Former Trail Blazer, 2013 Sixth Man of the Year vote-getter and two-time chalupa deliveryman Luke Babbitt makes his first return to Portland on the visitor's bench when the New Orleans Pelicans land in the Moda Center tonight to take on the Blazers for the fourth and final meeting between the two teams this season.
The Pelicans have had a rough week, losing four-straight games -- including losses to the Kings, Jazz and a blowout defeat at the hands of the Nuggets -- immediately following a five-game win streak the week prior.
Since then, however, sophomore phenom Anthony Davis, forward, has struggled to get consistent time and production on the court as he's been limited due to back spasms. New Orleans' injury list already included guards Eric Gordon and Jrue Holiday to go along with bigs Jason Smith and Ryan Anderson.
With the Pelicans' playoff aspirations far behind in the rearview mirror, coach Monty Williams has been tinkering with his lineups -- much to the chagrin of many a New Orleans fan -- and evaluating the talent on the roster in preparation for the offseason. This lineup shuffling, coupled with the rash of injuries to the team this year, has led Williams to go deep to his bench, playing all 11 of his available, active players at least 13.7 minutes a game over the last five.
Guard Tyreke Evans has led the Pelicans in minutes per game in that span, averaging just under 31 a night. A slasher without much of an outside shot, Evans has averaged 19 points on 51 percent shooting in three matchups with the Blazers this season. In his last five games, he's hit just 42.1 percent of his shots but gotten to the line five times a night. Evans is an effective passer, racking up over 6 assists a game in that span, but he's also coughed the ball up almost five times per contest.
Starting point guard Brian Roberts -- a 28-year-old success story having a breakout year after spending several seasons playing overseas -- is a great outside shooter on a team that attempts only about 14 threes a night, connecting on 41.7 percent of his long-range tries the last five games. He's a good mid-range shooter and can get inside, though he's a subpar finisher in the middle. Roberts dropped 19 points in a loss to Portland three weeks ago, making eight of his 14 shots while only attempting two three-pointers.
Guard Anthony Morrow has led New Orleans in scoring average the last several outings, putting up 18.4 points a night on just 10.6 shots. He can take it inside, has a reliable jumper and is a great outside shooter, particularly from the corners. Morrow is riding a hot shooting streak the last five games, hitting 60.4 percent of his field-goals and torching the nets with 63.2 percent shooting from beyond the arc in under 28 minutes a night. He scored 26 points on 9-of-11 shooting in a loss Friday to the Jazz.
The scoring in Williams' offense dries up a little once he gets past Evans, Roberts and Morrow in the rotation. Since the Pelicans' last win five games ago against the Jazz on March 28, starting small forward Darius Miller has averaged 7 points on 41.4 percent shooting from the field while making just a quarter of his threes. Guard Austin Rivers has numbers strikingly similar to Miller's and Davis has struggled to get nine points a game on six shots, after averaging almost 21 points on 52.3 percent shooting for the season. Davis -- who struggled in 23 minutes Friday night in Utah, eventually leaving the game for good in the third quarter with back spasms -- clearly isn't 100 percent healthy right now.
Forward Al-Farouq Aminu has played almost 27 minutes a night the last five games and has hit almost half his shots, but only attempts five per contest. Same goes for center Greg Stiemsma, though he plays about eight fewer minutes than Aminu. Former Blazers draft pick Jeff Withey, center, has played 20 minutes a game over his last five, averaging an insane 92.9 percent from the field, attempting about three shots a night. Fellow big man Alexis Ajinca plays almost as many minutes as Withey but shoots about 39 percent from the floor. Babbitt brings up the rear of Williams' 11-man rotation, playing almost 14 minutes a night the last several games, hitting just 28.6 percent of his field-goals and a quarter of his three-pointers in that span, averaging 3.4 points an outing.
The Pelicans have scored 96.4 points a game since their last win in Utah over a week ago, converting on 46.5 percent of their field-goals in one of the NBA's slowest-paced offenses. New Orleans has only attempted 13.6 threes a game the last five, making 35.3 percent of them. They're average in assists, fast break points and at turning the ball over, but the Pelicans have drawn a ton of foul-shots lately, going to the line almost 30 times a game the last five.
New Orleans' defense does not shut down the paint well, and it's allowed opponents to shoot 50.5 percent from the floor the last several games and 41.8 percent from deep, one of the worst marks in the league. The Pelicans foul often and allow fairly easy ball movement, though they do force a lot of turnovers.
The Blazers had won four straight prior to the loss at home Friday night to the Suns. In the last five games, Portland's shot a decent 46.3 percent from the floor and an impressive 38.9 percent from deep on about 23 three-point attempts a night. The effort to get to the foul line has waned recently for the Blazers, though they got there 27 times against the Suns; unfortunately, they only made 17 of those attempts in an uncharacteristically poor shooting night from the stripe.
Portland's defense has been pretty stout the last couple weeks, allowing 95.6 points a game, 42.2 percent shooting and 28.4 percent from deep, all top-six or higher numbers in the NBA for that timespan. Second chance points sunk the Blazers in the loss to Phoenix Friday night as they got out-hustled in the final quarter, losing the period 30-13.
Power forward LaMarcus Aldridge struggled to get 18 points against the Suns, making just eight of his 18 attempts. He's averaged 23 points on about 43 percent shooting from the floor in two matchups this year against the Pelicans, but he's needed almost 25 shots a game to get there. With Davis possibly out or not fully healthy tonight, Aldridge's opportunities to score should be plenty, as he'll likely line up against one of New Orleans' immobile backup bigs for stretches of the game.
Guard Damian Lillard had a hard time getting to 15 points last game, though over the last five he's hit 43.2 percent of his shots and 45.7 percent of his threes. In three games against the Pelicans this year, Lillard has risen to the occasion, scoring over 28 points on 51.8 percent field-goal shooting and 46.2 percent shooting from deep. The last time these two teams met, Lillard scored 27 points, getting to the free-throw line 10 times.
Forward Nicolas Batum, sixth man Mo Williams and center Robin Lopez have all averaged about a dozen points a night the last five contests, with Batum and Williams both at about 43 percent shooting from outside in that span. Lopez has made two-thirds of his shots the last couple weeks, while Williams has hit half his attempts. Batum has pulled in over 5 assists a game the last five, also making almost 47 percent of his field-goals.
Guard Wesley Matthews had a difficult time shooting the ball Friday against the Suns, going 3-of-9 from the field and 1-for-4 from deep. He's struggled to contribute consistently on offense the last several games, making just 36.5 percent of his shots and 34.6 percent of his threes. Things could turn around for Matthews tonight against the Pelicans, though, as he's cashed in 45.2 percent of his field-goals against them while averaging 18.7 points a game in three meetings.
Portland coach Terry Stotts hasn't been able to get a consistent effort from wing Will Barton off the bench lately, and backup small forward Dorell Wright continued his shooting slump against Phoenix a couple nights ago, as he's made just over 27 percent of his shots the last five games and just a quarter of his threes. Backup power forward Thomas Robinson turned the ball over four times in 15 minutes Friday night, but the last couple weeks he's been a great scorer off the bench, making two-thirds of his shots.
New Orleans has struggled rebounding the ball lately, no surprise considering Williams' decision to play inexperienced big men extended minutes over the final stretch of the season. Though playing hurt, Davis is still an effective rebounder in limited playing time. Aminu and Ajinca aren't bad, either. Normally a good offensive rebounding team, the Pelicans haven't been as strong on that end lately. The Blazers got crushed on the glass Friday night, out-rebounded by the Suns 59-48 while giving up 23 offensive boards. Lopez, Batum and Robinson brought it, but Aldridge had a rough outing. Tonight's game could provide a good bounce back opportunity for Portland's rebounders, as New Orleans is relying on some inexperienced players in the frontcourt right now.
The Pelicans should be a beatable team tonight at home for the Blazers, as they're missing several key components and likely playing with an injured Davis. Evans and Morrow are really the only two players able to score in bulk for New Orleans right now, and shutting either of them down would put Portland in the driver's seat. Considering the dearth of experience in the Pelican's frontline, Aldridge should also be able to establish himself offensively tonight.
A win for the Blazers wouldn't necessarily secure them a playoff spot -- the Mavericks, Suns or Grizzlies would also have to lose tonight -- but reaching 50 wins would be an impressive feat for the team, considering preseason expectations. If Portland plays with the effort it displayed for the first three quarters Friday night against the Suns, expect streamers to come down from the rafters at the Moda Center tonight after the final horn. If the Blazers carry over their effort from the fourth period Friday night, though, this New Orleans squad certainly still has enough talent on the roster to take out an unmotivated team.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter