Starting Five: Trail Blazers at Toronto Raptors, 4 p.m.
The Trail Blazers (16-14) started this four-game, five-night road trip with a win last night inside Madison Square Garden. Now, it’s on to the next one in Toronto, which explains the lead photo.
We all know what happened the last time these two teams met on Dec. 10, with the Trail Blazers setting a record for most 3-point misses without a make (0 for 20). I couldn’t find just the right photo to capture a bricked 3-pointer, so we’re going with the coaches, Terry Stotts and Dwane Casey who last worked together as assistants with the Dallas Mavericks.
Odd things happen when Stotts faces his old co-workers and friends. On that night when the Blazers misfired for history, they still blew out the Raptors, 92-74. Weird.
Just a couple games later when Stotts and Denver coach George Karl, his old boss and friend from the Seattle and Milwaukee days, the 3-point futility record transferred to the Nuggets as they went 0 for 22. Freaky.
It’s the second night of a back-to-back for the Blazers, so maybe we’ll get to see another strange occurrence … like Sasha Pavlovic going for 40.
We can only hope. Until then, let’s start the Five.
1. About that record…
The good thing for the Blazers, they’re no longer that team so historically bad in 3-point shooting. Neither Wesley Matthews nor Nicolas Batum played in that Dec. 10 game, so was it just a fluke? Judging by the lines in the nine games since setting the previous record, the Blazers are materializing to be a team that shoots a lot from distance but with little success.
In this current nine-game stretch, the Blazers have made 74 for 232 of their attempts from 3-pointers; a 31.8 percentage. There are highlights like the 14-for-36 night against Denver, and more forgettable moments like the 7-for-27 against the Spurs and 3-for-19 versus the Lakers. Overall, Portland’s a bottom-tier team in 3-point percentage (33.7 percent and 25th in the league).
Last night in NYC, the team jacked up 33 attempts and the last one (a step-back triple by Damian Lillard in the final 30 seconds) helped seal the win. So the thing is, they’re not going to stop shooting from beyond the arc. The 3-point shot is such a huge part of their offense – 24.7 percent of their points come from 3-point field goals (8th most in the league) – that the Blazers have learned to win in spite of their off-the-mark shooting.
Live by the three …
2. Raptors rising
Right after the loss to Portland on Dec. 10, the Raptors (11-20) began to turn their season around. Toronto would take another L a couple days later against Brooklyn, then rolled off five straight wins. Since Dec. 10, the Raptors are 7-2 with a few wins over Western Conference teams.
And the guy who’s stepped up during this run? The same one who lost in tug-of-war with a ref that night in Portland.
Raptors reserve forward Amir Johnson had himself a moment and did this. The NBA came down with a one-game suspension and Johnson sat out the Dec. 12 loss to Brooklyn, but ever since then he’s kept his head and helped his team. Johnson’s averaging 9.3 points and 7.2 rebounds over the past eight games and will be the Raptors’ main feature off the bench.
3. In the zone
Going back to last night’s win over the Knicks when the Blazers flashed good defense in spite of Carmelo Anthony going for 45 and J.R. Smith hitting 28 off the bench. Smith is a volume guy – he took 22 shots, only two less than Anthony – and a player who can break down any defender one-on-one. So, to show the steadiness of the Blazers’ defensive effort, let’s examine the work against Smith.
Smith scored his first bucket with Victor Claver trying and failing to guard him. His next was a transition 3-pointer as LaMarcus Aldridge had to close out but got there too late. However in the second quarter, the Blazers turned to a zone and effectively limited Smith … his next three attempts missed as he tried to shoot over it.
Same quarter, and three more shots. When the Blazers left the zone, Smith attempted another jumper: he missed over the outstretched hand of Will Barton. Back in the zone, somebody completely forgot about him over by the right arc and Smith drained the open triple. Then back against one-on-one coverage, Smith took Ronnie Price off the dribble and dropped in another jumper.
Next: a tough fallaway over Lillard, another three over Claver, a high-screen and dribble to attack Aldridge at the rim for the layup. Same deal: one-on-one defense. But in the fourth quarter, Smith launched an airball over the zone, and missed another before nailing a transition jump shot over Batum. Conclusion: when the Blazers focused their defensive concentration in the zone, they were able to withstand the fury of shots from one of the NBA’s most loaded scorers.
4. The last time Aldridge played in Toronto…
L.A. definitely enjoys the Raptors. During that Jan. 20, 2012 game, he became the first player in team history to post 33 points and 23 rebounds in a game. His first 30-20 game of his career.
5. That’s what he said
USA Today’s Jeff Zillgitt on big-money Batum.
“The progress is evident in certain areas of Batum’s game – a career-high in minutes (38.2 per game), points (16.1), rebounds (5.7), assists (4.3), steals (1.6) and blocks (1.2). Capable of contributing in a variety of ways on both ends of the court, Batum has developed into Portland’s most versatile player. As a defender, he can guard multiple perimeter positions. He is becoming the player he wants to be.”
“This season, he is one of five players in the league averaging at least 16 points, five rebounds, four assists, one steal and one block, joining Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant, Miami Heat forward LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, according to basketball-reference.com.”
Prediction: I’m about 1-13 on these predictions but will that stop me futilely picking the winner of tonight’s game? Never!
The Blazers are 4-2 in back-to-back games this season, and there’s no one on the Raptors to stop Aldridge to have another dominant game. So, why not go out on a limb and say the Blazers start this road trip 2-0.
Blazers 95, Raptors 88
Tipoff: 4 p.m., Comcast SportsNet • 1190 AM/102.3 FM KEX
Officials of the night: Bennett Salvatore, Eric Dalen, Scott Wall.