Portland Trail Blazers (31-12, No. 2 in the West)
Thursday, January 22
Moda Center; Portland, OR | 7:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: KGWHD; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: | Out for the Celtics: James Young (day-to-day)
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The Blazers return home tonight to host the Boston Celtics in the second half of a back-to-back.
Portland took the Suns to the final seconds last night in Phoenix, but a spirited comeback in the fourth period fell short as a 40-point first quarter by the Suns proved insurmountable for the injury-depleted Blazers.
Forward Dorell Wright got the start at power forward in place of the injured LaMarcus Aldridge, as Blazers coach Terry Stotts opted to go with the 28-year-old veteran's experience and ability to stretch the floor with the starters. Center Chris Kaman got the nod opposite Wright in the starting frontcourt and bigs Thomas Robinson and Meyers Leonard played significant minutes off the bench, while forward Victor Claver was left out of the rotation.
Aldridge will again be out of the lineup today as the team awaits further MRI results on his injured left thumb, and Stotts will likely stick with a similar rotation tonight against the Celtics.
Boston has had its own share of roster-shuffling the last several weeks, after President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge shipped long-time point guard Rajon Rondo to the Mavericks in return for forwards Jae Crowder and Brandan Wright (since waived), point guard Jameer Nelson and a few picks. Last week, forward Jeff Green -- the team's leading scorer to that point -- was sent to the Grizzlies in a three-team trade that netted the Celtics wings Tayshaun Prince and Austin Rivers (since traded) and more picks.
Ainge clearly has Boston in rebuild mode, acquiring a mind-boggling amount of current and future draft picks that are nearly impossible to keep track of due to a confusing number of protections and potential swaps down the road. The short story, though, is that the Celtics are eschewing competitiveness in the short term for the chance at better draft picks down the road and with the interest of developing the young talent already on the team.
Boston coach Brad Stevens has moved Evan Turner into the starting lineup at point guard, a position he's never played full-time before in his five-year career. The results have been as expected, as the Celtics have gone 1-3 since the Green trade last week. Turner's responded to his positional shift by increasing his production as a distributor but struggling to hit his own shots, creating more of his own offense than any of his teammates the last five games but making just 35.9 percent of his field goals and 20 percent of his three-pointers in that span.
As a whole, Boston's offensive production has been fairly average lately, but the pace has slowed significantly as Stevens is integrating new players into his system and operating without Rondo and Green, his two best players prior to their respective departures.
Guard Avery Bradley starts across Turner in the backcourt, shooting mostly three-pointers and jumpers, struggling with both lately. Bradley sometimes gets into the paint but isn't a great finisher and doesn't create much offense for teammates.
Forward Jae Crowder has found his way into the starting lineup for Bradley, and he's capitalized on his increased minutes recently by hitting 55 percent of his shots the last five games. Crowder's best shooting comes from the midrange, but he can also score inside.
Perhaps no other Celtic has seized the opportunity for an uptick in minutes the way power forward Jared Sullinger has the last few weeks. His production on the glass has been solid and his occasional work in the paint has gone well recently, but Sullinger's increased shot attempts haven't translated to more made jumpers or three-pointers, as he's 28.6 percent from deep the last five games on over four attempts per night. Center Tyler Zeller is an underrated rim protector defensively and has been a bright spot for the team amidst all the roster turmoil, but his offense hasn't quite been there even though he rarely strays from the key.
The Celtics most efficient production comes off the bench, with forward Brandon Bass hitting half his shots the last five games and scoring a dozen points a night in that span. Reserve center Kelly Olynyk is putting up similar numbers and doing most of his damage inside, while Bass steps out for jumpers more often. Rookie guard Marcus Smart shoots mostly threes and has canned over 40 percent of his attempts from outside the last several games, earning praise from his coach for developing his perimeter game this year.
Guard Marcus Thornton plays big minutes off the bench and can be a bulk scorer for Boston, his best shooting coming from deep right now. Guard Phil Pressey and forward Gerald Wallace have earned many DNP-CDs this season and are outside of the rotation at the moment. Prince suited up for Monday's loss to the Clippers, playing 19 minutes. Stevens seems likely to continue getting him playing time.
Boston's Achilles' heel right now is its young, inconsistent defense. Smart is active on that end and plays excellent perimeter D, but his teammates can't mimic his efforts and the Celtics have the worst Defensive Rating in the league over the last five games, according to NBA.com. They allow plenty of points and assists, giving up a league-worst 42.5 percent from deep in that span.
The Blazers bombed their way to 40.6 percent shooting from deep last night against the Suns, making 13 of their 32 long-range attempts, and you can expect more of that tonight against an undisciplined Boston defense. All five of Portland's starters scored at least 14 points in Phoenix, and the predictable issue was a distinct lack of bench production as the reserves shot a combined 4-for-14 from the field.
Blazers point guard Damian Lillard finished 6-of-22 overall and 2-of-10 from outside last night as the leading man in Stotts' offense. His six assists were promising, but five turnovers could be concerning, especially with a defender like Smart in line for big minutes opposite Lillard in the backcourt. He'll need to get used to his offense being more and more difficult to find as opposing teams can gameplan to slow him down in the absence of Aldridge. Stotts may opt to play Lillard off the ball with reserve point guard Steve Blake --who struggled last night in 10 minutes -- running the show a little more often in order to find the All-Star point guard better shots.
Guard Wesley Matthews chipped in 22 points against the Suns, making two of his five three-point tries and half his shots within the arc. He'll again be looked at for extra offensive production tonight and should be able to find pretty solid looks from outside against a weak Boston perimeter defense.
Forward Nicolas Batum momentarily bursted out of a months-long shooting slump last night, going 9-for-15 from the floor and an astonishing 6-for-8 from deep, along with five assists. That's the kind of production Stotts needs from the French swingman, who may be able to parlay extra defensive attention toward Lillard and Matthews into more open shots from the perimeter. If nothing else, Batum's 27-point outing against the Suns should give him a boost of confidence in what's been one of the most trying stretches of his career.
Kaman and Wright manned the starting frontcourt in Phoenix and played well offensively. Wright looked for his own field goals relatively often and finished with 15 points on 3-for-6 shooting from outside, playing actively on offense as a floor-spreader. Kaman kept most of his attempts in the paint last night and converted seven of his nine field goals, a solid game for the veteran big man.
Stotts' bench was, well...not that great. Robinson made all three of his shots and hit the boards hard -- as did Leonard -- but neither Blake, McCollum, nor Barton could make much happen from the backcourt. Leonard's aggressive demeanor that he'd adopted since the Freeland injury a few weeks ago was absent when he had the ball. He'll be needed tonight, as the Celtics can spread the floor with Sullinger, Bass, Olynyk and Crowder up front.
Portland's defense was -- as expected -- pretty shaky without bigs Aldridge, Joel Freeland and Robin Lopez in the lineup against the Suns. Phoenix' guards got into the paint and finished with regularity, and while the Blazers have the personnel up front when healthy to erase perimeter defenders' mistakes, Kaman, Wright, Robinson and Leonard aren't exactly great rim protectors. Lillard, Matthews and Batum need to help ease the burden on Portland's shallow frontcourt rotation with better defense around the outside, which should be much, much less difficult tonight against Turner, Bradley, Smart & Co. instead of Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas.
The Celtics haven't been particularly proficient on the glass lately, but then again, neither have the Blazers. Both teams struggle to corral their own misses on the whole and Portland is just slightly better on the defensive boards. Kaman, Leonard and Robinson have put in pretty good rebounding efforts with a dinged-up frontcourt, but they'll have to manage Olynynk and Sullinger, both of whom do work on the offensive glass. Zeller is effective in somewhat limited minutes and Turner is a very active rebounding guard.
The Blazers will no doubt be missing Aldridge and his other injured companions up front, but they're catching a Boston team that has been stripped of most of its proven, veteran talent recently with an eye toward the long-term future. Tonight's game provides a good opportunity for a weakened Portland lineup to pick up a galvanizing win over another struggling team before the second-place Wizards come to town Saturday night.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter
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