Sacramento Kings (16-24, No. 12 in the West) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (30-11, No. 2 in the West)
Monday, January 19
Moda Center; Portland, OR | 7:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNWHD; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: | Out for the Kings: DeMarcus Cousins (day-to-day), Carl Landry (day-to-day), Ramon Sessions (day-to-day), Eric Moreland
SBN Affiliate: Sactown Royalty | Timmay's Viewing Guide | Blazer's Edge Night
The Blazers try to end a three-game skid tonight at home against the Sacramento Kings on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
Portland's lack of depth has begun to show recently, as the team faced three straight Western Conference playoff contenders last week and dropped all three games. With center Robin Lopez out since mid-December with an injured hand and big man Joel Freeland shelved since January 5 due to a shoulder injury, the Blazers were able to win their first four games with emergency starting center Chris Kaman manning the middle and third-year big Meyers Leonard scooping up the majority of reserve minutes down low.
Two of those four wins came against the Lakers (12-29, No. 14 in the West) and one each came against the Heat (18-22, No. 7 in the East) and Magic (15-29, No 13 in the East). In the three proceeding losses that came against the Clippers (27-14, No. 6 in the West), Spurs (26-16, No. 7 in the West) and Grizzlies (29-11, No. 3 in the West), Portland lost in fairly convincing fashion, even with All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge averaging 31 points and 9.7 rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the field.
When fully healthy and with Lopez and Freeland in the frontcourt and Kaman coming off the pine as the third or fourth big in the rotation, the Blazers already have one of the least productive benches in the NBA; With Kaman and his ability to score thrust into the starting lineup, Portland's reserves struggle even more mightily to produce.
This isn't a knock on Leonard, however, as he's averaged 8.9 points and 6.9 rebounds in 21.4 minutes a night since Freeland got hurt seven games back, hitting 59 percent of his shots and 43.8 percent of his threes. Though he sputtered a bit in the loss to the Grizzlies Saturday night, this is, essentially, the best two-week stretch of Leonard's two-and-a-half-year career so far and he's surprised many doubters with his unexpected solid play.
Still, Blazers coach Terry Stotts has been unable to find a decent bench rotation with Lopez and Freeland ailing, and they're on a three-game losing streak with the Kings coming into town tonight.
Sacramento has had a turbulent season -- 16 games into the year, after the Kings surprised many NBA fans with a 9-7 start, center DeMarcus Cousins went down with viral meningitis and missed the team's next 10 contests. Before Cousins came back, though, then-Sacramento coach Mike Malone was let go due to a conflict with the front office regarding basketball philosophy.
The Kings were 2-7 without Cousins in the lineup, and since they replaced Malone with interim coach Tyrone Corbin, they've won just five of their 16 games.
Prior to Malone's firing, Sacramento had a middling Offensive Rating of 103.6, good for No. 15 in the league, and a No. 19 Defensive Rating of 104.2, according to NBA.com. In the 16 games since Corbin took over, the Kings have maintained their Offensive Rating but their Defensive Rating has jumped to 108, No. 27 in the NBA.
Cousins -- who missed the team's loss to the Clippers Saturday with an ankle injury and is considered "day-to-day" -- shoots half his attempts at the rim and has a pretty solid touch down low. He can step back into the midrange where he's a decent shooter, able to face up opposing bigs or back them down to the basket. NBA coaches and players are beginning to make the case for Cousins as an All-Star, and for good reason: He's among the league's elite scorers and rebounders, vastly improving the on-court success of his team when he plays.
Like Aldridge for the Blazers, Cousins snares enough attention from opposing defenses that he opens up shots for his teammates -- he's averaging 3.3 assists per game this year from the center position -- which has helped wing Rudy Gay put together arguably the best season of his nine-year career as a result.
The one-two scoring punch of Cousins and Gay can put a hurting on opposing defenses, and Portland found that out the hard way when Gay dropped 40 points on them in the second game of the season in a 103-94 loss to the Kings. His outside shot is much-improved this year and he's able to take defenders off the dribble, getting into the paint for many of his shots and finishing solidly. Gay is a decent midrange shooter and also finds teammates for good looks fairly often.
Point guard Darren Collison has had a good season, shooting reliably from deep and picking up plenty of assists. He takes a lot of jumpers and hits about 43.8 percent of them and finishes pretty well in the paint, but Collison's favorite spot is the corner-three from the right side of the court, which he's hit at a 48.1 percent rate this season.
Outside of the Cousins-Gay-Collison trio, however, Sacramento lacks consistent contributors and is in need of better shooting.
Second-year guard Ben McClemore shoots half his shots from deep and has been a serviceable 35.9 percent from deep on the year, but his outside shooting has dipped quite a bit recently and so has his production. Forward Carl Landry can score both from inside and well into the midrange, but gets limited touches in limited time; the same is pretty much true for center Jason Thompson.
Wing Omri Casspi has evolved into an efficient penetrating scorer after spending much of his early career hanging around the perimeter, but he doesn't shoot often. Reserve guards Ray McCallum and Nik Stauskas haven't been able to score consistently from anywhere and tweener-forward Derrick Williams is still having a rough time trying to figure out which position he's best suited for and how he can be most effective.
The Kings have been decent at defending the three-point line recently but have a shaky team defense, otherwise. They give up a ton of fastbreak points and baskets inside, fouling quite often. Cousins' health plays a big part in how Sacramento operates defensively, but the Kings are not a stout defense either way.
Portland has needed big games from its All-Star duo of Aldridge and point guard Damian Lillard to keep up with the opposition lately. When one fails to deliver, the Blazers just don't have the depth right now to keep up with the league's better teams. Aldridge chipped in 32 points, Lillard 23 and guard Wesley Matthews poured in 25 against the Grizzlies Saturday night, but their teammates combined to score just 18 points and the result was a 102-98 loss. So even when Portland's getting solid games from its top-three scorers, wins are still hard to come by against good opponents.
Lillard hasn't been his normal self offensively the last few outings, often struggling through the first halves of games before turning it on late. Aldridge has done well to pace the Blazers with his offense as much as possible, but teams are building big enough leads against them that even Lillard's patented fourth-quarter offensive barrages aren't always enough to steal victories. Collison is not a great individual defender and the Kings struggle to defend both the perimeter and the paint, so Lillard should be poised for another big outing tonight.
Matthews had a couple terrible consecutive shooting nights from deep last week, but sank seven of his 14 outside attempts Saturday against Memphis and became Portland's all-time leading three-point shooter. Matthews' long-range shooting is key to the Blazers' attack, as it helps spread the floor and opens shots up for his teammates.
Wing Nicolas Batum continued his struggles from the floor on Saturday and finished with three points. Like Matthews, Batum's outside shooting keeps opposing teams honest and prevents them from going all-in against Aldridge and Lillard.
Kaman has been up-and-down as a starter -- as a you might expect from a 32-year-old journeyman forced into starting duty -- and as many have observed, is much better off the bench where his shooting skill and touch around the rim can earn him easier points against other reserves. Against starters, though, Kaman sometimes has a more difficult time holding onto the ball and doesn't shoot as well.
Great performances from Stotts' bench players have been pretty few and far between recently, with Leonard's contributions and a solid night for guard CJ McCollum against the Spurs the two exceptions. Otherwise, guards Steve Blake, Allen Crabbe and Will Barton, along with forwards Thomas Robinson and Dorell Wright have been underwhelming at best the last handful of games. With Kaman starting, Stotts needs at least one of these players to help Leonard out with the scoring load off the bench and so far, no one has with any regularity.
Cousins is a beast of a rebounder on both ends of the court, and Thompson is pretty solid, as well. The Kings are one of the better rebounding teams in the league, and the Blazers will have to get a body on Cousins both offensively and defensively, because Sacramento is capable of registering big points off second chances. Aldridge, Kaman and Leonard will have their hands full tonight with Cousins, Thompson, Landry and potentially Reggie Evans. Tonight might be a good night for Robinson's energy on the glass, facing the team that drafted him No. 5 overall in 2012 before trading him eight months later.
Portland's chances against Sacramento tonight hinge largely on Cousins' status; If he plays, the Blazers will have to gameplan for a player who has historically played well against them. Without Lopez and Freeland, they'll struggle to stop Cousins and may end up single-covering him with Kaman, Leonard and Aldridge, conceding the potential-All-Star center plenty of points while staying at home against his teammates and making them work for their own shots. This strategy has worked in the past for Portland against Sacramento, but the Blazers need to respond with both solid defense against the rest of the Kings and plenty of points of their own on the other end of the court to snap their current three-game losing streak.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter
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