The Blazers kick off a four-game road swing tonight when they match up with the Bobcats in Charlotte.
Charlotte plays a halfcourt, deliberate offense that starts with center Al Jefferson on the left block. They don't get up as many shots as two-thirds of the league, but the Bobcats are efficient within the arc and decent from outside. They move the ball well and don't commit many turnovers. A pretty glaring weakness for Charlotte is the lack of free-throws drawn per game; over the last five outings, they've only gone to the line 16.4 times on average.
Jefferson is the focal point of Bobcats coach Steve Clifford's offense, taking almost 20 shots a game his last five and scoring 21 points a night. Often regarded as an old-school post player and one of the most difficult bigs in the game to defend, Jefferson has helped carry his team from a 21-61 record last year to 33-36 and the No. 7 seed in the East since signing in Charlotte this past offseason. If allowed deep post penetration, Jefferson is likely to find a way to score. He can also extend his game out to about 10-15 feet, though he does his best work closer to the basket.
Point guard Kemba Walker often runs the pick-and-roll with Jefferson as a decent mid-range shooter but an average finisher at the rim. Walker has also picked up over 6 assists a game his last five, so he's a solid distributor. He's good off the catch from behind the arc, making almost 40 percent of his threes the last several contests. Walker benefits heavily from the inside-out game with Jefferson, as he is able to punish opposing defenses who collapse hard in the paint with his outside shooting.
Guard Gerald Henderson loves the mid-range shot, and he's been solid the last few weeks, hitting 54 percent of his attempts. He occasionally takes it to the hole, but is not an excellent finisher inside. Henderson is also a lights-out three-point shooter right now, connecting on over 43 percent of his threes the last five games, about 12 percentage points up from his season average from deep.
Guard Gary Neal comes off the bench but plays big minutes, destroying opposing defenses lately with his shooting. Over the last handful of games, Neal has picked up 15.8 points a night, hitting 57.6 percent of his shots and a ridiculous 64.3 percent of his threes.
Power forward Josh McRoberts gets the start for Clifford, but he can't hit anything right now, making only a third of his field-goals and a quarter of his threes the last five games. McRoberts loves the three-point shot, putting up almost five of them a night. The Blazers need to prevent Walker, Henderson and Neal from shooting from deep but if one guy is left open tonight from beyond the arc, it should be McRoberts, because he'll willingly shoot threes and he's likely to miss unless he gets back on track in a big way tonight.
Clifford really spreads out the offense once he starts getting into the middle and end of his 10-man rotation. Small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist loves taking it to the basket, and finishes pretty well. Forward Chris Douglas-Roberts has hit 43.8 percent of his threes the last couple weeks and center Cody Zeller has hit over half his shots in that span. Guard Luke Ridnour and forward Anthony Tolliver are both struggling offensively off the bench, and center Bismack Biyombo rounds out the reserves but rarely gets involved with his shooting.
The Bobcats play pretty respectable defense, considering how many minutes Jefferson gets in the middle and his reputation as a poor defender. For what it's worth, he's had a career-low defensive rating this year in his tenth season, so Clifford's defensive gameplan has clearly been effective. Charlotte does not allow fastbreak points, shuts down the paint, rarely puts opposing teams at the line and defends opposing offenses well within the arc. The Bobcats don't force a ton of turnovers and they're average at limiting easy ball movement.
The Blazers should match up fairly well with Charlotte offensively, as they are at their best when whipping the ball around the perimeter and finding open threes, a shot the Bobcats don't defend well. Portland doesn't rely on fastbreak points, forcing turnovers or scoring in the paint -- though all those things can help the Blazers when done well -- so Charlotte's defensive strengths will be somewhat moot tonight. The Bobcats' inability to defend the three-point line consistently, meanwhile, plays right into one of Portland's strengths.
Point guard Damian Lillard hasn't been particularly efficient the last handful of games, but his scoring has usually been at opportune times. His ability to finish consistently within the lane is a bit off right now and he's only hit 25 percent of his threes the last five games, but he's good for almost six assists and seven trips to the free-throw line.
Guard Wesley Matthews has led the Blazers in scoring the last couple games, effectively playing himself back into form while taking on a bigger role in the offense with forward LaMarcus Aldridge in street clothes. Matthews hasn't dialed in his jumper and his offense within the paint as much, making just under 45 percent of his field-goals the last five games, but he's spreading the floor well, hitting 41.2 percent of his threes on almost seven attempts a night.
If you thought Matthews had cranked up the offense lately, you're bound to be impressed by forward Nicolas Batum's output. Since March 12, he's averaged 18.2 points, 5.2 assists, 48.4 percent shooting and 45.5 percent on his three-pointers. With Matthews and Batum hitting threes at the rate they are and with the amount of good looks they usually get from the perimeter, they're going to be tough for Charlotte to defend.
Center Robin Lopez hits just over half his shots for about a dozen points a night. Stretch-four Dorell Wright, starting at power forward in place of Aldridge, has canned 40 percent of the five threes a game he's taken in his last five outings. Against the Wizards he went 3-6 from deep, a nice bounce back from his 0-7 outside shooting performance against the Bucks Tuesday night.
Sixth-man Mo Williams comes off the bench for some instant offense for Blazers coach Terry Stotts, hitting half his three-pointers and overall field-goals since coming back from injury a few games back. Wings Will Barton and C.J. McCollum haven't been able to make the most of extended minutes lately, both struggling to find consistency, though Barton occasionally makes the highlight-reel with his above-the-rim game. Forward Victor Claver finally came uncorked offensively against the Wizards Thursday night, scoring seven points on five attempts. Forward Thomas Robinson always brings the energy, for better or for worse. If his jumper is falling, Robinson looks much better. If not, things can get a bit ugly if he doesn't pull back on the reins. Center Meyers Leonard hasn't really gotten consistent minutes from game-to-game lately, and when he has gotten time, he hasn't looked impressive with the ball.
Portland's defense has been mostly average lately, as they've allowed 45.3 percent from the field the last five games. In that span the Blazers have given up 41.3 percent shooting from deep, a difficult number to overcome against teams that can hit three-pointers. They also need to find a way to consistently slow Jefferson down low; Lopez may be effective but he could also struggle against a player with such a diverse offensive repertoire in the paint, Wright's too small, Robinson too inexperienced and Leonard would likely not look very good. Might Stotts opt to defend Jefferson straight up, seal the perimeter and let the chips fall as they may? He could try sending the double, but a big part of Charlotte's offense is Jefferson's ability to kick it out when opposing defenses bring extra heat against him. Portland will also have to figure out a way to stop the Walker-Jefferson pick-and-roll, as Lillard has struggled in those situations before.
The Bobcats are the best defensive rebounding team in the NBA, a good match up for the Blazers, one of the league's premiere offensive rebounding teams. Jefferson, Biyombo and Zeller vacuum up rebounds down low on the defensive end, while Kidd-Gilchrist -- like Batum -- contributes incredibly well on the boards from the small forward position. Lopez, Robinson and possibly Claver or Leonard will be challenged to get their normal offensive rebounds, but they should be able to corral boards on the other end as Charlotte is quick to get back on defense and doesn't prioritize crashing the offensive glass. Keep an eye on the matchup between Batum and Kidd-Gilchrist, as it'll be interesting to see which skilled rebounder can come out on top from an often tertiary rebounding position on the court.
It appears Portland should have a solid advantage with the ball, as Stotts should be able to find open shots for his players around the perimeter. Scoring inside will be difficult, but hitting those threes consistently almost always opens things up. Lopez also has a solid size advantage over Jefferson, so his offense could come into play tonight, much as it did against the Bucks.
Expect a hard-fought game on the boards and a perimeter battle from both sides as the Blazers try to find a way to prevent Jefferson from doing whatever he wants down low. If Portland can dampen Charlotte's ability to hit threes, the Blazers could probably weather the damage from Jefferson if he has a big night. They also have to hit their own open looks from outside, because they won't be finding many close to the hoop. If Lillard, Matthews, Batum and Wright spread the floor like they are capable of, they'll have a solid chance of kicking off this road trip with a win.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter