The Blazers return home after beating the Nuggets on the road last night to face the Brooklyn Nets, a team that has only played three games since the All-Star break and last played Sunday in a win over the Lakers.
In those three games, the Nets have gone 2-1 and point guard Deron Williams has experienced an offensive surge, throwing up about five extra field-goals a night for nine extra points. With Brooklyn sitting at 26-28 -- good enough for the sixth seed in the East and only four games behind the fourth spot, which would provide home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs -- Williams might be prepping for postseason play with just 28 games to go in the season. He's gotten to the free-throw line more than double his season average in the last three games, including 13 attempts in the win on Sunday. Williams -- a great finisher at the rim, mid-range pull-up jump-shooter and usually a decent outside shooter -- is also making almost half his shots in that timespan en route to 23 points per contest.
Thirteen-year NBA veteran guard Joe Johnson is also shooting slightly more than normal since the All-Star break, also at a higher percentage. He's scoring about 17 points a night on over 13 shots, and his three-point shooting right now is an impressive 46.7 percent on five attempts a game. Johnson is the best player on his team at creating his own outside shots, but he can attack the basket and is a reliable jump-shooter. Johnson also loves the corner three, and he's excellent at converting them.
Like Williams and Johnson, forward Paul Pierce has come out a bit more aggressive since the week-long break earlier this month. At this point in his career, Pierce is probably most effective as a catch-and-shoot player, a decent jump-shooter with range out beyond the arc. His ability to attack the basket still remains, though he doesn't finish particularly well close to the hoop. Still, expect Pierce to get up about a dozen or more shots tonight -- he took 17 against the Lakers Sunday and scored 25 points.
Center Andray Blatche is a big part of Brooklyn's offense down low, and most of his points come off his teammates setting him up near the basket. He's a strong finisher inside who draws a lot of fouls, good for 70 percent of his free-throws. Blatche comes off the bench, but usually plays starter minutes and has been getting up double-digit shot-attempts lately, even registering an 11-20, 25-point outburst last week in a win over the Jazz.
The offensive contributions from the rest of Nets coach Jason Kidd's playing rotation drop off quite a bit from there, and are pretty evenly distributed.
Forwards Mirza Teletovic, Andrei Kirilenko and Alan Anderson are all good for about 5-7 points, on average. Teletovic has attempted 5 threes a night in the last three games, though he's only making 31.7 percent of them. Anderson is a much better outside shooter and takes a few less every night, scoring on 42 percent of his long-range tries. Kirilenko is a reliable scorer when called upon, though he doesn't shoot a lot.
Guard Shaun Livingston -- a game-time decision with a bruised tailbone -- is a decent scorer and facilitator. Kevin Garnett only shoots a handful of times a night even though he's solid in limited attempts, and the same goes for rookie big man Mason Plumlee. Guard Marcus Thornton was acquired in a trade with the Kings for some offense off the bench, but he's shot in the mid-to-low 30s all season from both the field and from beyond the arc and has sat out games recently with food poisoning, so he may be a non-factor tonight unless Kidd needs him for extended minutes.
Portland has been led by point guard Damian Lillard in the four games since big men LaMarcus Aldridge, Joel Freeland and Meyers Leonard have all sat, and the All-Star second-year player again delivered last night with 31 points, 9 assists and 13 trips to the foul-line in a win over the Nuggets. Lillard was 4-11 from outside, and in the last four games, he's hit over 44 percent of his threes. Williams is a crafty defender, picking up almost three steals a night lately, so Lillard might be facing more of a challenge than he has in recent games. Still, he might have to play well for the Blazers to win right now and he's answered the call all season, so expect him to carry the team again.
Guards Wesley Matthews and Mo Williams have both picked things up the last four games, though Williams has elected for more jumpers while Matthews has been in attack-mode, getting up over 15 shots a game and going to the foul line six times every night. He needs the free-throws to keep his scoring up, because he's only making a third of all his shots. Williams has usually been reliable with his shooting from all over the floor, playing his normal brand of hot-and-cold basketball off the bench.
Wing Nicolas Batum has found his shot again, connecting on half of both his three-pointers and overall field-goals. Last night against the Nuggets Batum made 3-of-4 threes and 5-of-6 free-throws for 16 points, six rebounds and three assists, about what you can expect from him when healthy and engaged in the game.
Dorell Wright and Thomas Robinson have split time at the power forward position the last four match-ups, and both have been good for certain situations. Robinson had a career-night against the Timberwolves a few games ago, but came out a little flat last night and played limited minutes with an apparent minor knee injury. Wright has actually played his most consistent offensive minutes of the season since Aldridge went down, forcing him out of position. Wright's been an excellent three-point shooter when set up by teammates and he's hit half his other field-goals, mostly jumpers.
Wings Will Barton, C.J. McCollum and forward Victor Claver have all received extended playing time since Portland's frontcourt was decimated by injury, but none has been particularly consistent for any long stretches, though they've all shown some solid hustle at times. Starting center Robin Lopez is getting about as many touches as normal, continuing to hit about half his shots -- as usual.
The Nets' defense has been pretty average since the All-Star break, but they do prefer to slow the game down a bit and have managed to hold opponents' scores relatively low. Brooklyn is not good at defending the three-point line, and the Blazers have been good from outside lately, so don't be surprised to see even more attempts from deep for Portland tonight. The Nets also put opponents at the foul line a lot, so the Blazers should continue attacking the basket and looking for fouls as they have lately.
Portland's defense has been a mixed-bag recently, though the team has managed to hold down the paint valiantly considering the lack of frontcourt depth. Brooklyn is not much of a threat to consistently score down low, nor are they particularly good from deep, either. That's good for the Blazers because they've given up the outside shot lately. To no surprise, Portland has fouled quite a bit, too. Expect Williams and Blatche to attack the middle, exploiting the Blazers' thin frontcourt and looking to get Lopez and Robinson in foul trouble.
Brooklyn is not a good rebounding team, though Garnett, Blatche and the recently acquired Jason Collins are solid individual rebounders in somewhat limited minutes. The Blazers counter with Lopez and Robinson, both superior on the glass to any one player in the Nets' current lineup. Portland got destroyed on the boards last night thanks to 25 rebounds from Nuggets center J.J. Hickson, so it is possible to out-hustle them on an off-night. If Robinson sits out or sees limited minutes tonight, things could get bleak on the glass for the Blazers if Lopez gets in foul trouble.
Brooklyn appears to be gearing up for the homestretch of the season, no big surprise for a team that prioritized immediate success this offseason when it traded away several future draft picks and brought in Garnett and Pierce to complement the core of Williams and Johnson. Even though the Nets have improved lately, they still don't have more than a few players who should really be able to do damage to Portland's thin interior consistently all game. Last night, Lillard again put the team on his back and got double-figure scoring from all his fellow starters and sixth-man Williams. If the Blazers can string together one more solid effort from everybody tonight before their next game Saturday -- when Aldridge might be looking at a return to the lineup -- a win against the Nets wouldn't be unlikely.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter