Last season, the Blazers finished a disappointing 33-49 and quit down the stretch, concluding the season with a 13-game losing streak. No one thought Portland was that bad, not with one of the best power forwards in the league in LaMarcus Aldridge and the 2012-13 Rookie of the Year, point guard Damian Lillard.
Aldridge made some trade demands this summer because he wasn't happy about the direction of the franchise. Portland's winning percentage had dropped each season since 2008-09 and it hasn't won a playoff series since well before Aldridge arrived in town. General Manager Neil Olshey was able to talk Aldridge off the cliff, but it didn't seem like Portland made any huge moves this offseason. It acquired center Robin Lopez, power forward Thomas Robinson, guard Mo Williams and swingman Dorell Wright while drafting guard C.J. McCollum with the No. 10 overall pick. No stars in that group, but it worked.
Lopez filled a gaping hole in the middle. He's not as good as brother Brook, but Robin is averaging 10.2 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks. Williams, Robinson and Wright have improved a bench that was the worst in the NBA a season ago, although Wright seems to have fallen out of the rotation lately. For example, the team is 13-1 when Williams scores in double figures this season. But really the reason Portland has had the best record in the NBA for much of the season was that Aldridge (23.7 ppg, 10.9 rpg) and Lillard (21.6 ppg, 5.7 apg) are even better this year and Wesley Matthews (16.5 ppg) stepped up as a very good third option.
Thanks to that trio and small forward Nicolas Batum, the Blazers now have weapons all over the floor and lead the NBA in scoring at 109.1 points per game. Batum had a triple-double line of 14 points, 10 rebounds and a career-high 14 assists in Wednesday's come-from-behind home win over Orlando despite playing with a splint on a fractured left (non-shooting) finger. Not bad for your No. 4 guy. McCollum made his season debut in that one off foot surgery and had four points and two rebounds in 13 minutes. He was a scoring machine at Lehigh, but his senior year was cut short because of foot surgery as well.
The NBA season is a grind so it's never wise to read too much into one small sample size, but Portland hasn't looked quite like the same club for a few weeks. It enters Saturday's game having lost four of seven (3-4 ATS at sportsbooks). The problem? Defense. Miami scored 108 against the Blazers. New Orleans 110. Philadelphia 101 and Sacramento 123. It's that end of the floor that is Portland's Achilles' heel and why the team has been rumored in trade talks for Houston center Omer Asik, a tremendous defensive player. Portland is 13-0 this year when limiting its opponents to fewer than 100 points. The Blazers do have the sportsbooks' best over/under record in the NBA at 26-10-0.
Rebuilding Boston was one of the pleasant surprises of the early season, but a lack of talent -- and no Rajon Rondo yet -- is starting to catch up to rookie coach Brad Stevens' club. The Celtics entered Friday's game in Golden State, a likely defeat, having dropped six straight and nine of 10 (2-8 ATS at sportsbooks). In some ways Boston is the opposite of Portland in that the C's struggle to score (25th in NBA) but are pretty good defensively (No. 11). Boston has topped 100 points just three times in the past 10 games entering Friday. When your leading scorer is Jeff Green (15.9 ppg), that can be expected. The Celtics have one of the worst O/U sportsbooks records in the league at 15-21-0 entering Friday.
Portland visited Boston on Nov. 15 and won 109-96 as a 1.5-point favorite on NBA odds with a total set at 205. Aldridge had 27 points and 12 rebounds as the Blazers won their first game in Beantown since 2004, which even preceded Boston's Big 3 era of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen (all now gone). Boston had won 13 of the previous 15 meetings overall against the Blazers. Jared Sullinger was Boston's best player in the first meeting with 26 points and eight rebounds. The Celtics were outrebounded by 13 -- only four offensive boards -- and had only eight fast-break points.
One of the best times to bet against a team at sportsbooks is at the end of a long trip when the players are physically and mentally fatigued. That should be the case for the Celtics as Saturday's game closes a five-game trip west of the Mississippi. The Warriors also figure to have run them ragged on Friday night. Boston's previous three opponents averaged 119.7 points per game entering Friday, so the high-scoring Blazers should have a field day. Portland is 10-4 ATS in its past 14 against teams with a losing record and has covered two of its past three as a double-digit favorite. Give the points on them and take the over on the odds for your NBA picks.