The Blazers host the Denver Nuggets tonight for the second time in three games.
Denver, a team that had been sitting at about .500 for most of the season, has apparently given in now that star point guard Ty Lawson has been out eight games with an indefinite return. The Nuggets have lost four in a row and nine of 10, now sitting at 25-32 with fans turning their attention to how many ping-pong balls their team is likely to receive in this Spring's draft lottery.
In the absence of Lawson and as pointed out in Tuesday's game preview, Nuggets coach Brian Shaw has seven players who shoot between nine and 13 shots a game.
Guards Randy Foye and Aaron Brooks create more of their own offense than anyone on the team. Half of Foye's shots are three-pointers, and he's been reliable from deep since Lawson's injury, hitting almost 39 percent of the six a game he attempts. Foye also shoots 39 percent from the field, a less impressive number. He attacks the basket and also likes the occasional long jumper, though he doesn't excel at scoring either way.
Brooks is Denver's most efficient backcourt scorer right now, going 45.7 percent from the field and almost 43 percent from deep. Still, he struggles to finish close to the hoop and doesn't often shoot from mid-range -- it's usually either in the key or from outside for Brooks. He also splits distributing duties with Foye, both leading the team with about five assists a night the last eight games.
Forward Wilson Chandler -- who missed a game two days ago against the Nets with a minor knee injury -- will likely play tonight. Chandler has put up 11 shots a night since Lawson's injury but has only converted on 35 percent of them from both inside and outside the arc. Chandler is a decent finisher inside, a poor jump-shooter and most effective from the left corner. On Tuesday against the Blazers, Chandler went 3-12 from the field and 1-5 from deep, largely a non-factor.
Forwards Evan Fournier, Kenneth Faried and J.J. Hickson all put up double-figure shot-attempts. Faried is by far the most efficient scorer of the three, though he rarely attempts shots outside the paint. Hickson's less afraid to let a jumper fly, though he's not a consistent scorer by any means. Fournier is struggling right now, shooting below 40 percent from within the three-point line and also from long-range.
Center Timofey Mozgov is at the edge of Shaw's main playing rotation, though he gets up plenty of shots in about 20 minutes of game time. Mozgov has limited range, and like most of his teammates, he's had a hard time putting the ball through the hoop consistently with Lawson out.
Forwards Quincy Miller, Anthony Randolph and Jan Vesely bring up the rear of the Nuggets' rotation. None of the three makes more than a third of his shots. Miller and Vesely were both pretty bad against the Blazers earlier this week, going a combined 3-14 from the field. Randolph wasn't able to get into the game, registering a DNP-CD even though Shaw's lineup was already thin.
Over the last five games, the Nuggets have only managed 93.8 points per outing on 40.1 percent shooting from the field to go along with over 17 turnovers a night. If current trends hold, expect a lot of misses from Denver tonight and some careless ball handling.
The Blazers have been on an opposite trajectory since losing one of their star players -- forward LaMarcus Aldridge -- to injury five games back. Point guard Damian Lillard has played with poise since, hitting half of the 20 shots a night he's gotten up. He's also dialed in his three-pointer, connecting on almost 47 percent of the six threes he's attempted per contest. Lillard also gets 5.4 free-throw attempts and the same amount of assists, as he's been the hub of Portland's offense with Aldridge on the sidelines.
Guard Wesley Matthews is shooting 34.8 percent from the floor and from deep the last five games, both well below his season averages. Still, he's shown some aggressiveness and has gotten himself to the free-throw line five times a night to keep his offensive output afloat.
Aldridge -- along with center Meyers Leonard -- practiced yesterday with the team and both players' status will be announced in the hours before the game. On the season, Aldridge has put up 24 points on 46.6 percent shooting to go with over five free-throw attempts a night. With a couple weeks' worth of rest -- if you're not counting the 13 minutes he played in the All-Star game -- Aldridge may be able to find his way back to his normal shooting numbers, especially with Lillard playing with increased vigor.
Forward Nicolas Batum has been important in keeping things together since Portland coach Terry Stotts had his normal playing rotation temporarily derailed, scoring about 14 points a game and hitting almost half of all his shots. Add to that six rebounds and four assists, and it's clear how important Batum is in keeping the offense rolling, especially with a depleted lineup.
Center Robin Lopez continues his impressively steady output on the offensive end, hitting half of his shots as a safety valve, in pick-and-roll situations, off tip-ins and from second-chance points. Also note Lopez' 80 percent free-throw shooting rate, which is remarkable for a player his size.
Wings Will Barton, Dorell Wright, C.J. McCollum and Victor Claver have all seen plenty of situational time the last five games. Often Wright is a veteran presence with a reliable ability to catch and shoot the ball, also playing a lot of minutes out of position at power forward. McCollum is likely to create his own shots off the dribble, though he's been unable to capitalize on the minutes that have been up for grabs lately as he's not shooting as well as he was pre-All-Star break. Barton and Claver are both energy and hustle players, with Barton impressing fans the last several games with his ability to finish on the break.
As a whole, Portland's offense has actually been clicking pretty well lately, even with Aldridge, Leonard, Joel Freeland and Thomas Robinson -- who didn't practice yesterday -- all missing games the last couple weeks. The Blazers are scoring about 109 points a game while shooting 45.5 percent from the field, 39.4 percent from deep, attempting over 23 free-throws and turning the ball over only about a dozen times a night the last five outings.
Denver's defense has been pretty bad, as they've allowed over 105 points a game and 45 percent shooting from the field the last couple weeks. The Nuggets do have some ability to contain the perimeter -- they held the Blazers to 38.7 percent from outside on 12-31 shooting earlier this week -- so they're not completely defenseless. Still, they don't defend well in the paint, they don't force many turnovers and they don't defend well in transition, as evidenced by the 18 fast break points Portland hung on them Tuesday night.
Like the Blazers' offense, their defense has also stepped up since the All-Star break -- even considering some favorable scheduling and luck with opponents' injury troubles. Especially impressive has been Portland's ability to lock down the three-point line, as they're allowing a meager 29.9 percent from downtown for opponents lately.
Both the Blazers and Nuggets have reeled in 46 rebounds per game over the last five, but Denver demolished Portland on the boards Tuesday, 64-41, behind 25 from Hickson alone. Normally, that'd be a chasm too difficult for a team to surmount and still pull off the win, but the Nuggets found a way to lose behind some poor outside shooting and a 15-point disadvantage at the free-throw line. Neither of those factors are guarantees tonight, so Portland will have to put up a better effort on the glass if they want the win at home. Expect Lopez and Aldridge -- if he plays -- to be at normal strength, competing with Hickson, Faried and Mozgov for rebounds. The Blazers beat the Nets on the glass 53-29 Tuesday, so they're certainly capable of taking an opponent to task in the rebounding department.
Denver has looked really bad lately. They lost to the Nets two days ago by 23 points, about the average they've been losing by since they lost Lawson. If the Blazers can continue forcing turnovers and scoring off them, limit the Nuggets' effectiveness on the glass and continue shutting down the three-point line, this should be another game the Blazers could realistically win while Stotts' rotation gets back to full strength.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter