After securing win No. 50 and a playoff spot in a win Sunday night over the Pelicans, the Blazers play host to the Sacramento Kings tonight at the Moda Center.
The second-leading scorer for the Kings this season -- guard Isaiah Thomas, averaging 20.7 points a game -- has sat out the last eight games with a leg injury, his status remaining day-to-day at this point. Forward Rudy Gay, Sacramento's third-leading scorer with 20.5 points a game, missed last night's game against the Thunder with a sore back, but looks likelier to return tonight.
Over the last several games, the Kings have struggled mightily with turnovers, a lack of good ball movement and poor outside shooting, giving up the ball almost 15 times a night and hitting just 26.6 percent of their three-pointers, of which they've only attempted about a dozen per outing. Sacramento is an average team shooting from the field, in the paint and on the fast break. The one solid offensive aspect for the Kings is their ability to draw fouls and get to the free-throw line, as they've averaged almost 25 attempts from the foul line per game the last five.
Sacramento's defense has been respectable in that stretch, allowing just 43.9 percent field-goal shooting. Outside of that, though, the team's defensive effort has been inconsistent, giving up easy fast break points, rarely forcing turnovers while permitting fewer assists -- almost 25 a night -- than just the Sixers and Detroit the last five games.
Center DeMarcus Cousins is the motor that runs the Kings for coach Mike Malone, putting up up over 17 shots a game. Displaying a knack for scoring inside, Cousins has nailed 57 percent of his shots the last five games. He tends to drift out with his jumper at times -- Cousins is just a hair less accurate from the mid-range than Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge -- but he usually does his work in the middle, also picking up six foul shots per game.
Gay is a slasher, taking it to the hole for about half his shots. He's a great finisher inside and a reliable jump-shooter, making over half his field-goals the last several games. While Gay doesn't often go to his three-point shot, he's been solid from outside the last couple weeks, shooting 44.4 percent from beyond the arc. Gay's been on a late-season surge, averaging 25 points a game his last five, also getting to the free-throw line over eight times a night in that span.
Rookie guard Ray McCallum has started in place of Thomas, going from 17.7 minutes per game this season to 45.8 the last five while getting up almost as many shot attempts as Cousins and Gay. McCallum hasn't been as accurate as those two in his extended minutes, though, as he's made just 40.5 percent of his field-goals and less than a quarter of his threes. He's been excellent at setting his teammates up, picking up more than eight assists per contest the last five.
The offensive production for Sacramento takes quite a dive once you get past the top three guys in the rotation, however. Rookie guard Ben McLemore has needed 9.4 shots a game his last five to get to 8.8 points, as he's struggled to adapt to the NBA three-point line. Forward Travis Outlaw put up a ton of shots last night with Gay and Thomas out, scoring 24 points in a bad loss to the Thunder, but has otherwise been inefficient.
Big men Reggie Evans and Jason Thompson have made half their shots, but have limited attempts in Malone's offense, neither averaging over a half-dozen points the last five games. Forwards Derrick Williams, Quincy Acy and guard Jared Cunningham bring up the tail end of the Kings' rotation, none of them playing much of a role in the offense.
The Blazers have won four of their last five games, the only loss coming to the Suns at home. In that time, Portland's put up league-average offensive numbers pretty much across the board. The team has relied on big outings from Lillard and Aldridge, the rest of the offensive responsibility spread pretty evenly throughout the bulk of the rotation.
The defense for Blazers coach Terry Stotts has been pretty good the last five games, giving up 97.4 points a game (No. 9 in the NBA in that span), 42.5 percent field-goal shooting (No. 3) and 31.5 percent shooting from deep (No. 4). Portland has rarely put opposing teams at the free-throw line the last five outings, only allowing 19.2 trips to the stripe.
Aldridge was pivotal in the win Sunday against New Orleans, making 11 of his 25 shots en route to 25 points and 18 rebounds. The last five games, he's made 46.2 percent of 18.6 attempts a night, good for a 21.4 point scoring average. When Aldridge is sinking his jumper, opposing defenses are forced to decide if they should double him or stick with single-coverage. When he receives extra attention, it leaves teammates open; When Aldridge is guarded by one man, he can take it to the hole and score.
Guard Damian Lillard has rediscovered his efficiency the last couple weeks, making about 43 percent of all his shots, including the half-dozen threes he attempts every game. Lillard's also picked up almost six assists a night in that span and gotten himself to the line about five times a game.
Wings Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews have both averaged about 13 points a game the last five. They've taken the same amount of attempts in that time -- both launching more than five three-pointers a night -- though Batum has shot 48.3 percent from the floor and 40.7 from deep while Matthews is at 40 percent and 33.3 percent, respectively, his numbers boosted by free-throws.
Center Robin Lopez rounds out Stotts' starting lineup. He got into foul trouble against the Pelicans Sunday and only played 23 minutes, attempting just two shots. Otherwise, though, Lopez has hit over two-thirds of his shots the last five games and has averaged about 11 points a night.
Guard Mo Williams comes off the bench, getting up as many shots as Batum and Matthews in fewer minutes. He's made almost half his shots the last five games but only a third of his threes. Forwards Thomas Robinson, Dorell Wright and guard Will Barton are Stotts' main bench unit. All three struggled in the win Sunday night, a collective 1-for-6 from the field. Wright and Barton haven't been able to click offensively lately. Robinson had a string of decent games before the Sunday outing, making over 57 percent of his shots the last several contests.
Both the Kings and Blazers excel at rebounding, though Sacramento probably has the slight edge overall. Cousins, Evans and Thompson are Malone's three best individual rebounders, all particularly effective on the defensive end. Cousins snared 14 rebounds last night against Oklahoma City. Portland relies heavily on Aldridge to pull in boards, most of his coming defensively -- he did grab 8 offensive rebounds against New Orleans a few days ago, though. Lopez, Robinson and Batum also get in on the act, the former two incredibly effective on the offensive side of the glass, creating second-chance points for the Blazers. Expect a close matchup on the boards tonight. If Cousins' could somehow be neutralized, Portland would have a huge upper hand. That doesn't seem likely, however, as he's averaged over 11 rebounds per game in three meetings with the Blazers this year.
Sacramento is putting the finishing touches on a 27-51 rebuilding year in which they've added a new owner, GM and coach. Due to some personnel shuffling prior to the trade deadline and an assortment of 10-day contracts, the Kings have put 23 players in uniform this season as wins and losses have not been their barometer of success. The Blazers, on the other hand, have the fifth playoff seed out West and are fending off the No. 6 Warriors with just a handful of games to go.
Portland has a more balanced rotation, fewer injuries and meaningful games to close out the regular season, while Sacramento has hovered at or near the bottom of the Western Conference all year as Malone has developed and evaluated his young guys. The Blazers are also playing on two days of rest while the Kings are on the second night of a back-to-back. If Portland comes out focused and plays with discipline on both ends of the court, tonight's game should be a routine, late-season victory. Gay and Cousins have had pretty good seasons, though, and both have had 30+ point games against Portland this year. Sacramento also has some volume-shooters who can ring up the scoreboard in the unlikely event they catch fire, so the Blazers will still have to put forth a solid effort tonight to get the victory.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter