Preview: Portland Trailblazers Vs. New Orleans Hornets

This will be the second game of a season opening three game road trip. In the first game Portland played well but too many defensive lapses led to a loss in San Antonio. Well, that and frankly being the second best team on the floor that night...

New Orleans is full of hope. Last season despite injuries, a changing roster, and moving home games, they finished 39-43. This year with a settled home situation, a settled roster, and better health their more optimistic fans are talking of not just a playoff berth but as high as the 5th seed. While from the outside this appears a bit optimistic, stranger things have happened. I think the 41-41 projection more realistic evaluations have pegged them at even looks a bit iffy but it could happen with the continued development of their young players.

They do have reason for optimism. In Chris Paul and Tyson Chandler they have promising young stars to build on and there are some crafty, talented veterans mixed in. With the right breaks, they could see a nice improvement from last year.

The Starters

Portland matches up well. The projected line-ups look like this:


Portland, Joel Pryzbilla, New Orleans, Tyson Chandler

Chandler only had 13 games with the Hornets last year and was overshadowed in Chicago. He has never averaged double digits in 6 years. Pryzbilla is a better defender and with Chandler's limited production, Joel will be free to roam a bit and help out. However, Chandler is a beast on the boards. Since Portland is already struggling there, this could be a problem. Statistically, this match-up will favor Chandler as he can be expected to ring up 15 - 18 points a night this year and is a better rebounder than Pryzbilla. However, any points the Blazers get from Pryzbilla are pure bonus. He is there to rebound and defend and some of the effect his defense has is not quantifiable by statistics.

Edge: New Orleans

Power Forward

This will be the marquee match-up of the game. For Portland we have the explosive Aldridge, capable of going for 30 and 12, more likely somewhere in the 20 - 25 point range. New Orleans counters with little known David West. He should be better known. Last year, despite injuries, he checked in at a shade over 18 points and 7 boards. Of the two, he is the more established but Aldridge is the more talented. This should be a good battle. This is Aldridge's break-out year and it is expected to be West's as well. This match-up could go either way.

Edge: Portland

Small Forward

Peja Stojakovich would be the man back when he was with that great-passing Sacramento team. He is still a talented shooter capable of going off on any given night, but night in and night out he is not the go-to guy anymore. He will be the third scorer for the Hornets, much like Webster will for the Blazers. Starting in pre-season, Webster has looked like a different player. He has a nice stroke going, he is more aggressive at taking his shot and making his own. Peja could provide some match-up problems as he is still a dangerous offensive player...but Webster looks lights out so far.

Edge: Draw

Shooting Guard

Morris Peterson

Brandon Roy is still troubled by his heel. He will still crush Peterson. The Hornets have big hopes and plans for Peterson. He simply is outclassed by the reigning Rookie of the Year. Roy is better offensively, defensively, passing, and rebounding.

Edge: Portland

Point Guard

Jarrett Jack is a fine point guard with a bright future. He will probably never be an all-star...but he will be a solid guy who runs the game, plays defense, and hits the open shot. But he will never be Chris Paul. Paul is a better scorer and passer. He could be an All-Star this year and some people think he will climb into the elite conversation with guys like Nash and Kidd. Perhaps, perhaps not. But he is still better than Jack.

Edge: Hornets


Portland has starter-quality back-ups in Blake and Outlaw. Some people think Frye is in there, I have not seen that yet. The Hornets counter with rookie Julian Wright and a cast of journeyman. If Blake falters the Blazers can bring in Sergio Rodriguez. Expect the second unit to make up ground.
Edge: Portland


Both Byron Scott and Nate McMillan had lengthy careers as talented role players, with Scott the better scorer by far and McMillan better at everything else. They know the value of specialists and role players and both seem to be doing good jobs of guiding young nucleus's. Is it proximity and homer-ism that make me prefer McMillan?

Prediction: The Hornets are coming off a blow-out win over the woeful Kings while Portland had a good effort but lost in San Antonio. Post-game comments from Roy, Aldridge, and McMillan let us know the Blazers are not thinking they got a moral victory, they are disappointed they lost and think they could have won. I love that. They are not giving anything to anybody, they are out to win every game they can and believe they have a chance any game, anywhere, all season. Portland is too talented, too full of an eagerness to play and has too good of leadership in Roy and Aldridge to take the Hornets lightly. The Hornets may have a very good season but this game goes to Portland. Look for Portland to break the 100 point barrier and get their first road win of the season.

Game 1, Portland Versus San Antonio

McMillan elected to take the players back to the dressing room. I was driving home listening to the pre-game and in retrospect...good decision. The interminably long, boring ceremony made watching cars fly by at 3 m.p.h. seem exciting by comparison. On the bright side, it gave me time to get home in time to watch the start of the game.

Once the game started my excitement level changed. LaMarcus Aldridge showed some things. He came out aggressive, high energy, and showed he will take over games...if the Blazers let him. He scored early and often. And it was not give-me buckets, either. He went down on the blocks, showed patience in allowing the help defenders to be cleared out by Webster flashing to the open spot, made nice, controlled moves and finished.

Webster also showed something. He missed his first 2 shots. Last year, he would be done for the night. This year he wants to play. His third time with the ball he was on the foul line extended left above the three point line. He made a nice subtle fake to shake one defender, moved around a second and popped the baseline jumper for a deuce. Just seeing his aggression after a couple of misses was a huge positive.

Roy was not looking for his shot early but he did not need to. His dribble penetration was getting easy looks for Aldridge, Webster and...Pryzbilla? Joel came out scoring.

And the Blazers were playing right with San Antonio for about 8 minutes. Then the substitutions started. You could tell when Steve Blake came in. It was easy...just look for Parker laying it up uncontested at the other end.

Actually, that is not quite of his three fast breaks there were 4 Blazers back. He still laid it in and only a late block attempt by Pryzbilla even looked like they thought they should defend him, so I guess it was contested...

But that shift in the momentum of the game I do lay at the feet of Blake. He got his pocket picked, then through a terrible pass, then got himself trapped and made another horrible decision. It was a flurry from which the Blazers would never recover.

They briefly made a run when Sergio Rodriguez came into the game. He completely changed the feel of the game again, getting the Blazers into a faster offense that caused the Spurs some problems.

It was helped by Outlaw. He was doing a nice job of shaking defenders for that hanging jump shot he is developing.

By the end of the first quarter it was 29-26. Though they gave up 29 points, the Blazers defense was pretty good for the most part. A few lapses had led to the flurry of fast-break points that were the difference. Offensively, Aldridge and Pryzbilla carried them.

Early in the second period TNT did a piece on the draft and as they were talking about Roy and how emotionless he was, then they cut to him on the bench and started riffing on how he "still had no emotion". Maybe they think he is Tom Landry? Maybe that is how he can be introduced at games..."Brandon Landry Roy".

Meanwhile, the Spurs were riding their offensive star, Francisco Elson. It seemed like he was throwing down ferocious uncontested dunks whenever he felt like it. When it wasn't Elson dunking it was Brent Barry using his tremendous speed to get free for wide open threes. For those who may be unaware of Barry's speed, he has been known to outrun molasses in January...on a good day. It was unfortunate, because when the Blazers did play defense Elson was shooting far too much from far too close to the 3 point line and the results were good for Portland, not so much for San Antonio.

This quarter really showed how much better the Spurs second team is than Portland's. Channing Frye seemed lost on the court, getting beat on defense and showing nothing on offense. Jones was a non-factor...if not for Webster, the Blazers might have been blown away before Aldridge returned to the game.

When he did return, he showed he is a difference maker. San Antonio tried a variety of defenders on Aldridge and he scored on all of them, including Duncan. He also got caught defending Ginobli on a switch. Ginobli made a move across the lane for his little left hand runner and Aldridge stamped it return to sender. It was great defense by Aldridge on a faster player.

The half-time deficit was 59-49. The second quarter was not kind to the Blazers as they gave up more points (30 as opposed to 29) and scored fewer, just a 23 point quarter.

The third period was a good one for Portland. Their big three scorers...Aldridge, Webster and...Pryzbilla? all worked it, their defense stepped up to the plate, and they closed to withing 81-77. The 28 points were their best output so far on offense and the clamp-down to 22 points defensively, primarily against the Spurs starters, was encouraging. Webster was really stepping up to the plate. If he can continue to play with this confidence, taking the open shot, creating his own shot when needed, the Blazers are going to not just make the playoffs, they are going to make some noise when they get there.

The 4th quarter they struggled. When the ball went to Webster or Aldridge the Blazers scored or got good looks. Roy was not hitting his shots, though he still got into the lane virtually at will. Blake hit a couple shots, but defensively he was a liability. And Barry kept getting open for good looks, including a break-away lay-up.

How on earth does the slowest guy in NBA history get a break-away? I am still stunned by that one. No way did I see that.

After a very positive third quarter, they struggled in the middle part of the 4th. They kept making runs but whenever they would close within 3 or 4 points the Spurs would remind them who the World Champs were and bump it back to double digits or pretty close to it. For the 3rd time in 4 quarters they were outscored. But inside the last minute they were within 4. Despite having a rough game from the field, Roy was still contributing, breaking down the defense to give Aldridge an easy 8 footer inside the last minute which he made.

In the end, the Spurs at home on Ring Night were just too good for the Blazers and won 106-97. But there were a lot of positives.

When they fell behind by 16 to the World Champs on Ring Night in their house, the Blazers could have rolled over and quit. They could have let it become a 20 or 30 point blow-out. Instead, they fought their way back and made it a game. The Spurs may never have felt like they were in danger of losing...I do not think they led by less than 4 after the first period...but they never could let their guard down, either. They knew they were in a game.

Aldridge can score on anybody and will play a little defense. Pryzbilla had a surprisingly good offensive game, dropping in 13 points, mostly on dunks and free throws. But his real strength was rebounding and defense.He pulled down a quarter of the Blazers rebounds by himself, yanking in 10. And Webster will be a really good 2nd or third option.

Roy and Blake had rough games, but each showed flashes for long-term optimism. The other big problem Portland had was in-bounding. When pressure was applied, particularly when Blake was in the game, they struggled to get the ball inbounds. Also, on defense, they often lost their man and gave up too many easy lay-ups. But those things can be worked on and improved as they get used to playing with each other.

I was a little disappointed that with Blake playing poorly and Rodriguez providing the spark that we saw little Rodriguez and much Blake in the second half, though this may be because Blake was having a good game scoring wise. I think McMillan is an outstanding coach and have no doubt he has pretty solid reasons for that choice, so I will wait and see how this develops over the course of the season.

All in all, it was an entertaining game that shows a lot of promise for the season. The Blazers might be 0 and 1 but it won't take long to break into the win column. I would say until about game 2....

The game, rightfully, goes in the loss column.

On a sad note, former Blazer Ime Udoka was suited up and healthy but did not play, coaches decision. This is particularly disheartening since he was primarily a defensive specialist at small forward. As a fan of his both while a Blazer and when he was at my Alma Mater, Portland State, I want him to do well. If they are not going to bring him in to work against hot shooting Martell Webster (9-15, 21 points)...when will Ime play?