The suddenly injury-depleted Blazers take on the Utah Jazz -- a Northwest Division foe -- tonight at the Moda Center.
If you thought Portland coach Terry Stotts had a tough time managing his rotation without All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge and centers Joel Freeland and Meyers Leonard in Wednesday night's loss against the Spurs, consider starting forward Nicolas Batum's status for tonight's game is now unknown as he missed practice yesterday and is currently battling illness.
Stotts was forced to start wing Dorell Wright -- who's collected 12 DNP-CDs in 54 games this season -- in place of Aldridge because he wanted to save power forward Thomas Robinson to sub in for center Robin Lopez to keep at least one true big man on the court at all times. Forward Victor Claver saw his first game action since November and Batum played 40 minutes -- which will leave another large hole to fill if he does indeed sit out tonight.
Fortunately for the wounded Blazers, the Jazz are pretty bad this year at 19-34 and are sitting just a game-and-a-half out of last place in the West. Utah will also be without one of its best individual rebounders and important defensive presence, forward Derrick Favors.
The Jazz run a low-scoring, inefficient offense that sees the shots spread out very evenly among the rotation, with the top-five shooters all averaging between 10.6 and 12.6 field-goal attempts a night this month.
In seven February games, veteran forward Marvin Williams has led the way with over 51 percent shooting from the field and 42.4 percent on his three-pointers, attempting over four per contest. Williams is decent off the catch-and-shoot in the mid-range, where he'll likely take a handful of shots, but he's even better from outside and he shoots from deep much more often. Williams is also a reliable interior scorer and excellent finisher. Center Enes Kanter also takes double-figure shot-attempts, currently hitting just over half of them. Most of his offense comes from within about 10 feet of the basket, but Kanter is capable of stepping out occasionally with a serviceable jumper.
Guard Alec Burks has consistently hit almost half his shots all season, the majority of them coming off drives to the hoop. In a loss two nights ago to the Nets, he hit seven of his 14 shots, drew nine fouls and scored 23 points, so he is certainly capable of going off. Burks is also a good three-point shooter at over 38.5 percent.
Guard Trey Burke and wing Gordon Hayward -- both huge pieces in Utah coach Tyrone Corbin's offense -- have had inefficient seasons and particularly difficult stretches this month. Over the last few weeks, Burke is 31.8 percent from the field and 27.9 percent from outside; Hayward sits at 28.8 and 16.1 percent, respectively. About half of Burke's offense he creates for himself, favoring no particular place on the floor and spreading his attempts out evenly from the key, the mid-range and from deep. Hayward has a similar shot-distribution, and he prefers to take defenders off the dribble more often than not. Both players continue to struggle post-All-Star break, going a combined 9-23 from the floor and 3-13 from downtown Wednesday night against the Nets.
Thirteen-year veteran forward Richard Jefferson has put in solid performances all season on the offensive end of the court, connecting on half his shots and over 40 percent of his threes. Rangy forward Jeremy Evans only shoots a few times a game but makes over two-thirds of his attempts. Guards Diante Garrett, Brandon Rush and center Rudy Gobert all play pretty big minutes at the end of Corbin's rotation, but none is a huge impact player offensively on a night-to-night basis.
Portland will probably sport some interesting and unconventional lineups, with only two true big men -- Lopez and Robinson -- active for tonight's game and another huge frontcourt contributor in Batum possibly missing the action. Expect to see big minutes again from starting guards Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews. Claver might get the start tonight, probably along with Wright and Lopez and guards Mo Williams and C.J. McCollum will probably get some heavy burn off the bench along with Robinson. Stotts might also see what rarely-used guards Allen Crabbe and Will Barton can do against a young, struggling Jazz roster.
Similar to Wednesday night's loss to the Spurs, Lillard, Matthews and Williams will likely take a huge chunk of the available shots in the offense. Lillard came alive for 31 points on 13-21 shooting and displayed some aggressiveness and a bit of an improved touch around the rim that had been seen sparingly earlier in the season. Don't be surprised to see him command the offense with even more than the 21 shots he took a couple nights ago, and if he can get his three-pointer back on track -- he's sitting at 32.6 percent for the month -- Lillard could have another 30-plus point scoring performance tonight.
Matthews is hovering around 38 percent both from the field and from behind the three-point arc, and he's probably going to manufacture some offense tonight in the likely absence of two starters. His post-up game might be on hold, though, as he'll probably be faced up often against 6-foot-8 wing Hayward for most possessions. Like Lillard, Matthews showed a willingness to drive to the basket and finish strong Wednesday night, though he saw much more mixed results and struggled with his jump-shot.
Wright finally found a scoring rhythm with his extended minutes a couple nights ago, hitting half his attempts and two three-pointers en route to 10 points. Still, he's right around his season averages for February, converting on about a third of all his shots. Lopez will also probably scoop up a few more shots tonight, and he's been a consistent double-figure scorer this year and continues to hit half his attempts. Expect Lopez to be a reliable option on offense when he's on the floor tonight.
Though he's struggled slightly from inside the arc this month, Williams will probably shoot over a dozen shots in extended minutes. His three-pointer has been reliable, but he goes to it less than a couple times a game. Robinson's contributions are sporadic, but when he's on, he can impact the energy of a game with his hustle and demeanor. If Robinson plays within himself and limits the head-scratching moments he often induces when he attempts to create his own offense from outside of the paint, he has a huge opportunity tonight to earn more playing time even as Portland's frontcourt begins to heal up in the next few weeks.
The Jazz struggle in just about every defensive department, save for their decent ability to defend the three-point line. Inside of the perimeter, though, Utah struggles to defend the opposition. Missing Favors doesn't make things any easier, either. Even with a patched-together lineup, Portland should still be able to find scoring opportunities against one of the worst defenses in the NBA.
The Blazers will have to get creative defensively, because they won't have the height to match up directly with the Jazz' stable of lengthy frontcourt players. Portland's defense did force 14 turnovers by the Spurs Wednesday, and doing the same to Utah could be quite helpful as the Jazz sometimes struggles to defend opposing teams in transition.
Evans and Kanter are both pretty good individual rebounders, with Gobert and Williams not far behind. As a team, Utah is pretty average at rebounding, though. The Blazers saw Lopez pull down 14 rebounds a few nights ago with a thin frontcourt rotation, and he'll need to mimic that effort again tonight; same goes for Robinson, as they are the only two good individuals on the glass for Stotts. All things considered, the Jazz probably have the advantage simply by virtue of Portland's lineup being so banged-up at the moment, so the entire team will have to contribute on the boards to keep things even.
This game will be a challenge for Stotts and the Blazers, but it also provides an opportunity for some lesser-used bench players to step up and earn more playing time in the future. Tonight will also show how Portland deals with some unfamiliar adversity, as they've now lost three games in a row and will be playing without all the starters for just the second time all season. The Jazz are a young, struggling team without one of their key contributors, and are probably the Blazers' most beatable opponent for about the next dozen games. Expect to see some interesting lineups for Portland, increased minutes from fringe-rotation players and a majority of the offense generated from the backcourt.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter