Blazers vs Kings; Can Portland Win Another Nail-Biter?

A few hours before game time we got the news; Greg Oden would make his first home start. Personally, I was a little disappointed. I believe he will be a monster and a key cog in the Blazers' Title runs in the next few years. However, at this moment in time, Joel Przybilla just fits better with the starting line-up.

As an aside, a fan at the stadium had a new nickname for Jole that I like even better than "The Vanilla Gorilla" or "The Thrilla", and that would be Joelzilla. Simply awesome. I hereby demand all references to Joelzilla retroactively be changed to reflect this new name which just might have people going deaf from overexposure to awesomeness.

When Joel starts, the Blazers like to start the game by pounding it inside to LaMarcus Aldridge. LA has really developed a strong post game over the past couple of seasons and this establishes him. It also gets Portland rolling with an inside out game that leads to open perimeter looks for Steve Blake, Nicolas Batum, and Brandon Roy. 

Joelzilla does a tremendous job in this line-up of setting picks and, almost as important, not clogging up the lane for LA or for Roy's drives. Oden, by contrast, too often plants himself down low and simply tries to overpower people. The offense bogs down, he picks up offensive fouls, and low scoring becomes the norm.

On this night, the low scoring did not happen. In the first 6 minute stretch, with Oden and Batum on the floor, the Blazers shot out to 14 points and a small lead. However, Oden did not look comfortable at all.

That is okay because this is a move for the long term. Joelzilla is a very good team guy but may not be the right starting center for a team planning to do damage in the playoffs. It will take time to get the new starting line-up acclimated together and what better time to do it than against a lower echelon team with a marginal inside game?

Early on, it looked like Oden or not, the Blazers were going to blow the Kings off the court. Then something strange happened. The Blazers forgot that Stephen Hawes and Brad Miller are atypical big men who can shoot from distance. And shoot from distance they did.

Over and over we yelled at Blazer defenders stuff like, "This just in. Miller hasn't missed a three this half!" as he bombed in another wide open trey. It was so bad that at one point the Blazer free throw percentage was 64 and the King 3-point percentage was 71. That is not a typo. The Kings, well into the fourth quarter, were shooting over 70% from deep.

That is one way to stay in a game when you are being out-rebounded 48-32, commit 22 turnovers, and give up 24 free throws. Credit the Kings with hanging tough.

And even more, the Kings deserve major credit for the defensive job they did in the last minute. Everyone in the building knew Roy was going to get the ball. But the Kings decided he wasn't. John Salmons played tremendous denial defense, forcing the Blazers to go to Travis Outlaw who mustered only an awkward looking drive that never really had a chance of going in and left the Kings with the last shot in a one point game.

Twice already Portland has had to score on their last possession. Well, three times if you count the Houston game as two. The Spurs got a last shot, but that was in transition with no time to run a play.

This was the first time this year Portland had to play defense against a set play with the game on the line. We know they can score to win games. Can they defend to win games?

Somehow, someway they completely disrupted the Sacramento play and Salmons heaved up a wild, tough shot against some pretty intense defense. There is a reason Portland is 9-6 and the Kings are 5-11; the Blazers finished the game stronger at both ends.

Along the way we had a few awesome moments. Roy added yet another highlight reel, spectacular drive. This one started left of the key with a behind-the back dribble to leave on King in his wake, a spin, a shift around one Kings big man and a layin over the late rotation of a second. Simply gorgeous. 

For the night, we learned a lot of things. We learned that one reason Portland will continue to be successful is because guys accept their roles without complaint, continue to do their job, and pull for each other. We learned that even on an off night offensively, Aldridge can contribute on the boards. We learned that even on nights when the bench struggles (14-34 from the field), Portland is going to win.

I guess you could say we learned Brandon Roy is spectacular...but I suspect most of us already knew that.

I expected Portland to win by double digits. They won by one. In a way, that is disappointing. They should beat even an inspired Kings team running without Francisco Garcia and Kevin Martin by more than one. Then again, in a way it is inspiring. As numerous players said in the post-game interviews, a couple years ago Portland would have lost this game. This time they showed poise, they showed maturity, and did what it took to walk away with the W. Ultimately, that is what it is all about.

Preview:Kings at Blazers

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 7 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, while Portland is likely to be looking up at Denver by four or five games within the next couple of weeks as the schedule is favorable for Denver to have a big winning streak whereas Portland 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 into 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 calls, 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 an after the whistle shot 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 item #1 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.

Item #2 is 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 boost 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.