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On Sunday, the Hornets gave the Los Angeles Lakers their first win of the season, falling 107-92 at the Staples Center.
Through seven games, big man Al Jefferson has been Charlotte's most consistent player, averaging 22.7 points on 49.3 percent shooting in 35.5 minutes per night. About two-thirds of his shots come in the paint, where he's a solid scorer. For the rest of Jefferson's shots, he drifts out into the midrange, a much less bankable shot for the 11-year veteran who's shooting 28.9 percent from outside of the key.
In two games against the Blazers last season, Jefferson made a staggering 90.9 percent of his attempts at the rim and 61.5 percent of his shots in the paint, due in large part to his ability to use his 265 pound frame to clear out space inside. Jefferson should get about 20 touches tonight, most of them likely coming in the middle.
Charlotte point guard Kemba Walker has struggled to score this year, shooting 40.2 percent from the floor and 34.4 percent from deep on over 13 field goal attempts per game. Splitting ball-handling duties with shooting guard Lance Stephenson, who was acquired by Hornets GM Rich Cho over the summer via free agency, Walker's assists are down to 4.9 per game this year, though he's also turning the ball over less than he has in the past.
Stephenson has started out the 2014-15 season shooting terribly from the field -- 30.6 percent overall and 8.3 percent from outside -- while averaging 3.3 turnovers a game. Eight points per contest for the fifth-year guard out of Cincinnati is not the kind of production Cho expected from Stephenson when he inked him to a deal that will pay him $27 million over three years. In the loss to the Lakers Sunday, Stephenson went 3-of-12 from the field and missed all four of his three-point attempts, scoring six points for the game. Still, he passes the ball fairly well from the off-guard spot and picks up plenty of assists.
Three players on the Hornets are shooting over 50 percent from the floor this year -- forwards Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams and Jason Maxiell, along with center Cody Zeller -- but none shoots more than Williams' 6.9 attempts per game.
Shooting guard Gary Neal, who comes off the bench but averages 26.9 minutes a night, is Charlotte's best three-point shooter at 43.5 percent. As a team, the Hornets only get up 17.7 outside shots a night (No. 23 in the NBA) and make 5.1 of them (No. 27), so they're not a huge threat from deep, but Neal, Walker and Williams are all capable of individually doing some damage from beyond the arc if left open.
Defensively, Charlotte is good at preventing teams from scoring on the fast break and effectively limits points in the paint. They don't allow a ton of threes to go up, but they do allow 35.1 percent from outside, good for No. 19 in the league. The Hornets let opposing teams move the ball somewhat freely, so making the extra pass tonight should be a priority for the Blazers, because it will get them many more good looks from outside. Stephenson, Kidd-Gilchrist and Walker are all effective perimeter defenders, and isolation looks from Portland aren't likely to be the best method of attacking Charlotte's defense.
Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge is leading the team in scoring, cashing in on 46.3 percent of his attempts for 22.9 points a night. Neither Maxiell nor Williams should be able to handle defending Aldridge straight-up every possession, so don't be surprised to see some double-teams on him tonight. He's demonstrated an ability this year to quickly pass out when he sees opposing defenders coming to double, keeping the ball moving freely and finding the open man. That should again be the strategy for Aldridge tonight.
Guard Wesley Matthews is off to a scorching start to the season, hitting 50.5 percent of his field goals and 37.5 percent of his threes, carrying the Blazers' offense at times with his ability to score against smaller defenders. Matthews is particularly dangerous from both elbows behind the three-point line, and has also made 20 of his 25 shot attempts around the hoop. Stephenson, though, might be the most stout defender Matthews has faced all season, so don't expect his patented post-ups unless Neal is on him -- in which case he'll probably back him down at least a handful of times.
Centers Robin Lopez and Chris Kaman have been dependable situational scorers for the Blazers this year, both able to hit open, short jumpers consistently and punishing opposing teams that put too much attention on Aldridge.
Point guard Damian Lillard has been a little more passive with the ball than usual lately, shooting just nine shots in the win over the Denver Nuggets Sunday. Still, he's been deadly from certain spots around the perimeter, mostly the top of the key, the right elbow-three and the left corner-three. Lillard's finishing hasn't been as poor as advertised -- he's making 54.2 percent of his attempts within five feet of the rim -- but he's definitely picking and choosing his spots, attempting just 12.9 field goals a game this year, down from 15.9 a season ago.
Small forward Nicolas Batum will be out tonight with a leg contusion suffered in the win over the Nuggets, and his distributing will be missed by the Blazers. In his spot, forward Dorell Wright will likely get the start and backup wing Will Barton may see an increase in minutes, as well. Because neither can pass or initiate the offense like Batum, expect to see Lillard or backup point guard Steve Blake getting the Blazers into their offensive sets more often than usual. Backup guard CJ McCollum may also see more time tonight, and he's brought his three-point shooting up to 46.2 percent after a couple good performances from outside the past week. Reserve big men Thomas Robinson and Joel Freeland will likely round out coach Terry Stotts' rotation, both providing hustle and toughness but somewhat limited offense.
Stephenson and Kidd-Gilchrist are the Hornets' two best individual rebounders on the NBA's best defensive rebounding team by percentage. Without Batum -- who averages 7.7 boards a night -- Portland's perimeter players will have to be aggressive on the glass. Because the Hornets' wings crash the defensive glass so hard, the Blazers would be wise to kick the ball out often for open looks on the perimeter. Second-chance points for Portland will probably be hard to come by in the paint tonight. Keep an eye on the rebounding battle, because both the Hornets and Blazers approach the glass with more of a team-wide effort. Charlotte is the superior defensive rebounding team but Portland is better overall. With the Blazers missing Batum, Stephenson could really give the Hornets an edge.
Charlotte may be off to a slow start this season on both sides of the ball, but Portland will be without its team leader in assists and steals and one of its best individual rebounders in Batum. Though he hasn't relied on his own offense much this year, Batum was seen as the team's "glue-guy" and a facilitator for others in Stotts' offense. If the Blazers can get the ball moving offensively the way they did Sunday against the Nuggets, they should be able to absorb the loss of their starting small forward. If not, the Hornets have enough talent to make this game competitive, especially if Stephenson or Walker can get up to speed with Jefferson offensively.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter