The Kings and Blazers are two teams heading in similar directions. The Kings, once an almost-respectable 5-8 have dropped their last two games, leaving them ahead of only about seven teams, record-wise. Meanwhile, Portland is 8-6 and just one game off the pace set by Denver.
However, Portland has a tough schedule coming up while Denver looks to having six of their next nine at home and among the road games are teams such as the Clippers, Timberwolves, and Kings.
In other words, Portland is likely to be looking up at Denver by four or five games within the next couple of weeks, as the schedules favor Denver. The Blazers will be fortunate to go 3-3 in their next six, five of which are on the road in places like Detroit, Toronto and Boston.
That makes the home game against the Kings a key game. Portland is coming off a disappointing performance in Phoenix. Defensively, the Blazers performed very well and did everything they needed in order to have a chance to win. Unfortunately, the offense disappeared.
Part of that can certainly be credited to the improved Suns defense. How much of it is credited to their defense, as opposed to how much of it is credited to Phoenix being in the Blazers' collective psyche, is an open question.
In the first half Portland was raining open threes at the basket from all angles. Typically reliable shooters like Steve Blake and Rudy Fernandez had multiple looks so wide open that not only were the shots uncontested, there was not even a defender within five feet of the shooters. They combined to miss every open look.
Portland let the Suns off the hook. Had they hit the shots they normally hit, Portland would have been up by 10-15 points. The offensive explosion of the third quarter would not have mattered so much.
The Suns are much too good to not take advantage of such a gift. They took advantage and won a game that Portland had a very real shot at. That makes it perhaps even more unlikely that Portland will break through in Phoenix this year and also had adverse affects on the outlook of Greg Oden.
His match-up with Shaquille O'Neal drew a lot of attention. Frankly, Oden was not ready for it. He was called for some pretty questionable fouls, particularly in light of the nonsense O'Neal gets away with. As typical for him, he got off a couple of cheap shots that would have gotten someone like Ron Artest of Stephen Jackson a multi-game suspension, but in his case only one of them even drew a foul call and a technical.
If I ever get around to it, I would love to write a piece about the dirtiest players in the League: guys who regularly take cheap shots, commit vicious fouls akin to unnecessary roughness type things, or just hack and grab. A front line of O'Neal, Tyson Chandler, and Bruce Bowen, teamed with Rip Hamilton, would be a pretty good start.
The difference between the Bowen/Hamilton type players and the O'Neal/Chandler ones is the first group do their work with their hands, primarily to keep their opponent from getting position or scoring well. The second group I have watched time and again throw elbows or other shots clearly designed to injure.
I was shocked the first time I saw Chandler play live and saw all his after-the-whistle work away from the ball. He does not get noticed because he does it away from the play but I instantly put him on my list and watching him since, he is second only to O'Neal.
O'Neal of course has well-publicized tendencies in that regard which are passed off by his fans and defenders as, "Well, he gets fouled all the time." Uh, right. There is no difference between say...someone getting run over by a tank reaching around and trying to strip the ball, getting called for a foul, and the actions of O'Neal against Joel Przybilla.
Last year after he knocked Przybilla to the floor, O'Neal "tripped" and deliberately moved the ball, trying to drive it into Joel's face with all O'Neal's weight behind it. It was deliberate, malicious, and should have earned a long, long suspension.
In the most recent game he again took a shot after the whistle that could easily have been construed as a punch. This one at least earned him a technical, but it also allowed him to grow ever more violent as the game progressed without further fouls being called.
I look forward to the day when, after his basketball career, he gets in the ring with guys who think like he does...Tito Ortiz, Randy Couture, Brock Lesnar...and we see how he does without the referees allowing him almost complete carte blanche.
But back to Oden; after the game, it was clear he knew he had performed poorly. He struggled to score and, more importantly, did not rebound or defend well. Portland will be just fine if he does not score a great deal but they desperately need strong performances defensively and on the boards from Oden if they intend to compete against the better NBA teams.
How will Oden respond to it? The Kings game might provide one answer. The answer has to do much more with Oden than it does the Kings. Physically, the Kings are way over-matched. Oden can gain position almost at will against guys like Brad Miller, Spencer Hawes and Mikki Moore.
The Kings big men play a different game, more inclined to snipe from mid or long range than they are to mix it up under the basket. They are the type of players Oden should put up fairly nice numbers against—if his head is in the game. If not, he could skip his rotation, be drawn to the perimeter where the Kings can use their superior speed and agility, and he could end up in foul trouble.
So the first item on the Blazers agenda is making sure Oden is able to put the Phoenix game behind him. Everyone has bad games. The good players have bad memories and go out to play the game in front of them instead of worrying about yesterday's news. We do not know how Oden will react to that yet.
The second focus must be winning the games they should win. Home games against the Kings are definitely a game they should win. Even if Sacramento comes in with a chip on their shoulder after the beat-down Portland laid on them last week, Portland should win this game and win it handily.
They have a better inside game than the Kings, they have a better outside game, and better defense. For the Kings to win, they have to play well over their normal game while limiting the Blazers to playing a very poor game.
In the NBA, that is always a possibility but not a probability. Portland should follow the same formula they used in the second half at Sacramento. Start the ball inside and either let LaMarcus Aldridge go to work in the post or, if he is double-teamed, rotate the ball to the open shooter on the perimeter for the easy look at the three-ball.
This game should be a good confidence booster for Portland after the rough Suns game and give them a nice jolt before heading on the road for their second long East Coast trip of the year. Look for a double digit win and some free chalupas for the crowd.
And lots of chances to do the "Thrilla" dance every time Przybilla dunks or blocks a shot.