big block on Omer Asik. That’s a pretty good surge from a rookie off the bench playing in his first NBA game. Barton looked lively out there but I don’t want to minimize him as just an “energy” guy. He can be a playmaker on that second unit and since the Blazers have a weakness with the backup 2 spot – and Batum has played a lot of his 40.6 mpg at that position – why not give more burn to Barton?

3. Patience with Hickson’s offense

Hickson (aka “J J no dots” — that’s the nickname he countered me when I tried the much more cooler J To The J) plays a grimey game. He dogs it down there on offensive rebounds and sacrifices his tatted-up body against bigger bigs who have the size advantage but hardly match his hustle. Of all the season revelations so far – the consistency of Wesley Matthews’ shooting and the legend of rookie Damian Lillard growing on every rise-and-shoot, pick-and-roll play – I submit that Hickson’s production is right up there. On Saturday, Hickson just missed his third consecutive double double (nine points, 12 rebounds) although you could tell that he definitely was trying to get at least 10 points. And I like this aggressiveness – to an extent.

When Hickson tried to create his own shot (I’m going to consider any play in which Hickson had to A. make a low-post move, or B. collect himself with just one dribble before attempting a field goal) he was 2 for 7. No other play illuminated this low percentage than when Hickson tried going up against second-year player Marcus Morris: He caught the ball just off of the FT line, faced Morris, faked right then took one hard dribble towards the lane before lofting an airball from 10 feet away. This led to a a runout and a three-point play by Harden.

That play just doesn’t work. For starters, Houston was already in the midst of a 7-0 run and Harden’s score made it 73-68 with 7:25 remaining in the game. So you’re telling me, that Hickson’s attempt was the best shot the Blazers could get in that scenario??? And in general, when Hickson is shooting mid range jumpers, that leaves the Blazers with their best offensive rebounder 10 feet away from the basket. I think fans should appreciate Hickson trying to expand his offense but should also be patient because it’s certainly a work in progress. And for Hickson, he surrounded by four scorers and one who’s also a great playmaker (Lillard) … so, he needs to recognize when to work his new moves and when to play to his strengths.

4. Get Batum off early

In Saturday’s game, Batum was carrying over a lousy 1-for-11 performance from the night before. He didn’t scratch until the third quarter and it was no coincidence that his first points came off a set with tremendous ball movement – Lillard to Aldridge on the block, L.A. back out to Lillard, to Matthews then swung to Batum open in front of the Rockets’ bench for the 3-pointer. Before then, Batum was busy forcing bad shots. Even though in the first quarter, there were a couple opportunities to get him off the slump. (The very first set, Batum was open and ready in the right corner but Aldridge took and missed a jumper instead. On the third possession, Batum had the mismatch backing down Lin but Lillard pulled up for the 22 footer … and missed).

So the Blazers need to help a brotha out. Find Batum early in Dallas and let him get a feel against Shawn Marion before he gets off to another slow start.

5. That’s What He Said

The Dallas Morning News’ Eddie Sekfo on Portland’s “new sensation” … Hint: He’s not referring to Joel Freeland

Prediction: Besides the homecoming for Aldridge and Stotts (a former Mavericks assistant), it’s a game that could help embolden a young squad. The lack of bench will eventually wear on the Blazers, but for now the starters can handle the extra load. I like the Blazers’ five over the Dallas crew. Besides, bad karma to any team that cuts Eddy Curry after what he did in the season-opening win.
Portland 101, Dallas 96

Tipoff: 5:30 p.m.
Officials for the night: Joe Crawford, Kane Fitzgerald, Marat Kogut

Answer: Aldridge certainly makes his hometown Dallas Mavericks pay when he’s facing them, but he lights up even more when facing Detroit. Aldridge averages a career-best 22.1 ppg vs the Pistons. Dallas is second on the list (21.3 ppg).

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