Around this time of year, several things have become usual around Portland. The health nuts hit the gym (and trails, and bikes, and assorted other exercise areas) to work off all the poundage absorbed during the holidays. The rain that will pelt us for five straight months begins at about this time.
And the Portland Trail Blazers will start the new calendar year looking to go on their annual tear during the second half of the season.
That last one has been a hallmark of the Damian Lillard/CJ McCollum era of Blazers basketball, usually after a slow start that has them under .500 and struggling to get back into the playoff race.
This season has been a different story so far with the Blazers sitting at 24-17. Tied with the Clippers, Rockets and Spurs for fourth in the West — and being two games up on the hated L*kers — is not a bad place to be after a horrid 2018 portion of the schedule, especially with the fairly soft slate of games that are being served up before the All-Star break.
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January, in particular, offers plenty of chances for Portland to fatten up on ECCs — Eastern Conference Cupcakes. A game versus the Nuggets, two against Utah, and a road tilt at Oklahoma City do loom, but every other game this month is extremely winnable. And given how the Blazers have played lately, even the tough games are going to be within reach, as long as the Blazers don’t disrespect Russell Westbrook again.
(Seriously, I’ve already seen one supernova erupt on my TV screen. Dame, please don’t yell out "Just leave him!" on national television again, even if Westbrook did end up bricking that jumper with Jusuf Nurkic purposefully keeping his mitts down. After that, Russ proceeded to toss Portland’s defense in the woodchipper.)
Speaking of Nurk, the Bosnian has played like a man on a mission — or, bear on a mission ... or a beast on a mission? What are we calling him nowadays?
Editor's note: Knicks coach David Fizdale called Nurkic a "mountain man" after the Blazers handled the Knicks on Monday night. That's a new one.
I suppose we can call him a borderline All-Star, since that’s what he’s played like the last couple weeks. It isn’t just his 20-20 game combined with a five-by-five, a feat that I’m sure you’ve heard by now has never been done in the NBA’s history (though if they counted blocks and steals in the 1960s, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain probably would have, like, 100 of those games between them). Nurkic is leading the Blazers in rebounding, steals, and blocks, and he’s averaged 18 points and 12 rebounds per game over his last nine. He has been balling in the purest form of the phrase.
McCollum, the actual No. 2 man on the Blazers behind Lillard, has not done as well as he should according to some people. Some of that flak is a little unfair, some of it is totally justified:
This season, McCollum is shooting 50 percent in the paint (298 attempts), 53 percent in the midrange (181 attempts), and 30 percent on above-the-break 3-pointers (206 attempts.
I took away McCollum’s corner threes because he’s taken only 20 of his 227 total threes from that extremely efficient spot. As the above table illustrates, CJ is shooting just fine from inside the arc; in fact, that midrange percentage leads the NBA among players who take at least four midrange shots per game, according to NBA.com. (Second place? CJ’s bestie Kevin Durant.) McCollum has had some big problems when taking shots outside the arc, unfortunately.
We’ll get into more of the nitty-gritty later this week, but I’ll say this: McCollum’s shooting is unspeakably bad for a career 40 percent 3-point shooter, but the Blazers aren’t doing a good job of getting him into spots and situations where he can be more successful, as well. Maybe fewer catch-and-shoot 3s and more pull-up Js from 18 feet will get CJ going.
(All games can be heard on AM 620 Rip City Radio)
Editor's note: Jared Wright wrote this article before Monday night's game. We'll include what he wrote about the Knicks game, which the Blazers won 111-101, with some editorial notes in italics, just for fun.
Monday, Jan. 7: vs. the New York Knicks, 7 p.m. NBCSNW
The Skinny: So, things aren’t going great in the Big Apple lately. At a tankariffic 10-29, the Knicks were destined to suck, but the hope was that there would be some progress made amongst the suck. Alas, things may have stalled some, even if franchise player Kristaps Porzingis is "making progress," according to the team, and will be re-evaluated after the All-Star break.
The only positive thing other than the news that Porzingis might play this year is his future frontcourt mate Kevin Knox is having a solid year for a teenager. (Knox wasn't so solid Monday night. He missed five of six shots and finished with eight points). Everything else …
Frank Ntilikina and Mitchell Robinson are dealing with ankle issues. Robinson is doing alright in the few minutes he’s getting (Robinson didn't get off the bench Monday); he’s about as raw as that sushi that gave you cramps last night, but he is leading the Knicks in block rate (at 9.0, which would tie for the NBA lead if he qualified) and blocks per game. Frankie Smokes, meanwhile, has been about as offensive as a Mormon. His shooting percentages make Westbrook look like Steph Curry. (Ntilikina also didn't play Monday)
Tim Hardaway Jr. leads the team in scoring (he scored five points on 2-of-12 shooting Monday) while shooting under 40 percent. (In the blogging biz, we call that a “Derrick Rose Special.”) Enes Kanter, their second-leading scorer, is a defensive sieve who’s paranoid about Turkish operatives that he says want to assassinate him (Kanter was pretty good Monday, leading the Knicks with 18 points and 14 rebounds off the bench). New York’s bevy of reclamation projects are a mixed bag of hits (Noah Vonleh) and misses (Mario Hezonja). It’s a mess of young guys that all are looking out for themselves instead of helping each other win a few games; it’s a big-league version of a G-League team.
Tank on for Zion, I guess.
Matchup to Watch: Tim Hardaway Jr. vs. CJ McCollum. McCollum can get to his spots pretty easily against Hardaway, who’s not the most attentive of perimeter defenders. As for Junior on offense, if Evan Turner and Al-Farouq Aminu can turn James Harden into, well, Tim Hardaway Jr., I dread what they can do to Hardaway. (CJ won this one, outscoring Hardaway Jr. 17-5)
Prediction: Om nom nom, Blazers get a cupcake win. (Yep)
Wednesday, Jan. 9: vs. the Chicago Bulls, 7 p.m., NBCSNW
The Skinny: Oh look, another 10-30 Eastern team. Looks tasty.
The Bulls might be even more of a mess than New York, honestly. Jim Boylen took over head coaching duties from Fred Hoiberg a few weeks ago, and his big revolutionary change has been to post up Robin Lopez a billion times a game. I love Robin. Many Rip Citizens have fond memories of him, I’m sure. I also think most of us agree that there shouldn’t be a world where Robin Lopez posts up a billion times a game.
Zach LaVine’s stats look nice on the surface (23-4-4, 45/34/87 splits), but those gaudy counting stats hide the fact that he has the sixth-highest usage rate in the NBA (right up there with James Harden, Joel Embiid, Devin Booker, LeBron James and Kevin Durant) and averages nearly four turnovers per game. He’s almost as inefficient as Hardaway. Antonio Blakeney is an unrepentant ball hog who belongs in the G-League, even if he is shooting 45 percent from three. Kris Dunn has been hurt most of the year. They gave away their top minutes man, Justin Holiday, and are trying to give away Jabari Parker (who has a team option next year that Chicago is going to decline the instant the clock rings in July 1).
Even their bright spots, the frontcourt tandem of Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr., are having their touches and development cut and slowed by Boylen’s insistence on posting up Lopez.
Tank on for Zion, I guess? Chicago already has two young guys manning the 4 and 5, but if they get the first pick, I can see the unimaginative and unambitious GM Gar Forman just taking Williamson, plunking him on a roster with Markkanen and Carter, then blaming the coach when it — surprise!!! — doesn’t work out. If Ernie Grunfeld didn’t exist, Forman would be the guy I’d be most confused about why he hasn’t been fired yet.
Matchup to Watch: Lauri Markkanen vs. Al-Farouq Aminu. The Finn stands three inches taller than Aminu, as does Carter. One reason why I like the Bulls’ young frontcourt is their combination of size and skill; both guys have traditional size for a big, yet don’t fully play like a traditional big. Chief is going to have to punch above his weight for this one, but here’s hoping his veteran wiles can make the difference.
Prediction: Scrumppff munch munch, Blazers scarf another cupcake.
Friday, Jan. 11: vs. the Charlotte Hornets, 7 p.m., NBCSNW
The Skinny: Holding the seventh spot in the East as of Sunday night, the 19-20 Hornets are this season’s walking proof that we need to abolish the 8-8 model for the playoffs and have seeds go out to the 16 best teams regardless of conference.
Well, one bit of walking proof; I suppose every Eastern squad below the Celtics (in fifth place with a 24-15 record; none of the 10 teams below them have a winning record) would get that title, if the Western teams would only stop cannibalizing each other for a couple weeks.
As fun as Kemba Walker has been this season, destroying everybody in his path and taking his place among the top point guards in basketball, I have no desire to see him shoot 50 times a game and get swallowed up by Kawhi Leonard in April. Walker doesn’t have enough help, put plainly.
Walker says he’s committed to Charlotte for the long term, but he should look around the league all the same; he’s better than most of the other starting point guards in the league, and there happens to be a prime spot just waiting for him in New York.
(C’mon. If the thought of Kevin Durant and Kemba Walker joining forces to drag the Knicks back from the brink doesn’t sound exciting, you are not a fan of basketball — as unlikely as that pairing is to happen.)
Matchup to Watch: Kemba Walker vs. Damian Lillard. Getcha popcorn ready.
Prediction: Portland washes down their cupcakes with some coffee. Blazers win.
Sunday, Jan. 13: at the Denver Nuggets, 5 p.m., NBCSNW/Blazers Pass
The Skinny: Many folks liked the Nuggets as a playoff team in the West. Some people even thought they had a chance for home-court advantage, if things broke totally right for them.
But I highly doubt that anyone would have had Denver (26-12) as the best team in the West halfway through the season and owners of a top-10 offense and defense as well. Oh yeah, and they did a good chunk of this without Gary Harris and Paul Millsap, two of their four best players.
Winners of 16 of their past 21 games, Denver is riding its future All-Star center, Nikola Jokic, to the kind of success it hasn’t had in, well, ever. The Nuggets have had some good teams and great players in their past, but I can’t ever recall them being tops in the conference this late in the season. Jokic is a humongous reason why, in all the senses of the word.
The Joker leads the team in points, rebounds, assists, and steals, and his name is littering most of the NBA leaderboards; he’s on dozens of the top 20 lists. His outside shooting has cooled off (he’s shooting 32 percent from deep), but every other aspect of his game is in peak form. He’s going to be in the argument with Joel Embiid for best center in the NBA for a long time.
Not bad for a kid who looks like he couldn’t beat me in a footrace and didn’t take up basketball until high school.
Matchup to Watch: Nikola Jokic vs. Jusuf Nurkic. Not only is this a duel versus two huge centers playing extremely well right now, there will always be an extra edge to this matchup because Nurkic was traded within the division to Portland just to make way for Jokic.
That was the rare intra-divisional trade that worked out well for both teams; while the Blazers (and most teams) would obviously prefer having Jokic on their team, Nurk is still the most productive center Rip City has had since Marcus Camby.
(Man, I miss the Cambuchet. I used to be mesmerized by Camby’s awkwardly beautiful shooting motion. Never mind that the thing took forever to wind up before launching. Aminu has a similar shooting motion, though he doesn’t wind up as much. The ball still comes out at a very high point. Maybe Chief’s shot needs a nickname, too. The Chiefapult? The TrebuChief?)
Prediction: The Blazers’ boss stalks into the break room and tells them to get their lazy asses back to work, and the Blazers hurry back to their desks after a loss.
- Trail Blazers’ Record During Break: 5-4
- Trail Blazers’ Record Overall: 23-17
- Jared Wright's Picks During Break: 5-4
- Jared Wright's Picks Overall: 20-20 (back to .500 baby!)