Portland lands in the Bay Area today to take on the Golden State Warriors at the Oracle Arena, following a game last night in which the Blazers came back from a first-half 21-point deficit to defeat the Chicago Bulls.
Like the Nets, Bucks and Bulls before them, the Warriors are another Blazers opponent that has been decimated by injuries of late. Backup guard Toney Douglas has been out for over a week, center Jermaine O'Neal is out, star guard Stephen Curry suffered a concussion earlier in the week and hasn't played the last two games and Curry's replacement starting point guard, Andre Iguodala, left the court last night in a loss to the Lakers with a hamstring injury.
In that road loss to Los Angeles, Golden State coach Mark Jackson played starting forwards Harrison Barnes and David Lee and guard Klay Thompson 42, 44 and 41 minutes, respectively. On Wednesday night in an overtime loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, Jackson played his starters an average of 46 minutes, while no bench player registered more than wing Draymond Green's 14 minutes.
If you thought Blazers coach Terry Stotts has ridden his starters hard this season, well, consider how much time Jackson has been forced into giving his starting-five lately. Part of this is due to various injuries, but he also has seemingly very little faith in his bench unit. It's no wonder why Jackson doesn't go to his bench much; the list of backup Warriors who saw court time last night against the Lakers features Green, power forward Marreese Speights, inexperienced guards Nemanja Nedovic and Kent Bazemore to go along with center Dewayne Dedmon.
Only Green and Speights average more than 12.5 minutes a game off the Warriors' bench. The rest of the guys had pretty much seen only garbage time or collected DNP-CDs leading up to the recent rash of injuries suffered by the team. To say Golden State is in panic mode would be a bit of a stretch, but Jackson's short, seven-man rotation lately has really put a strain on them, evident in back-to-back losses this week against inferior opponents and capped with Iguodala's hamstring injury.
Still, the Warriors will have some dangerous players available against the Blazers tonight, and you can probably expect them to play heavy minutes again.
Thompson is a lights-out shooting guard on a tear this season, knocking down 47.8 percent of his seven threes-attempted per game, good for a team-leading 20.5 points a night. He's one of the best catch-and-shoot players in the league. The Starting frontcourt tandem of power forward David Lee and center Andrew Bogut has been destroying the defensive glass and both have been very efficient shooters. Bogut doesn't score much, but Lee has been a presence down low. Neither has played great rim defense, but Bogut has been about average for a starting center, while Lee has been his normal self, allowing plenty of shots at the rim.
Small forwards Barnes and Green have been consistent from behind the arc. Green has nailed over 41 percent of his attempts this season, but Barnes has connected on 52.2 percent of his three-pointers and has been on fire the last several games when being counted on more to put points on the board.
Curry, who isn't likely to play tonight -- even if he did, he'd suffer the lingering effects of a recent concussion and a lack of practice time lately -- has hit almost 43 percent of the 7.3 outside shots he attempts per game and has been one of the best assisting guards in the league. If he plays tonight, he may not see as much time as usual and probably won't be his usual aggressive self, but he still would have plenty of efficient weapons to dish the ball to, particularly Thompson, Barnes and Lee. Curry's passing ability cannot be ignored either way.
Stotts chooses to have his perimeter defenders stay home most plays instead of sagging and helping inside the arc and down low, allowing them to keep a hand in their man's face while sacrificing mid-range and paint defense. This often results in a ton of points scored against Portland in the middle and out toward the mid-range, but no team is better at stopping outside shooting than the Blazers. So far, plenty of teams have punished Portland inside, but Stotts' gamble on locking down the perimeter has led his team to a Western Conference-leading 11 total wins (tied with the Spurs) while rattling off nine consecutive victories.
To say the Blazers' defensive strategy has been a bit unconventional may be fair -- limiting points in the paint is often a point of emphasis for many teams' defensive philosophies -- but to call it a success in the early season might be an understatement. Portland will certainly need its perimeter defense to stay sharp tonight against the Warriors, because they make more threes than any team and trail only the Blazers in three-point shooting percentage, mostly because they have seven legitimate deep threats when healthy. Tonight, Golden State will suit up at least four of them, and five if Curry gives it a try.
The Warriors are right behind the Blazers in keeping opponents' outside shooting percentages low, but that's also with a healthy Iguodala stalking the perimeter. The Lakers bombed away from deep against Golden State last night to great effect en route to a solid victory, and Portland often has several consistent outside shooters on the court at any given time between guards Wesley Matthews, Damian Lillard and Mo Williams and forwards Dorell Wright and Nicolas Batum, all of whom besides Williams are above 40 percent on the season and Matthews has continued his hot streak to start the year, hitting half of his outside attempts so far. Stotts will no doubt have his team launching threes against the Warriors, preying on their likely exhaustion from the last few games and their current lack of health.
Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge had an off game against the Bulls last night, but he should be looking forward to matching up against Lee, who has never been much of a post defender. Lee's backup, Speights, has not defended well this year either and Bogut's minutes have been limited lately. Tonight would be a great game for Aldridge to have a bounce back night and establish himself near the hoop.
Having Aldridge in rhythm helps stretch the floor, because as you saw last night against the Bulls, teams are going to bring a double on him down low almost every time he touches it (even if he's not scoring well) and that leaves somebody open. This probably sounds like a broken record at this point, but the Blazers players' willingness to pass up good looks in favor of passing to an open teammate has been key to Stotts' successful offensive gameplan so far this season. Lillard and Williams breaking down opposing defenses is also a key component along with Aldridge's presence in getting Portland's shooters open shots.
The Blazers usually pull down a lot of offensive rebounds, helped by center Robin Lopez' work in the post. Every starter contributes to the team-rebounding game, which will be a huge advantage over a hurt Warriors' squad that typically only sees really good work on the glass from its starting frontcourt, while the production drops off from there. With that in mind, Portland should probably do better rebounding tonight against a weakened opponent after a disappointing performance on the boards last night in the win over Chicago, when Lopez pulled down 16 rebounds and the rest of the Blazers combined for just 23.
Golden State turns the ball over frequently but the Blazers rarely capitalize when presented with fastbreak opportunities. Conversely, the Warriors don't force many turnovers but they like to get out and run when possible. Tonight, that may not be a huge issue due to a tired, hurting opponent, but it's something to look out for. Several of the players in Jackson's rotation outside of Lee and Bogut are relatively young, so the heavy minutes load may not be as much of an issue for them.
Portland fouls opponents way less than the Warriors, but neither team is very good at drawing fouls or making the subsequent free-throws awarded.
The Blazers have lost five of their last six games at Golden State dating back to 2010, so the Oracle has been a tough arena for Portland to pick up a win in recently. Even with a raucous home crowd, the Warriors are licking their wounds right now and both teams will be fatigued from last night's games. This matchup might come down to whichever team makes the fewest mistakes while executing its gameplan accurately -- which likely calls for both teams to shoot a ton of threes while trying to limit the open outside looks of the other team.
If the Blazers and Warriors get into a shootout, it could be anyone's game, as both teams have multiple efficient weapons from deep. If Portland wants to escape Oakland with a victory tonight, they should keep the perimeter sealed on defense, take advantage of Golden State's turnover issues and run against a tired and hurt team as much as possible while continuing to run their halfcourt sets consistently well. The Warriors will likely try to reciprocate the Blazers' three-point offensive and defensive philosophies, and if both teams are connecting from deep, this may be one of the more entertaining games of the early season because both teams are capable of lighting up the scoreboard with outside shooting.
Keep in mind that this is a homecoming for Lillard, so he'll likely be extra motivated to win in front of friends and family in his hometown. That said, this game will probably go to the team that hits best from outside effectively and efficiently while limiting the other team's opportunities from deep.
-- Chris Lucia | Twitter