The slumping Celtics make their way into Portland tonight to match up with the Blazers at the Moda Center.
Boston has been playing poorly lately, prompting Celtics forward Gerald Wallace to once again call his team out publicly.
Perhaps Wallace's words were justified; Over the last five games, Boston has been outscored by an average of about 15 points a night, bullied on the glass and forced into turnovers.
Offensively, small forward Jeff Green is taking the most shots. He's not shy pulling the trigger from downtown as a decent outside shooter, particularly from the right corner. Green doesn't often take jumpers otherwise, but he does like to take it to the rim. On the season he's solid at converting, but lately he's struggled a bit from the field. Expect Green to attempt quite a few shots tonight, as he leads the Celtics in both field-goals and three-pointers attempted per game.
The starting backcourt of guards Avery Bradley and Jordan Crawford is a mixed bag right now. Bradley has been -- to the surprise of some -- a three-point marksman from the corners. Crawford, on the other hand, is an abysmal deep-shooter, though he's not afraid to launch threes. Both are pretty good mid-range shooters and average finishers at the rim. Crawford is much more of a distributor, especially lately. Both get to the free-throw line at a decent rate and are good free-throw shooters.
Backup power forward Jared Sullinger has been shooting quite a bit this year, and he's been terrible from the field in recent weeks, hitting less than a third of his shots and going 0 percent from behind the arc until last night's game in Golden State. Sullinger attempts about two three-pointers a night but will mostly stay near the rim, where he's been average this season but as mentioned earlier, pretty miserable lately outside of last night's loss to the Warriors.
Besides Wallace, the Celtics employ another familiar face for Blazers fans, the recently traded-for guard Jerryd Bayless. Apparently Boston coach Brad Stevens has given him the green light to shoot off the bench, and Bayless has been doing just that, attempting 10 shots a night for the Celtics in just over 20 minutes. Unfortunately for Bayless, his shooting touch has been absent since the trade as he's sub-30 percent from both the field and from outside. He's expected to be a ball-handler off the bench for Stevens, though, and he's passed the ball well for Boston so far.
The Celtics' most efficient scorers reside in the frontcourt, as center Kelly Olynyk and forwards Brandon Bass and Kris Humphries are the team-leaders in true-shooting percentage for the last several games. As Kevin O'Connor of SB Nation's CelticsBlog pointed out in an article yesterday, Boston's best frontcourt lineups include -- basically -- any combination of Humphries and another big. Conversely, the Celtics play much worse on both ends of the court, as a whole, when Bass is on the court. Olynyk takes limited shots in limited minutes, but he's converted well for a rookie so far.
As a team, the Celtics don't do anything particularly well with the ball. They aren't likely to attack the paint to a huge degree of success -- at least, likely not more than any other team has against Portland this season. In the last meeting between the two teams, a mid-November 109-96 Blazers victory in Boston, Sullinger lit up the Blazers with 26 points on 11-18 shooting but the Celtics' next best output that night was an inefficient 14 points from Green.
Boston's defense is better than its offense, but not by much. Stevens has his team defending the three-point line well, preventing the shot from being taken much in the first place and keeping percentages low. Like the Celtics' offense, though, the defense has also been stuck in a bit of a rut. On the season, Boston allows about 33 percent shooting from downtown; that number is now up to 37.7 percent over the last five games. Similarly, opponents' field-goal percentages over the same sample sizes go from 45.1 to 48 percent.
The Celtics' biggest weakness defensively is their inability to limit their fouls, as they've put opposing teams at the line about 32 times a game recently. The Blazers have been taking about 21 free-throw shots a night, so they should look to attack Boston because they will foul, and Portland is the best team in the NBA at converting from the line.
The Celtics are not a good rebounding team on either end of the floor, but they're really bad at corralling defensive boards. That does not bode well for them, because the Blazers are one of the best teams in the league on the offensive glass. Portland frontcourt players Robin Lopez, Joel Freeland and especially Thomas Robinson -- albeit in sporadic minutes, in Robinson's case -- are all great offensive rebounders. On the other end, forward LaMarcus Aldridge cleans up the glass, but the rest of the Blazers frontcourt gets in on the action, too. In the first match-up between the two teams, Portland dominated Boston on the boards, 47-34.
What should you expect from Portland? Well, that's a bit hard to say as of late, at least outside of the starters. Blazers coach Terry Stotts has experimented with his bench rotation a bit, removing forward Dorell Wright altogether, mixing in wing Will Barton occasionally, plugging Robinson in-and-out, giving center Meyers Leonard about 10 minutes a night, all while integrating rookie guard C.J. McCollum into the lineup.
That's quite a change from the early season rotation, when Stotts played mostly nine guys, including the starters -- backup guard Mo Williams, Wright, Robinson and Freeland.
The sample size for Barton is small, but he's actually been somewhat of an efficient scorer when given the opportunity. Leonard and Robinson don't take many shots, but Robinson has disrupted the offense at times this season when he doesn't play within himself. McCollum hasn't played enough to draw any useful conclusions, but he played about as well as you could expect from a rookie coming off injury in his 14 minutes on Wednesday night against the Magic.
Aldridge, point guard Damian Lillard and wing Wesley Matthews will likely provide the bulk of Portland's offense.
Aldridge and Lillard are shooting decently, both in the mid-40s from the field, percentage-wise. Aldridge has proven to be an excellent mid-range shooter so far this season, but he's also been pretty productive near the hoop. Lillard is a much better scorer from deep than he is from anywhere else on the floor, connecting on about half of his three-pointers over the last several weeks. He has continued to struggle at the basket, but tonight's game against the Celtics could provide ample opportunity for Lillard to score a bit inside because they're mediocre at defending the paint and even worse at sending players to the free-throw line.
Matthews' shooting woes have stretched into the second week of January, as he's been hitting about 38 percent of his field-goals and 30 percent of his threes, both figures below his season averages by 10 percentage points or more. Matthews was a fourth-quarter spark for Portland Wednesday night against the Magic, and perhaps he'll be able to use that as a springboard in retrieving his early-season shooting form.
Lopez, as has been the story on him lately, is hitting opportune shots. Lately, he's been getting himself to the line more than four times a game, tying him with Aldridge as the team-leader in that category.
Forward Nicolas Batum registered his second triple-double of the season on Wednesday, two games after injuring his left middle finger. His shot's been a little off, but he is contributing with his rebounding and distributing skills, pulling in about eight rebounds and eight assists a night recently.
Williams, for all his faults, has been essentially doing what he was brought in to do this offseason. In a sixth-man role, Williams is taking about 10 shots a night, hitting 44 percent of his field-goals and 35 percent of his threes. Lately he's played a solid distributing role, leading the Blazers in assist percentage.
Tonight's match-up appears pretty winnable for Portland. The Celtics have lost seven games straight, they're playing on the second night of a back-to-back and they've been struggling on both ends of the court for a number of games. Boston really doesn't have the weapons to attack the Blazers at any point of weakness, either, unless Sullinger re-discovers his shot -- to be fair, he did have his best recent game last night in a loss to the Warriors, scoring 21 points on 9-16 shooting. Even so, the Celtics have not been playing well as a team lately and the Blazers will be looking to bolster their record before their schedule ramps up in difficulty as January progresses.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter