The Blazers kick off a five-game road trip tonight when they take on the Dallas Mavericks at the American Airlines Center.
Injury update: Joe Freeman of The Oregonian reports that Blazers forward Thomas Robinson will return to the court after missing four games with a patella tendon strain in his left knee.
Much of the offense for Dallas is generated by three players -- forward Dirk Nowitzki, guard Monta Ellis and sixth-man wing Vince Carter.
Nowitzki creates more of his own offense than any of his teammates, scoring almost two-thirds of his shots off the dribble. He is a good shooter anywhere on the court, but the vast majority of his offense comes from the mid-range and beyond. At 35 years old and in his sixteenth season, Nowitzki is still able to get his shot off effectively, connecting on 52 percent of his field-goals the last five games. Though he's almost a 40 percent three-point shooter on the season, Nowitzki's outside shooting has largely failed him the last couple weeks as he's made less than 18 percent of his threes.
Ellis takes over half his shots in the paint, two-thirds of which are unassisted. He's pretty average at both finishing inside and at jump-shooting, though he leads the Mavericks lately with almost 18 shot-attempts a night. Occasionally Ellis steps out for three-pointers, where he's much better off the catch and hits about 39 percent of his tries.
Carter has been playing well lately, prompting Mavs fans to question if he's a legitimate Sixth-Man of the Year candidate at the age of 37. Carter -- once known largely for his athleticism and slashing ability -- is now much more of a jump-shooter. He doesn't usually excel at shooting from any one spot on the floor, but Carter is a reliable finisher in the paint, mid-range scorer and outside shooter. Over his last five games, though, he's been on fire from long-range, connecting on half of the seven three-pointers a night he takes.
The offensive production for Dallas then drops off pretty dramatically past the Nowitzki-Ellis-Carter trio.
Starting point guard Jose Calderon has some scoring chops, mostly used as an outside shooter. He's averaging 48 percent on his threes the last five games. Calderon also attacks the basket at times, but he's more utilized around the perimeter. Forward Shawn Marion is a great scorer inside, especially when set up by teammates.
Big men Brandan Wright and DeJaun Blair are good scorers in limited attempts and center Samuel Dalembert doesn't contribute much on offense. Guard Wayne Ellington is currently the best outside shooter on the team, hitting almost 55 percent of his threes off the bench. Point guard Devin Harris plays big minutes in a reserve role but has had a bad overall year and is slumping hard recently, hitting less than 15 percent of his field-goals and 10 percent of his three-pointers.
Dallas' offense hasn't been much of a problem this season. Since the third week of February, the Mavericks have scored 105 points a night, barely turned the ball over, shot the ball well from both inside and outside of the arc and passed the ball well. One glaring issue for Dallas offensively is that no one really gets to the free-throw line consistently. Even so, the Mavs have featured a pretty good offense.
The main problem, then, is that Dallas just can't get its defense together enough to win on scoring alone. Over the last five games, the Mavs have given up as many points as they've scored, allowing free ball movement en route to 49.3 percent field-goal shooting and 43.1 percent shooting from deep for opponents. They also put opposing teams at the free-throw line over 25 times a game. No matter how many points an offense puts on the board, it's difficult to get consistent wins while allowing that kind of efficiency for opponents.
Unfortunately for Dallas, one of its biggest weakness on defense is defending quick, scoring point guards.
Blazers guard Damian Lillard has averaged 23 points, 7.5 assists, 7.5 free-throw attempts and 46.7 percent shooting from deep in two games against the Mavericks this season. Since forward LaMarcus Aldridge made his return three games ago, Lillard has slowed down slightly, hitting about 45 percent of his field-goals and about 35 percent of his threes. If he wants to get his numbers back to there they were following the All-Star break when he was putting up about 30 points a night for a stretch, tonight would be a good game for Lillard to go off; Calderon's defense is widely and openly acknowledged by Dallas fans and media as one of the most glaring weaknesses of the Mavericks.
Aldridge has been easing back into his usual big minutes, calibrating his post moves and jump-shot since coming back after a couple weeks off with a sore groin. In his three games back from injury, Aldridge has hit just 36 percent of his shots, noticeably unable to establish any sort of consistent rhythm offensively. With the attention that Portland's backcourt is likely to receive tonight from Dallas coach Rick Carlisle's defensive scheme, Aldridge may be able to get back into the swing of things playing in front of his hometown crowd, where his game almost always seems to elevate.
Forward Nicolas Batum and guard Mo Williams have both gotten into a solid groove on offense the last five games, both hitting about half their shots and sitting in the mid-40s on three-pointers. Like Lillard, both players have averaged more than 4 assists a game recently, as the crisp passing and ball movement that was a trademark of Coach Terry Stotts' early and mid-season offense has reemerged after a rough February.
Center Robin Lopez has been aggressive in the middle recently, finding open looks when his defender leaves to help and in pick-and-roll situations. He's hit over 60 percent of his shots, good for over 14 points a game.
Guard Wesley Matthews has had a rough stretch of games, shooting much less than in weeks prior and making only 29.2 percent of his shots and 22.7 percent of his threes. Matthews will start the game likely guarded by Calderon or Ellis, and should look for his own shot early because neither is a good defender and both give up a size and weight advantage to him.
The bulk of the bench minutes -- after sixth-man Mo Williams -- will likely go to forward Dorell Wright, guards Will Barton and C.J. McCollum and center Meyers Leonard. Wright, Barton and McCollum have all been solid in limited attempts and all three have averaged at least 38 percent from outside the last five games. Leonard hasn't been a huge part of Stotts' offense, but when he's attempted shots, he's hit 56 percent of them lately.
The Blazers have played pretty well offensively the last few weeks, scoring almost 107 points a game on 45.2 percent shooting. They've launched a ton of threes but have only managed to convert on about 35 percent of them, so there's some room for improvement there. Turnovers have also been an issue at times. One area that has been key for Portland recently is free-throw shooting; Over the last five games, Lillard, Aldridge, Batum and Lopez have all gone to the line more than four times a night on average. As a whole, the Blazers have taken about 25 free-throws a game, and have converted on almost 85 percent of them.
Portland's defense -- in an extended home stand and against some weakened opponents -- has been phenomenal as of late, allowing only 91.2 points, 38.8 percent shooting from the field and 24.5 percent from outside. The Mavericks have a much more dynamic offense than any team the Blazers have faced recently, though, so Portland won't be able to coast tonight. Keep an eye on Nowitzki, as he's averaged 24 points in two games against the Blazers this season while hitting almost half his shots.
Dallas does not rebound well. Dalembert and Wright could be considered good individual rebounders, but neither usually plays more than 20 minutes a night. Lately, the Mavericks have put up some pretty paltry rebounding numbers, picking up about 36 a game in their last five. Compare that to the 50.4 a night Portland has averaged in that same timespan, and it looks like potential trouble on the boards for Dallas. Aldridge has slowed down a bit on the glass since returning from injury, but Lopez has been solid and Batum has been on a tear lately rebounding the ball, pulling in 16, 15 and 18 rebounds his last three games.
Tonight's game could be another high-scoring affair, as two efficient offenses face off for the third and final time this regular season. Expect Portland's backcourt to come out looking to have a big night, particularly from Lillard and especially if Carlisle decides to single-cover him with Calderon. Aldridge is also primed to have a big game, as he's been a bit quiet the last few outings and he'll be playing in front of friends and family tonight in Dallas. Don't sleep on Nowitzki, Ellis and Carter, though, because they've all played pretty good basketball recently, too. If the Blazers can put the clamps down on at least one of these three Mavs, they should be able to manufacture enough points against this defensively challenged Dallas roster to start this five-game trip out with a win.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter