Game Time 4:00 p.m. Pacific TV: CSNNW
Sadly, or happily depending on how you look at it, the Blazers will not be playing the Orlando Magic tonight. Center, superstar, hulk-of-amazingness Dwight Howard has been suspended for this game for picking up his 16th technical foul of the season. The Magic are 1-1 without Howard this year, defeating Detroit handily but losing by nearly the same margin to Milwaukee early in the year. Handicapping them in his absence is difficult. He accounts for 23% of their points, 32% of their rebounds, 45% of their free throw attempts, 52% of their blocked shots, and bows defenses so far inwards that his teammates often have their pick of open shots. Orlando feasts on three-point shooting, attempting 25.6 per game and connecting on 36.3% of them. Guess who's responsible for that behind the scenes? The Magic are the best defensive rebounding team in the league and allow fewer points in the paint than anybody. That's not because of Gilbert Arenas and Jason Richardson. This is like going to a Hootie and the Blowfish concert with no Hootie and half the band's instruments missing.
Despite that the Magic field plenty of scoring potential. Richardson, Arenas, Jameer Nelson, Brandon Bass, J.J. Redick, Hedo Turkoglu...all of these guys save Bass have burned the Blazers at some point in the past. If the Magic are smart their game plan is going to be "run and chuck". Portland plays best in a gentlemen's game: nothing too wild, nothing too rough. The Blazers are long and tall but not always swift either or foot or to respond to a good punch in the nose. Orlando should pull out all the stops tonight and make the Blazers try to control the ball in a blizzard. It's not like you have to encourage any of these guys to shoot more. Plenty of them can make threes, as we just said. If the Magic can get a guard penetrating and force the Blazers to send help to the lane they should be able to get clear three-point shots, even as most Portland opponents do.
The Blazers, on the other hand, should find some penalty-free time for their potent small lineup. LaMarcus Aldridge at center against Dwight Howard would be a rout. LaMarcus Aldridge at center against anyone else on the roster should be a laugher. Gerald Wallace at power forward? Go for it. Nicolas Batum and Brandon Roy and Wesley Matthews and Rudy Fernandez and Andre Miller? Playing time for all! Go crazy! As long as the Blazers can control potential long rebounds from Orlando's shooting spree and get back in transition (it's supposed to be a quicker lineup, right?) they should be fine. Also Portland needs to remember that without Howard defending that lane is wide open. Miller, Wallace, and Roy need to take advantage, eschewing the familiar mid-range jumper and getting to the rim.
This is another one of those golden opportunities for the Blazers. They can't afford to miss a chance to nab a road win when their opponent is down at the start of an otherwise tough trip. They're down to 20 games now to establish position. Most of those games are tough. They can...not...blow...these...opportunities. If Portland doesn't go for the jugular tonight they once again announce that they're planning to wander aimlessly into the playoffs instead of trying to seize control of their destiny. If that's the case there's no use complaining and even less use for excuses, they'll deserve whatever they get (which will probably amount to getting eaten alive on the road there, let alone in the post-season). It's a mental-toughness, will-imposing temperature check for the Blazers tonight. Let's see how they fare.
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