The Trail Blazers’ home and home set this weekend with the Sacramento Kings could have been a celebratory rekindling of the famed I-5 Rivalry. Less than a year ago, the increasingly callous (to put it very kindly) attempts from Seattle financier Chris Hansen to buy the Kings from the embattled Maloof brothers and move the team to Seattle, and rechristen them as the new Super Sonics, finally died with the decision of the NBA owners committee to veto any such relocation. With it died the dream of a weekend like this one featuring a Friday night game at the Moda Center, then a Saturday night soiree at some new, “state-of –the-art,” arena in Seattle’s SoDo district. Thankfully – truly, Sacramento deserved to keep their team as much as any city – businessman Vivek Ranadivé stepped in with the money to purchase the Kings and save professional basketball in Sacramento, even if it did keep the dreams of those weaned on the Blazers-Sonics rivalry from the mid-1990s just that, dreams.
A few years ago, Ranadivé was the subject of a lengthy feature printed in the New Yorker, written by bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell, focusing on Ranadivé’s brief, yet visionary basketball career as the coach of a 12-year-old girls squad in California’s Silicon Valley. Lacking basketball knowledge, but heavy on passion and versatile intelligence, Ranadivé engineered a basketball juggernaut out of what he termed, “little blonde girls,” built around an aggressive full-court pressing defense apparently so devastating that if Nolan Richardson – architect of the Arkansas Razorbacks’ “40 Minutes of Hell” – ever saw it, he might have spent his twilight years in a catatonic state of nostalgia, silently weeping into his collection of candid Corliss Williamson Polaroids.
But like so many talented coaches of middle school girls who attempt to make that jump into NBA ownership, Ranadive has not been able to transfer that instant success into the Association. His Kings arrive in Portland with a 1-3 record after falling to the Atlanta Hawks at home on Tuesday night by a score of 105-100. LaMarcus Aldridge and the rest of the Blazers frontcourt should take notice of the exemplary lines put up by the Hawks’ Al Horford (27 points and 10 rebounds) and Paul Millsap (25 points and 11 rebounds). Meanwhile, Nicolas Batum may take notice of Atlanta rookie Dennis Schröder’s suspension for punching DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins right in his little boogies. Jokes aside, the Kings will go as Boogie goes and Boogie is, well, inconsistent.
After hanging 30 points and 14 rebounds on the Denver Nuggets in the Kings’ season opening win, Cousins has struggled to find that form again, posting only an 8-and-7 and an 11-and-6 in their last two games against the Warriors and Hawks, respectively. While the Rockets’ Dwight Howard dominated the Blazers on Tuesday, the Blazers struggled mainly with Howard as a pick-and-roll player, especially when paired with the offensively gifted James Harden as the ball handler. Cousins will certainly run his share of pick-and-roll actions, but he is at his best as a post-up player. For all of the headaches and hullabaloo that Cousins can create for his coaches and fans, his savant-like skill in the post makes it all worth it. Not a lot of players in the last decade, let alone the current league, can match Cousins’s natural feel, touch, body control, hands, footwork, and pure ability as a scorer with his back to the basket. Fortunately for Portland though, both Aldridge and Robin Lopez are very effective on-ball post defenders, and Sacramento lacks another good big to punish teams from doubling Cousins down low. Plus, Boogie can also become seemingly disinterested by the ease with which he can score on the block, instead opting to jack up jumpers from around the perimeter. Here’s to hoping for Boogie’s disinterest.
Leading the Kings in both scoring and assists coming in to this game is nominal backup point guard, Isaiah Thomas, averaging 20.8 points and 4.8 assists per game. The Tacoma native by way of the University of Washington who Gus Johnson famously called “Young Zeke!” comes off the bench, but is often on the floor in crunch time. He’s a dangerous scorer who can spontaneously burst into fire at a moment’s notice, as well as an underrated creator in the pick-and-roll who rarely makes the wrong decision. Think Nate Robinson if he watched film and played within an overall team concept and had a voice in his head that said anything other than “SHOOT THAT SHIT NATE!” After playing Ty Lawson, Robinson, Tony Parker, Eric Bledsoe, and Patrick Beverley, Damian Lillard likely will have his hands full again with all 5’8” 185 lbs of unrelenting athleticism and aggression. As Vivek Ranadivé knows well, David doesn’t always need a slingshot if he can keep Goliath on his heels.