The Blazers challenge the Los Angeles Clippers on the road tonight before taking a week-long break for the upcoming NBA All-Star Weekend festivities.
Portland lost a tough, hard-fought game last night against the Thunder in the Moda Center that went down to the game's final shot, while the Clippers have been resting since they blew the Sixers out at home Sunday night.
Los Angeles coach Doc Rivers claims his team is finally turning the corner after coming out of the gate this year a bit less explosively than many fans had hoped.
True enough, the Clippers have played some pretty solid basketball recently. Over their last ten games, power forward Blake Griffin has spearheaded an offensive attack that has averaged over 112 points a night on 50.5 percent shooting from the field, 39.1 percent from outside and an astonishing 33 free-throws. Also consider this impressive stretch by L.A. has come mostly without superstar point guard Chris Paul and starting backcourt mate J.J. Redick. Paul will play his second game back tonight after missing a month straight, while Redick will sit through the All-Star break.
Griffin has been dynamic lately, scoring over 33 points a game on 58.5 percent field-goal shooting his last five outings. Over that span, he's gotten himself to the line 12.4 times a night while keeping a lid on his turnovers, a slight problem earlier in the year. About a third of Griffin's shots come off the dribble, the majority of them close to the basket where he's an excellent finisher. He can score somewhat reliably in the mid-range, but Griffin hasn't drifted out too much lately for his points and he's also increased his assists numbers to almost five a game.
In Paul's absence, guards Jamal Crawford and Darren Collison both increased their minutes. Crawford can score in a variety of ways, his best shot the mid-range jumper. He can also get to the rim well, though he's not a great finisher and he tends to shoot a lot of threes, connecting on 35.5 percent of them in recent weeks. Collison has looked for his own shot less, his most effective shot also coming in the mid-range. Both Crawford and Collison score about half their points by creating for themselves, but Crawford gets to the line far more at over 8 times a game.
In 35 games this season, Paul's been a solid shooter, hitting over 46 percent of his overall shots and 35.6 percent of his threes. Like Crawford and Collison, Paul is a great jump-shooter, though he's also a very efficient scorer in the lane. He's also the NBA's leader for assists per game, reeling in over two-thirds of the Clippers' total dimes with over 11.
Center DeAndre Jordan doesn't shoot much, straying outside of the immediate vicinity of the basket even less often, but he's one of the most efficient inside scorers in the league, nailing over 71 percent of his 7 attempts a night the last couple weeks.
Forwards Matt Barnes, Jared Dudley and guard Willie Green round out the majority of Rivers' tertiary scoring options. Dudley and Green are both having some struggles from the floor their last five games, but Barnes has played well with Redick sidelined, hitting almost half of his shots and 35 percent of his threes.
Rivers has his squad playing pretty good defense lately, though of their last ten opponents, only the Sixers, Jazz, Bucks and Bulls -- all projected lottery and/or low-scoring teams -- have scored under 103 points and four have scored at least 111 against Los Angeles. The Clippers allow about 7 more field-goal attempts than they take, and are not impossible to score against in the paint even though Jordan is a great shot-blocker. They don't force an exorbitant amount of turnovers and they've put opponents at the line over 27 times a game in their last 10, so they are definitely prone to fouling shooters.
The Blazers played an interesting game last night; Despite forward LaMarcus Aldridge and guard Damian Lillard going a combined 10 of 37 from the field against the Thunder, Portland was in control of the game for more than three-and-a-half quarters and saw double-figure scoring from all five starters and rookie guard C.J. McCollum off the bench.
Lillard certainly had a rough outing last night after picking up his recent play, missing six of his seven three-pointers and two-thirds of his overall field-goals. Still, he's shooting about 42 percent from the field his last five games -- not good but also not completely terrible -- and he's at just under 30 percent from outside, which is a slight improvement from when he was really struggling from outside last month, believe it or not. Lillard's assist totals have also started to climb back up, capped by seven in the loss last night.
Aldridge is limping into the All-Star break -- at least when compared to his performance the first half of the year -- and his numbers have been down a bit across the board the last several games. He's scoring 19 points a contest in his last five on 42.3 percent shooting, including a 5-22 shooting performance against the Thunder in which he missed a potential game-winning jumper. Aldridge's propensity to draw free-throws has also waned slightly as of late, a solid source of points earlier in the year.
Guard Wesley Matthews put in a 2-10 performance from the field while going 0-4 from deep, forcing a dip in his recent shooting percentages, which are down to 31 percent on threes and 35.2 percent on total field-goals. McCollum filled in pretty admirably while guard Mo Williams missed the last two games due to a family emergency, hitting 5 of his 12 shots last night and making three of his six shots from outside the arc. McCollum is now Portland's most efficient backcourt scorer the past five games, making 50 percent of both his total shots and three-pointers. Wing Nicolas Batum may have had the bounce-back game last night he so badly needed, knocking down three of five three-point attempts for 18 total points.
Center Robin Lopez continues to be a solid secondary scoring option for Blazers coach Terry Stotts, and he may see a noticeable spike in minutes in the foreseeable future as his backup Joel Freeland will spend 4-8 weeks recovering from a knee injury suffered in last night's loss. Also seeing increased minutes will be sophomore center Meyers Leonard, who struggled in 14 minutes against the Thunder. Leonard hasn't played much in recent weeks, but on the season he hasn't been a reliable scorer and still appears to be adjusting to NBA game speed on both sides of the ball. Forward Thomas Robinson still hasn't gotten comfortable with the ball in his hands, lacking any sort of consistency from game-to-game.
Williams could be the boost of energy the Blazers need as they wrap up play tonight and take a much-needed week off. Even though Williams has had a few games off from basketball activities and may be rested, he wasn't playing well before taking time off and he now might be relied on less by Stotts off the bench as McCollum has played well lately.
The Clippers aren't a great rebounding team, but they have two excellent individual rebounders in Jordan and Griffin. In fact, Jordan leads the league right now with over 14 boards a game. Outside of those two, though, Rivers doesn't get a ton of production on the glass. Portland's frontcourt duo of Lopez and Aldridge has been very effective this year, but missing Freeland will take a toll on the rotation and Robinson might have to prove that his production on the boards can offset the other deficiencies in his game.
Portland still continues to struggle defending opponents, allowing 44.9 percent from the field the last 10 games and 38.7 percent from outside. The Blazers only put the Thunder at the line 12 times last night and did force some turnovers, two aspects of the defense that would be effective against the Clippers should Portland be able to carry over the same efforts.
The Blazers could come out galvanized tonight, putting in some extra effort knowing they'll have extra days of midseason rest coming up. Conversely, they may be looking forward to the vacation and could come out flat on the second night of a back-to-back against a surging Clippers team that hasn't played since a blowout win Sunday night against Philadelphia. Either way, Stotts will have his hands full trying to patch together an effective frontcourt rotation following Freeland's injury and will have to find a way to distribute minutes among a backcourt that has seen improved play from McCollum and will see the return of Williams.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter