Portland Trail Blazers (12-20) vs Sacramento Kings (12-17)
Sunday, December 27
Sleep Train Arena | 6:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSN; 620 AM
Portland injury report: Damian Lillard (Questionable - Foot) | Sacramento injury report: Willie Cauley-Stein (Out - Finger), Eric Moreland (Out - Foot)
SBN Affiliate: Sactown Royalty | Blazer's Edge Night 2016
The Trail Blazers take on the Sacramento Kings tonight in their second game in as many nights.
The Kings, ninth place in the Western Conference, have been playing improved, if still inconsistent basketball of late. They recently completed a 2-2 road trip with wins over the talented Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors, and losses against the struggling Minnesota Timberwolves and Washington Wizards.
After another tumultuous offseason (and early regular season), George Karl has the Kings playing better, with a 5-2 record in their last seven contests. Sacramento continues to be led by DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay, and a rejuvenated Rajon Rondo and is seeing success pushing the tempo, ranking No. 1 in the NBA in terms of pace.
Cousins, one of the most talented young players in the game, has continued to develop into an elite scorer. Averaging 24.5 points and 10.8 rebounds per game, Cousins can punish you in a multitude of ways with the ball in his hands. Too big to handle inside and featuring a soft midrange jump shot, Cousins has struggled from 16 feet out to the 3-point line this season, but has added the 3-pointer to his repertoire, hitting 30 percent on just over three attempts per game. Not enough to dominate from deep, but a substantial enough threat that he needs to be defended at all times.
Still foul-prone and vulnerable against pump fakes, Portland center Mason Plumlee will have his hands full against Cousins who, despite his young age, features a bevy of crafty moves with the ball. Plumlee would be well served to acknowledge that Cousins cannot be fully stopped and focus on containing him through conservative defense, staying vertical and leaving his feet as little as necessary.
Small forward Rudy Gay, once the poster boy for me-first volume scorers, has found a home with the Kings over the last few years. Averaging the fewest attempts since his rookie season, he still manages over 15 shots and pours in 18 points per game. A decent outside shooter, Gay prefers to slash to the rim or dribble drive for a pull up 15 footer.
Portland may encounter problems at the point guard spot tonight, with leading scorer and facilitator Damian Lillard questionable after missing three straight games due to plantar fasciitis. If he misses tonight's contest, CJ McCollum will likely have a hard time dealing with Rajon Rondo. After drastically falling from elite status, Rondo has reemerged as a top tier point guard in Sacramento, averaging 12.4 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 11.3 assists per game. As importantly, he is playing the quality defense that he was known for in Boston before his knee injury (and evidently losing interest in defensive effort).
With Willie Cauley-Stein out with a dislocated finger, Omri Casspi has stepped in to start at forward alongside Rudy Gay. Casspi has evolved into a quality do-everything sort of utility player; the type that doesn't require offense to go through him in order to make an impact. On the season, Casspi is averaging 12.1 points per game, but since moving into the starting lineup is averaging 13.8 points and 6.9 rebounds while shooting 46 percent from distance.
Starting shooting guard Ben McLemore has seen his minutes cut from nearly 33 per game last season to 21.6 this year. McLemore has struggled to emerge as an offensive weapon and, while his attempts from beyond the arc are making up a smaller percentage of his overall shot chart, he is little more than a spot-up shooter at this point in his career, with 69 percent of his 2-point field goals and every 3-pointer he's made this year being assisted.
Fortunately for the Kings, they feature two of the better reserve guards in the league in Darren Collison and Marco Belinelli. Both players actually play more minutes than McLemore and provide versatility on the wings, with Collison able to play point and shooting guard, and Belinelli able to play point guard, shooting guard, and even small forward for brief stretches.
Kosta Koufos is the Kings main reserve big, backing up Cousins and Casspi for about 23 minutes per game. Koufos is a prototypical big man, averaging 8 points and 6.5 rebounds while taking over 92 percent of his seven shots per game within 10 feet of the hoop.
After a disastrous 0-5 road trip, last night the Blazers put the screws to a Cavaliers team that looked a step slow all game long. Without Damian Lillard for a third straight game, the Portland backcourt hummed along as well as always, with Allen Crabbe stepping in and dropping 26 points on 8-15 shooting en route to a 105-76 victory.
Portland moved the ball as well as they have all year, racking up 28 assists, with a lot of the ball movement coming out of the high post. If Lillard misses tonight's game, as some expect, Portland will need to continue last night's trend of active offensive sets and looking to find the open man. The Kings' 107.3 DRtg places them at No. 24 in the league, and Gay and McLemore can be exploited on the wings to a degree. Collison and Belinelli are even more vulnerable on the perimeter, so look for Portland's guards to attack whenever possible.
Sacramento also struggles from the line, only shooting 72 percent as a team on the season. Starters Rondo and Casspi are both below 58 percent on the season, so don't be surprised to see Portland play extra aggressively on defense; sending one of those two to the line isn't likely to hurt you too much. Sacramento is also liable to turn the ball over against extra pressure, ranking No. 26 in the league in turnovers.
Ultimately for Sacramento, everything comes down to Boogie Cousins, Rudy Gay, and Rajon Rondo. Other guys may have big nights here and there, but without the expected performance from those three, the Kings aren't going to win many games. Coming off of a big win where Cleveland's marquee players didn't do much, Portland will be hoping for more of the same tonight.