The "Opportunity" Road Trip
Some have been calling this the "make or break road trip," and yes, I was even guilty of saying something like that following Monday's game against New Orleans. It's not that I don't at least partially agree with that title, because I do. But, after closer inspection, what this road trip presents to the Trail Blazers is a chance to get away, get together, focus, and begin to turn around what has been a very disappointing stretch.
I know it's not like a media-type to steer away from an opportunity to be cynical, but it's my hope that this team sees this as a big opportunity. It's a chance erase some of the road woes, put to bed the notion that this team is already looking toward the off season, and chance to rebuild. While it's true that a winning record will be very, very difficult to achieve on this trip, in the end that won't be the true measure of what kind of a trip it was when it's all over.
It starts Wednesday in Minneapolis, and I actually think this is the perfect way to begin this trip. If you're looking for a measuring-stick game, this will be it right off the bat on this jaunt. To say that this first game could set the tone for the rest of the trip is an understatement.
The Timberwolves just beat the Trail Blazers on Saturday night at the Rose Garden, and had a grand time doing it. The memory is fresh in the minds of the Portland players. That's a good thing.
LaMarcus Aldridge had just 14 points, and had to watch as Kevin Love dominated the middle, and the outside, putting up 42. We're going to see what Aldridge is made of on Wednesday night. Motivation shouldn't be an issue for Aldridge, or for his teammates. Not only did they drop a key game to the Wolves at the Rose Garden, but saw their 16-game winning streak over Minnesota come to a crashing halt.
The Timberwolves are a very hot team, and had their confidence bolstered even more on Monday night when they beat the Clippers at the Target Center on their first home game back after their long trip.
The Trail Blazers, meanwhile, picked up a win over New Orleans on Monday, and at least stopped the bleeding. It wasn't a thing of beauty, but did improve to 3-0 against the Hornets this season. New Orleans was playing its best ball of the season coming into that game, having picked up impressive wins over Dallas, Utah, and at New York, Cleveland, and Milwaukee, in their last 10. So, while beating them didn't exactly send shockwaves around the NBA, it was probably a better win than it appeared.
Raymond Felton had a good game against the Hornets, scoring 11 points, dishing out 10 assists, and turned the ball over only one time. If you're looking for a key player on this trip for Portland, in my opinion, it's Felton. He hasn't responded well to pressure so far this season, but it's on him to get the Blazers off to a good start. As much as we'll concentrate on the Aldridge/Love matchup before Wednesday night's game, the point-guard battle will be huge.
After the game against the Timberwolves, we'll head to Boston to get ready for the second game. Then, it's Washington, Indiana, New York, Chicago, and Oklahoma City, before we head back home. Yes, that's brutal. It gets worse when you consider that the Blazers won't catch a single team on this trip that'll be playing the second of a back to back. I'm not sure how in the world that could happen, but that's the case.
With the 22-point win over the Hornets, the Trail Blazers won their eighth game of the season by 20 points or more. No other Western Conference team has more than four wins over 20 or more. That's a strange stat. And, Portland's point differential is now +4.2 for the season, second behind only Oklahoma City in the west. Does that mean the Blazers are a heck of a lot better than their record? I've been asked that question a lot, and it's tough to answer. The numbers certainly suggest that. Perhaps that's why I'm still clinging to the notion that they still have time to turn this around.
Along with Aldridge and Felton, there is another Portland player who I think is a key to this trip, and it might surprise you. You will be seeing more and more of Elliot Williams, as he has proven to Nate McMillan that he plays the right way. For Nate, as you probably know, that's huge. I had a long conversation with Nate, about Elliot, before we boarded our flight on Tuesday morning. There's a budding love affair growing there. He's beginning to trust Williams, and I think you'll see his minutes increase on this trip. Elliot has 48 points in 55 minutes in the last seven games, and continues to grow into a player who can get to the rim and break down a defense. The Blazers don't have many of those.
After this road trip, the Trail Blazers will begin a stretch where they'll play 8 of 10 at home. Now, the home-court advantage hasn't been what we're used to, but that's a very good thing. So, this trip isn't as much about being spectacular as it is about survival.
What would that look like in terms of a record on this trip? You tell me.