Portland Trail Blazers (49-26, No. 4 in the West)
Saturday, April 4
Moda Center; Portland, OR | 7:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNWHD; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: | Out for the Pelicans: Jrue Holiday
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After clinching the Northwest Division last night with a blowout win over the Lakers, the Blazers will host the New Orleans Pelicans tonight at the Moda Center. The Pelicans defeated the Kings last night in Sacramento, 101-95.
New Orleans is still in the hunt for the eighth and final playoff spot out West, especially after the Thunder dropped a close game to the Grizzlies last night. The loss leaves OKC up just a half-game on the Pelicans for the No. 8 seed, with New Orleans owning the head-to-head tie-breaker, 3-1.
With seven games remaining in the season -- including tonight's contest -- the Pelicans will certainly be in desperation-mode, ready to take advantage of any slippage by Oklahoma City as the regular season nears a close. Portland clinched its division and no worse than the No. 4 seed in the playoffs with the win in L.A. last night, but the team still remains a half-game behind the Clippers for the fourth-best record in the West.
It's important to note that if the Blazers earn the No. 4 seed on account of their Northwest Division championship, home court advantage is not guaranteed unless their regular season record is superior to that of their fifth-seeded opponent in the first round. If the Blazers meet up with a non-division winner in the first round, homecourt advantage would be awarded to Portland should a tie-breaker become necessary. Memphis is up 2.5 games on the Blazers for the No. 3 seed, which would appear almost assuredly unattainable for Portland, barring a late-season collapse of epic proportions by the Grizzlies and a surging close to the year for the Blazers.
The Pelicans possess the NBA's second-best Offensive Rating (115.6 points per 100 possessions) the last five games, even though they play at the league's slowest pace, according to NBA.com. They have pretty good ball movement, value possessions and shoot accurately from the field -- 51.2 percent the last five games. In that same span, New Orleans has only gotten up about 17 threes a game, but has made those attempts at a 47.7 percent rate, which ranks No. 1 in the league. The Pelicans get to the line fairly often, considering the style of their halfcourt offense and how few shots they get up relative to other teams with faster paced offenses.
New Orleans' defense swarms the three-point line and the frontcourt duo of center Omer Asik and forward Anthony Davis holds down the paint effectively. The Pelicans prevent easy ball movement with their length, they don't foul often and can occasionally force opposing teams into turnovers. Their defense isn't perfect -- the aggressive focus on the three-point line allows perimeter players from other teams open lanes into the paint somewhat frequently -- but the Pelicans have played mostly solid defense the last few weeks.
Guards Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon form coach Monty Williams' starting frontcourt. Evans has butchered teams lately by attacking the paint hard, finishing 74.1 percent of his attempts at the rim the last five game. He's also hit an incredible 60 percent of his threes in that span, along with 7.5 assists. Evans struggles with turnovers, but for a player handling the ball as much as he does who is passing as well and scoring as efficiently as he is, Williams can probably live with the tradeoff. Gordon has developed into a solid catch-and-shoot player from the perimeter, nailing 40 percent of his threes the last couple weeks. He doesn't finish particularly well in the lane, but does manage to draw plenty of fouls and hits his free throws at a 75 percent rate.
Asik is mostly a wash offensively, used mainly as a pick-setter. Davis, on the other hand, has hit the midrange jumper -- which accounts for about half his offense -- at a reasonable 39 percent rate the last five games. His finishing inside has suffered a bit, but he's still a great passer, rarely turns the ball over and draws a ton of whistles on the defense. Davis had a 3-for-14, 7-point night against the Blazers back in December, but a month earlier he dropped 31 points on 14-for-20 shooting in Portland. Expect another big night for the third-year, All-Star big man who's averaging 24.4 points and 10.2 rebounds (two offensive) the last handful of games.
Forward Quincy Pondexter rounds out the starting lineup, and he's made his mark lately drilling three-pointers from both corners. Of the 13 corner threes Pondexter's attempted the last five games, he's converted 11. Opposing teams often send extra help from the wings to contain Davis, which allows for open shots for guys like Pondexter and Gordon via kick-outs. The Blazers don't aggressively double-team or trap, however, so New Orleans' wings may not have the open threes tonight that they usually get. That could come at the expense of Davis having another big night, though.
Williams' bench rotation consists of forwards Ryan Anderson and Dante Cunningham, guards Norris Cole and Toney Douglas and center Alexis Ajinca. Anderson is generally a floor-spreading power forward, and in his first game back from injury last night against the Kings, he connected on four of his five three-point attempts and ended the night with 17 points. Cunningham is a good jumpshooter in limited attempts who can also finish inside among taller frontcourt players. Cole and Douglas are both accurate spot-up three-point shooters and distributors, while Ajinca gets up a decent amount of shots in limited time, many of them coming from offensive rebounds.
Portland dropped a big game to the Clippers at home on Wednesday night, but had an opportunity to bounce back last night against the Lakers, winning by 30 points in a laugher that saw L.A. score just 26 points in the first and fourth quarters combined.
The Blazers don't get to play the Lakers every night, unfortunately, but holding Los Angeles to 77 points on 37.8 percent shooting from the field, 35.7 percent shooting from deep while allowing just 13 assists and 28 points in the paint is a step in the right direction -- remember, the Nuggets recently did score 114 mostly efficient points in Portland a week ago, and the Clippers put on a shooting clinic in the Moda Center on Wednesday night.
The Blazers' offense has been playing well lately, and only guard Arron Afflalo registered more than 29 minutes last night with 32 of his own. Otherwise, Portland's starters got some quality rest on the first half of the back-to-back and some of the bench rotation players got plenty of time on the court.
Forward LaMarcus Aldridge put up 15 shots against L.A., converting on seven of them for 14 points. Neither he nor forward Nicolas Batum -- who was lights-out from deep the last several games before last night's 1-for-5 performance -- were required to score heavily. Point guard Damian Lillard and Afflalo combined for 30 attempts and 37 total points, including a 7-for-13 clip from beyond the arc. Afflalo also got to the line four times and hit all four free throws. Center Robin Lopez hit all four of his tries in 25 minutes.
Last night's game gave Blazers fans a small glimpse at what coach Terry Stotts' bench rotation could look like without Dorell Wright for the next 4-6 weeks. Of course, the blowout nature of the game meant more playing time for the end-of-the-bench players, but the four reserves with the most minutes were big men Chris Kaman and Meyers Leonard, along with guards Steve Blake and CJ McCollum, who scored a career-high 27 points last night on 10-of-16 shooting. The Pelicans backcourt is bigger, more aggressive and generally more stout than that of Los Angeles, so don't expect another easy night for the Blazers' second-year guard out of Lehigh.
Portland handled Los Angeles on the glass last night, 53-43, holding them to just six offensive rebounds. New Orleans will provide a much more difficult challenge for the Blazers, however, particularly on the offensive end where Ajinca and Asik make their bones. Those two and Davis also take care of the defensive boards for the Pelicans, while Douglas and Pondexter get involved from the perimeter. Portland is one of the best rebounding teams in the NBA right now, though that distinction comes mostly from the team's efforts on the defensive end. In an unsurprising twist, Aldridge, Kaman and Leonard are generally Portland's rebound leaders, feasting on opportunities provided by Lopez' big frame and technique down low. Batum swoops in from the wings for boards fairly often, as well.
The Blazers can't afford to kick back for their remaining seven games, as their 2014-15 Northwest Division championship assures them of no worse than the fourth seed in the West but not homecourt advantage if their first-round opponent holds a better regular season record. Portland appears headed into the postseason with a date against either the Clippers or Spurs in the opening round, each currently holding a half-game lead on the Blazers.
The Pelicans are motivated right now by desperation, and they have the ability tonight to grab onto the No. 8 seed after the Thunder's loss last night. With playoff seeding on the line and both teams coming in on the second night of back-to-backs, tonight's game will likely come down to who can execute better and more effectively force their style of play on the opponent.
Portland plays with much more pace and attacks from the perimeter, while the Pelicans are designed to slow the game down and keep a lid on three-point attempts. The Blazers' starters played limited minutes last night in L.A., while New Orleans required at least 34 minutes a piece from Evans, Davis and Asik in their win over Sacramento. If this matchup comes down to star power, Aldridge and Lillard certainly have the upper-hand over Davis, Evans & Co. -- at least in regards to rest -- having received ample time off in their dismantling of the Lakers.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter
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