Portland Trail Blazers (39-36) vs Boston Celtics (43-31)
Thursday, March 31
Moda Center | 7:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNW; 620 AM
Portland injury report: Meyers Leonard (Out - shoulder), Chris Kaman (Questionable - illness) | Boston injury report: Jae Crowder (Questionable - ankle)
SBN Affiliate: Celtics Blog
With only seven games remaining in the 2015-16 regular season, the Portland Trail Blazers are hoping to exact a little revenge on their home floor against the Boston Celtics. The Celtics handily defeated the Blazers 116-96 in Boston on March 2, which kicked off a stretch where Portland lost six of eight games.
The Celtics' backcourt had its way with Portland's guard tandem in the last meeting. Though Avery Bradley and Isaiah Thomas only outscored Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum 47-37 (a feat in its own right), they hounded Portland's guards relentlessly in the halfcourt, forcing difficult shots and challenging Portland's supporting cast to beat them. Portland's starting guards only put up four assists to go along with four turnovers. Couple this with the fact that Portland was playing its fourth game in five nights and you had a predictable flat performance, especially after halftime.
Boston has cooled slightly since, going 5-5 in its last 10 games, with sparkplug small forward Jae Crowder having been inactive for the last eight with a sprained ankle. With Crowder questionable against Portland, the Celtics may need to turn back to Evan Turner, who has started in Crowder's absence.
While Turner has performed well, Crowder is one of the ultimate glue guys in the league, combining elite hustle, good defense, and acceptable scoring and making himself into a high-impact player.
While Boston may not have its sparkplug, the Celtics still have the aforementioned starting backcourt. Bradley has increased his shooting efficiency this season, and though he still tends to fall in love a little bit with the top of the key jumper he has cracked 50 percent shooting on 2-pointers and shoots a decent 36 percent from beyond the arc.
Diminutive point guard Thomas has had an excellent season, earning his first All-Star bid while putting up 22 points and six assists a night. Thomas has a lightning quick first step and uses his agility (and opponents' overwhelming desire to block his shot) to draw fouls at a very high rate, going to the line nearly seven times per game. Though Thomas doesn't shoot an elite percentage from distance, he has incredible range and is always a threat to pull up from beyond the arc.
Big man Amir Johnson is a sneaky effective player who excels around the rim. Though he has no post-up game, Johnson is a great pick-and-roll finisher who has never shot below 54 percent in his 11-year career, getting a lot of his points on second chance opportunities via his more than two offensive rebounds per game. Johnson is a good one-on-one defender and an excellent help defender, perfect for Brad Steven's system.
Fellow big man Jared Sullinger is a skilled passer and rebounder, despite a significant lack of athleticism. A solid man defender, Sullinger can be beat in pick-and-roll scenarios, as he lacks the lateral quickness to jump out and switch onto quicker guards.
Offensively, Sully has reigned in his 3-point shooting, where he took more than a quarter of his attempts last season, down to 12 percent of his looks this year. Unfortunately for the Celtics, he has replaced these attempts with less than efficient long 2-pointers, where he has fallen below 40 percent this season.
Boston's bench features several impact players, most notably Marcus Smart, Jonas Jerebko, and Kelly Olynyk. Point guard Smart is already an elite defender who was the sixth-most impactful defender at the point guard position as a rookie last season, in terms of RPM. Smart's offense leaves much to be desired, however, as he shoots below 35 percent from the field, including 25 percent from beyond the arc on more than four attempts per game. Smart struggles in transition and is not a high-level playmaker.
Jerebko, a tall stretch four, is a smart player who picks his spots and shoots over 40 percent from distance. Backup center Olynyk is a solid shooting big man who excels against backup centers. Though he is not a great rebounder or shot blocker, Olynyk provides scoring punch against opposing defenses, also stretching the floor with his 40 percent 3-point shooting.
Keys to victory
Defensive Rebounding - The last time these two teams played, the Blazers gave up 19 offensive rebounds. If Portland wants to walk out of the Moda Center with a win tonight, they need to cut that number in half, and then chop a couple more off of that. Boston plays a swarming defense that forces teams to expend energy just to get good looks. If you're playing defense for extended stretches due to failure on the defensive glass, lapses in your own defense both mental and physical are inevitable. The Blazers need to limit Boston's possessions as much as possible. For reference, The Celtics took an absurd 23 more field goal attempts than the Blazers in their last matchup.
Find scoring in the frontcourt - Portland will need someone to alleviate the pressure on Lillard and McCollum tonight. If Boston is able to completely key in on Portland's guards again, they could be in for a long night. Look for Harkless to make an impact tonight. If you need convincing, just check out Blazer's Edge contributor Dan Marang's excellent piece on Harkless as a starter here.
The Blazers are hoping to hit their stride in this final stretch of the season. Tonight's matchup begins the final rough stretch of the year, with Portland's next two games coming against a hot Miami Heat team before a trip to the Bay Area to take on the Warriors. If Portland can pull out a win tonight, they'll have a much more solid hold on the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference, with a still outside shot at overtaking the Memphis Grizzlies and moving up to No. 5.