The Blazers meet up with the Sacramento Kings tonight at Sleep Train Arena, marking the first road game of the year for Portland following their 17-point, season-opening win against the Thunder on Wednesday.
Sacramento, on the other hand, was dispatched 95-77 in a rout by the Golden State Warriors the same night. More impressive than the Kings in their season-debut was the team's pre-game 3D court projection, which will be in use again tonight with a Halloween theme.
The game itself was pretty sloppy for the Kings -- they turned the ball over to the Warriors 26 times while shooting 30.8 percent from the field and just 3-of-18 from deep.
Sacramento's front office let Isaiah Thomas, the starting point guard who averaged 20.3 points and 6.3 assists per game for the Kings last year, walk in free agency this past summer partly because he was seen as an over-dribbler, and coach Mike Malone wanted to see more ball movement.
On Wednesday night, Kings free agent acquisition Darren Collison played 36 minutes and registered eights assists. The problem, though, is that the rest of the team only produced five total assists, forcing the ball instead of making the extra pass and committing unforced turnovers. The game was blown wide open by the Warriors mid-way through the third quarter, who never looked back in an 18-point victory.
The Kings offense saw some trends carry over from last season into Wednesday night's blowout loss, as forward Rudy Gay and center DeMarcus Cousins got up 14 and 15 shots, respectively. Collison got up 12 attempts, making only four of them, while Gay and Cousins combined to go 9-of-29 from the field. If those two aren't playing at a high level again tonight, Sacramento will be in trouble, because there are too many question marks on their roster right now.
Malone started second-year guard Ben McLemore at shooting guard, who played 26 minutes and made none of his five shots. McLemore's backup, rookie Nik Stauskas, also got 26 minutes of action and shot 3-of-10.
The Kings' rotation on Wednesday night featured starting power forward Jason Thompson and backup forwards Derrick Williams, Carl Landry and Omri Casspi. Point guard Ramon Sessions played 10 minutes and big man Reggie Evans tallied seven. Much of that time was in a fourth quarter in which Sacramento wasn't in striking distance, however, so don't expect Malone to go with an 11-man rotation tonight. Likely, we'll see the starters get big minutes while Williams, Landry, Casspi and Stauskas get the bulk of the time off the bench.
The Kings have Cousins as their only center on the roster, making them pretty thin down low. To his credit, though, Cousins is one of the best young centers in the NBA, and he got to the line 18 times Wednesday night. Most of his shots came under the basket last season, where he finished shooting 60 percent. Cousins sometimes drifts out the midrange, where he's a decent shooter, but he did most of his work within eight feet of the basket in the loss to the Warriors.
Gay prefers to take his defenders off the dribble, a solid finisher at the rim but a fairly average overall shooter in terms of efficiency. Collison may be a more willing passer than Thomas was last year, but Malone's not going to see his vision of crisp ball movement materialize if Gay and Cousins go 1-on-1 as much as they did last season.
Williams, Landry and Thompson aren't really threats to score in the frontcourt, though Casspi can be a bit of an opportunistic scorer.
The Blazers should let Gay and Cousins play as much iso-ball as they want tonight; In four games against Portland last year, Cousins averaged 33.3 points on over 26 shots, and the Blazers still won three of those games.
Like the win over Oklahoma City on Wednesday night, Portland is playing a team with an unproven supporting cast. The Blazers will see plenty of shot attempts from Gay, Cousins and Collison -- to a lesser degree -- but who on the Kings will fill in the gaps? Sacramento's best three-point shooter from last season who's still on the team is McLemore, who nailed 32 percent of his outside shots last year. Gay is next at 31.2 percent. Sessions and Williams are even worse, at around 28 percent from beyond the arc last year. Collison can score pretty well from long range, making 37 percent of his threes for the 2013-14 season, and Stauskas was drafted in large part because of his outside shooting. Besides those two, the Kings have no consistent, legitimate threats from deep. Portland's defense should focus on shutting down the paint, where Cousins and Gay can do the most damage.
Offensively, the Blazers were carried by All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge and shooting guard Wesley Matthews in the win over the Thunder, combining for 49 points while making 18 of their combined 31 shot attempts, including Matthew's five three-pointers on nine attempts.
Through three quarters, Portland's ball movement stalled while Aldridge put the team on his back and lit OKC up from the midrange. Point guard Damian Lillard was just 3-of-10 from the field, struggling against Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook. With no Kings backcourt player even approaching Westbrook's defensive ability, Lillard should have an easier time tonight finding and making shots.
Sacramento was the No. 29 team in the NBA last year at defending the three-point line, allowing 38 percent from deep for opponents. Golden State went 6-for-27 from outside against the Kings Wednesday night, so they may have turned over a new leaf this year, but that's yet to be proven over the long term and Portland would be wise to challenge Sacramento's perimeter defense.
The Kings fouled a ton last season, and they sent the Warriors to the line 32 times Wednesday night. Cousins averaged almost four fouls per game against the Blazers last year, so attacking the basket should be a priority for Portland. Center Robin Lopez got a decent chunk of his points against the Kings last year at the free throw line and should again look to do the same.
The Blazers only picked up four transition points against OKC, and they should try to push the tempo a bit more against the Kings tonight. Sacramento will likely turn the ball over often, and they allowed over 15 fast break points per game last year, which didn't appear improved-upon in the loss to the Warriors as the Kings gave up 26 points off turnovers.
Cousins is a great rebounder -- particularly on the defensive end -- but the rest of the team is pretty average on the boards, relying on contributions from several players. The Blazers may not be able to slow down Cousins on the glass, but if they can minimize the rebounding contributions from his teammates, they'll be in good shape. Gay snuck in for nine rebounds Wednesday night, so Batum -- who's one of the league's best rebounders at the small forward position -- will have to keep a body on him. Aldridge struggled to rebound well against the Kings last year but the rest of his team stepped up, helping Portland edge Sacramento on the boards by almost 10 rebounds a game.
One of the Blazers' clear advantages tonight is their bench (did I really just say that?) as point guard Steve Blake and center Chris Kaman appear in line for big minutes early this season in coach Terry Stotts' rotation. Guard CJ McCollum, who played 16 minutes against the Thunder, should be able to break down Stauskas off the dribble. Sacramento will also have to find an answer for Kaman in the frontcourt, who went 6-for-10 Wednesday night and will be defended by the likes of Landry, Evans and Williams. Expect a lot of touches for Kaman.
Cousins will get his shot attempts tonight, and so will Gay. If trends from Wednesday's loss continue, Collison will initiate the majority of the offense. The Blazers need to limit the damage taken from the rest of the Kings, stopping the ball movement that Malone is stressing his team to employ. On the other end, Portland should try to get the efficient team passing going that eluded them for three quarters against the Thunder, because the Kings lack the defensive experience and ability to stop a team that can effectively move the ball around for open shots.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter