The Blazers play the Washington Wizards at the Moda Center tonight, a game after slipping past the league-worst Bucks in overtime on Tuesday.
Similarly to Portland, Washington is currently in a battle for playoff positioning. At 35-32, they sit in the No. 6 slot in the East, a half game behind the No. 5 Nets and three games ahead of the No. 7 Bobcats. The Wizards do not want to fall in the seventh slot, as that would mean a date in the first round with either the Heat or Pacers. Finishing in sixth, fifth or fourth would likely match Washington up with either the Raptors, Bulls or Nets -- much more winnable first-round series.
The Wizards dropped an overtime game to the Kings Tuesday night, so expect a sense of urgency from them if they are serious about a legitimate playoff run. At 18-16, Washington is tied with Toronto for the Eastern Conference's best road record so far this season, showing that they're definitely a capable visiting team.
Guard John Wall is the hub of Washington coach Randy Wittman's offense, picking up 7.4 assists and almost 20 points a game over his last five while shooting over 47 percent from the field and a scorching 62.5 percent from beyond the arc. The outside shooting might appear to be to be a fluke -- Wall is a 30.7 percent shooter from deep over his four years in the league -- but he's hitting a career-best 35.8 percent of his threes this year and over his current hot shooting stretch, Wall's attempted almost five three-pointers a game.
Besides adding the long-range shot to his arsenal this year, Wall also is one of the NBA's most threatening guards off the dribble, scoring over three-quarters of his attempts withinin the arc via offense created for himself. About half the time, he'll take it all the way to the hole as a decent finisher. Wall also likes the pull-up jumper, a reliable shot for him.
Second-year guard Bradley Beal actually has been taking more shots than anyone for the Wizards the last several games, though he's not been as efficient as Wall offensively. Beal relies on his jumper a lot, able to create his own offense off the dribble. Over the last couple weeks, he's gone 38 percent from the field and 35.5 percent from deep. Those aren't terrible numbers -- especially for an outside shooter who attempts over six threes a game -- but Beal was a more efficient scorer earlier in the season when he and Wall were taking the same amount of shots; over the last five games, Beal's averaged 18.4 shots a night, four more than his All-Star backcourt teammate. Generally, he should be encouraged by opposing defenses to rely on his mid-range jumper, as Beal hasn't mastered that shot yet but still prefers it.
Center Marcin Gortat has stepped up since big man Nene has been out with an injured knee the last few weeks, taking about a dozen shots a night in that span. Gortat is a crafty scorer underneath the basket, but the further out he's forced, the less reliable his shot is. He'll take a smattering of 10-foot jumpers, though he's an average shooter.
Small forward Trevor Ariza started the month off solid, even registering 40 points in a win over the Sixers three weeks ago, but he's since cooled off quite a bit. In his last five games, Ariza's averaging 11 points a night but takes that many shots to reach his scoring total. He's hitting just a third of his field-goals and a quarter of his threes over that span, way down from his season averages of 45.6 percent shooting from the field and 41.9 percent from deep. Ariza loves the corner threes, putting up a ton of them. He'll take the occasional mid-range jumper, too, but Ariza either takes it inside or shoots from outside for the most part.
Power forward Trevor Booker gets the start in the frontcourt, but isn't a large part in Washington's offense.
Wittman has been going with a pretty strict nine-man rotation lately, bringing in forward Martell Webster off the bench for big minutes. Normally a three-point specialist, Webster's gone a bit cold from outside in recent weeks, making less than a third of his threes.
The next three players off the bench for the Wizards compose maybe the most veteran reserve rotation in the NBA. The recently signed Drew Gooden, forward, picks up about 20 minutes a night, guard Andre Miller plays about 15 and stretch-big man Al Harrington logs about 15 of his own. Between the three, there's 43 years of combined NBA experience and an average age of almost 35 years.
Miller has taken on a distributing role, picking up almost four assists a game off the bench the last several games. Blazers fans will be familiar with his veteran presence, and he's also responsible for some of the greatest fake timeout plays performed in a Portland uniform.
Gooden has been a high-volume shooting presence off the bench, maximizing his minutes with about eight shots a night while making 58.5 percent of them. Harrington's not a huge threat at this point in his career, but can still hit threes if left open.
The Wizards have relied on three-pointers to stay in games lately, averaging almost 27 attempts per game the last five and making 37.6 percent of them. Washington gets up a lot of shots, but shoots poorly from within the arc. They're pretty bad at drawing fouls and making free-throws, turn the ball over with regularity and are average at moving the ball.
The defense for the Wizards is just as inconsistent as the offense, as it allows opposing teams to score with relative ease from all spots on the floor. With solid defenders like Wall and Ariza on the wings able to force turnovers, Washington is able to play the passing lanes well and get out on the fastbreak. The Wizards don't put opposing teams at the line often, but they do give up the mid-range and are average at defending the paint.
Portland guard Damian Lillard has had some big scoring outputs the last several games, averaging about 26 points a night. Still, he's been sub-40 percent from the field in that span and has made just 27.5 percent of his threes. Lillard has bolstered his scoring with over eight trips to the lane per game his last five, hitting about 88 percent of his free-throws.
Wing Nicolas Batum had an interesting game against the Bucks a couple nights ago, scoring 21 points -- 19 of them in the first half -- to go along with nine rebounds and nine asissts, just missing a triple-double. He's hit over 45 percent of his shots the last couple weeks and almost half his threes, both solid marks as Batum's been a big part of Blazers coach Terry Stotts' offense in the absence of forward LaMarcus Aldridge.
Guard Wesley Matthews busted out of a recent shooting slump in the win over the Bucks, scoring 26 points on 8-15 shooting from the field and going 5-7 from deep. If Matthews can keep that efficiency up and not revert back to the way he'd been playing lately, it'll help take the scoring burden off Lillard and open up the lane for center Robin Lopez, who has been consistent when he's had open space in the key all season. Over his last five games, he's made over half his shots for about a dozen points a night. Against a Wizards frontcourt rotation that is relatively short, Lopez could be a difference-maker again tonight after dropping 15 points on the Bucks last game on 7-12 shooting.
Starting power forward Dorell Wright had maybe his worst offensive outing as a Blazer a couple nights ago, missing all seven of his three-point attempts and his lone two-point field-goal. Before the horrible shooting night against the Bucks, Wright seemed like he was getting into an offensive groove. Even with the 0-fer performance, he's still been good for 36.8 percent of his threes the last several games.
By now you've probably noticed that Stotts hasn't settled on his bench rotation heading into the stretch-run of the regular season. Guard Mo Williams will get his minutes off the bench, and he's been great for Portland offensively the last few games, hitting over half his field-goals and 55.6 percent of his three-pointers.
Forward Thomas Robinson and wing Will Barton have played in each of the last five games, something big men Meyers Leonard, Victor Claver and guard C.J. McCollum can't say. The only solid performer on offense for Portland's reserves -- outside of Williams, of course -- has been Robinson, who's hit almost half his shots the last couple weeks. Leonard has been inconsistent at best, McCollum has been downright bad shooting the ball and Claver has hardly looked for his own shot at all, even when given minutes.
The Blazers defense has been pretty ugly the last handful of games, allowing 48 percent shooting from the field and 41.5 percent from deep. Opposing teams have pasted big scoring nights on Portland with consistency, while moving the ball with relative ease and not being forced into turnovers. The Blazers will have to step up their perimeter defense tonight, because Wall is on fire from deep right now and there are four other capable outside shooters on the Wizards.
Washington is pretty ineffective on the offensive glass, but good on the other end behind the individual work on the boards from Gortat and Gooden, who are both great rebounders. Booker and Ariza can't be ignored, either. Lopez and Robinson have been difficult for opposing teams to stop with their offensive rebounding lately. Batum has also nabbed a ton of rebounds the last several weeks from his wing position, allowing guys like Wright and Barton to get in on the action, too. As a team, though, the Blazers have struggled on the glass at times without Aldridge, while the Wizards have rebounded pretty competitively the last few weeks.
Both teams tonight are missing important frontcourt players -- Nene for Washington, Aldridge for Portland -- and have stumbled a bit lately. The Wizards are looking to get back on the winning track after going 2-3 their last five games. The Blazers have the same record in that span, and got past Milwaukee Tuesday thanks in large part to the Bucks' inability to hit free-throws down the stretch.
Washington will be looking to steal a road win tonight to put some space between them and Charlotte for the sixth playoff seed in the East while also trying to gain some ground on the fifth-place Nets. Portland, meanwhile, is trying not to limp into the postseason with the Warriors breathing down its neck for the fifth seed out West.
Whichever team comes more focused out of the gate tonight will have a huge upper hand over the opponent, as both the Wizards and Blazers have been notorious for slow starts recently.
It's also Blazer's Edge Night 2014 in the Moda Center, so here's hoping Portland puts on a great performance for the 1,200 Portland-area youth and their chaperons who will be in attendance for tonight's game thanks to the donations of Blazer's Edge readers.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter