Now that the holiday season is finally over, and I’ve had my fill of eggnog, ham and more eggnog, Rick’s Picks makes a triumphant return to recognize the weeks’ best Portland Trail Blazers performances.
Since I’ve been gone, the Blazers have been making a mad dash up the standings in the Western Conference.
Led by Rookie of the Year front runner Damian Lillard, All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge and dark horse contender for Coach of the Year Terry Stotts, they’ve won 12 of their last 17 games and are sitting at 18-15 on the season.
Three games over .500 through 33 games is outstanding production for a team that many believed would finish in the cellar of the Western Conference.
Over this past week, Portland embarked on a four-game road trip and was hoping to escape relatively unscathed. With games against the New York Knicks and Memphis Grizzlies, at least two losses seemed extremely feasible.
However, Portland continued its high level of play, getting productive contributions from different parts of the team each night, and kicked off the trip with a big victory over the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, overcoming 45 points from Carmelo Anthony.
The Blazers followed up the big victory over the Knicks with a dud against Toronto the following night, but they were able to bounce back with victories over both the Grizzlies and Minnesota Timberwolves (sans Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love, but a good win nonetheless).
Portland’s solid week of play kicked off with rookie point guard Damian Lillard taking home Rookie of the Month honors for the month of December; his second such award this year. It’s no doubt that there are big things in store for this kid, and the energy he brings each night for the Blazers is unparalleled.
Now to the awards.
First Star: Nicolas Batum (1/1: W @ New York)
Portland kicked off its four-game road trip with a tough matchup against one of the elite teams in the Eastern Conference, the New York Knicks.
It was Portland’s first contest against the Knicks, and its only trip to Madison Square Garden, so being able to record a win would be an incredible achievement for this young team.
One of its budding stars, Nicolas Batum, helped assure Portland would stay competitive throughout, and continued to build on an impressive 2012-13 campaign.
Logging 40 minutes, Batum scored 26 points on 7-of-13 from the floor, including an incredible 6-of-12 from three-point range and 6-of-7 from the charity stripe. The Frenchman added four rebounds, six assists and one steal to power the Blazers to a very impressive 105-100 victory despite Amar’e Stoudemire’s return to the Knicks and an offensive flurry from Carmelo Anthony.
While Batum has been up and down for most of the season, his high level of play recently is one of the main reasons why Portland is in the playoff hunt at this point in the season.
Second Star: LaMarcus Aldridge (1/4: W @ Memphis)
After a fairly dismal (by typical LA standards) month of November, the forward has started to find his groove for this year’s Blazer squad. Now, while his scoring may be down (Wesley Matthews, Batum and Lillard are all taking some of his points) his rebounding totals, as well as shot percentage, are starting to climb, and are proving to be worthwhile improvements to the offense.
This past Friday night, against Memphis, Aldridge put up 15 points on just 5-of-15 from the floor and 5-of-7 from the free-throw line, and he added 12 rebounds, three assists and an astounding five blocks in 38 minutes of action.
It wasn’t his efficiency from the floor that is taking home the credit this week, but rather his efforts on the glass—both offensively and defensively—and the five blocks that are deserving of all the recognition. Seeing as how Aldridge was paired up with the likes of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, the rebounding and blocks jump off the page even more.
Third Star: Wesley Matthews (1/5: W @ Minnesota)
Matthews’ performance against the Timberwolves this past Saturday night isn’t necessarily “Third Star” worthy based strictly on his stats, rather, it’s more of a testament to his good health.
Matthews had been off and on the injury list over the last few weeks, and his return to the Portland lineup has been met with open arms.
The Blazers weren’t necessarily losing any games because of Matthews’ absence, but with the lack of depth that goes along with this year’s version of the team, getting a starter healthy and back in the lineup is crucial to the continued success of this team.
In 36 minutes of play, Matthews was able to put up 26 points on 8-of-15 from the floor—including 5-of-7 from beyond the arc—and he was a perfect 5-of-5 from the free-throw line. Adding two assists and a block, Wes helped push Portland to its third victory in four games, allowing them to end the road trip with a 3-1 record.
Dunk of the Week: Ronnie Price to JJ Hickson