Game Time: 7:00 p.m. TV: Comcast
At 23-20 the New Orleans Hornets are one of the teams chasing Portland in the standings. This is going to become an increasing problem as the year wears on and the Blazers, sitting in a lower playoff seed, look like the wounded zebra in the pack. With the halfway point of the year in the rear-view-mirror Portland is going to have to start worrying about division and conference rivals, records, and intensity. In many ways this feels like the beginning of a new season for the Blazers.
Fortunately the zebra is going to get some of its strength back as Nicolas Batum's return is directly on the horizon, likely this evening. Batum may not get major minutes as he finds his game form again, but any warm body is a benefit at this point.
The Hornets have had a good January after struggling through the early months of the season. They began the month with a 6-game winning streak and are 10-4 in their last 14, downing conference rivals Utah, Oklahoma City, and Memphis in the process, the first two in the opponent's building. They're 5-3 on the road this month overall.
New Orleans' resurgence has been timed with sparkling play by forward David West and center Emeka Okafor. Looking lost and disinterested upon first joining the team, Okafor picked up his scoring average in December and carried on through the new year. With his scoring came his trademark rebounding and defense. He still has off nights, such as a 2 point, 2 rebound evening against San Antonio last week in which he played only 14 minutes. But on the whole he's looking more like the guy the Hornets traded for: interior power, glass work, shot blocking. West has also been impressive, averaging over 19 points in December and almost 18 per game this month, shooting around 50% in that span. He sat out the Hornets' last game versus Denver and the less Portland sees of him the better they'll feel.
The guy everyone fears, of course, is Chris Paul. He's having another sick year, averaging 20 points, 11 assists, 4.5 rebounds, 50% shooting, 41% from three, 2 steals, a 4.65 assist-to-turnover ratio...just about the only thing this guy doesn't do like a Hall-of-Famer is draw foul shots. Well, that and play well against the Blazers. Between injuries and just plain disappearing he's never averaged more than 15.5 per game against Portland in a season. He's been a good assist man but he's not taken the Blazers to the woodshed like he does against everyone else. His last effort netted him 3 points in 31 minutes before he crumpled to the floor in pain and sat through the next 8 games of the season. Whatever hampers Paul's production, this is another gift horse the Blazers shouldn't look in the mouth.
If you're looking for a reason that a team with a mega-star point guard and imposing front line is flirting with .500 look no further than the veteran supporting cast which, while formidable on paper, has never really panned out on the court. Peja Stojakovic has aged about 50 years in the last 3. He shoots threes at a respectable 37% clip but those account for the majority of his shots and he can't contribute anywhere else. Former starter Mo Peterson has been injured almost all year and was a non-factor even before he went down. Jasmes Posey has under-performed against everybody but the Blazers. Darius Songalia hasn't improved his production since he entered the league. Reserve point guard Bobby Brown has occasional spectacular moments but can't shoot to save his life. Rookie Darren Collison has taken his minutes but he's been inconsistent, as has shooting guard Devin Brown everywhere but beyond the arc, which is a place the Hornets hang too much anyway. Brown's minutes have been dwindling as the year has progressed.
The Hornets would probably like to pick up the pace on offense but seem unable to do so on a consistent basis. If their defense were up to snuff that wouldn't matter so much but they're on the low side of mediocre on that side of the ball. Basically they get saved by intermittent big rebounding nights from Okafor and spectacular play from Paul and West. They'll win more than they lose but it's hard to advance that way, especially since both Paul and West are at capacity. New Orleans desperately needs somebody else to step up and their calls are going unanswered.
Despite the talent up front and Chris Paul bringing down over 4 boards per game the Hornets get outrebounded significantly on average. They shoot more shots than the opponent but hit less. They shoot more threes than their opponent but hit at a lower percentage. They shoot and make fewer free throws. They get more steals and win the turnover battle but those are their only clear victories. Even with Paul dishing like a cafeteria opponents average more assists. Put that all together and you see a talented but disjointed team, one in which deficits of coordination and passion yet tell the tale.
Keys to the Game
For once-assuming that West is out or hobbled and Paul doesn't change in a phone booth before the game-the Blazers may actually find a team that suits their strengths instead of being poised to exploit them. New Orleans likes to force turnovers. The Blazers do a great job taking care of the ball. New Orleans rebounds below their potential, the Blazers above theirs. New Orleans fights to find drive. The Blazers have been in overdrive for weeks. The New Orleans backcourt doesn't like to get dirty or drive the lane and their center is awkward in the post. The Blazers prefer the opponent to stay outside.
The big monkey wrench in all of this is, and always has been, David West. When he plays great the Hornets win against Portland. When he has a mediocre game and/or LaMarcus Aldridge plays up to his level the Blazers fare well.
Even if West plays, though, the Blazers need to attack, attack, attack. The surest way to win this game is through energy. The Hornets' defense will let enough jumpers fall in order to keep you comfortable on any but the worst shooting nights. Will the Blazers have the extra "oomph" to earn points off the drive and at the foul line? If so the Blazers' shooting plus those points should beat the Hornets' shooting alone, or even the Hornets' shooting plus whatever Emeka Okafor can give. The "oomph" does have to extend to the boards, though. The other nightmare scenario for Portland is Okafor carving up the glass and scoring 20 on putbacks. If Portland can't get the ball consistently it's hard to keep the energy up and it's even harder to make the scoring tell.
This, my friends, is Blazersedge Night...the night when well over 400 kids and their chaperones from around the area will be at the Rose Garden because you made their attendance possible. Thank you again in advance. You know that section is going to be stunned out of their minds and cheering all night. It's Section 304 and the surrounding territory for those who are counting. I'll be in Row R, either in Seat
18 or 19 22 or 23 if anyone wants to come by and say hello. Ben will probably come by at some point to say hello as well. You can't miss him. Just look for the tall sportswriter-looking guy who's stunning everyone in the crowd with his looks, suave-swagger walk, and fresh, minty smell...like a spring forest sprinkled with Tic-Tac bushes. See you there!
Special Note for Anyone Attending Blazersedge Night:
Signs are allowed. Encouraged, even. They help people who are looking for us identify where we are. They also show our creativity. Let people know Blazersedge is in the house!
Jersey Contest and Links
I'm having trouble accessing the Jersey Contest on the road which is why you haven't gotten updated scores from Saturday's game yet. That'll be cleared up very soon. You can still enter tonight's form here.
Check out what the Hornets' folks have to say at At the Hive.
Since I'm in town be sure and check out the Morning Sports Page on 95.5 the Game for studio appearances this week. We'll be spending some quality time talking Blazers with Gavin, Chad, Dwight, and the gang. If you like it, tune in and let them know.