Your Blazers travel to Sacramento tonight to take on the Kings in a match-up that pits one of the NBA's most efficient offenses against a team struggling to play consistent, effective defense.
Regardless of team chemistry issues, Kings center DeMarcus Cousins is playing at an All-NBA level as of late. He's hitting about half his shots, scoring over 26 points per game and rebounding the ball as well as anyone in the league. Cousins occasionally drifts into the mid-range, where he's actually efficient from a few spots toward the left side of the basket, but he's deadliest near the hoop. In two games against the Blazers this season, Cousins has averaged 34 points on 53.1 percent shooting to go along with over 10 free-throw attempts per contest and 10.5 rebounds.
Sacramento has also been getting solid production from point guard Isaiah Thomas and recently acquired forward Rudy Gay. Thomas takes a variety of shots, particularly for a 5-foot-9 guard. He can drive to the hoop where he's a capable finisher, pull up as a decent jump-shooter or launch three-pointers, where he's connected on half of his attempts in his last five games, taking over six outside shots a night.
Gay has apparently turned the corner in Sacramento after playing inefficiently and somewhat underwhelming in Toronto to start the season. He's seen most of his offensive numbers improve since his trade to the Kings just under a month ago, as Gay is averaging 22 points a game, hitting over half his attempts and fitting in well as a third-option for Sacramento coach Mike Malone behind Cousins and Thomas. Gay's main drawback right now is his horrid outside shooting in recent weeks, dipping to below 17 percent. Still, he mostly attacks the rim and takes jumpers within the perimeter, where he's much more of a threat.
Cousins, Thomas and Gay are the Kings' lifeline right now, accounting for the majority of Sacramento's offensive production. Big man Jason Thompson is shooting well and playing almost 30 minutes a night, but he doesn't shoot aggressively. Guard Marcus Thornton is a decent three-point shooter but somewhat ineffective right now otherwise, forward Derrick Williams is hardly shooting the ball and rookie guard Ben McLemore is really struggling with his shot, hitting 27.8 percent of his field-goals and less than a quarter of his three-point attempts. Guard Jimmer Fredette is almost as bad from deep right now and forward Travis Outlaw and guard Quincy Acy round out Malone's playing rotation with mediocre-at-best shooting ability.
Portland's defense is great at stopping ball-movement and limiting damage taken from behind the arc. Thomas and Thornton are really the only deep-threats for Sacramento right now, so it's plausible that the Blazers' perimeter defenders will be able to keep them bottled up from outside.
Portland's defense is at its worst in the paint, though, as you're probably well-aware by now. So far, the Blazers have been able to simply outscore most other teams and weather the damage done against them in the key. Versus the Kings, Portland could pay a pretty hefty price by softly protecting the middle -- Cousins, Thomas and Gay all like to get to the basket. Somehow, the Blazers kept them to 40 points in the paint the first two meetings this year. However, Cousins and Thomas are playing some of their best basketball of the season right now and Gay wasn't with the Kings when the two teams last met. If Portland allows Sacramento's top-three guys to play as well as they have lately, the Blazers will have to really put the clamps down on the rest of Malone's lineup, because the trio of Cousins, Gay and Thomas is capable of setting off some offensive fireworks, especially against a forgiving interior defense.
Fortunately for Portland, the Kings are probably as bad at defending as they are good at scoring. Sacramento gives up a ton of points, allowing high percentages for opponents at virtually every spot on the floor. Their perimeter defense is horrible, they allow tons of conversions on jumpers and they're average at defending the middle. The Kings also put teams at the line often and don't hinder opponents from moving the ball efficiently.
If the Blazers are hitting the three-pointer with as much regularity as they're capable of, Sacramento's inside scoring could be offset. Still, you saw Portland's outside shooting go cold against Philadelphia's porous defense in a Saturday night home loss, so the Blazers have to convert on the open looks they do get, which should be plentiful tonight.
Portland point guard Damian Lillard is easily the best deep-shooter for the Blazers right now, hitting over half of his three-pointers and attempting over seven a night. Guard Wesley Matthews is right behind him, taking the same amount and connecting on about 42 percent of his threes recently. Backup guard Mo Williams has been inconsistent with his outside shot lately, but he's good for 36 percent. Forwards Dorell Wright and Nicolas Batum are still in a huge funk shooting the ball. Wright may have the opportunity to shoot himself out of his slump with Batum hurting the middle finger on his non-shooting hand Saturday night, which could limit his playing time if he's unable to handle his usual load of about 36 minutes a game.
Blazers rookie guard C.J. McCollum is likely to make his season debut tonight. In two recent games with the Idaho Stampede of the D-League, he shot a decent 47.2 percent on overall field-goals but was 1-9 on his three-point attempts. In the Las Vegas Summer League this past July, McCollum also struggled with his shot. It's likely that McCollum was adjusting to NBA-level defense, though, as he was a career 37.7 percent three-point shooter in four seasons at Lehigh in college, capped by his senior year in which he hit over 51 percent of his threes in the 12 games he played before a season-ending injury.
Portland coach Terry Stotts hasn't expanded on how he plans to use McCollum now that he's available, but if Williams struggles with his shot tonight, don't be surprised to see McCollum eat into his minutes. Lillard and Matthews also both play over 35 minutes a night, so a few of those may be given to the rookie. McCollum was also a capable passer at Lehigh, drew fouls at a decent rate and was a great rebounder for his position, so he presents himself as an intriguing new weapon for Stotts to use off the bench.
The rebounding match-up is pretty even tonight. As mentioned before, Cousins has been a beast on the boards this season. Besides him, Thompson has proven a capable rebounder in limited minutes and Gay contributes on the glass. The rest of Sacramento's rebounds are split up among the rest of Malone's playing rotation, making for a pretty good rebounding team behind the efforts of Cousins.
Similarly, the Blazers have forward LaMarcus Aldridge to snare rebounds and center Robin Lopez to help clean up. The rest of the work on the glass is shared by several players. Cousins will likely be difficult to bottle up in the rebounding department, but Portland features a stable of frontcourt players who gobble up a ton of available rebounds in limited minutes, including backup big men Joel Freeland and Meyers Leonard.
Cousins is likely to go off tonight; he's torn up the Blazers in two meetings this year and has been playing well lately. Thomas and Gay could also prove to be a thorn in Portland's side. All things considered, though, the Blazers probably have more top-to-bottom talent than the Kings, and if they can hit threes at a better rate than their 3-22 performance against the Sixers this past weekend -- the Kings are one of the worst teams in the NBA at defending the three-point line -- Portland should be able to handle a beating from the Cousins-Gay-Thomas trio and answer back with some offensive sparks of their own.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter