The Portland Trail Blazers face their third pre-season contest tonight, matching up against the Sacramento Kings at 7:00 p.m. Pacific. Unlike the previous two outings, this game will not be televised. Here are five things to note when analyzing the outcome.
1. Which side of the halfcourt offense will we get?
Against the Los Angeles Lakers the Blazers used a spread floor, crisp passing, and reasonable screens to create space, leading to open jumpers and the occasional attempt at the rim. Against the Phoenix Suns the Blazers used a spread floor, perimeter passing, and less-than-reasonable screens to create covered three-pointers. The first attack was successful, the second not so much. Though bad offensive performances are often described as "just missing good shots" this is really, really, really not so with the Blazers and will probably not prove true at any point this season. Portland's halfcourt attack comes down to will and precision. Do the Blazers have the maturity and confidence to execute their sets even when they don't work a couple times, or does hard defensive pressure force Portland into individual deep shots? Also how tight are those cuts and screens, and how accurate the passes? Timing is everything in an offense like this. One guy being sloppy stymies the whole team.
2. How many fast-break points are available?
The Blazers got 19 off the break against the Lakers, slightly over 20% of their total output. 14 fast break points against the Suns accounted for 15% of Portland's points. That may not seem like a huge difference until you consider those fast break points account for a huge percentage of Portland's attempts near the rim. We're not just talking about losing easy buckets on the run, we're talking about losing easy buckets period. The Kings want to run and they've not been known for their transition defense. But the Kings also sport capable offensive rebounders. Will the Blazers be able to wrest the ball away and get down the floor for those high-percentage looks?
3. When will LaMarcus Aldridge get tired of playing third fiddle and/or when will the coaching staff figure it's important to get him off?
So far Aldridge has treated the pre-season like an extended warm-up, or at least that's the appearance. He's been settling for shots instead of working for them. He's been making do with position instead of establishing it. The Blazers haven't obliged him by running plays for him in scoring position either. Part of this has been working in the new spread offense. But at what point do we need to see the offense work with Aldridge instead of against him? Portland desperately needs an inside-out game in the halfcourt. Aldridge is the only reasonable candidate to provide those inside looks. Do the Blazers decide to feed him and let him set up outside shooters or will they continue to run him around, experimenting with different looks?
4. Damian Lillard: Perpetual #1 Story
It's always interesting to see how Lillard will react, as he's the key to Portland's growth this year. He played well in the first game, much poorer in the second. He faced ultra-veteran Steve Nash, then slippery Goran Dragic. Now he'll get a three-way buffet of Isaiah Thomas, Tyreke Evans, and Aaron Brooks in various guard rotations. Each gives him a different look. Can he adjust mid-game and still get off his offense while running the team? And how will he bounce back after a sub-par outing?
5. What will DeMarcus Cousins do to Portland's front line?
Cousins is a bit of a nonesuch: tall, quick, talented, explosive, mercurial. This game won't tell us anything far-reaching about Portland's bigs. It will tell us how they deal with Cousins, though. They'll need to run, rebound, and defend at an extended range. They might not have all the tools necessary. I think most fans could accept that the Lakers and Sixers will cause trouble for the Blazers this year. The idea of Sacramento blowing a hole in the side of this team because of an unanswerable matchup in the middle might sprinkle salt in the "rebuilding" wound. How adjustable/versatile are Portland's 4's and 5's? Or do the Blazers just trot out the lineup and hope?
BONUS SIXTH ITEM TO WATCH FOR!!!
6. Will Barton's very first game.
My prediction: He scores 72 then re-pulls the hamstring and has to sit out the season. On any other team that would be outer-space crazy. Blazer fans are putting money on it in Vegas as we speak.
Look for the GameDay thread around 6:00 in this same space. If you're in Sacramento and actually going to tonight's game, shoot me an e-mail. We might want to use you.