The Blazers face the Sacramento Kings this weekend in a home-and-home series, a matchup that is highlighted by the inconsistency and lack of clear identity displayed by both teams.
Ask yourself, will Portland be this bad at defending the paint -- 52 points a game against them, in case you were wondering -- all season? Will the rebounding improve, and can they stay this hot from outside the whole year?
The Kings have their own set of issues. The only things they do well on offense as a team are score via the fastbreak and convert on free-throws. Defensively, they shut down the middle and limit rebounds. Otherwise, they shoot poorly from all areas of the court, foul a bunch and allow opposing offenses to easily score on them anywhere outside the paint.
The Blazers' best three-point marksmen so far -- Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews and Dorell Wright at 48.5 percent, 50 percent and 44.4 percent from outside, respectively -- must be salivating at the thought of launching threes over the Kings' porous perimeter defense. DeMarcus Cousins, on the other hand, has been working the paint more actively this year and not drifting out of the key as much he's been prone to throughout his young career. There's a good chance Kings coach Mike Malone views this weekend's double-header against the Blazers as an opportunity for Cousins to fine-tune his post-game against a team that does not defend well at the hoop.
Though Sacramento runs its offense largely through Cousins down low, sixth-man point guard Isaiah Thomas has established himself as the team's most potent offensive player. He is making almost half of his overall field-goals attempts and 46.7 percent of his outside shots. Thomas also leads the Kings with 4.8 assists a game, getting teammates involved better than anyone on the roster. Quick, active guards have been a tough matchup for the Blazers in all four games thus far, and they're going to have fits trying to keep Thomas from penetrating and either scoring or hitting the open man. If Portland sags too much in an effort to temper his driving ability, he's shown that he is also a threat from behind the arc. Thomas is the most likely candidate for "Blazer-Killer" this weekend.
Rookie guard Ben McLemore has also been a pleasant surprise for Kings fans, playing about 21 minutes a game and scoring 10 points while showing good defensive effort and potential. Of the Kings main rotational players, he leads them in plus/minus and is behind only Thomas in effective field-goal percentage. Though he's struggled from the outside, his mid-range is much more dialed in.
LaMarcus Aldridge should look to punish whomever is guarding him. Of Sacramento's poorly performing post corps, stretch-four Patrick Patterson plays the most minutes at power forward. His only problem is that he can't stretch the floor this year, shooting miserably from everywhere on the court, but particularly badly on threes at less than 17 percent. His defense has been just as bad. Aldridge should establish himself early and often against Patterson, likely drawing a double-team. With effective kick-outs from Aldridge and solid ball-movement from everyone else, Portland's jump-shooters should find themselves the beneficiaries of many an open shot.
If Sacramento point guard Greivis Vasquez is on Lillard, that matchup should also be exploited. Vasquez has started off somewhat poorly all around and hasn't been able to stay in front of quicker guards. How Sacramento handles Lillard and Aldridge on the floor at the same time remains discussion-worthy, as both players should be individually guarded by inferior defenders for the majority of the game. Blazers coach Terry Stotts should have plenty of opportunities to get good looks for both guys, thus opening things up for some of the team's ancillary players due to double-teams and defensive breakdowns.
Nicolas Batum will be matched up against either Travis Outlaw or John Salmons most of the night, and he should be able to continue contributing in a variety of ways if he stays motivated against a group of wings that shouldn't be able to contain him. Then again, Outlaw often plays better than normal against his former team, so he may be a tougher matchup for Batum than he appears on paper.
Kings guard Marcus Thornton plays heavy minutes in their backcourt, which should be welcomed by his Blazer-counterparts. He plays terrible defense, shoots in high volumes but converts at average-or-below levels and every shot he jacks is one less taken by one of the Kings' higher-efficiency guys like Thomas, Cousins or McLemore. Thornton is shooting a lot better than Mo Williams, who plays a similar role to him in Portland but is shooting considerably worse on a similar volume of shots. This would be a good set of games for Williams to get his shot ironed out, because he'll be mostly matched up with someone of similar defensive deficiencies.
Thomas Robinson, Robin Lopez and Joel Freeland (who practiced yesterday and is probable for this weekend's games) need to find ways to contribute, because Sacramento's depth in the frontcourt has been questionable at best this year. One or more of these Portland role-players could really help his team by having a breakout game against the Kings, because all three guys have seen some mixed results. A solid post presence besides Aldridge could do wonders for the Blazers on both sides of the ball, and clearly the team needs to shore up its poor paint defense and rebounding.
The Blazers' hot start shooting the ball could even out as the season progresses, and they need to find a way to stay in games when the jumpers aren't falling. These Sacramento games offer plenty of opportunities to exploit a young, inconsistent team's weaknesses. Likewise, the Blazers had better come out ready to play and focused like they did against the Nuggets and Spurs, because the Kings have key players capable of exploiting the Blazers' areas of weakness, too.
Hopefully, some questions will be answered for Portland following the second of two games against the Kings this weekend. Namely, Blazers fans will hope to see that Aldridge, Lopez and Freeland can hold the paint down a little better than they have been, preventing the opposition from scoring and rebounding at will. The individual perimeter defense also needs to see improvement if Portland wants to be considered a playoff team come April.
Sacramento provides a great measuring stick to see how well the Blazers have adjusted to improve their inconsistencies in the last week. Cousins, Thomas and McLemore should be difficult matchups for the Blazers but the Kings also have plenty to fear. Portland fans will hopefully know by Sunday if the team is capable of executing when they have clear advantages and compensating for their own shortcomings, or if they still need to figure some things out to be considered in the top-half of the conference.
-- Chris Lucia | Twitter