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Game 26 Preview: Kings vs. Blazers

Game Time: 7:00 P.M.  TV:  KGW

Well, well, well...look who's making a game go of it this season.  The Sacramento Kings mosey into town with a 10-12 record, third in their division and within spitting distance of .500.  Unfortunately they face a Blazers team also within spitting distance of .500 from the other direction.  The saliva may come from spit-takes, rage, or just a drunken stupor from trying to drown your woes, but the spit is flying in Portland nevertheless.  It's never, ever good for a team that is not meeting expectations to face a team that is meeting them and more.  But that's what Portland faces tonight.

Sacramento's wins have come in clumps this season.  They lost 4 of 5 to start the year, rattled off 4 straight wins, followed that up with 4 straight losses, then won 4 again and lost 4 again for good measure.  Unfortunately for the Blazers they won against Minnesota the other night, which would make this Win #2 of 4 for them if the pattern holds.  The Kings have had a couple of quality wins (Utah, Houston) but not many.  The question, as always, is whether Portland is a quality team.  I'll drink my coffee while you discuss.

The Kings love to shoot and they love to score.  Their 47.8% shooting clip ranks them 5th in the league.  They're also 4th in the league in three-point shooting at 38.1%.  It's easier to list the guys on their team who can't fill it up:  Sean May, Ime Udoka, Desmond Mason, Kenny Thomas, Jon Brockman.  Not coincidentally I just mentioned 5 of the 6 lowest players on the rotation totem pole.  That means all of the guys you're going to actually see you have to defend.  Five guys on the floor, all the time.

This isn't unusual for a Sacramento squad, but they're doing a couple of things to bolster their overall game this season.  First they're scoring a lot of those points in the paint, and this despite having a decidedly perimeter-oriented center in Spencer Hawes.  You can thank a couple of things.  First, they fast-break fairly well.  Second, say hello to Jason Thompson.  The guy's already had 7 games of 20 points or more this year.  He's shooting over 50%, drawing 5 fouls per game, nabbing 9 rebounds a night including an amazing 3.6 offensive boards...what's not to like?

And he's not even the biggest story on the Kings this year.  That honor belongs to rookie point guard Tyreke Evans who in the absence of super-scorer Kevin Martin is averaging a cool 20 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists for the season.  Take that, Brandon Jennings!  He also draws fouls and he's a fair pickpocket besides.

After those two the roster gets more familiar.  Point guard Beno Udrih still loves him some scoring.  But this year because of all of the attention being drawn elsewhere he's averaging an incredible 55% from the field.  Forward Andres Nocioni still has the green light from the three-point arc and still hits them.  Spencer Hawes will face you up for the jumper and helps Thompson corral those offensive boards.  Donte Green is filling in for Martin at shooting guard but is sporadic in his production.  The last two names in the regular rotation have Blazer connections.  Rookie small forward Omri Casspi, rumored to be on Portland's short draft list,  is shooting 52% from the field, 49% from the arc, and has scored in double figures in 9 of the last 10 games he's played.  And then our old friend Sergio Rodriguez haunts the Sacramento roster.  He's only gotten steady playing time in the last three weeks or so but he responded with games of 16, 15, and famously 24 against the Hornets at the end of last month.  Both his shooting and three-point percentages are stellar so far and he's managing to drop a few dimes in his 17-ish minutes per game.

Despite the offensive success Sacramento still faces a familiar bugaboo.  They defend like a wet Kleenex.  And I guarantee you the Kleenex people are angry about that reference.  They allow the same marvelous 47%+ field goal clip that they shoot.  Only Minnesota and New Jersey allow more fast break points per game.  Their defensive efficiency is below the dreaded Golden State line.  Only Memphis allows more points in the paint.  As a result they score 105 and give up 105.  They can't outrun their shortcomings nor can they shoot them dead.  They're forced to rely on getting more good shots than their opponents.  As mentioned above that's often directly related to how good the opponent is with the possible addition of how hard the opponent plays.  The question, as always, is whether Portland will play hard tonight.  I'll drink my coffee while you discuss.

In all seriousness this could be a bad matchup for the Blazers.  The Kings play their entire available roster and run with them.  The Blazers have 9 players healthy and generally prefer to walk.  Portland has trouble defending 2 guys, let alone 5 at a time.  The possibilities off of a single screen are staggering, especially when you consider one of their big men can shoot.  They've got an aggressive point guard.  They've got multiple people who have to be guarded on the perimeter.  That's a lot for the Blazers to keep up with.

On the other hand the Blazers need a win tonight like Frosty needs a freezer.  In case it slipped your mind it's Phoenix on Thursday then on the road for four against Orlando, Miami, Dallas, and San Antonio, then back for Denver and Philadelphia, whom the Blazers never seem to play well.  Carrying three straight losses into that Phoenix game would be sad.  And the month could go from sad to pathetic really quickly.  Looking up at the Kings in the standings was not on Portland's to-do list for 2010.  But the dawn of the new year could see exactly that if the Blazers aren't careful.

Keys to the Game

Where to start?

1.  No matter what else happens the Blazers have to score.  They probably need to do it by driving the lane as well.  Getting into a jump-shooting contest with the Kings is a bad idea, especially with half a roster.  They'll foul if you drive.  Eventually they'll let you score if you drive.  Just drive once in a while, please?

2.  If you're looking to take points away from them the easiest places to start are the most basic:  get back in transition, take away their offensive boards.  LaMarcus Aldridge will almost certainly be watching Spencer Hawes tonight but he needs to remember that even though Hawes likes the jumper he will also go for offensive rebounds.  Your job isn't over when the ball goes up.

3.  The real problem here is that Portland needs to defend a good perimeter scorer, a good low scorer, plus guys who can drain threes around them.  That screams straight man-to-man but the Blazers are spotty and prefer to throw zones and switches in there.  An occasional zone might change things up but those switches on picks are going to be a killer.  Remember Hawes can shoot.  If you can figure out how to solve this issue with the current roster you're a better person than I.  But the Blazers are going to have to do something to avoid being picked into oblivion.

4.  Whatever happens, keep the energy up.  Pursuant to that, I hope the crowd is into it tonight.

Final Thoughts

For the first time in a long time I don't have a great gauge on the Blazers right now.  I'm not saying I can predict every game correctly but I usually have a decent feel for what kind of game it's going to be.  Lately it's been a grab-bag.  That's not comfortable for me and I can't imagine it's comfortable for the players involved either.  Despite the offensive prowess this is a team against whom you can start dictating some things.  That might be a good idea tonight.

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--Dave (