Running The Break: Still Streaking

November 25, 2013

runningbreakbanner.jpg

How long will this winning streak last? Is LaMarcus Aldridge playing the best basketball of his career during this month? Will Wesley Matthews set a record for 3-PT percentage once it's all said and done? And what's up with the Eastern Conference this year? Seven local reporters who eat, sleep, and breathe Trail Blazers basketball give their take in this week's edition of Running The Break.

rtb1nov25.jpg


1. Two-Part Question: As of this writing (November 21, 2013), the Trail Blazers have won eight straight games. How long will the winning streak last? And once the allure of a winning streak is over, can the Trail Blazers continue to play like a Top 4 team in the Western Conference?

Casey Holdahl (@Chold), TrailBlazers.com: Well, it has lasted at least two more games since then, so I'll say at least 10 for the maximum copout answer.

While my predictions and two bucks are worth a cup of coffee in this city (at least at the non-pretentious coffee houses that I frequent) and though it pains me a great deal to even type this, I'll say the streak ends Sunday night in Los Angeles against the Lakers. Blazers will have a three-day, post-Thanksgiving layoff before playing at Staples on Sunday, and while rest is usually a good thing in the NBA, I think it can be detrimental when a team is on a roll like the Blazers are. Add in it potentially being the first game Kobe comes back, and I think you're looking at a stacked deck.

I'd also point out that playing the Suns in Phoenix, as we found out on Opening Night, ain't exactly a picnic atop Camelback Mountain either.

As for how they'll perform after the streak ends -- and it will end eventually -- the schedule through December is more difficult by manageable nonetheless. They'll play the Pacers, Rockets, Heat, Clippers and Thunder all before the New Year, but only the game against OKC is on the road. So basically, ask me again in January.

Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes), CSNNW.com: This winning streak has the potential to reach 13 straight. Dec. 2 at home against the Indiana Pacers is the legitimate roadblock in their way. I could see New York spoiling the party before that Indy game, but not likely.

I’ve been wrong thus far about this team so I may be wrong again, but I don’t think being a Top 4 team in the Western Conference is likely for Portland. I believe the Houston Rockets, with all that talent, will eventually take their spot in that top group. Everyone is waiting for this team to come back down to earth and maybe I’m guilty of that, too.

Joe Freeman (@BlazerFreeman), The Oregonian: I’m not Nostradamus and even he whiffed on a few. But you’re forcing me to make a guess, so I’d say this streak comes to an end with a road loss at the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday. It’s the day before Thanksgiving, the Suns have played the Blazers tough twice this season— beating them on opening night, of course — and US Airways Center has always been harsh to Portland teams. Over the last 19 regular season games, the Blazers are 2-17 in the desert. As for what happens when the streak finally does end … I’ve gone on record saying I think the Blazers will make the playoffs, and little by little, I’m starting to believe they just might be one of the best teams in the West. I’m not ready to jump aboard the Top 4 Bandwagon — the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets will have a little something to say about that — but this team is definitely better than anyone expected.

Mike Tokito (@mtokito), The Oregonian: They have a good chance to get to 13, with games against the Knicks, Suns and Lakers (assuming Kobe Bryant isn’t back and playing like Kobe Bryant) before what could be a big showdown with Indiana.

Portland will have a letdown at some point. It’s natural. Their .857 winning percentage would produce a 70-win record, and as well as they are playing, we all know that’s not going to happen. The West is awfully tough, and even with the strong wins over San Antonio, Chicago and Golden State, much of the streak was built against inferior teams. Top four isn’t a solid designation in the West since the top six or seven could be 50-win teams.

Erik Gundersen (@BlazerBanter), The Columbian: Nobody would have imagined such a streak so close out of the gates so to pinpoint where the streak will end is anybody's guess. It certainly shouldn't end tonight against a shorthanded Knicks squad but on the road in Phoenix, where the Blazers have struggled the last two seasons under Terry Stotts, could be a place where they take their foot off the pedal. It's the day before Thanksgiving, the team's had an amazing month and they don't play for the following three days. And, they've got a game on the road against the Lakers (Kobe return??) and then a long home stand including hosting the East's best team in the Pacers and the explosive Oklahoma City Thunder.

Whether they can be a top-four team in the conference, I'm not sure, but it's not completely out of the question anymore. Marc Gasol is out indefinitely with a knee injury which will hurt the Grizzlies chances of being a top-four team, not that they were great when he was healthy. And, the loss of Andre Iguodala for an extended period could hurt the Warriors chances of being a top-four team, but they should still make the playoffs. San Antonio, Oklahoma City and the Clippers will likely be in the top-three but Portland is right there with the likes of Houston (who still can't play defense), Dallas (ditto) and Minnesota as teams that can compete for that fourth spot of home court advantage. The Blazers have played great but some misfortune to other team's makes the hope of home-court advantage a realistic proposition.

Mike Acker (@mikeacker), Willamette Week: It seems like the winning streak could probably extend through the end of the month with a down and out Knicks team coming to town and a return trip to Phoenix, where Portland lost their only road game of the season thus far, being the last two games of November. My guess is the first week in December will see the winning streak end. You have to believe that with the Pacers and Thunder coming to the Moda Center at the start of a four-game home-stand, there’s a pretty good chance the Blazers’ winning streak will be over by the first weekend of next month. That being said, even a bad Knicks team can’t be taken for granted. Carmelo Anthony is not one to be slept on, even with his team languishing in the Eastern Conference basement.

When the winning streak comes to an end, it’s hard to believe the Blazers will need much motivation to keep playing at a high level. This is a good team, and a team that has shown that at times, when everything is clicking on both offense and defense, they might even be an outstanding team. The only way the Blazers drop off once the winning streak is over is if somebody gets hurt.

rtb2nov25.jpg


2. LaMarcus Aldridge has now scored 20 or more points in 10 of Portland's 12 games this season and is averaging 22.5 points (11th in the NBA), on 48.4% shooting, and 9 rebounds. Where does Aldridge rank among the top Power Forwards in the NBA? If he's not No. 1, who do you have ahead of him?

Holdahl: For the purpose of this question I'm going to ignore the whole "positional revolution" thing in which Lebron James is considered a power forward. I'm not taking anything away from Lebron, who I consider the best player in the NBA without question, but the notion that he's a point guard, shooting guard, small forward and power forward takes the fun out of these conversations.

Having said/written that (I did say it out loud while typing this), I think the argument over who is currently the best power forward in the game comes down to LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Love and I think you have to split some fine hairs to delineate between the two. Love is the better three-point shooter (if not by default) and gross rebounder, but Aldridge is the better defender. And if I need to need a bucket late in a game and it's between Love and Aldrige, I'm picking Aldridge.

And since his team is winning, I'm going to go with Aldridge as the best power forward in the NBA right now. Being the first player since David Robinson in 1992 to finish a game with 30 points, 21 rebounds, three steals and three blocks gives me that right.

Two quick things. One, I don't consider Blake Griffin to be a part of his conversation anymore. A great player, but I don't think he's on the level of Aldridge and Love. But on the other hand, Anthony Davis of the Pelicans probably belongs in this conversation from here on out. He looks like everything he was expected to be and more coming out of Kentucky.

Haynes: Man, that’s tough. I would say that you could make the case for LaMarcus Aldridge arguably being the best power forward in the game. But that dude Kevin Love might have something to say about that. Since I’m on the spot, I’d say Love is the top dog right now with Aldridge trailing close behind. I give Love the edge due to his rebounding numbers. Everything else as in points and shooting percentage are pretty identical. Aldridge is a better defender. Love is a three-point threat. It’s close, and my opinion could change in a month. Right now, I got Love.

Freeman: The way he’s playing this season, combined with the increased leadership he’s revealed behind the scenes, has thrust LaMarcus Aldridge into the conversation as the best power forward in the NBA. He’s playing tougher than ever. He’s playing as consistent as ever. And he’s playing with a focus and determination that I have not seen from him during my seven seasons covering the Blazers. It started in training camp, when multiple players told me they noticed a different “focus” and “look” in Aldridge’s demeanor. That said, I still think Kevin Love — who is averaging close to 25 points, 14 rebounds and five assists per game — is the best power forward in the NBA, in part because of his passing and versatility. I wrote about this subject last January and much of what I wrote still holds true. Except for one thing: Love was hurt last season. For my money, Aldridge has passed his aging idol — Tim Duncan — and offers more than the overhyped Blake Griffin in the power forward hierarchy. So I’d slot him at No. 2, behind Love. But it’s a close No. 2.

Tokito: It gets silly rating players since you can manipulate stats for any argument, so I always take the coaches’ way out of this debate and lean heavily on team record. With that in mind, I would put Aldridge at No. 1, but not by much. The competition is stiff – Kevin Love, Dirk Nowitzki, Blake Griffin and Anthony Davis all are having big individual seasons, but none of their teams is quite on par with Portland at the moment.

Gundersen: I've got Aldridge. He may not have the gaudy statistics like Kevin Love or Blake Griffin, but he's more consistent then both on both ends of the court. I would consider putting Love over him but Aldridge is much more imposing on the defensive end. Love's three-point shooting and rebounding are great, but Aldridge's consistency on both ends, something coaches will never overlook, sets him apart.

Acker: It’s very hard not to list LaMarcus Aldridge as number one power forward in the NBA. He’s been incredible and there’s not much more than can be said. LA doesn’t have the rebounding numbers or the three-point shooting numbers of Kevin Love, probably the only other player on Aldridge’s level at this point in the season. Tim Duncan is always a favorite for the number on spot at power forward, but it would be hard to convince me Duncan has had as big an impact on his team as LaMarcus has had on the Blazers to start the season.

rtb3nov25.jpg


3. Currently, there are only four teams in the Eastern Conference with winning records (Indiana 10-1, Miami 9-3, Chicago 6-3, Atlanta 7-5) compared to nine teams out West. It seems like this is a reoccurring theme every year. Why is the West so deep and dominant? And how long do you expect this trend to continue?

Holdahl: Outside of Miami, all of the nice weather and/or advantageous state income tax structure teams are in the Western Conference (I've been to Orlando, it doesn't count). That's your dime store answer, though with free agency as it is, it's not a completely ludicrous theory.

Haynes: This trend will continue as long as the best players reside in the Western Conference. Aside from the Heat’s Big 3, the Pacers duo of Paul George-Roy Hibbert and Kyrie Irving in Cleveland, the East doesn’t stand a chance against the West’s higher echelon of superstar talent. James Harden, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Tim Duncan, Kevin Love, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, Dwight Howard. I’ll stop right there. There’s more, but you get my drift.

Tokito: Do you want to live on the East Coast? I sure don’t. Beyond that, I don’t have much explanation for it, other than ownership might be shakier in the East, and the bigger market teams, especially New York, haven’t taken advantage of the perks that a bigger market should give you. I don’t see much change coming there.

Gundersen: Smarter GM's and better top-down structures. It's likely that the West's proximity to the Spurs probably has something to do with it. But, aside from the Lakers last season, rarely do you see teams making moves of flash without having a real foundation to build on. The Rockets wouldn't have been an attractive destination for Dwight Howard had Daryl Morey not built a playoff team through shrewd moves including trading for James Harden. Even the Kings future looks bright with a newer, more analytically-minded ownership group. The Thunder, despite the Harden trade, are still a contender and they still have a stable of young talent. Phoenix, too, has gotten more analytically minded with the hiring of Ryan McDonough. Mark Cuban lets Donny Nelson do his thing in Dallas and even though the experiment in Los Angeles didn't work, Mitch Kupchak has been able to field a reasonably good team with the Lakers.

Acker: I feel like the West is made up of a great number of teams that didn’t have a lot of roster turn over at the end of last season, or don’t have a lot of roster turnover from one year to the next. The Spurs and Thunder haven’t gone in for wholesale changes in a long time. Teams like Golden State, Houston, Minnesota, and the LA Clippers seem to want to build around their existing core instead of bringing in a bunch of new players. The East, on the other hand, seems to have teams with lots of new players (the Nets) or lots of young players (the Cavaliers) and usually at the start of any NBA season the teams with new and/or young players struggle the most.

I imagine the trend of a loaded West and a top-heavy East will probably change. Considering there’s a ton of talent coming into the league next season and a lot of un-seasoned young talent that might be able to mature this season, there’s a good chance that the East will have five or six legitimate contenders in a season or two.

rtb4nov25.jpg


4. Wesley Matthews is currently shooting 50% from downtown (33-66) through the Trail Blazers' first 12 games. Will he set a franchise-record for highest 3-pt percentage? (The current record-holder for 3-pt percentage, with at least 100 makes, is Steve Blake who hit 42.7 percent during the 2008-09 season)

Holdahl: Yes. I wouldn't expect him to shoot 53 percent on the season as he has thus far, but he's getting good looks through the offense and hitting the tough shots even when he's freestyling. And heck, no offense intended here, but if Steve Blake can do it …

Haynes: Matthews is definitely stroking that ball. Shooting 42 percent is hard to do for a full season, so I’d have to say he will not break the franchise three-point percentage record. My reason for saying that is Matthews isn’t just a stand-still, spot-up shooter anymore. He’s taking shots off the dribble, launching his patented step-backs and for some odd reason, he’s often the guy who ends up with the ball with three or less seconds remaining on the shot clock. My point is Matthews takes a lot of contested, tough shots that will, over time, drop his three-point percentage. Unfortunately, like a winning streak, a hot-spree from deep must come to an end sooner or later. However, Matthews has a shot at it. He’s almost a career 40 percent shooter from behind the arc.

Freeman: Heading into the Blazers’ game against the New York Knicks Monday night, Wesley Matthews was shooting 40.7 percent from three-point range during his career. His best single-season long-range shooting percentage came during his first season with the Blazers, in 2010-11, when he shot 40.2 percent. The jump to 43 percent sounds minute, but is pretty significant. But I think he can — and will — make the jump. Matthews is as locked in and in sync as I’ve ever seen him and he’s never played with so many offensive weapons. He hasn’t hit a cold streak yet — unless you count the exhibition season — so his remarkable shooting percentage will certainly come down. (Remember how bad he looked during the preseason?) But based on what I’ve seen so far, he will ride out those cold streaks and ultimately flourish. With so many shooters on this team, defenses can’t key on everybody. And while opposing teams scheme to shut down LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum, they are ignoring Matthews. All the while, he glides under the radar. Injuries have significantly limited Matthews the last two-plus seasons, but he’s healthy now. If that continues, he should see enough open looks to eclipse Blake’s three-point mark.

Tokito: During preseason, I asked Matthews after a game if he was concerned about his shooting percentage, which was really low at the time. In his typical way, he responded, “Are YOU worried about my shooting?” Then during the season, when he was starting his current hot streak, I asked him about his shooting after a Portland win in Sacramento. “I’m glad YOU’RE the one who asked me that,” he said. The guy is amazing at turning anything to his advantage. Terry Stotts keeps saying that he almost never runs plays for Matthews, and I almost wonder if Stotts is just saying that knowing it will push a button in Matthews.

Anyway, yes, I do think he’ll break the record, as long as he and the Blazers’ main guys stay healthy. Besides, teammates are starting to lobby for him to be in the three-point contest, which seems like good, fresh fuel, and being left off the All-Star ballot should keep him going for a while, too.

Gundersen: Why not? I'm not going to bet against him at this point. He's shot over 40 percent from deep in his career once before and shot 39.8% last season. He's not going to command double-teams and a lot of his shots are in the flow and open. He's got a great shot, no pun intended.

Acker: It’s hard to say. Wesley has been shooting the ball better than ever, but there’s no way to predict if that will last. He’s a streaky shooter. He could as easily go on a cold streak that will negate, or at least level out, his current hot streak. However, like Steve Blake in 08-09, Wesley will continue to benefit from a lot of wide-open shots. With Robin Lopez holding down the paint, making it difficult to double LaMarcus Aldridge, and Damian Lillard commanding a lot of attention, Matthews has been and will continue to be left alone.

rtb5nov25.jpg


5. During the 13-game winning streak in December of 2007, many pointed to Travis Outlaw's game-winning shot in Memphis as the defining play of the streak. So far, what has stood out to you as the defining play of this streak?

Holdahl: It would be easy at this point to say the altercation at Oracle Arena on Saturday, but not sure it can be considered a "defining play" if they haven't played another game since. It's certainly the most memorable.

This question also feels like we're wondering into jinx territory, so I don't feel bad taking a pass on this one.

Haynes: I’m going with the skirmish in Oakland. Even though that incident occurred recently, I believe that situation will bring the team closer together. LaMarcus Aldridge talked about how he felt like guys had each other’s back. They lost two key members due to ejections and still rallied to win a game in an extremely tough and hostile environment. Aldridge went on to say it felt like a brotherhood in the locker room after that game. The streak is great, but I think that altercation, in that place, propels this team to higher heights this season.

Freeman: I covered the game in Memphis when Travis Outlaw hit The Shot. And we haven’t seen anything remotely close to that during this streak. This is going to sound strange, but the defining play of this streak didn’t actually happen during the streak. It happened on opening night, when the Blazers were punked by the Phoenix Suns at US Airways Center. After talking so much about being a playoff contender and boasting about their remastered roster, the Blazers laid an egg in that opener. The byproduct of that performance cemented the foundation for this streak. Their transition defense and limitations at protecting the paint were exposed. And, as a result, coach Terry Stotts put extra focus on those areas and other deficiencies that came to light. Sometimes a loss can be a good thing and it certainly was in this case — to the tune of 10 consecutive wins and counting.

Tokito: I don’t know if you’d call it a play, but that dust-up at Golden State, and especially the way the Blazers responded to it, had an important feel to it. I think the Blazers will look back on it as a real bonding moment.

Gundersen: I'll go with Damian Lillard's three-pointer in overtime in Toronto to tie the game with the shot clock running down. The Blazers were down three and the overtime was nearly halfway over. Rudy Gay single-handedly brought the home team back to send the game to overtime. The crowd got into it, Gay continued dominating and the Blazers were down three. Lillard stepped into a 28-footer in Kyle Lowry's face to tie the game with two seconds on the shot clock after a possession went nowhere. Portland never trailed again. Lillard's shot had a cascading effect as the shot was the start of a 14-3 run in the final 2:30. Thomas Robinson's dunk against Phoenix is a close second but as far as one basketball play, that shot in the middle of an Eastern Conference road trip with a game the next night is #1 for me.

Acker: I think there has been a couple. There’s maybe no single play bigger than Damian Lillard’s lay-up to beat the Suns. However, the scrap in Oakland is certainly going to stick out in people’s minds. It’s sad to say this, since it had less to do with the Blazers getting a win, but Derrick Rose being carried off the court in the middle of Portland’s third quarter comeback against the Bulls is going to be one of the lasting images of the whole season, not just the Blazers’ winning streak.