Running The Break: Big Game Dame

December 22, 2013

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Is there anyone more clutch than Damian Lillard? How has LaMarcus Aldridge turned into an elite rebounder? And are rivalries dead in the NBA? Seven local reporters who eat, sleep, and breathe Trail Blazers basketball give their take in this week's edition of Running The Break.

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1. In December's 11 games, the Trail Blazers are giving up 106.2 points per game and have only held an opponent under 100 points two times (Utah, twice). Despite those numbers on defense, Portland owns a 9-2 record during that span because they are simply outscoring the opposition by putting up staggering numbers on offense (114.6 PPG). With that said, will this formula work in the postseason or do the Blazers need to right the ship a little defensively?

Mike Tokito (@mtokito), The Oregonian: If you remember last season, the Clippers went unbeaten in December and looked like a possible Finals team, and that didn't keep them from losing in the first round four months later. Teams and the league always evolve during the long, long season. But yes, the Blazers will have to tighten up on defense if they make the playoffs. That's no big secret.

Erik Gundersen (@BlazerBanter), The Columbian: Yes, they need to fix the defense. The way they've been defending recently has been concerning. The Blazers have showed that when they lock in, they can play good defense as we saw against Indiana and Oklahoma City. I compared the Blazers last week here to the 2011 Mavericks but that Mavericks team had a top-ten defensive unit.

The last champion that didn't have a top-ten defense was the 2001 Lakers (21st in the league in defensive efficiency that season according to Basketball-Reference.com), who essentially coasted through the regular season and had the greatest playoff run of all time going 15-1. The Blazers are winning with offense now and getting stops when they need to get them but they can't afford to continue developing bad habits of only defending when they "need to," because in the playoffs every possession counts. The Blazers have had stretches where they've been good defensively, but their recent stretch has seen them slip to 23rd in defensive efficiency, which isn't exactly the territory you want to be in heading into games against two top-five offenses in Miami and the L.A. Clippers.

Mike Acker (@mikeacker), Willamette Week: Defense is certainly the Blazers’ biggest task going forward. It was their biggest problem last year, and if this season ends as a disappointment, it will be because Portland simply couldn’t stop their opponents on a consistent enough basis. However, taking it one game at a time, the Blazers have been remarkably able to get stops when they need them. They’ve also been able to ratchet up their defensive intensity when situations call for it, often in third quarters. That Portland seems to be able to flip the switch and play hard-nosed defense makes me think that consistency at the team level might be just around the corner. Of course, defense in the NBA is about attitude as much as it is about execution. The Blazers, more than anything, need to establish that they can be a defensive team by being aggressive from a game’s first possession to its last. If/when that happens, there’s a good chance this Portland team will be able to win games without having to try for 120 every night.

Dave Deckard (@blazersedge), BlazersEdge: That’s a great question. Complex too. Plenty of factors go into Portland’s offensive success: accurate shooting, offensive rebounding, drawing fouls to name a few. Those strengths are enough to win playoff games…at least when things go right. Defense gives you the extra cushion when things aren’t going right. If you can’t score at least you can keep the other guy down too.

Playoff opponents have nothing else to do all day but plot how to make life tough on you. The Blazers need to shore up the defense to give themselves more of a margin of error in that environment.

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2. As of this writing (Dec. 20), LaMarcus Aldridge is averaging a career-high 11.1 rebounds per game - two more than his previous high (9.1 RPG in 2012-13). Is the addition of Robin Lopez the sole reason for the spike his in rebounding numbers or does Aldridge have a different, more determined demeanor about him this season?

Tokito: Aldridge deserves a lot of credit for his spike in rebounding, but every Blazers starter is on pace to set a career high on the boards. Lopez, who takes up a lot of space and blocks out well, deserves some of the credit for that, but so does the coaching staff, which is putting a strong emphasis on rebounding as part of the renewed focus on defense.

Gundersen: L.A.'s gone on the record saying that simply having someone who boxes out their guy has helped him with his rebounding. Last season the Blazers rebounded better with Aldridge on the court and while J.J. Hickson was "Mr. Double-Double," his rebounds were empty calories. Hickson used his athleticism to sky for rebounds and didn't really box out to get his boards.

However, you've got to give credit to the man himself. Aldridge has been more vocal, he's been more of a leader and he's spoken many times about how this team has his back. He carries a large burden on offense, taking and making more shots than anybody else in the NBA and he is on his way to his first 20-10 season of his NBA career. Like most things, it's a combination of factors.

Acker: It’s most likely a combination of those two factors. Robin Lopez is a legit center, so even if he isn’t claiming a rebound, he’s doing a lot of boxing out so that LaMarcus can get rebounds. However, I certainly agree that LA is playing with a ton of determination this season, and not just for getting rebounds. Aldridge has this season and then one more full season before he hits the free agent market. He’ll be joined on that free agent market by a ton of marquee players. Right now, LA is working to prove he is as deserving of a big-time free agent pay check as any of the guys he’ll be up against in the 2015 offseason. Improving his rebound numbers is just one part of showing the league that he’s a max-level guy who can help a team win a title.

Deckard: It’s a combination of both, right? Lopez helps create space for Aldridge and the rest of the starting lineup. What they do with that space is up to them.

So far everybody has hit the boards with Aldridge leading the way. You get the feeling he’s accepted that being a team leader means more than being the #1 option in the offense. Whatever this team needs he’ll try to provide. His public quotes have reflected this attitude, whether it’s calling out his squad on defense or preparing for a future playoff run.

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3. The Trail Blazers have a difficult five-game stretch to close out 2013 (Dec. 21 v New Orleans Pelicans, Dec. 26 v. Los Angeles Clippers, Dec. 28 v. Miami Heat, Dec. 30 @ New Orleans Pelicans, Dec. 31 @ Oklahoma City Thunder). How do you see the Trail Blazers faring in those contests and how many of those does Portland have to win to feel good about themselves heading into the New Year?

Tokito: I'm pretty sure they'll show up for every one of those games. How's that for bold? I hate predictions. As far as the other part, I feel like with the mindset of this team, if they don't go 5-0, they won't "feel good about themselves" -- that they believe they can beat every team in the league, and if they don't, it's a letdown.

Gundersen: They won't be happy with losing any of them. Realistically, they should be happy with just splitting those final four games of the season. 3-1, and they should feel very good about themselves. It's going to be a tough stretch. Neither of those games down the stretch are ones they can take for granted. The Clippers have played well against the Blazers in recent years when Chris Paul is the fold and DeAndre Jordan has had success against the Blazers. Miami is, well, Miami. New Orleans starting line-up will have had more time to gel and they'll be at home, where they are a much better team and then Oklahoma City is one of the toughest places to get a win in the league. 2-2 would be satisfactory, 3-1 would be exceptional.

Acker: Writing this after the Blazers have beaten the Pelicans on the 21st, I would say that getting a split in their final four games of 2013 would be pretty great. Individually, beating the Heat would be a marquee win to close the year, and maybe stealing one from OKC in Oklahoma would also be nice. But any combination of two wins in the last four would be fine. The Clippers come to Portland after playing on Christmas Day, so that could give the Blazers an advantage. The Pelicans proved to be a very difficult team for Portland to match up with at home, but they are still not really in the Blazers’ league. Losing to the Heat and Thunder wouldn’t be the end of the world if Portland counters with victories over New Orleans and the Clippers. Maybe instead of focusing on how many games they should win and which games they should win, possibly the Blazers should focus their efforts on not losing two games in a row over the next four. The Blazers have yet to lose back-to-back games, if they carry that streak into 2014, they’ll be in good shape.

Deckard: With this kind of start the Blazers could go 0-5 in that stretch and still feel good about how they finished the calendar year. Remember that last season ended with a 13-game losing streak. Going from that to a 22-10 start to the current season would be quite an accomplishment. And that’s the worst case scenario. You have to believe they’ll win at least a couple of those games. Heck, they’ve been surprising people all season so why not hope for more?

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4. You need a game-winning bucket tonight, who are your Top 3 options around the league? Does Damian Lillard make the cut? If not, where would he rank on your list of current clutch performers?

Tokito: Well, if you to run one of those 1-4 flat iso deals, the obvious choices are Kevin Durant, LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony, although if there was a miracle meniscus replacement procedure, you’d love to have Brandon Roy in that spot. The thing you like about the Blazers is, they have different plays they can run in that situation so it doesn’t always have to be Lillard making a heroic shot. Aldridge, Matthews and Batum all have made those shots during Stotts’ time, too.

Gundersen: 1. LeBron 2. Chris Paul 3. Kevin Durant. All of those guys know how to get a shot or get fouled when the game is on the line and they've done it for a while now. While Damian has been one of the league's best clutch performers and isolation scorers since he got in the league, I can't put him ahead of those guys yet. Does he have a spot in my top-five for guys to get me a game-winner? Yes. He's consistently shown from the day he's been in the league that he can be trusted to create a good look at a shot and this season in the clutch he's been ridiculous. Not only has he scored 60 points in 54 minutes of "clutch" time according to NBA.com, he's shooting over 50 percent from the field and from three while committing only three turnovers. THREE. He may not crack my top-three right now but after this season, who knows.

Acker: I would probably take LeBron James and Kevin Durant for sure, just because they’re the two best players in the league. The third guy though is probably situational. A guy like Dirk Nowitzki is always good for a late basket. Steph Curry is automatic. LaMarcus Aldridge has hit his fair share of important late buckets, as has Kevin Love. All things being equal, since he’s starting to make it his thing to win games late for the Blazer, I’ll take Damian Lillard as my number three.

Deckard: In the fourth week of December, 2013 Damian makes that cut. If nothing else you have to give him the nod because of the results in Detroit and Cleveland. Besides, he hasn’t even uncorked the full range of possibilities yet. The straight-away three-pointer is his strength, probably his best option. But nobody has played up on him enough to let him show that he can also put it on the floor. He’s got a pull-up jumper and a drive and dish lurking in the arsenal somewhere.

Maybe you can name three other people you’d rather have on technical merit but Lillard remains in the discussion for his confidence, poise, and eagerness to hit that final shot. He’s a dangerous man.

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5. The best current rivalry in the NBA is Heat/Pacers, but even that one is tame compared to the ones seen in the 80's and 90's. Two questions: Why are rivalries a dying breed? And are they good for the league?

Tokito: These days, players tend to be chummy with players on other teams through shoe contracts, common agents, off-season workouts, national teams and so forth. Stuff that happens on the court really does stay on the court. I don’t think it’s hurt the league any that the Lakers and Celtics aren’t playing in the Finals every year anymore.

Gundersen: Indiana and Miami is a great rivalry. You've got superstars, a high quality of play. And yes, it's tame compared to Kurt Rambis taking people's heads off and Larry Bird needing to question the manhood of his team to get them to win. Thankfully in 2013, it appears that winning is motivation enough and LeBron doesn't need to publicly call his team "a bunch of sissies" to get them to win. I may be the only one but I think it's pretty cool that LeBron James showed Paul George respect in Game 2 of the Conference Finals.

I think the reason why rivalries aren't the same is because almost all of these guys know each other either from NBA events, or coming up through the AAU system before they went to college. Another reason that perhaps it might be a dying breed is that there isn't a great deal of roster stability. Aside from the core players of a lot of teams, the role players will have more turnovers as team try to have more roster flexibility so they'll never know where they will end up. I think rivalries are great for the game and the Indiana-Miami Eastern Conference Finals was one of the best series of the last 10 years. The intensity of those games was great for basketball and they don't have to be violent for them to be full of drama, intrigue and athletic excellence.

Acker: I think shorter contracts and free agency have made the league feel more like one big team instead of 30 teams really competing against each other. A guy can be a Celtic one year and a Laker the next. You never want to punch a guy in the jaw that might be your teammate nine months later. I also think with things like NBA League Pass, NBA TV, and more national coverage of the league as a whole, the NBA has been branded as a league made up of individual stars and not teams. Rivalries now seem to be between players. Maybe also the continued growth of USA Basketball has killed rivalries a little bit. Now most of the elite players in the league actually do get to be teammates, which certainly diminishes the level if hatred between teams. As for rivalries being good for the league, it’s really hard to say. Having one dominate team with an easy-to-sell super star is great for the league since it doesn’t take as much effort to sell that (the Miami Heat led by LeBron James) to the masses who might watch a couple regular season NBA games a month. Having a bunch of teams that really hate each other for either regional or historical reasons is a bit of a tougher sell. Having two teams with fans that can relate to each other and that play four times a year in close enough proximity that visiting fans can travel is great for those two fan bases (which is why there needs to be an NBA team in Seattle again) but it probably doesn’t have that big of an impact on the league. Also, historical rivalries, like the Lakers/Celtics for example, can seem a little forced, but that’s kind of a matter of personal preference.

Deckard: Ironically I think the divisional splits have something to do with it, though they were meant in part to foster rivalries.

In the old days you had a balanced schedule throughout the conference. You’d compete with half the teams in your conference for the division title. Games with the opposite half had a direct correlation to your playoff seeding in all cases except the two division winners. Conferences clearly meant more than divisions then. That gave fan bases a wide buffet of teams to get intense about and a wider variety of reasons to do so.

Now you play teams in your division more often than you play everybody else. And it’s not like those divisions are lined up geographically. This is an extreme example, but what do Minnesota, Denver, Utah, and Okla-freakin’-homa have to do with a city in the Pacific Northwest? There’s no particular reason to spark with those teams.

If you do get into a scuffle with somebody outside your division you might only play them 3 times in a year. That means one of the fan bases only gets to see the hated rival come to town once during the year, no different than if the rival were in the opposite conference entirely.

Three guaranteed division-winner seeds also muddies the water a little bit. It’s not as clear what a given game means, especially if that game has implications for the top half of the playoff bracket. It’s like setting up a fight where if one guy lands a really solid punch a third party is going to come and step in between them. It’s not a battle for 2nd and 3rd position, it’s a battle for 2nd and…hold on…let’s do the math and check the tiebreakers…