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Portland Trailblazers vs. Charlotte Hornets Preview

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Nicolas Batum makes his first visit to Portland since his departure to face the current surprise No. 8 seed in the Western Conference.

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers (21-26) vs Charlotte Hornets (22-24)
Friday, January 29
Moda Center | 7:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSN; 620 AM
Portland injury report
: Pat Connaughton (Doubtful - ankle) | Charlotte injury report: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Questionable - shoulder), Jeremy Lin (Out - ankle), Jeremy Lamb (Questionable - toe), Al Jefferson (Out - knee), Cody Zeller (Out - shoulder)
SBN Affiliate: At The Hive | Blazer's Edge Night 2016

This game marks the middle point of the Blazers’ seven game homestand, and they hope to keep the good times rolling.  Portland has won six of their last eight games to suddenly find themselves in the No. 8 seed of the playoff race by percentage points.

Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have continued taking turns popping off offensively, while their athletic centers have been effective and efficient. Meyers Leonard has been showing some signs defensively, and has been taking and making more threes in the last five games, and at a 39.3 percent clip. Mason Plumlee has made more consistent contributions, including upticks in points and assists over the last 10 games. Meanwhile, Gerald Henderson has extra motivation to want to drop a third straight solid performance tonight: his former squad is in town.

The Hornets’ season has been a rollercoaster ride, and not really the type that leaves you clamoring to ride it again. After they smoked the Blazers in November, Charlotte was in the middle of a stretch where they would win nine of 11 games.  That was followed by five straight wins against likely playoff teams in early December—but they haven’t scored a win against an impressive opponent since. At the turn of the new year, they went on a slide that saw them lose nine of 10.  They have since turned it around again, winning four of their last six, including three overtime victories. Yet their West Coast road trip has gotten off to an inauspicious start, as they suffered a 102-73 drubbing in Utah on Wednesday night.  So it is hard to tell if this team is still cresting, or will suddenly jerk downwards into their next drop.

It is this kind of schizophrenia that leaves the Hornets among the pile of hopefuls for the last playoff spots in the East. This isn’t completely unexpected when a team has to adjust on the fly to several major injuries, including Al Jefferson being mostly out since the beginning of December and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist missing the entire season to date. More recently, Nicolas Batum has missed seven games since the new year, center Cody Zeller has missed the last four games, and sixth man Jeremy Lamb has missed seven of the last eight games. And now Jeremy Lin, who looks like he has finally found a home in Charlotte, seems unlikely to play after a bad-looking ankle sprain against Utah.

The result is a bunch of role players will have outsize roles in support of last week’s player of the week and the Tazmanian Devil-like whirlwind known as Kemba Walker (20.5 PPG, 5.0 AST, 4.2 REB). Walker has made a jump in efficiency this year, and, as he once did in college, and has shown the ability to carry a team on his back. With Charlotte down 18 points a couple minutes into the fourth quarter against Orlando last week, Walker went off for 17 points in the fourth and overtime, on his way to 40 in the win. He also put up 52 against the defensive-minded Jazz.

He hasn’t been nearly as superlative this week, instead going a combined 12-for-50 in back-to-back contests against the Kings and Knicks. But he might have a little more help in tow tonight in Portland.

Batman Returns, MKG Reloaded, and who's Troy F@#%ing Daniels?

The Utah game saw the return of Batum, who has struggled in the last seven contests he has appeared in—to the tune of 33.8 percent from the floor and 8.9 PPG. This stretch has dampened his overall numbers a bit; nevertheless, Batum is boasting career highs in points (14.9) and assists (5.3) along with his second-best rebounding season (6.4). He has been a good fit for Charlotte, mostly playing shooting guard and doing well with the added responsibility demanded of his familiar utility belt.

There is also the possibility that Kidd-Gilchrist makes his season debut tonight. He was expected to be lost for the season with a preseason torn labrum, but instead should give an injection of athleticism, D, and boardwork to a team that needs it.

The recent inclusion of Troy Daniels in the rotation is another interesting wrinkle that may be tough to gameplan for. Blazers fans may remember him as the curse word no one had ever heard of before he kept hitting big jumpshots in the ’14 Houston playoff series. Well, he’s still hitting those threes (50.8 percent), including 8 of 11 on Monday.

Veteran forward Marvin Williams has been a steadying presence this season, with career highs in rebounds, blocks, and three-point tries in season No. 11, and thus can't be forgotten about on the perimeter. Spencer Hawes, who was once coveted by many Blazer fans, has been starting at center of late and had a couple of nice outings sandwiched around forgettable nights. So no worries, he’s still the one you’re glad got away.

Second-year swingman PJ Hairston just scored a career-high 20 against the Knicks the other night, but is struggling to find consistency. Rhythm has similarly been elusive for rookie Frank Kominsky, who has had a handful of offensive outbursts this year, but has had nights like he did against the Kings this week (1-for-10) just as often.

Short-handedness has meant 20-plus minutes a game for human foul machine Tyler Hansborough, who averages an astonishing 6.1 personals per 36 minutes.

FYI—this is what a human foul machine looks like:

It has no soul, and it WILL foul anything in its path. Please, warn your friends and family. If it does approach you, don't run away; you have to just let it foul you until it eventually goes away.

All kidding aside, we can all rest easy in the knowledge that there are just certain jobs technology will never make obsolete, such as being a basketball goon.

Similarly, there will always be jobs for backup point guards who can run an offense without giving the ball away and also hit free throws when needed. Brian Roberts is such a man, and looks slated for minutes with Lin out.

Regardless of who is on court, you can count on Charlotte to jack up a ton of threes in a quantity-over-quality approach (No. 3 in attempts, No. 17 in 3-point percentage), get to free throw line a good amount (No. 11) and hit when they’re there (No. 3 in percentage), and take care of the ball (Second fewest TOs). On defense, they get a bunch of steals (No. 3) and close out possessions well (Third fewest offensive rebounds allowed), but can be hurt by the three (No. 25 in makes and takes allowed, No. 20 in percentage).

What the Blazers need to do to win

Contest Walker’s shots: Staying in front of Kemba Walker is easier said than done, so this is likely going to have to be a team effort. One of the bigger arguments for Lillard’s snub from the All-Star game would be his defense, so it will be interesting to see how he comes out in this one. The bigs need to be ready to step up and not foul—Walker’s a great free throw shooter, and he shoots just 28.5 percent when a defender is within 4 feet of him.

Three their mind: Charlotte gives up a lot of threes. Portland likes taking threes. Who needs Tinder when you can find perfectly good matches like this out there?

Look front and center: Facing off with the lumbering Hawes and Hansborough, as well as a rookie who looks like a rookie (Kaminsky), the Blazers have lots of advantages here to exploit when they have the ball. Competent boardwork is also a must.

Key matchup to win: Nicolas Batum vs. Al-Farouq Aminu / Allen Crabbe: Last meeting, Batum reminded us what he can do when he is fully healthy and focused—which he rarely was in his last season for the Blazers—when he dropped 33 points. But the Blazers know him pretty well, especially his former understudy, Allen Crabbe. Aminu has struggled offensively of late and his minutes are starting to slip, so this would be a good place for him to make a statement. If Portland can frustrate Batum early and/or lull him into being "passive Batum," it would be a big win with Charlotte being low on proven offensive options.

Outlook

This is a game the Blazers should win, period. Beating the beatable teams at home is something that you need to do if you want to consider yourself a true playoff aspirant. With a tougher stretch of games on the horizon, now is the time to consolidate their gains.

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