Following consecutive losses to the 11-21 Sixers and the 10-22 Kings, the Blazers return home tonight to face the 10-24 Orlando Magic at the Moda Center.
Orlando has lost four straight, including a blowout loss Monday night to the Clippers in which starting Magic center Nikola Vucevic suffered a concussion, keeping him out of practice yesterday and likely out for the next several days.
On the season, Orlando guard Arron Afflalo has led his team in scoring with almost 21 points a night. In his last several games, however, his three-point shot is hovering below 20 percent -- well below his 41.9 percent season average -- and he's down to shooting about 41 percent overall on field-goals. Normally, Afflalo is elite at converting in the mid-range and solid at the rim, but his shot is slumping right now, especially from outside. He's not a bad passer, but not spectacular either.
Magic starting point guard Jameer Nelson, on the other hand, is currently having his best stretch of the season shooting from deep, connecting on about 44 percent of almost seven three-point tries per contest lately. Nelson can get to the hoop off the dribble occasionally and finish with some consistency, but he prefers to shoot from deep and is Orlando's biggest threat from behind the arc right now. He also protects the ball well and has been solid at setting up teammates.
Perhaps the coldest overall shooter right now for the Magic is small forward Tobias Harris, following his 27-game breakout for Orlando late last season when he poured in 17.1 points a night on consistent shooting. Harris is now taking only a couple fewer shots than last year but hovering around 10 points a contest on 35.5 percent shooting overall and 22.2 percent from outside.
Glen Davis, starting power forward for the Magic, is usually a somewhat reliable jump-shooter. Like many of his teammates lately, he's struggled with his shot, even with about half of them coming in the paint.
Orlando power forward Jason Maxiell may be the beneficiary of more minutes in the likely absence of Vucevic. He shouldn't serve as a major threat tonight offensively, but he's able to score inside if given the opportunity.
Backup Magic guard Victor Oladipo, rookie, serves as Orlando coach Jacque Vaughn's most efficient rotational player right now, able to pull-up and hit jumpers serviceably. Oladipo also can drive to the hoop for closer attempts, though he struggles to finish well. His outside shot isn't bad right now at about 37 percent, certainly improved from earlier in the season before he found his touch from deep.
Like many teams headed for the NBA Draft Lottery this Spring, not much should be expected in the way of consistency from the end of Orlando's playing rotation. Forward Maurice Harkless hits pretty well near the basket, but his attempts are limited in Vaughn's offense. Guard E'Twaun Moore and forward Andrew Nicholson both play decent backup minutes, but neither have eclipsed 30 percent shooting from the field in the last five games. Forward Kyle O'Quinn and guard Doron Lamb have been deep at the end of Vaughn's rotation, but they've played well in garbage time recently.
Defensively, the Magic do one thing well: preventing points scored in the paint. Harris is the only great individual interior defender for Orlando, actually leading the league in opponents' field-goal percentage at the rim for players with three or more attempts a game taken against them, according to NBA.com's advanced tracking stats. The same measurements show Davis and Maxiell as pretty poor paint defenders. Still, the Magic manage the key well as a team and they're solid at stopping opposing team's from punishing them from inside the arc.
The perimeter, though, offers much easier access for scores against Orlando's defense -- on paper, at least; before Blazers guard Damian Lillard's late-game barrage from outside last night, Portland struggled from deep against a forgiving Kings defense and they were shut down with the help of the Sixers on Saturday night from outside, also not usually a great team at limiting outside shots.
Portland, as a team, actually hasn't fallen off a ton recently from deep. In fact, in the Blazers' last five games, they're only a few percentage-points off their season average from outside. This is probably due in large part to Lillard still scorching the nets from behind the arc, hitting 53.1 percent of his threes in recent weeks. Guard Mo Williams has been shooting a respectable 37.5 percent.
Portland's wings have been struggling from outside lately, hitting below both season and career averages. Guard Wesley Matthews launches seven threes a night but hits less than a third of them. Forward Dorell Wright, who was apparently replaced with seldom-used guard Will Barton last night in the rotation by Blazers coach Terry Stotts, has only been hitting a quarter of his threes off the bench. Starting small forward Nicolas Batum has seen his shooting touch go out the window lately, hitting about 17 percent of his threes and 34 percent of his overall field-goals. Backup rookie guard C.J. McCollum could be a spark off the bench, but Stotts couldn't find minutes for him last night in McCollum's first game on the active players list.
Portland forward LaMarcus Aldridge is playing at right about his usual season levels offensively, hitting about 44 percent of his field-goals and scoring in the low-twenties. Lillard's three-point shooting lately has boosted his overall scoring output for the season, and he remains Stotts' most efficient threat with the ball in his hands, though his jump-shooting buoys his abysmal finishing at the rim.
Matthews is in a tough shooting stretch but he still manages to score about 17 points on a dozen shots a night. Williams is just as streaky as advertised, and center Robin Lopez continues to clean up the scraps, quietly but efficiently scoring when opportunities are presented.
Portland's offense has typically carried the day for the Blazers this season, and even with slumping shooters, they've been in virtually every recent loss due to timely offense from one source or another.
The defense for Portland has really been a huge contributing factor for the recent stretch of mediocre play that has led to a 2-4 record in the last six games, including losses to the Pelicans, 76ers and Kings. In fact, in their last 10 games, the Blazers have been outshot by opponents from the field and behind the arc while posting a worse-than-usual negative turnover margin, according to HoopsStats.com.
Portland is still a solid rebounding team, effective mostly on the offensive glass where Lopez excels. Defensively, Aldridge and backup bigs Joel Freeland and Meyers Leonard all pick up a higher percentage of rebounds than their Orlando frontcourt counterparts. Vucevic is the Magic's best individual rebounder, and as mentioned above, he'll likely sit this one out tonight. The Blazers should have no excuse for slacking on the boards against Orlando, especially considering the 6-foot-9 Davis and the 6-foot-8 Harris are their best healthy rebounders.
Will Portland come out tonight with more defensive focus and effort than the team has displayed the last several weeks? If the Blazers allow some of the struggling Magic shooters to gain some confidence, they could be in for more of a game than a match-up between the No. 3 team in the West and the No. 14 team in the East would normally suggest.
Also consider Portland is playing in the second game of a back-to-back set in which the starters all logged 36 minutes or more in last night's loss to the Kings, coupled with the Blazers' recent rough outings against sub-.500 teams, and this game could be closer than it appears at first glance. Still, there are worse opponents Portland could ask for at home in need of a bounce-back game. If the Blazers play up to their own talent level on both ends of the court tonight, they have a great chance of out-maneuvering the Magic en route to a win.
Of course, Portland has to show up -- at least before the game is out of reach -- because as proven lately and regardless of record, a motivated team can snatch a victory from these Blazers if Portland's ability to execute on either end of the floor is hampered.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter