Slightly more than a quarter of the way through the season, there are some teams that have been disappointments (Miami, the Clippers) and some teams that have exceeded expectations (Utah, the Lakers, Orlando). But perhaps the most pleasant surprise thus far on the young season is Portland.
The TrailBlazers had the worst record in the NBA last season, winning 21 out of 82 games. But no one can accuse them of sitting still in the off-season, when they made maybe six trades (I lost count) on draft day. But even though they acquired some nice pieces in the process, no one expected much from such a young and inexperienced group that was playing together for the first time. Not this season. Maybe a few years down the road.
At 10-14, the Blazers are almost halfway to last season's win total, with 58 games left to play. They're not going to make the playoffs in the mighty Western Conference, but they'd be 1.5 games out of first place in the Atlantic Division. They're on a pace for a 34 win season, and no one, not even the truest believer, would have predicted that. And they haven't had their two rookie studs (LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy) healthy and on the court together yet. There is every reason to expect that this young team will get better as the year progresses.
A rejuvenated Zach Randolph is averaging 25 points and 10 rebounds per game thus far, numbers that look eerily familiar to Clippers fans and of which they fondly reminisce. (People forget that Zach was a 20-10 guy back in 03-04 - he seems more than recovered from micro-fracture surgery.) After Randolph there's a pretty big drop off, but the Blazers can look to seven different players averaging between 7 and 13 ppg to provide some help (although Roy will not play tonight, hoping to return in the middle of next week).
The Clippers beat the Blazers on November 7, 102-89, in Staples Center. It was far from a pretty game, and the Clippers will need to play better than they did, and better than they have been for the last 4 games, if they want to win in the Rose Garden.
In the first game the Blazers were without starting center Joel Przybilla (who has blocked 17 shots and scored 15 points in 189 minutes this season, if you can believe that), number 2 pick Aldridge and Raef LaFrentz, all of whom are available tonight. This game will therefore have a very different complexion than the first, where Portland was reduced to playing the skinny, 6'7" Travis Outlaw at power forward when Randolph got in foul trouble. Tonight's Blazers team will be big and big... a little like Utah, but without the razor sharp execution, thank goodness.
The Clippers will be without Corey Maggette, and Sam Cassell is listed as questionable. Given the status of Allen Iverson trade talks, it would not surprise me if neither Cassell nor Mobley played tonight, in addition to Maggette.
It is imperative that Elton Brand and Chris Kaman at least hold their own with the Portland bigs, especially with the Clips shorthanded. They're unlikely to get a lot of scoring out of the backcourt tonight.
Kaman showed some offensive rhythm in the first quarter againt Utah, but was otherwise lethargic and clueless. Brand, after looking empahtic in consecutive games against the Florida teams, has returned to being the indecisive player (should I take this shot, should I pump fake, should I pass, hey come back here with that ball), that has been killing any chance of offensive flow for the team. These two have got to do better tonight. 11 combined turnovers against Utah was a disaster.
After this, the Clippers next three road games are at Dallas, at Houston and at Utah. In other words, if they drop to 1-8 on the road tonight, you can write down 1-11 for January 1, 2007. And that's not a happy new year.