Portland comes into the matchup with the Warriors on the heels of an ugly, 103-94 drubbing at the hands of the Sacramento Kings Friday night.
In similar fashion to the Blazers' season-opening win against the Thunder last Wednesday, Portland came into Sacramento expecting to coast for three quarters before turning it on in the final period.
Unfortunately for the Blazers, though, the Kings -- a team that finished No. 13 in the West last year and made lateral personnel moves at best this past summer -- were far more equipped to handle Portland's sloppy antics and provided the home crowd with a spirited performance.
In their victory over the Thunder, the Blazers just waited for the injury-depleted and talent-bereft OKC roster -- outside of guard Russell Westbrook and forward Serge Ibaka, of course -- to wear itself out before they hit the gas late in the game and took home the win.
Portland appeared content to do the same against a motivated Kings squad that rode a 40-point, 13-for-19 shooting performance from forward Rudy Gay into a late, double-digit lead. By that time it was far past the point of trading buckets for the Blazers, as team radio broadcaster Brian Wheeler would say, and Sacramento got an easier win than the final score would indicate.
The Blazers will not be able to exchange punches with the Warriors lackadaisically for 36 minutes tonight before hopping on the back of their starting unit and riding to victory on talent alone. Golden State had one of the most efficient defenses in the entire NBA last year, allowing opposing teams to shoot just 43.9 percent from the field (No. 4 in the league) and 34.5 percent from deep (No. 3) while giving up 100.3 points per night and forcing 14.4 turnovers.
Even on an off-defensive night for Golden State, the team probably has enough offensive firepower to go blow-for-blow with the Blazers. Gone are Mark Jackson's shackles on one of the league's most potentially explosive offenses, as new Warriors coach Steve Kerr has installed a much more efficient game plan that is tailor-made to Golden State's personnel in a way that makes Jackson's stubborn schemes the last couple seasons look archaic by comparison.
As Golden State of Mind user Apricot wrote in a two-part series last week -- a must-read for anyone interested in the Warriors' offense -- Kerr is committing to running more, ditching the low-post iso plays and installing sets that allow for much better floor spacing.
If you thought Warriors guard Steph Curry was dangerous the last two years, consider that he's now coming off twice as many screens. A shooter who already requires very little space to get off a clean look, Curry now sees even more room for his jumper. The same can be said for guard Klay Thompson, who was No. 2 in the NBA last year in three-pointers made, only making fewer than his backcourt teammate, Curry.
About half the time, Golden State's offense is initiated by the ball-handler dumping the ball to a big at one of the elbows, then immediately setting an off-ball screen to the nearest shooter -- of which there are plenty on the Warriors' roster. This kind of spacing, ball movement and emphasis on getting teammates open via screens allows not only Curry and Thompson to bomb away from the perimeter and the midrange, but affords power forward David Lee to play facing the basket, where he's most effective.
In their season-debut win against the Kings last Wednesday, the Warriors struggled for two-and-a-half quarters before ending the third period on a 17-2 run and never looking back in a 95-77 blowout.
Curry and Thompson combined to go 11-of-31 on the night, but were able to pad their scoring by getting to the line 9 and 8 times, respectively. Forwards Marreese Speights and Draymond Green filled in for the injured Lee at power forward, combining to score 28 points on 21 for 21 shooting from the field in a testament to Golden State's depth. Lee's status for tonight's game is still up in the air.
The Warriors' talent and efficiency on both ends of the court does not spell all doom and gloom for the Blazers, however. Like Golden State, Portland has a stacked starting lineup. Power forward LaMarcus Aldridge has paced the Blazers in the first two games of the season, averaging 24.5 points, while shooting guard Wesley Matthews is averaging 19. And even though point guard Damian Lillard has had a rough time finishing his shots in traffic to start the season, he's made six of his 15 threes, good for 40 percent.
Backup big man Chris Kaman has been a reliable scorer off the bench, hitting midrange jumpers and showing some crafty scoring around the rim, while forward Nicolas Batum has shown flashes of his offensive playmaking ability through two games.
If the Warriors have a weak spot defensively, it's that they are fairly willing foulers -- Curry and backup guard Leandro Barbosa had five fouls each last Wednesday against the Kings. Center Andrew Bogut and both his backups -- Festus Ezeli and Ognjen Kuzmic -- had four fouls a piece. Even though the Warriors have plenty of length on defense, they are inexperienced in the middle when Bogut's not in the game. Tonight would be a good opportunity for Kaman to pick up some easy scores when playing against backups. Green also gives up several inches to Aldridge, and neither he nor Speights should be able to consistently defend Aldridge straight-up all game.
Lillard is also playing against his hometown Bay Area squad tonight, and he'll certainly want to perform better than he did against the Warriors last year, when he averaged 18.8 points a game on 31 percent field goal shooting and converted just 26.9 percent of his attempts from outside.
In each of the two 2013-14 contests in which the Blazers beat the Warriors -- they split the four-game season series -- Aldridge blew up for huge games. Like many NBA teams, Golden State is geared to stop three-point shooting and scoring in the paint, relying on perimeter defense from the likes of Thompson and All-NBA defender Andre Iguodala and the mistake-erasing anchor in the middle, Bogut. They will, however, allow a fair amount of midrange shots, which is specifically Aldridge's specialty.
If the Blazers want to keep up with the Warriors tonight, they'll likely have to rely on Aldridge's jump shooting.
Another benefit for Portland tonight is their frontcourt depth, where they have center Robin Lopez in the middle, along with Kaman, Aldridge and backup big man Joel Freeland. They will need to go hard at Bogut and his frontcourt mates, who will foul often if pressured enough.
Golden State is one of the best defensive rebounding teams in the NBA, though the Blazers should be affected by the Warriors' efforts on the defensive glass less tonight as they've recently eschewed offensive rebounds in favor of getting back in transition, which is likely a smart move against a team like Golden State that will push the ball.
The Warriors are pedestrian at rebounding under their own basket, but the Blazers will need to put in a better effort tonight on the glass because they allowed both the Kings and Thunder to reel in 14 offensive rebounds a piece. Giving those kinds of second-chance opportunities to Golden State would almost assuredly spell trouble for Portland, because the Warriors are already efficient enough without grabbing a ton of their own misses. Sprinkle in extra possessions for Golden State, and that creates a larger load for Portland's offense -- which, to its credit, boasted averages of 108 points per game on 40 percent shooting from deep against the Warriors last season. It's not impossible to score against Golden State, it's just that the Warriors' offense can quickly turn a close game into a rout if given the chance.
The season is still young, and an unexpected loss to the Kings shouldn't send the Blazers into a tailspin. Instead, it should be a wake-up call reminding them that while a team may look overmatched on paper, the 15 guys on the other bench are, in fact, on an NBA roster for a reason.
Curry and Thompson are bound to get their points tonight; in two wins against Portland last year, they averaged 37.5 and 22 points per game, respectively. In the two losses, it was 34.5 and 27.5 points for Curry and Thompson.
Golden State is also coming in tonight on the second game of a back-to-back after a 23-point win over the Lakers, an advantage for a Portland team that had yesterday off.
When the Blazers beat the Warriors twice last year, the differences were made on the boards, at the free throw line and by forcing turnovers. If Portland can pair its effort in those aspects of the game along with a balanced offense that features plenty of frontcourt scoring, they've proven they have the talent to beat Western Conference playoff teams like Golden State -- it now comes down to execution.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter