Portland Trail Blazers (38-19, No. 4 in the West) vs. Sacramento Kings (20-36, No. 12 in the West)
Sunday, March 1
SleepTrain Arena; Sacramento, CA | 3:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNWHD; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: | Out for the Kings: DeMarcus Cousins (doubtful), Darren Collison, Eric Moreland
SBN Affiliate: Sactown Royalty | Timmay's Viewing Guide | Blazer's Edge Night
The Blazers head to Sacramento today for an afternoon matchup with the Kings. All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins, who's averaged 23.7 points and 12.2 rebounds this season for Sacramento, is doubtful after spraining his ankle last Wednesday against the Grizzlies and missing a Friday matchup with the Spurs.
The Kings have had a rocky season so far. After starting out the year with a promising record of 9-7, Cousins was forced out of the lineup for three weeks as he battled a case of viral meningitis. Sacramento subsequently went into a tailspin and, after going 2-7 without Cousins, coach Mike Malone was fired.
Ty Corbin came in to take over the head coaching position for the Kings after Malone's firing, bringing the team into the All-Star break with a 19-34 overall record and a 7-21 stretch at the helm. Rumors began to circulate that Sacramento's front office and ESPN commentator and long-time NBA coach George Karl had a mutual interest in each other. Corbin was eventually let go and Karl, the 2012-13 NBA Coach of the Year, was officially hired February 12, and brings a 2-2 record into today's matchup.
Karl and the Kings are clearly in development mode for the stretch run of the season, playing and evaluating much of the team's young talent to see how and where they'll fit with the team going forward. This is doubly true for today's game now that starting point guard Darren Collison is out for the season with a hip injury and Cousins likely won't be available, opening up minutes in the backcourt and giving Karl an opportunity to mix and match his lineups to find who works best together.
Sacramento has played four games since the All-Star break and the hiring of Karl. They first beat the Celtics at home, then got spanked by the Clippers on the road, and followed that up with an unlikely win over the Grizzlies and finally a loss at home to the Spurs on Friday night.
In those four games, the Kings have been mediocre, for the most part. They've successfully managed to pick up their pace, but 44.5 percent shooting from the floor has kept them scoring 101.5 points a night even though they push the ball more than most teams. Sacramento has shot fewer threes than all but the Grizzlies since the All-Star break and has only made 32.8 percent of those attempts. In that time, assists are down and turnovers way up. On the bright side, the Kings have been working the ball inside to some success, also drawing a ton of foul shots in the process.
With Cousins and Collison out, forward Rudy Gay is the clear-cut alpha dog of the squad, attempting 16.5 shots a game since Karl's hiring. About half of Gay's shots come in the paint, where he's a reliable finisher. Shooting 47 percent from the field the last four games, he can also hit shots from the midrange. About two-thirds of Gay's scores this season are unassisted, so expect to see him work off the dribble often tonight. Gay is a pretty average three-point shooter, but still puts up a handful of outside shots every game. He's also the team's best set-up guy in the starting lineup.
Second-year guard Ben McLemore has been able to be more aggressive looking for his shot with Karl leading the way, but the results are mixed so far. McLemore doesn't take it to the rim very often, instead preferring to pull up from the midrange, which is actually a solid shot for him from some spots. He's a good three-point shooter from the corners, but otherwise isn't particularly accurate from outside.
Point guard Ray McCallum is starting in the backcourt opposite McLemore and shooting much better both close to the basket and from the midrange. McCallum isn't a bad passer but he does struggle with turnovers and is probably more suited to be a scoring point guard at this point of his career. On Friday night against the Spurs, he scored 20 points on 10-for-17 shooting, hoisting up only one three-pointer and turning the ball over just once.
Big man Jason Thompson and power forward Carl Landry are holding down the starting frontcourt with Cousins on the sidelines, though their combined efforts aren't as productive as Cousins' individual heroics when healthy. Still, Thompson is scoring inside fairly well on limited attempts and finished 6-of-10 from the floor against San Antonio. Landry doesn't impact the game much and, in fact, the soon-to-be 35-year-old Reggie Evans plays more off the bench. Though he's incredibly effective on the glass, Evans' offensive contributions are a wash, at best.
Forward Omri Casspi has emerged as a decent scoring option off the bench, and he's been getting to the rim often lately. Unfortunately, he's not converting on many of those attempts and his outside shot is also lacking lately. Forward Derrick Williams has been able to shoot well at the rim and from outside post-All-Star break, flourishing when the pace is pushed and he can rely on his athleticism. Veteran point guard Andre Miller, a friendly, familiar face to many Blazers fans, was brought in to Sacramento at the trade deadline to help install Karl's offensive philosophies. In the process, he's had a couple of decent games, averaging 22 minutes a night at the age of 38 and shooting 52.9 percent from the floor, also picking up over four assists a game. Center Ryan Hollins and guards Nik Stauskas and David Stockton -- D-League call-up and son of John Stockton -- all compete for playing time scraps at the end of the bench.
The Kings' defense held San Antonio to 39.8 percent shooting from the field and 34.8 percent from deep on Friday night, but 32 free throw attempts and 19 fast break points for the Spurs eventually sank Sacramento on their homecourt as San Antonio pulled away down the stretch. Without Cousins, Karl just doesn't have the depth in the frontcourt to defend well consistently. There's also a new emphasis on forcing turnovers but, so far, the Kings haven't been able to really do so. The Blazers certainly won't want to cough it up often today, as Sacramento is primed to run the ball and ready to get out on the break.
After frustratingly succumbing to poor execution down the stretch of games in their first few outings since the extended break, Portland has apparently cleaned up its act a bit. Since turning in the worst performance of the year in Utah nine days ago, and following that up with a late-game collapse against Memphis that was reminiscent of pre-All-Star break meltdowns in Cleveland, Atlanta and Dallas, the Blazers finished off the Spurs down the stretch on Wednesday night and fought back from 13 down in the fourth quarter to send the Thunder packing on Friday, even though point guard Russell Westbrook earned his third consecutive triple-double.
On the whole, Portland's scoring has been down lately and the shooting within the arc has been underwhelming. The Blazers have hit 37.4 percent of their threes the last four games, though, and are keeping a lid on the turnovers that had sporadically plagued them in recent weeks. They're not pushing the ball a lot and aren't drawing many fouls, but they're not picking up very many fouls, either.
Point guard Damian Lillard has been getting to the rim and has made 80 percent of his shots right at the basket since the All-Star break. His jumper's a bit off and his outside shot is still at 35.7 percent the last four games. While he made plenty of shots at the basket on Friday against the Thunder on his way to 29 points on 10-for-22 shooting from the field, he missed five of his seven three-pointers and still hasn't quite gotten over the hump with his outside shooting. Even so, Lillard did a much better job of hanging onto the ball against OKC and was able to produce some timely scoring while getting to the free throw line eight times.
Power forward LaMarcus Aldridge finished with 29 of his own points against the Thunder, hitting 10 of his 23 shots and, Like Lillard, scoring when the team needed him most down the stretch. Aldridge isn't shooting particularly efficiently lately from any of his favorite spots, but has gotten to the line to pick up points when necessary. He passed effectively against OKC and only turned the ball over once.
Guard Wesley Matthews, while huge on defense, has struggled to shoot the ball coming out of the gate since the All-Star break. He hasn't hit much inside the paint the last few games and is just 28 percent from outside in that span. Matthews shot just 2-for-13 against the Thunder and is likely looking forward to today's matchup against an inexperienced Kings backcourt -- aside from Miller, that is.
Forward Nicolas Batum had a quiet statistical night on Friday but was much more useful on the defensive end, slowing down Westbrook for spurts. Though his shot attempts are somewhat limited, Batum has made 54.5 percent of his field goals and 44.4 percent of his threes the last four games, a solid sign for the French wing who'd dealt with a wrist injury and fatigue for the first two-thirds of the year.
Center Robin Lopez hasn't been as big on the offensive end as he was to begin the season, but he showed on Friday that he is still a reliable option down low, making half of his eight shots for eight points. His backup, center Chris Kaman, also shot well against the Thunder and has looked a little more spry the last few games.
Portland coach Terry Stotts has been using wing Arron Afflalo off the bench almost as a sixth starter. He played 32 minutes on Friday, pushing guard CJ McCollum completely out of the rotation and Steve Blake into only 11 total minutes. Afflalo played with Lillard, Matthews, Batum and Aldridge down the stretch of Friday's win over the Thunder with Aldridge at center and Batum at the four spot in a smaller lineup. Afflalo responded with 18 points on 5-for-6 shooting with some key points late in the game. He can essentially fill whatever role Stotts' needs filled on the wing, a versatile scorer who's made 55 percent of his shots in three games as a Blazer and half his threes. Those numbers are obviously not sustainable over the long-term, but being traded from the Nuggets to a playoff contender mid-season seemed to spark Afflalo, who will be a key part of Stotts' rotation going forward.
Big man Meyers Leonard and wing/stretch-four Dorell Wright played limited minutes as Stotts went small to end the game Friday night. Neither had a big impact offensively when in the game. Wing Alonzo Gee still hasn't cracked the playing rotation and guard Allen Crabbe hasn't played meaningful minutes in some time.
Portland's defense gave up 21 fast break points, 58 points in the paint and 47.9 percent shooting from the field against OKC Friday night. The Blazers shut down the three-point line, though, which was somewhat of an issue for the team the last several games. The Kings will be running the ball every chance they get and trying to get inside, so Portland will need to figure out its transition defense and defend the pick-and-roll a bit more effectively tonight to keep Sacramento from getting easy points.
The Kings have been dominant on the glass since the All-Star break, particularly on the offensive end. Even without Cousins, Sacramento has a few guys who hit the glass hard -- Thompson, Evans and, of all people, Casspi. Aldridge has led the way for his team in the rebounding department lately, with most of his other teammates gang-rebounding. The Blazers haven't been as prolific lately on the offensive glass as they were earlier in the season. This might indicate more of an emphasis on getting back to defend in transition, but they've been giving up fast break points lately, too. Portland will really need to ratchet down on Evans and Thompson tonight, because both will be fighting hard for rebounds and looking to push when they do grab them.
After a solid win over the Spurs on Wednesday and an emotional, playoff-like victory over the Thunder in a closely fought matchup Friday, it's not hard to envision a letdown game Sunday against the Kings with the Clippers and Mavericks looming on the schedule next week. But the Blazers have said they have their confidence back, and are ready to tighten things up as they enter the stretch run of the season and inch closer toward the playoffs. If that's true, they should be able to outlast and out-execute a Kings team without two of its three best players on the floor and a new coach on the sidelines. If Portland finishes business tonight in Sacramento, the team will be able to look forward to a two-day rest in Los Angeles before Wednesday's game against the Clippers.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter
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