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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Will Youth Be Served in the Pacific Northwest?

The Portland Trail Blazers wrapped up the ABC/ESPN Christmas Day tripleheader by beating the Seattle Supersonics 89-79 and extending their league-best winning streak to 11 games. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Blazers, particularly after number one overall pick Greg Oden was sidelined by microfracture surgery, but Portland actually has one of the top eight records in the West now, ahead of more highly regarded Utah and Houston teams. Is Portland really a legitimate contender? After watching Portland lose to San Antonio 106-97 on opening night, I wrote, "...it certainly looks like they have a promising young nucleus and if Greg Oden returns to health next year this team could become really good. The one caveat, though, is that every team is going to bring its best game against San Antonio; it remains to be seen if the Trail Blazers will play at this level on a consistent basis."

The Blazers stumbled to a 5-12 start but, in the wake of this winning streak, I must say that this team is indeed better than I had expected. Portland is not a contender in terms of winning a championship this year but this team has a realistic shot to win enough games to secure a playoff berth; I still think that Utah will definitely bounce back and that Houston will probably do so but Portland is not winning games by accident. Brandon Roy had a poor shooting night versus Seattle (7-23) but he still finished with a team-high 17 points, plus seven assists and six rebounds. The two-time Player of the Week honoree has emerged as an All-Star level player. LaMarcus Aldridge had a bad game against Seattle (two points on 1-10 shooting, five rebounds) but he is averaging 17.7 ppg and 7.6 rpg while shooting .515 from the field. He won't make the All-Star team this year in a Western Conference that is stacked with top notch forwards but he sure looks like a future All-Star. Reread this paragraph and you will realize that Portland beat Seattle despite getting subpar performances from its two best players. Granted, even Roy admitted that it was a sloppy game--and Seattle is hardly a powerhouse--but for a young team to be able to beat anybody when its stars are not at their best is unusual. Jarrett Jack chipped in 17 points--his highest scoring game in more than a month--and four assists, while Joel Przybilla had six points and a game-high 16 rebounds. A veteran, playoff tested team will probably sweep the Blazers if they make it to the postseason but this is definitely a team on the rise and if Oden can get healthy and be productive the Blazers could be very dangerous sooner than most people expected.

For Seattle's number two overall pick Kevin Durant, this game was more of the same: Durant took a lot of shots and missed most of them (shooting 8-20 from the field) to get his 23 points. He also had six rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots, a better than average floor game for him this season. His ballhandling has improved a little, though he still dribbles the ball too high and he got away with a blatant carrying violation before nailing a jumper. Durant actually pursued a couple rebounds that did not fall straight into his lap and his passing is definitely better. Durant will block the shots of smaller players who don't know how to properly protect the ball but it would not be accurate to say that he is a true shotblocker or even much of a defender at all; Roy shook him and drove right past him for a two handed dunk on one possession early in the game and Durant spun around so many times I thought he might pass out. Durant is an excellent free throw shooter (6-6 versus Portland, .857 for the season), so why does he struggle to shoot .400 from the field? There are several obvious answers to this question: (1) His shot selection is poor; (2) he does not have good balance on many of his shots; (3) his lack of strength makes it easy for defenders to bump and jostle him when he ventures into the paint. Even though Durant is the top scorer on his team, he does not really face the kind of defenses that elite scorers like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have to contend with because Durant can be guarded one on one at this stage of his career; that is all the more reason that he should shoot a better percentage and if he improved his field goal percentage to the .450-.460 range then he would regularly draw double-teams that would help his less talented teammates get open shots.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:08 AM

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