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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Washington Wizards Preview

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The Blazers take on the Washington Wizards tonight in the second half of a road back-to-back.

Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers (44-20, No. 3 in the West) vs. Washington Wizards (38-28, No. 5 in the East)
Monday, March 16
Verizon Center; Washington D.C. | 4:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNWHD; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: Wesley Matthews | Out for the Wizards: Garrett Temple, Krish Humphries (day-to-day)
SBN Affiliate: Bullets ForeverTimmay's Viewing Guide | Blazer's Edge Night

The Blazers head to Washington D.C. tonight to take on the Wizards in the second half of a road back-to-back. Portland dispatched the Raptors last night, 113-97.

After starting the season out strong at 31-15, Washington limped into the All-Star break having lost six games in an eight-game stretch. The WIzards carried their poor play through the end of February with a six-game skid before turning things around at the end of the month in a win over the Pistons. Washington has now won four of six games since and brings a three-game winning streak into tonight's contest after beating the Kings on Saturday.

The Wizards are a talented team, with most of the same players from last year's squad that advanced to the second round of the playoffs still in town. Some skeptics think, however, that the team may be succeeding despite some deficiencies in coach Randy Wittman's gameplans.

TruthAboutIt.net's Kyle Weidie vents a few frustrations with the current system run under Wittman:

Washington no longer ranks as highly in 3-point percentage as earlier in the season, but (being) tied for 8th-best in the NBA (with Cleveland) at 35.6 percent should bring a certain sense of pride. Sure, the Wizards are caught at the crossroads of not having enough shooters (including not having a big man who can stretch the floor past the 3-point line), not investing enough in shooters, and disappointment from the shooters they have invested in.

John Wall has dished out the pass on 45.4 percent of Washington’s 3-point attempts and those passes have led to 47.4 percent of the team’s makes. Put differently, the Wizards shoot 2.9 percent better on 3s when Wall is passing the ball as opposed to someone else is.

The Wizards, of course, are still in the bottom five of the league in average 3-point attempts per game at 16.7. What a shame to waste what Wall can create.

He continues:

The other most visible (issue) is lack of driving. [Wizards owner] Ted Leonsis ripped the mirrors off his Ferrari, put a supreme J. Hildred Wall engine in it, and then went to Wal-Mart and filled that sucker with regular ol’ unleaded gasoline. Wall has learned how to maneuver the gas pedal in his car pacing the pack over the years, but he simply doesn’t have enough support behind other steering wheels on his driving team. Mostly, they’re stuck in traffic on the BW Parkway.

...

The Washington Wizards average 17.6 measly drives per game, third-fewest in the NBA and almost 10 drives below the league average. League-wide, the average is 1.07 team points per drive. That’s equal to or better than a third of NBA teams in average points per possession (PPP) in offensive transition (per Synergy play tracking on NBA.com).

In Wall, the Wizards have one of the league's most devastating weapons -- over the last five games, the All-Star point guard has made 44.4 percent of his threes, 53.8 percent of his midrange jumpers and 73.7 percent of his shots at the rim. Wall is also one of the best guards in the league at penetrating and kicking the ball out to open teammates for good looks, averaging nine assists a night the last couple weeks.

In that span, guard Bradley Beal has led the team in field goal attempts per game, but is shooting eighth-best of the regular rotation players at 41.2 percent from the field. He's made 40.8 percent of his threes this year, but a recent shooting slump has left him hitting just 26.7 percent of his outside shots the last five games.

Beal heavily favors pulling up and shooting from the midrange, but he's generally not as efficient shooting from that area as he is near the rim or from outside and much has been made about his shot selection recently by fans and media, alike.

Joining Wall in shooting over 50 percent from the field the last five games are centers Marcin Gortat and Kevin Seraphin,  power forward Nene and forward Paul Pierce. All three bigs have range out to 15 feet but also have nice touch around the basket. Pierce, a 39.7 percent three-point shooter on the season, has made 44.4 percent of his threes the last handful of games and can also strike efficiently from both the midrange and in the paint.

Forward Drew Gooden, forward Otto Porter, Jr. and wing Rasual Butler should all see significant time tonight as part of Wittman's rotation, but all three have struggled from the field lately. Reserve guard Ramon Sessions comes in off the bench, dominates the ball and can occasionally do some damage inside but generally hasn't shot well lately. Backup big man DeJaun Blair had a decent night Saturday filling in for Nene -- who missed the game to be with his family after his wife gave birth to twins earlier in the week -- but he's likely back to the end of the bench now that Nene should be good to go.

Washington has had the best Defensive Rating in the league over the last five games, according to NBA.com. In that span they're No. 2 in points allowed per game (88.2), No. 5 in assists allowed per game (19.6), No. 4 in opponent's field goal shooting (41.9 percent) and No. 5 in opponents' three-point shooting (30.8 percent). The Wizards force a lot of turnovers and can get out and run. They shut down the paint and defend well in transition.

The Blazers carry a three-game winning streak of their own into tonight's matchup and have won eight of their last nine contests. They're scoring a lot of points and shooting well from all over the court, also using superb ball movement to rack up assists while minimizing turnovers.

Since Wesley Matthews ruptured his Achilles and was ruled out for the rest of the season a week-and-a-half ago, seven Blazers have shot 36.4 percent or better from outside: forward Nicolas Batum (57.1 percent), Meyers Leonard (50 percent), Steve Blake (50 percent), Arron Afflalo (45.5 percent), Damian Lillard (42.9 percent), CJ McCollum (42.9 percent) and Dorell Wright (36.4 percent). That group of seven players has put up 25.8 three-pointers a night the last four games, a big key to Portland's recent success.

Lillard, who went 10-for-20 from the floor but just 2-for-8 from deep against the Raptors last night, joins Batum as the tip of the spear -- at least in a ball-distributing sense -- in coach Terry Stotts' offense that has always emphasized making the extra pass.

The Oregonian's Joe Freeman recounts a sequence from last night's win over Toronto that encapsulates Portland's ball movement:

...Batum started the play at the top of the perimeter and tossed the ball into [center] Robin Lopez at the free throw line. Batum immediately dashed to the left of Lopez, who handed the ball back to Batum. As he darted toward the hoop, Batum fired the ball all the way to the right corner at Arron Afflalo along the three-point line, sparking a little "around the world" passing.

Afflalo whisked the ball left to Lillard, who kicked the ball left to Batum, who had leaked back out to the three-point line. Batum then fired a bounce pass to the left corner, where Dorell Wright waited. He pump-faked a three, causing a Raptors defender to leap at him, and dribbled toward the basket, finishing a breathtaking play with a one-handed dunk over Amir Johnson.

One play. Six passes. Basketball beauty.

Power forward LaMarcus Aldridge has made 57.1 percent of his shots the last four games, including 53.8 percent of his midrange jumpers and 80 percent of his tries at the rim. The Raptors had no answers for him last night as he scored 24 points on 9-for-14 shooting. Five assists for the four-time All-Star from Texas are a strong indicator that he not only handled Toronto's pressure well, but that he also was able to set his teammates up for scores when the defense rotated to stop him. The Wizards have a lot more size and experience up front than the Raptors, but consider that Aldridge scored 26 points on 9-for-22 shooting against them in a win almost two months ago -- the day he announced that he would forgo surgery on his injured thumb until the offseason.

When Batum hasn't been knocking down threes lately, he's been whipping the ball to open teammates for baskets. Afflalo, starting across him on the wing, wasn't exactly shooting the lights out as a starter coming into the game against the Raptors but ended the night cashing in on four of his six threes, even if he did struggle from the field otherwise.

What more can be said about Portland's one-two punch at center of Robin Lopez and Chris Kaman? The former has hit 65.5 percent of his shots the last four games as the starting unit's fifth option offensively, hitting baskets down low as opposing bigs focus their attention on Aldridge. Kaman has once again embraced his role as de facto scorer off the bench, sinking 64 percent of the 6.3 attempts a game he's taken over the last four.

Blake, McCollum, Wright and Leonard make up the rest of Stotts' current bench rotation, with a touch of wing Alonzo Gee and big man Joel Freeland. Blake is the steady hand off the bench who initiates the offense, but he's also been able to stick the three lately when given the opportunity by the defense. McCollum had a solid nine points in 16 minutes last night but has otherwise been an afterthought offensively and Wright has hit over half his field goals the last four games. Leonard had back-to-back excellent outings against the Rockets and Pistons but followed that up with an 0-for-3 performance last night against the Raptors.

The Blazers' defense has been solid but not spectacular during the current three-game win streak. Opponents still score a decent amount of points inside but Portland has put the clamps on the perimeter, allowing just 31.1 percent shooting from outside the last three games. John Wall could prevent a problem tonight driving the ball, breaking down the defense and finding teammates on the perimeter. But Houston's James Harden and Toronto's Kyle Lowry both have similar strengths and the Blazers managed to keep both of them bottled up in the last week, for the most part.

Both Washington and Portland are good rebounding teams. Gortat and Gooden are the Wizards' toughest rebounders -- especially offensively -- but Wall and Beal also like to get involved on the glass from the backcourt. Aldridge, Kaman and Batum have been the Blazer's best rebounders, though Lopez has been a beast gathering up misses under his own basket recently. Tonight's matchup appears fairly even on the boards.

The Blazers are riding high after winning two consecutive games by at least 16 points, but the Wizards had a morale-lifting victory on Saturday when they beat the kings by 16 after trailing by as many as 21 points early in the third quarter. Both teams carry three-game winning streaks into tonight's game.

If Portland can force Wall into being single-dimensional -- either a scorer or distributor, but not both -- the Blazers can probably put up enough points on the board to escape with a win tonight. If Wall is connecting on his outside shots, hitting driving layups and finding wide-open teammates along the perimeter, though, life could get rough for Portland on the second night of a back-to-back.

As much as Stotts and his staff will have to gameplan to stifle Wall's contributions tonight, Blazers fans can take solace knowing that Wittman has a similarly daunting task trying figure out a way to soften the blow from Aldridge. Expect the team that can execute its defensive gameplan best to put itself in position to win tonight.

-- Chris Lucia | blazersedgepodcast@gmail.com | Twitter

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