It’s been a dramatic past week for the Portland Trail Blazers. Following a lackluster post-All-Star Break game against Phoenix at home, the Blazers responded with one of the more entertaining games of the season in Los Angeles.
Despite a number of controversial calls that may or may not have lead to the team losing (Conspiracy theories abound that the league needs L.A. to win to get into the playoffs), the game offered excellent shooting, hustle on defense (Including Dwight Howard) and outstanding performances from Nicolas Batum, one-legged Wesley Matthews and that certain guy on the Lakers that we all love to hate.
Speaking of the walking Mash unit that is Wesley Matthews, how about another great performance on Sunday against Boston. Looking visibly hurt with every limp that he took, Matthews went 5-8 from 3-point range and made another one of his now patented step-back threes late in the fourth quarter to seal the victory over the Celtics.
For a guy who hadn’t missed a single game coming into this season, Matthews has shown that he’s among the toughest and most competitive players in the league despite a rash of injuries to his ankles, knees, hip and elbow. My sister affectionately refers to Matthews as “Ma Man.” Although I don’t know how much of that has to do with his ability on the court. Either way, we should all take a moment and marvel at how hard this man works. There’s never been a better example of a “brings his lunch pail to work player” than Wesley Matthews. And remember, this guy wasn’t even drafted.
Hot Jersey Talk
For Sunday’s game, the Blazers busted out their alternate “Rip City” uniforms. They should wear these more often. If you’ve noticed this season, a number of teams have been wearing alternates quite often. My personal favorites include the Blazers’ “road flair red” jerseys, Houston’s “McDonald’s” road uniforms and the Nuggets throwback “Dikembe Mutombo, LaPhonso Ellis yellow city” jerseys they wear.
But there’s also the throwbacks that need to be forgotten including Milwaukee’s “giant deer uniforms circa 1987” and the Phoenix “scorching hot sun” jerseys like it’s the ’93 finals. Once is enough for nostalgic purposes but after that just keep them encased in the history section of every NBA arena.
Of course I can’t talk about NBA apparel this week without mentioning the Golden State Warriors’ “sleeve Jerseys” they unveiled during Friday’s San Antonio game. Personally, I didn’t have a problem with the tops. They did look a little funny on scrawny players like Stephen Curry but I wouldn’t totally be against seeing them again. But in the future, please refrain from wearing stripped shorts with solid tops. Never a good look, and this is coming from someone who thought buying a jean jacket at Old Navy was a smart decision.
Bench players slowly improving
The recent seven game losing streak may have been the nail in the coffin for Portland’s playoff aspirations. With the Lakers and Mavericks starting to play better and Houston and Utah remaining consistent throughout the season, the Blazers need to start focusing on playing some of their younger players as they head into the off-season.
Based on the last few games it looks like they’ve begun to do just that. During the Boston game, Victor Claver did the little things that are expected of a bench player. In nearly 20 minutes of action, Claver had 4 points, 2 steals and a career-high 10 rebounds. Of course playing a young rookie has its share of ups and downs.
Against Denver on Wednesday, Claver had a difficult time guarding Andre Iguodala and Kenneth Faried and the young Spaniard had a key turnover late in the game that proved to be costly. But unlike the previous Blazers’ coach, Terry Stotts seems to show a little more patience when it comes to young players. Like Claver, Meyers Leonard is another rookie seeing a little more work recently.
It was Leonard’s 21st birthday on Wednesday and he played the best game of his young career. Showing flashes of amazing athleticism, Leonard collected a career-high 13 points, five rebounds and the highlight of the night: a one-handed dunk over former Blazer Andre Miller.
Leonard is a productive player when he’s on the floor, but watching him reveals just how young and raw he still is. The upper-body strength is there, but where he really needs to improve is the lower body in regards to positioning.
If you look at players like Zach Randolph and Kevin Love, the reason they’re so good at rebounding despite a lack of athleticism is because they use their core (more specifically their butt) to get good positioning, body opposing players and anticipate where missed shots will fall. Right now Leonard is relying solely on his athleticism to get by and it’s leading to possessions where he out-jumps other players and seemingly flies out of the picture.
But as I mentioned earlier, Leonard just turned 21. He seems like a smart young man eager to learn and improve. Hopefully to a degree where we can forget about that last big man who was expected to do great things for the franchise.