The Blazers end their five-game road trip tonight on a four-game skid, facing the New Orleans Pelicans in the Smoothie King Center.
New Orleans has won three of its last four games, but that mark was preceded by an eight-game losing streak that started after the All-Star break and went through early March.
Over their last five games, the Pelicans have performed with some inconsistency as a team. In three wins, they put up 132, 112 and 111 points against the Lakers, Bucks and Nuggets. In two losses, the Pelicans scored 89 against the Kings and 88 against the Grizzlies. Facing Milwaukee, the Pelicans attempted 80 shots, 20 of them threes. Two nights later, it was 90 shots and 14 three-pointers in a victory over Denver. Last game, New Orleans threw up 18 outside shots but only attempted 75 overall field-goals.
To say it's difficult to get a good read on the Pelicans would be an understatement, though for the most part they seem to adjust to the pace and style of play dictated by the opponent.
One thing for certain is that big man Anthony Davis has been playing out of his mind lately. Over his last five contests, Davis has attempted over 17 shots a game, making 52.3 percent of them for 26.2 points a night. He also gets to the free-throw line over 10 times a game and makes about 77 percent of those foul shots. Davis takes most of his shots close to the hoop, where he's able to finish well. He also steps out to the mid-range, his most accurate jumper coming from right near the charity-stripe. Expect a lot of shots from Davis tonight, considering the lack of height in Portland's depleted frontcourt outside of center Robin Lopez.
Guard Tyreke Evans, who missed last game with flu-like symptoms, drives directly to the hoop for half of the two-dozen points a game he's averaged recently. Many of his points also come at the free-throw line. If Evans wants to take jump-shots tonight, that would probably be beneficial for Portland, as he's a poor jump-shooter. On the season, he's made about 20 percent of his threes, but that number has spiked to about 37 percent his last five games, making Evans somewhat of a threat from outside. He's also picked up over 7 assists a night in that span, so his role in the offense is clearly important.
Apparently the flu was going around earlier this week, because guard Eric Gordon also sat out the game against the Grizzlies with illness. Nevertheless, he's been great lately, hitting half his shots from deep and from the field overall. Gordon likes to take it to the hoop, a decent finisher. His best shot, though, is the angled three-pointer. He'll take at least a couple of those, almost certainly in catch-and-shoot situations.
Wing Anthony Morrow has ramped up his aggressiveness lately, throwing up about 10 shots a night the last couple weeks. He prefers mid-range jumpers and threes. At 45.5 percent for the season, Morrow is among the league-leaders in three-point percentage, and he's hit about 39 percent of his long-range shots the last five games. Also upping his shot attempts recently is guard Brian Roberts, who is a great jump-shooter and can hit consistently from the mid-range. Roberts' outside shot sits at about 31 percent the last handful of games, but he's closer to 40 percent on the year and is capable from deep.
New Orleans coach Monty Williams gets the bulk of his team's scoring from the starters, but guard Austin Rivers comes off the bench for some instant offense. Though he's improved from a rookie season in which he shot 37 percent from the field, Rivers is still not particularly efficient, connecting on 43.5 percent of his attempts the last five games. He has, however, picked up a good amount of assists lately, averaging four a game in under 23 minutes of action.
Forward Al-Farouq Aminu is really the only other offensive threat off the bench, hitting about half his shots for six points a night. Centers Jeff Withey, Greg Stiemsma and Alexis Ajinca pick up minutes in William's frontcourt rotation but don't get up many shot attempts. Forward Luke Babbitt played 11 minutes on Wednesday and went 1-5 from the field and 0-3 from deep for his first game action in five outings.
The Pelicans' defense forces turnovers and keeps opposing teams' outside shooting at bay, but they can be scored on from just about anywhere else and they put teams at the foul line often. Their transition defense is average and they allow fairly easy ball movement.
The Blazers attempted about the same amount of overall field goals the last five games with All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge in the lineup as the five games he sat out late last month. The three-point shooting went up slightly, and the free-throw attempts went down with him on the bench, so expect similar results tonight if recent trends hold.
Point guard Damian Lillard has taken 15 shots a night the last several games but attempted 20 a game when Aldridge was out last month. Expect a lot of threes, a lot of drives to the basket and an effort to get points at the free-throw line. Lillard has been slightly under his season averages from both the field and from outside lately, but both skyrocketed to about 50 and 47 percent, respectively, when Aldridge last missed a stretch of games. Expect a huge effort from Lillard tonight, as he was already ramping up his shot-attempts the last couple games before Aldridge's injury occurred.
With sixth-man Mo Williams out, about 10-12 shots tonight will be up for grabs. Don't be surprised to see Wesley Matthews absorb a lot of them. He's shooting six threes and hitting about 37 percent of them the last couple weeks, and Portland coach Terry Stotts will need the floor-spacing Matthews is capable of providing. Expect him to work his way to the foul line tonight, as he's been picking up more shooting fouls the last several weeks.
Oddly enough, the last time Aldridge sat out a stretch of games, forward Nicolas Batum's shot-attempts went down per game. He's been a pretty average scorer lately, too.
Forward Dorell Wright could get the start tonight alongside Lopez in the frontcourt if Stotts' recent lineup history is any indication, as the coach has opted to stagger the minutes of Lopez and backup power forward Thomas Robinson when missing Aldridge and center Joel Freeland. Wright's had a recent tough stretch, hitting less than 40 percent of his field-goals and 20 percent of his threes, but he was big in the starting power forward role a few weeks ago, nailing almost half his overall shots and 41.2 percent of his threes. Davis provides an interesting challenge for him with his length and athleticism, though, so it remains to be seen how effective Wright will be as a stretch-four tonight.
Guard C.J. McCollum, wing Will Barton and Robinson will all be relied upon off the bench tonight for scoring, as Williams has been a spark as a Portland reserve all season. McCollum and Robinson have both been unable to string together consecutive efficient games lately. Barton has hit two thirds of his shots in Portland's last five games, though he received two DNP-CDs in that span and has only played six minutes a night when he has gotten in.
Lopez and backup center Meyers Leonard will probably have to manufacture some points from the center position. Leonard has played limited minutes lately but has hit half his shots, while Lopez has done the same but with extended playing time. Forward Victor Claver and guard Earl Watson will likely see some burn off the bench tonight, but neither has been much of a factor when they've gotten in lately.
The Blazers' defense was playing decent leading up to the last two games, when the Grizzlies and Spurs hammered them from the field and from outside. Without Aldridge late last month, Portland gave up more than 97 points just once -- to the Spurs. Granted, those other games were played against some pretty weak opponents, but the Pelicans are 26-38, unpredictable from game-to-game with the exception of Davis and Evans and have recently suffered losses to the Kings, Bobcats and Knicks that were a part of an eight-game losing streak. Also consider that New Orleans is just 15-15 at home this season, so they are beatable, even on the home court.
Lopez, Robinson and Leonard are going to have their hands full tonight trying to keep several good individual Pelicans rebounders off the glass. Davis cleans up the defensive boards, as do Ajinca, Aminu and Withey. Robinson excels on the offensive side, though, and he's never backed down before. Batum has also stepped up his rebounding in big ways lately, and his effort will be needed against a New Orleans frontcourt that includes two seven-footers in Ajinca and Withey, Stiemsma at 6-foot-11 and the 6-foot-10 Davis.
The Blazers will be tired tonight, playing without two key rotation players and at the end of a long, challenging road trip. They could easily throw up the white flag tonight -- not many people are expecting them to march out of New Orleans with a win, all things considered. Even so, the players are aware they need to step up their play, evidenced by a team-meeting in the locker room Wednesday night following a tough loss to the Spurs, marking the fourth loss in a row for Portland and its fifth in six games.
Tonight's game provides an opportunity for the Blazers to prove to themselves, their fans and the league that they can deal with adversity, even if it comes in the form of missing an All-Star and a sixth-man. With the recent play of Davis and Evans, a win on the Pelicans' home court might seem unlikely -- especially not on the tail-end of a tough road trip -- but not many predicted Portland would even be in a position to get win No. 43 in mid-March with 17 games still on the schedule, either. Expect Lillard to come out poised, and if he can get a sizable amount of help from his teammates on the offensive end, the Blazers could wrap up this road trip on a positive note.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter