Prior to the season when our group of season ticket holders got together to draft our tickets there were only a handful of games I had on my "I really want to see this game" list.
Boston was one, to see its transcendent collection of talent; Seattle was one to see the Oden-Durant matchup of two rookies with instantaneous contributions, and of course Cleveland. More specifically, to see King James: a player so good he essentially took down the Eastern Conference by himself last year.
When you look at the Cavaliers roster it is hardly imposing. Yet some how, some way he took Cleveland to the NBA Finals to experience the most one-sided thrashing we have seen in quite some time. As good as James is, the TEAMS in the Western Conference are simply that much better. Tonight should be provide more evidence to support that claim.
The Lebrons are coming off a game between Lebron James and Kobe Bryant...err, I mean between the Cavaliers and the Lakers. That was a great example of two teams who have one exceptional, outstanding player and a bunch of supporting players who may or may not show up. James and Bryant had superlative games, so much so that it often seemed the other eight players were props more than anything. The Cavaliers came out ahead because too often the Lakers go to the "Kobe offense" and James had a slightly better game.
That won't happen in Portland. Admittedly, no player on the Blazers approaches James for sheer skill set, at least as an individual. Few teams have any one player who does. But Portland somehow is better than the sum of its parts. If you put any given Blazer outside of Brandon Roy on any below average or average team in the league he will not change them into a competitive team single-handedly. James does that for the Cavaliers.
However, each Blazer knows his role and fills it to perfection. Joel Przybilla provides defense and rebounding but does not look to score except on offensive put-backs. Martell Webster provides defense and long-range shooting. Steve Blake keeps the turnovers down and provides timely shooting. Travis Outlaw provides massive infusions of energy, tough on-the-ball defense, and clutch scoring. Sergio Rodriguez provides a spark off the bench one game and hardly plays the next. Every accepts his role and does not complain about it.
If another team wanted to trade for any of these guys straight-up, I suspect Portland would receive very little in return. Well, maybe it would get something for Outlaw...he is making enough of a name for himself that sometimes he isn't even called "Charles" by the TNT guys now. They actually know his name...but no All-Stars or prime-time players would be offered. Yet it would take such a player to contribute as much to this Blazer team as would be taken away.
They are the epitome of a team; taken separately, outside of two or at most three players there is seemingly not much. But they fit together so well, play together so well, and work so hard to not let down their teammates that they have turned their season into something special.
With that said, Cleveland does have a couple of things working in its favor. Drew Gooden and Anderson Varejao are the type of players that give Portland fits. Neither is an elite player...in fact, I would be surprised if either was ever in a future All Star game.
But they are energetic players that can score inside and are solid rebounders. Portland tends to give up big games to these type of players. I would not be surprised to see one or the other of them end up with 15 - 20 points and a dozen rebounds...maybe even both of them. If they do that and Daniel Gibson has one of his better games the Cavaliers will sneak out with the win.
The more-likely scenario has James having an "off night", at least by his standards, as a let-down after the big confrontation with Bryant. He will still be in the 25+ point range, I would suspect, but it will take him too many shots to get there. Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Gibson are the types of players Portland typically harasses into poor-shooting nights. Cleveland will end up shooting less than 44% for the game and Portland should win fairly handily, again in the 10+ point range.
This might be a tad optimistic with the decent road record the Cavaliers have compiled at 11-12 but this game fits well into Portland's strengths so I am sticking with it. They are brimming with confidence after the huge comeback against the Hawks. It is also an important game. Right now Portland is 26-18 with 38 games remaining. They are half a game behind the Jazz and tied with the Nuggets for the Division lead and it will probably take winning the division to get into the playoffs. That will be tough to do. A quick glance at its remaining schedule is pretty revealing.
They have four tilts with the Lakers, three with the Suns, two each with the Rockets, Mavericks, and Warriors, and another game with the Spurs; not to mention road games with the Pistons and Cavaliers and another game with Boston. Every one of those is a tough game. Winning half of those would be very impressive (and unlikely.)
I would not be shocked if they won six or fewer of those games. I actually see them going 19-19 the rest of the way which would give them 45 wins on the season. That would be a huge improvement over last year and a very successful season, though it would probably leave them out of the playoffs. Even to achieve that will be tough.
The Trailblazers have winnable-home games against the Cavaliers, Knicks, Nuggets and Bulls remaining.
Let's say they stumble once, probably against the Nuggets. Then they go on the road for four with the Pistons, Pacers, Rockets, and Mavericks. 1-3 is very possible in that sequence.
Then take a look at this stretch of games to close out the season: They visit the Lakers and Rockets, come home to play the Spurs and Lakers, go to Sacramento, come home for Dallas and Memphis, and then end the year on the road in Phoenix.
That is a tough stretch where they could conceivably end the year losing 7-of-8. There are two stretches where it is not inconceivable they will be 2-9. For them to finish .500 from here on out they are going to need to win every game they "should" win and a few that are toss-ups or probable-losing efforts.
Then again, this team has surprised me all year. I did not see it winning thrice against the Jazz or beating Utah in Denver, so perhaps it will exceed my expectations, split the very tough games mentioned above, win every game they "should" against the teams like Seattle, Minnesota, Memphis, the Clippers and so forth, go 26-12 down the stretch, and thunder into the playoffs with a nigh unbelievable 52-30 record.
I would love to see that happen and will be there cheering all the way. Actually, even if the Blazers perform a little under expectations, we will be right there cheering all the way.
The team is headed in the right direction. There are solid character guys playing their assigned roles without complaints and have identified its strengths and weaknesses which will be addressed next year with the arrival of this year's draft pick.
So they should win Wednesday and we will see what happens from there.