Tuesday, December 2, 2008

This Post is Prologue: Blazers @ Knicks

Blazers (12-6)
Knicks (8-8)
@ Madison Square Garden
7:30 p.m. EST

A season later than expected, Greg Oden makes his MSG debut tonight. The Blazers are what the Knicks hope to be by this time next year: a team moving surely and without doubt in the right direction. They've got Brandon Roy (who impressed in last year's All-Star Game), Oden and a coterie of other young up-and-comers making reasonable money and they're coming off huge character building wins over New Orleans and Detroit. They've also got a guy whose nickname is the "Vanilla Gorilla."

To get my mind around tonight's contest I've been trading emails with Sean Meagher, who writes the Blazers Blog at OregonLive.com. Here are his answers to some questions I posed to him about his squad and the game at hand.

(And, my responses to several of Sean's queries are available for your viewing pleasure over at his shop. If you want to know what dark matter and Zach Randdolph have in common then you won't miss it...)

WWOD?: True or False: The Blazers should beat the Knicks tonight?
SM: True. Yes. Of course. Absolutely. Sure. Ya. Yup. The Blazers have won three straight against the 'bockers and will make it four tonight.

WWOD?: Leading up to tonight the Blazers have beaten New Orleans at home and Detroit on the road. This has the makings of the classic letdown game for the Blazers. Do you worry about that sort of thing with such a young squad? Do you think mental toughness played a role in that opening night debacle against the Lakers?
SM: A season or two ago, I would have said yes on both fronts. But despite the youth, this is a mentally older team. And it all starts with Brandon Roy, who is about as veteran as a third-year NBA player has ever been. He leads with such a quiet, calm, confident demeanor that embodies the entire team. Taking a look at the schedule, the only road loss the Blazers have to a 'middle-of-the-road' team is at Golden State, a small house of horrors for Portland of late.

WWOD?: When the Knicks push the temp they have a chance to win against anybody (or at least they did until Zach Randolph and Jamal Crawford were shipped out of town) whereas the Blazers have only broken 106 points twice. Are they game planning purposefully to limit possessions? Is their ideal win 99-87?
SM: The Blazers are the slowest-paced offensive team in the league. And that's by design. Now, they aren't the Dick Bennett Wazzu Cougars or Wisconsin Badgers, dribbling down the clock to :10 remaining, but they like to patiently work into the offense. The Blazers aren't the best fast breaking team by any stretch of the imagination, but they've shown they can get out and run (see blowout wins over Miami and Chicago).

WWOD?: I told everyone I know to bet the OVER on Brandon Roy's point total in last year's All-Star Game and I bought myself a very nice bottle of booze with my winnings. But tell me, does he have the mean streak to win a title? He just looks so damn nice, and that sort of worries me? And, is this HIS TEAM yet? Is that even the plan?
SM: The Portland Trail Blazers are more Brandon Roy's team than probably even Brandon Roy would admit to. He's the unquestioned leader of the Blazers and will always be. And in a locker room full of nice guys, Roy is no exception. But, and there's a big but, don't confuse his quiet confidence to mean he won't take it to your throat on the court. The Oregonian's Jason Quick, who covers this team closer than anyone, has talked a few times about a small "rivalry" with Roy and Atlanta's Joe Johnson that serves as a good example. Last season in Portland, the Blazers and Hawks went to overtime with the Blazers winning 111-109. But the highlight of that game was the back-and-forth between Roy and Johnson. JJ scored more points in the end (37), but it was Roy who took over late in the fourth with drives and jumpers while continually going at Johnson to push the game into over time. The two revisited that little rivalry during the preseason. While Roy may not carry himself like the badass he truly is, his game does the talking. Roy, and the team, are at their best when the ball is in his hands.

WWOD?: Is rookie Jerryd Bayless only playing a few minutes because he just isn't needed or because he just isn't ready? Should people be alarmed that the No. 11 pick in the most recent draft has basically no points yet? Because I know I'm worried that the No. 6 pick has just one point.
SM: Technically, Jerryd Bayless has 9 NBA points. Which obviously means he is 9 times better than Danilo Gallinari. Blazers coach Nate McMillan is not one to dole out a whole lot of PT to rookies. Now, there are exceptions to his rule: Brandon Roy (four-year college player with NBA-ready game as a rookie), Greg Oden (while technically a rookie, he's a manchild and is a year removed from college), Rudy Fernandez (played in the best European league for 4 of years) and Nicolas Batum (like Rudy, has experience in pro ball and just makes plays, period). But from all indications, Bayless just isn't yet ready to productively contribute on the offensive end. There's been a number of practices where I've seen McMillan pull Bayless aside and talk one-on-one after the practice is over. He's a great defender and athlete, but he doesn't yet have the experience running a team, which is what McMillan wants. But what's interesting is going back to the Las Vegas Summer League, if you would've had to pick which rookie would contribute more this year, Bayless (Summer League MVP) or Batum, the answer would've been 100% Bayless.

WWOD?: I want to like Rudy Fernandez? I harbored illusions that the Knicks would somehow land him during the offseason to run D'Antoni's offense. How good is he?
SM: Rudy Fernandez was better than advertised. Most Blazers fans saw countless YouTube highlights after he was drafted and we all saw what he was able to do in Beijing. But Rudy became an instant fan favorite during the first preseason game. He plays such an electric, flashy style of basketball you have to watch him. Brandon Roy has even said he's caught himself watching Rudy on the court. He's got a motor that never stops running (think Rip Hamilton, Reggie Miller) and knows how to get his teammates involved (think alley-oops and dimes). He's scored in double figures in 12 games this season. The first 9 games he was scoring like crazy and playing heavy minutes. He's recently slowed down a little (some call it a mini slump) but still has the ability to hit the timely 3 or have at least one play per game where you say, "wow." Now, he does gamble at times on defense and can sometimes go a little too one-on-one on offense, but you will always take the outweighing good of what Rudy brings to the table over the occasional doses of bad. I think he has a legitimate shot at grabbing a bulk of the Rookie of the Year votes.

WWOD?: Is this whole Oden business really just a smokescreen so that we don't realize the age of Przybilla is upon us until it's already too late?
SM: Yes. The Vanilla Gorilla is legit. On the serious side, Joel Przybilla is having his best season since joining the Blazers in 2004. For a guy who started the year backing up Greg Oden, then moving back into the starting role after Oden's injury, and now back to backing up Oden, he's done it all with the same "I'm going to help the team however I can" mantra. Never known as an offensive player by any stretch, Pryz has stepped up that aspect and become, putting this nicely, less of a liability on the offensive end. I mean, dude's averaging 84% from the field!

WWOD?: Have expectations for Oden changed? Does the B(owie) word come up often?
SM: Bowie was immediately at the forefront of fans' minds the moment Oden went down during the season opener in L.A. But since his return, and 4 double-doubles, the hope (rather than expectations) has returned. I think McMillan did the right thing bringing him back slowly off the bench and once he got his first taste of a full NBA game, he's hungry for more. He's still got a long way to go and still learning and working himself into condition, but by this time next year we'll probably start to see just how good Greg Oden can really be. What has and continues to benefit Oden is the ability to watch and learn from Joel Przybilla. No matter what, being the No. 1 pick and dubbed the next great center by all the "experts" there will always be high expectations and pressure, and that's what the No. 1 pick has to deal with.

WWOD?: Sometimes, when I'm working on crossword puzzle, I wonder how Channing Frye is doing. Well?
SM: In life, very well. This season, kind of down. He came on strong late last season after getting some meaningful minutes during the final month. He needs more than spot minutes to really be effective and he's averaging just over 15 minutes this year. He's not a good defender or a very strong rebounder, so when his shot's not falling, there's no real reason to have him on the floor. He did lead the Blazers in scoring for the first time in the blowout win over Miami, but he's only hit double figures 3 times this season. He's a great teammate, says all the right things and never gets too down about his situation. And there's never been a player that fits Portland as well as Channing Frye does.

WWOD?: Zach Randolph? There is no explanation for his numbers. He isn't fast. He can't jump. He doesn't lock down on defense. He has a tendency to telegraph his offense. And, yet he is more likely than almost anyone else in the Association right now (other than, maybe, Amare, Garnett, Al Jefferson and Dwight Howard) to end up with 26 and 17 on any given night. Trying to explain how he does it so consistently makes my brain hurt? Has anyone in Portland figured it out yet?
SM: No. When I was college, my buddies and I used to call him Magnet Hands. I've never seen anyone get their hands on so many loose balls and put back (layups) near the rim. Ever. It's like the ball was being magnetically pulled to his paws. Ironically, that magnetism worked better on offensive boards. The funny thing about all those guys you mentioned, they're all athletic. Randolph, not so much.

WWOD?: And, what's Z-Bo's legacy in Portland?
SM: I don't know that legacy would be the word I would use.

WWOD?: Is this team going to break my heart and end up with Lebron James OR are the Lebronerbockers going to face the Blazers for the 2012 title?
SM: I think it would be extremely hard to get Bron Bron in Portland, unless he's willing to sacrifice a few million for a few rings. The Blazers are going to max out Roy, Oden and LaMarcus Aldridge to the best of Paul Allen's abilities, leaving little room for the demanding bank account of King James. Now, were he to end up in Portland, along with the Big Three just mentioned, Commissioner Stern may want to put the NBA on hiatus for 7 or 8 years as all titles would run through the Rose City.

WWOD?: What are your expectations for this season? What would you hope for? What would you settle for without being disappointed?
SM: Before the season, I predicted 47-49 wins. The city and state, team and collective fan base, media and all, are hoping for a return to the post season. I would settle for a first-round exit without being too disappointed. If the Blazers were to get home court in the first round and not advance, that would be disappointing. No playoffs at all and you may have to start checking the ledges around town.

So, Let Me Get This Right...

The New York Football Giants welcomed Plaxico back to their facilities today in order to continue healing his hamstring injury (and one must assume another, different leg injury) even though he shot himself at a nightclub in Midtown Manhattan with an unlicensed (and very illegal) concealed weapon that he was carrying in the waistband of his pants on Friday night after repeatedly flouting team rules throughout the season while Stephon Marbury has finally been banished from the Knickerbockers altogether (after being relegated to the sidelines to start the season) even though he reported to training camp on time, in peak condition and said all the right things about coming off the bench?

Is that what these headlines over at ESPN.com really mean?

That the Giants are sticking by their player as the season turns towards the playoffs even though he faces serious jail time for a crime with strict mandatory sentencing laws while the Walsh/D'Antoni regime preemptively benched the best player on the roster to start the season in spite of him doing everything they asked leading up to the opening game and not being a person of interest to local law enforcement? And, nobody is saying this is a ridiculous double standard?

And, let me say it plain, I don't think the Knicks can or should welcome Marbury back at this point. He needs to be bought out of his contract sooner than possible and all parties need to move on. That doesn't mean, however, that I don't think the double standard in the way that NBA players are treated in the media is completely unfair as compared to their colleagues in the NFL. The NFL regularly gets a pass on steroids and criminal activity from the same people who will gladly tear apart other pro circuits for identical transgressions.

In fact, they'll tear apart NBA players for far less.

Marbury's time in New York will not be remembered fondly, no doubt about that. But his biggest crime is being overpaid the same as most ballplayers are overpaid and more associated with Isiah Thomas than his teammates. In other words, his crime is not an actual crime. He didn't carry an unlicensed gun into a nightclub. He didn't take ill-gotten performance enhancing drugs to cheat the record books. In fact, off the court Steph was taking a stand against high-priced shoes and the gun crime they cause among kids while making face time for those less fortunate without having to have a NBA Cares television crew filming his every move.

Yet today he is banished. While Plaxico was welcomed back to the Giants facility. And, let me get this right...we're all OK with this being the way things are? We're all OK with the fact that just a few minutes of talk radio will make clear that Steph is as least as much of a pariah as Plax in this town?

Tuesday's Starting Five

1. Jamal Crawford. The slender sharpshooter from Seattle made his home debut in Oakland last night after a tumultuous turn as a Knickerbocker, during which time he raised his Q rating, extended his league-leading streak of never appearing in a playoff game, refined his game from mostly reckless to glass half-reckful and earned a reputation as a fearless player willing to take (and able to make) the shot. Somehow, he managed to roll all of that into 50 minutes last night. Crawford scored 40 points for the Warriors as they battled the Miami Heat into overtime. He dished out seven assists (and is very much the point guard in Nellie's mousetrap setup) while turning the ball over just once. He played more minutes (50) than anyone else involved in the game and went 4 for 8 from beyond the arc and 14 of 16 from the charity stripe. The final two points that Crawford scored were from the line and gave his new team a 3-point cushion with 13 seconds remaining. All was well. The Warriors were about to break their six-game losing streak. And Crawford was set to be the hero. Until he wasn't. Until Miami guard Chris Quinn hit a three-pointer to tie the game with seven seconds remaining. Until Warriors center and renowned free-throw comedy specialist Andris Biedrins turned over the ball as the Warriors had the go-ahead opportunity. Until Heat rookie Michael Beasley secured the turnover and then was fouled by Biedrins. Until The Beast hit 1 of 2 shots and rendered Crawford's 40 point outburst meaningless. With three seconds left only 42 points from Crawford could make this game special. Only a few days in to his Warriors career and he was already taking the shot. He missed.

2. Mario Williams. There are only six players in the National Football League with more sacks than the No. 1 pick in the 2006 NFL draft (and two players with as many). And every single one of those players is older than Mario Williams. In his third season in the NFL he is already one of the game's premier pass rushers and he only figures increase his dominance in the years to come. Upon selecting Williams in the '06 draft, the Houston Texans were pilloried by the most every sportswriter in the country. Len Pasquarelli over at the WWL went as far as to describe the Houston Texans as"an outfit that might do better were Mr. Magoo executing its lottery selections."

3. Benjamin Brafman. It's official, Mr. Bronfman is the go-to handgun-at-a-nightclub lawyer of the jet set in Manhattan. Currently representing Plaxico Burress, Brafman previously represented Sean Combs on similar charges. In any professional setting it can be advantageous to establish a niche.

4. Dwyane Wade. He has an NBA title and a Finals MVP. He's got a gold medal. He's averaging 29 points, 8 assists, 5 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 blocks this season. And, he's only 26 years old. Still, this isn't Wade's world. It's Lebron's. It's Kobe's. It's Chris Paul's. It's Chris Bosh's. It's Paul Pierce's. Wade will also be a free agent in 2010. During the Summer of Lebron. It must be maddening. And motivating. Watch out for this guy this year. He scored 37 points last night as the Heat edged Crawford and the Warriors in OT.

5. The Boston Celtics. In his NBA preview column, a certain noted Boston sports enthusiast wrote that the Celtics would wear the target on their backs well and enjoy being the champs. So far, so prescient. The Big Three has come out the gates with more of a chip on their collective shoulder than they had last year when they had yet to prove themselves. They are meaner, cockier, mouthier and perhaps even better. They've won 17 out of their first 19 contests, including a thorough beating of playoff-caliber Orlando last night.

Benched. Donnie Walsh. We all saw how swiftly he moved on Trading Day 2008. It was breathtaking. Crawford and Randolph were gone quicker than I could say "LBJ in 2010." Walsh was decisive on that day. He appeared a man of action and results. And, yet now he stalls like a defensive player for the Denver Broncos when it comes to buying out Stephon Marbury. Come on, Donnie. This just needs to get done. If you wanted it your way then you needed to do it before the season when you had some leverage, both with Steph and with the fans. Now, you've got the backpages treating the best player on your roster with more vitriol than Plaxico and you've got your fanbase questioning your judgement and your superstar coach is starting to look like an ass. You can't drag your feet by trying to limit what teams Marbury signs with. Again, if you were proactive and did all of this discretely over the summer then you could have pulled that off. But now? No way. Cut Marbury a check and cut your losses. And, yes. Your team will play against him this season and he will score 50 points. And, yes, he's going to be far more likely to appear in the postseason than Tim Thomas. Let's just recognize those facts and move on. Quickly.