One more game before the All-Star break is upon us...which describes precisely one of the main issues facing the Portland Trail Blazers tonight as they face the New Orleans Hornets. It's the end of a long road trip. An extended break lies just around the corner for some, the glitz and hype of the Houston festivities for others. Overlooking the 18-34 Hornets would be awfully tempting. It'd also be a mistake. Though their overall record is poor the Hornets have mostly recovered from injuries, have begun to gel, and have won 3 of their last 4. They're not going to put fear into anybody but the Blazers aren't good enough to take any team lightly.
Shooting guard Eric Gordon, the most potent offensive player on the New Orleans roster, has been back for a month or so. He rounded into form a few weeks ago but continues to wrestle with back problems and has registered 3 DNP's, 3 single-digit scoring nights, and one 27-point outpouring against the Hawks in his last 7 games. When healthy this guy is a legit scorer but his ailments have sunk his shooting percentages this year. Nevertheless, the Hornets look different, and more threatening, when he plays, if nothing else because of the potential for a wild-crazy night.
The Hornets also feature a couple good big men in Robin Lopez and first-overall pick Anthony Davis. Lopez has almost made people forget that he's not his brother, scoring in double-digits in 8 straight games including a 23-point night against Detroit in New Orleans' last outing. His rebounding isn't spectacular but he can block a shot when needed. Davis is the inverse. He's a good rebounder and defender but has trouble scoring most nights. He's hit only 5 of his last 24 shots over the last three games.
Rookie Austin Rivers is getting the chance to stretch his wings a little bit with Gordon wavering. His shooting percentages are atrocious but he's nosed the plane up over the last week or so, registering 3 games over .500 from the field. The problems with him: He hasn't scored in double digits since the clock turned to 2013 and he doesn't do anything else except foul.
Greivis Vasquez mans the starting point position. Like his fellow starters he's done well recently, registering multiple double-digit assist nights. He's a good all-around player on the offensive end, especially gifted passing. He's nobody's idea of a defender though.
Al-Farouq Amimu rounds out the starting lineup. He's a nice defender and rebounder who is rounding his offensive game into shape but isn't a real scoring threat. The big question is whether he's suited to play next to Davis who fits a similar description.
Power forward Ryan Anderson is a little bit of an oddity. He's 6'10", takes most of his shots from the three-point arc, and leads his team in scoring from the bench...the ultimate "stretch forward". Shooting guard Roger Mason Jr. and power forward Jason Smith round out the major rotation spots.
While the New Orleans offense isn't bad from an efficiency standpoint, they have trouble generating points. They don't have bankable scorers in the halfcourt and they don't score enough on the break or in the paint to make their less-bankable scorers more productive. Lack of easy opportunities also cuts into their free throw attempts. They can shoot jumpers if you leave them alone, however, so it's not a total free pass for your defense. They do suffer from a high turnover rate, ruing the shots they never get to take which could up their anemic point production.
Unfortunately the Hornets allow more easy points than they score, heading towards the nether ends of the league in fast break points and points in the paint allowed. Naturally their percentage defense suffers as a result. Other than blocking plenty of shots there's really nothing to recommend them defensively.
Given the state of Portland's bench it's obligatory to mention this being the second night of a back-to-back as well as the end of this six-game road trip, plus the Miami matchup was considerably more...errrr...motivating than a contest against New Orleans will be.
If the Blazers can get over all that and muster enough energy their backcourt should be able to run roughshod over New Orleans while their frontcourt plays to a standstill at worst, even with a couple of nice bench players in Hornets uniforms. This should be a Portland win. But "should be's" don't count for much with this year's team. It's all about whether they bring it on a given night or don't. The head says the Blazers just have to play like they did last night in Miami and they'll be fine. The heart has some misgivings about whether they actually will. We shall see.
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