Game 75 Preview: Trail Blazers versus Hornets

Game Time 5:00 pm.  TV:  CSNNW

The Blazers' final multi-game road trip of the season finishes in New Orleans tonight.  Hopefully the team is well-rested from Sunday's game instead of full of gumbo and who knows what else from their time off in the Big Easy.

Speaking of, people thought beating the Hornets was going to be the Big Easy after forward David West went down for the year.  That has not proven true.  Behind the surging play of replacement forward Carl Landry (Remember how good he was in the Houston years?) the Hornets have continued a generally high level of play.  They're 7-4 in their last 11 with wins over Dallas, Utah, and Phoenix twice in that stretch.  Their losses?  Bulls, Nuggets, Celtics, Lakers.  No shame there.  This isn't a team on the edge waiting to be pushed over.  This is a team making a playoff push.  At 42-32 they are sandwiched in the 7th seed 1 game ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies and 1 game behind...guess who?  That's right, the Portland Trail Blazers.  Use whatever adjectives you wish to describe the importance of this game.  It's deadly serious.

The common denominator to most of New Orleans' wins lately has been scoring.  They were over 100 in 4 of their last 5 wins.  They need scoring from Chris Paul, obviously, but they also hope for production from bench guards Willie Green and Jarrett Jack.  Marco Belinelli sometimes contributes from the three-point arc as well.  If you can take out the Hornets' smalls, though, they'll have a hard time generating enough offense to win.  When their guards contribute, though, they only need one of their two forwards--Landry and Trevor Ariza--scoring strong in order to stay competitive.

With Landry in the starting lineup the Hornets become a scary defensive team up front.  He and Ariza partner with Emeka Okafor to form an agile, strong trio that can also rebound.  The Phoenix Suns are hardly paragons of paint scoring but the Hornets held them to 18 points in the lane during their recent contest.  Landry also shoots 53% from the field and Okafor 58%.  Don't talk about Ariza shooting at this point, he's a defender.  Even though the perimeter defenders for the Hornets look weak individually, with much less ground to cover because of the good interior defenders they actually form a good defensive unit as a whole. 

The bench for New Orleans is not spectacular but they're serviceable...streaky sometimes.  Most of them can shoot the three.  Some of them can defend.  Overall it's probably a group you want to get to outside of the shooting guards.

The Hornets don't fast break. They don't score in the paint.  They pass the ball for open jumpers.  One issue defending them is that you don't know where the shot is coming from, particularly with West out.  Obviously Chris Paul is a threat but he's as deadly with the pass as with his points.  You have to guard five men.  Even the offensively-challenged Okafor is great when he's in range.  If you find yourself scrambling against the Hornets you probably won't recover in time...a serious concern for the Blazers.  That said, outside of Paul--and even he is gimpy--they don't have the player to make you bend your defense initially.  Nobody on this team is an automatic double-team candidate.  Nevertheless, Portland often finds themselves scrambling even against less serious threats, so they'll have to watch themselves tonight.  It'll be particularly interesting to see the Hornets attack the zone.  They're smart enough to find seams but they're also used to shooting at the same range the zone defenders should cover best.  Their best bet may be offensive rebounds against the zone.  Okafor and Landry are both nasty in that department.

Rebounding is the constant key for Portland and will remain so in this game.  Bench production will be important.  But the most critical factor may well be the ability to score off of anything besides the jumper.  The Blazers aren't going to get free looks inside.  The best barometer may be how many fouls Portland manages to draw.  If they attack the lane and get hit they can send those defensive starters to the pine, effective even if they can't convert the bucket in the process.  Finding ways to keep LaMarcus Aldridge involved will also be important.  This doesn't feel like a game where he can just slow-post and score on his own.  How will he react to getting shoved and swarmed by big, agile men when he goes inside?  Will the pick and pop be enough?  Can his teammates hit a shot when he passes to them?  This isn't the night for Andre Miller, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, and Rudy Fernandez to go limp.  Both Aldridge and Gerald Wallace will need the space that their scoring threat provides.  The moment the Blazers' offense becomes predictable, grinding against a set Hornets defense, Portland is in trouble.

Finally the Blazers have to treat this game as seriously as the Hornets will treat it.  Portland has had an extra day to think about it.  They should be prepared.  Taking the victory on the road against New Orleans will be no small feat but it's doable.  It'll take a better performance than Portland has shown so far on this trip though...better even than they showed in the win at home against San Antonio.  We've seen a lot of things out of this team but an overall sense of urgency isn't one of them.  Tonight would be a good time to start.

See what the Hornets think At The Hive.

Tonight's Jersey Contest game form.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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