Where: Target Center; Minneapolis, MN
See It: FSN
Hear It: WCCO AM 830
Tonight’s game is just one of several games in this recent stretch against Northwest Division rivals. Of course, I’m talking about Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers. Since the Blazers are in town, I thought I’d enlist the help of fellow Hardwood Paroxizen and contributor to ESPN TrueHoop Network’s Portland Roundball Society, Sean Highkin. I asked Sean a few questions about the matchup below. Be sure to follow him on Twitter, too: @shighkinNBA.
Derek James: In Minnesota we have Ricky Rubio, so we’ve grown accustomed to good point guard play. However, some fans may be getting their first taste of the Blazers’ Damian Lillard. Now, I know what makes his special since I seek out Blazers games, but what makes him a must-see on any given night?
Sean Highkin: Lillard’s confidence as a rookie running an offense has impressed me more than anything else. He’s had some rough games, as you’d expect any rookie to, and his efficiency has dropped a bit as teams have scouted him. He still turns the ball over more than I’d like to see. But he’s a rookie. All of that stuff is expected. I have yet to see him have a total meltdown, even when he’s overmatched by a Chris Paul- or Tony Parker-caliber point guard. Once the consistency gets there, that poise is going to make his transition to an elite point guard go pretty quickly.
DJ: This was supposed to be a rebuilding year of sorts for the Trail Blazers, but here they are at 17-15. How much of this is because of improved point guard play and how much is it due to other factors?
SH: I’ve said since the beginning of the season that the Blazers have an eighth-seed starting five and a 2012 Charlotte Bobcats bench, which is still basically true. Between how far ahead of expectations Lillard has been; how much better Nicolas Batum fits in Terry Stotts’ offense than he did in Nate McMillan’s; the night-to-night reliability of Wesley Matthews and LaMarcus Aldridge; and J.J. Hickson’s wildly successful reinvention as a rebounds-and-hustle-points guy (seriously, think about how great he’d be as a third big on a team like the Clippers or Celtics), it’s not that surprising that they’ve been able overachieve to a degree early on. Before the season, I predicted they’d win 27 games, and barring an injury to one of those five players, it’s pretty likely that they’ll finish well above that.
With that said, I am not buying them as any kind of sleeper to sneak into the playoffs. The schedule is going to hit them hard this month (Miami, Golden State, Oklahoma City, a much-improved Nuggets squad, and a home-and-road back-to-back with the Clippers are on tap for January). The heavy minutes for the starters are going to catch up to them, and they just don’t have the depth to keep this up over an 82-game season. Paint defense is still a major issue that I don’t see resolving itself anytime soon. But they’ve been a lot better than many people, myself included, thought they’d be.
DJ: Early in the season, a big knock on Portland was their bench’s scoring, or lack there of. Has this improved, and are you enjoying your Sasha Pavlovic experience?
SH: Depth is definitely still an issue. We as a society are mostly past Sasha Pavlovic playing meaningful minutes, which is a fantastic development. But when your backup point guard is Ronnie Price, you’re playing four rookies not named Lillard in your rotation, and your most consistent scorer off the bench is Luke Babbitt, there are problems. It’s a very top-heavy roster, and the west is too deep for a team like that to really be competitive.
DJ: The Timberwolves have been decimated by injury so far, but what still concerns you about this matchup?
SH: Nikola Pekovic terrifies me. Of course, he would terrify any sane human. But for as good as Hickson has been this season at the two things he does well, he’s still one of the worst defenders in the league. He got pretty exposed by Pek the last time these two teams played, and I see no reason why it’ll go any differently this time. The Wolves also had a day off, while the Blazers just slogged out a win against Memphis and will be on the second half of a road back-to-back. So there’s that.
DJ: Conversely, where do you think the Blazers can give the Wolves fits?
SH: There are a couple things that I think could work in the Blazers’ favor. The Kevin Love/LaMarcus Aldridge matchup is always a fun one to watch, and lately it’s been Love that’s had the better end of it. But Aldridge has been outstanding lately, and Love has been banged up. The Wolves are also in the midst of one of the worst three-point shooting seasons in NBA history, and the Blazers have a few perimeter scorers in Batum, Matthews, and Babbitt.
Projected Starting Fives:
Damian Lillard — PG — Luke Ridnour
Wes Matthews — SG — Alexey Shved
Nicolas Batum — SF — Andrei Kirilenko
LaMarcus Aldridge — PF — Kevin Love (Questionable; sprained finger)
JJ Hickson — C– Nikola Pekovic