With the playoffs in sight for both teams, the (29-14) Washington Wizards travel to Moda Center in Oregon to take on the (31-13) Portland Trail Blazers (10.05pm ET, Saturday).
Let’s go back in time for a moment. It’s January 21, 2013 and the (8-30) Washington Wizards are in the midst of a tough West Coast road trip. Their current stop places them in Portland, Oregon, for a game against the (20-20) Trail Blazers.
Entering the game as the guys to watch are two rookies, Bradley Beal for Washington and Damian Lillard (pictured) for Portland. Both winners of the Rookie of the Month award for December, the pair find themselves playing some of their best basketball leading up to the contest.
As it turned out, the better rookie in the head-to-head was Lillard, who led Portland with 18, but the winning team was Washington, courtesy of a late game buzzer beater by Jordan Crawford. Beal meanwhile, managed just two points on a night where he shot 1-7 from the floor.
The win left Washington with a 9-30 record. They would go on to win just six more games before the All Star Break in mid-February and would finish the season a lowly 29-53.
Portland, a .500 team before the loss, went on to lose seven of their next 12 and entered the break with a 25-28 record. They managed just 13 wins after the break and finished with a 33-49 record.
Luckily for both these teams, it is not 2013 anymore. In fact in 2015 the Wizards have already matched those 29 wins and have done so in just 43 games. It’s a year where the Trail Blazers are the NBA’s third best team, doing so with a 31-13 record.
It’s a year where Lillard is a third year veteran averaging 22.1 points, 10th highest in the NBA and where his teammate LaMarcus Aldridge is averaging 23.2 (sixth best in the NBA). It’s also a year where the Wizards have a healthy John Wall, who is averaging a double-double (17 PPG, 10 APG) per game and who is assisted by the 16-year Boston Celtics veteran Paul Pierce (12.5 PPG) and of course Beal himself (14.7).
Needless to say, both of these teams have come a long way in just two years time. They were the laughing stocks of their respective conferences and now, both are playing not just for the postseason but for a top seed and home field advantage as well.
Surviving without half of The Dynamic Duo
When people think of the best duo currently in the NBA, quite a few names come up. There’s Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, Lebron James and Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love in Cleveland, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker in San Antonio, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul in Los Angeles, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry in Golden State, the list goes on. But undoubtedly, the most underrated and perhaps the best of these duos is none other than Aldridge and Lillard.
Now in their third season of playing together, Aldridge and Lillard have simply brought out the best in each other. The third year player Lillard, has improved upon his numbers every year and is having a career best 2014-15 season. His partner in crime meanwhile, the eight year veteran Aldridge, has had his best years while playing with Lillard. He too is having a career year, or at least he was before he suffered a nasty thumb injury after Monday’s game against the Sacramento Kings that will force him to miss six to eight weeks.
So what does this mean for the Blazers and Lillard? Well if last year is any indication, it means you can expect to see even more out of the young star.
Aldridge missed 13 games last year in the midst of Portland’s 54-win season. During one of those stretches, where Aldridge missed the first five after the All-Star Break with a groin injury, Lillard was otherworldly. He averaged 27.2 points and was absolutely lethal from behind the arc shooting at a clip just under 47%. During the second stretch, a longer absence of seven games, Lillard shot a more modest 21.7 points, which was slightly above his season average.
So with this absence expecting to extend over a period of 17-24 games, it will be very important not to overextend Lillard. The kid is the star and he will now have the spotlight alone. However, that doesn’t mean Portland should trot him out there close to 40 minutes a game right off the bat. If they do, it will be tough for both the Trail Blazers and Lillard to stay competitive in the Western Conference.
A Formula for Success
To many around the league it is still a shock that the Wizards are the East’s best team this year. That’s better than the Cavaliers, the Heat, the Bulls, the Raptors and other perennial playoff contenders. But Washington isn’t a postseason regular, at least they weren’t until last year. Before then, this was a team that hadn’t won more than 30 games in a single season in each of the last five years.
Last year marked the beginning of the turnaround, complete with a first round playoff victory against the Bulls, the team’s first since the 04-05 season. It was also the first year that Wall, who is emerging as one of the best young point guards in the league, reached the All-Star game. This will be the second.
But the winning formula doesn’t stop there. The Wizards have given Wall the pieces around him to succeed. All of the starting five, which represents the perfect balance of youthful energy and veteran savvy experience, are averaging double digit figures in points per game. The defense, also much improved, is third best in the NBA in points allowed. In the Eastern Conference, defense wins games.
Wizards at Trail Blazers Betting Picks
Both the Wizards and the Trail Blazers are young, talented teams who are going to be ones to watch for the next few years. Right now, they are right there and both are playing up to the level of the big boys, proving themselves in the process.
Against each other on Saturday, it may not be a matchup of giants, but it is one of two playoff-caliber teams. The teams share a lot in common and both are on the right path.
That said, there is one big difference and that is the injuries. At this point in the season, Washington is about as healthy as they’ve been all year. They have Beal, Wall, Pierce, Nene – their whole complement of guys to rely on. Meanwhile, Portland just took a huge blow. They’ve played just two games since Aldridge’s injury, both close losses.
- BetOnline Sportsbook is first up with the betting odds and they can not split the two teams making them PK on the spread (effectively meaning the points spread is zero). In reality it means the spread is the same as the moneyline. That looks generous to Washington, so take the Wizards to get the road victory @ -110 with BetOnline.
Marilee writes on NFL, MLB & tennis for USA Betting. Another area of her sporting journalistic expertise is pro wrestling. A native of Philadelphia and a big Eagles fan, she has been a sports writer for many major websites including Bleacher Report and Rant Sports. She started her journalistic career early, as sports editor for her college newspaper.