Portland Trail Blazers (41-37) at Sacramento Kings (31-46)
Tuesday, April 5
Sleep Train Arena | 7:00 p.m. PDT | Local TV/Radio: CSNNW; 620 AM
Portland injury report: Meyers Leonard (Out - Shoulder) | Sacramento injury report: Marco Belinelli (Doubtful - Foot) Omri Casspi (Out - Hamstring)
SBN Affiliate: Sactown Royalty
The year was 2006. Seattle still had an NBA franchise, Chris Paul was the NBA's Rookie of the Year, and the Blazers had the worst record in the league (Oh the memories). The Kings made the playoffs as a No. 8 seed that season, led by Mike Bibby, Bonzi Wells and Shareef Abdur-Rahim. That was the last time Sacramento reached the playoffs. The Kings are 31-46 this season and already eliminated from this year's playoffs as well. Their 10-year absence from the postseason is the second longest in the NBA, trailing only the last 12 dreadful years from the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The NBA draft lottery is far from a perfect system, but it is designed to help the worst teams in the NBA. The worse a team's record is, the better their chances of drafting early and bringing in talent to help. The Kings have definitely done their part to draft early. They have finished with one of the seven worst records in the NBA for the past seven straight years, and twice they finished in the bottom three. Yet only three of their draft picks since then, DeMarcus Cousins, Ben McLemore, and this year's rookie, Willie Cauley-Stein, remain with the team. The rest have been released or traded. The Kings did manage to draft 2016 All-Star Isaiah Thomas and current NBA blocks leader Hassan Whiteside in the second-round in previous years, but Whiteside was waived and Thomas was part of a sign-and-trade to the Suns in return for basically a trade exception.
Years of bad luck and managerial incompetence have brought the 2016 Kings to another season without playoffs. The Blazers on the other hand are right in the thick of the race. With only four games left remaining in the season, the Blazers are just a half game away from taking the No. 5 spot away from the Memphis Grizzlies. At the same time, the Blazers are also just 2.5 games ahead of the Rockets in ninth place. Even though their playoff spot is not yet completely secure, the Blazers are in the driver's seat of their own destiny.
The Kings are a hard team to predict these days. It might be more accurate to say Sacramento has been a hard team to predict over the last decade or so, but lately even more than usual. The Kings and Blazers played last week in Portland and Sacramento decided to rest their three best players in Cousins, Rajon Rondo and Rudy Gay. The Blazers were up 28 points after the third quarter and were able to rest their starters as well. The Kings have already announced that Cousins would only be playing in home games for the rest of the year. At this point in the season with Sacramento already out of the playoff race, it is in the best interest of the organization for the Kings not to win. Every loss gets them closer to a better draft pick and every win brings them further away. That being said, thankfully, no player tries to lose games on purpose.
The Kings do have offensive talent. Cousins is one of the most skilled and dominate big men in the league. His attitude and temper have always been his red flag, but his abilities are undeniable. He is a huge body, at 6-foot-11 and 270 pounds, yet is mobile and has a soft touch. This year he has added a 3-point shot to his repertoire. Cousins shot 15.9 percent on 11-69 3-pointers in his first 5 seasons in the NBA. This season he has made 69 threes on 203 attempts for a 34 percent mark. Add that to his double-team commanding low-post game, his ability to put the ball on the floor, and his solid midrange jumper, and he becomes a very difficult matchup.
The Kings use Cousins in a variety of ways. Along with his 203 attempted 3-pointers this season, Cousins is averaging 6.5 post ups per game, the seventh most in the NBA, and has scored the fifth most points in the NBA off of the pick-and-roll. In isolation situations, Cousins is only shooting 31.5 percent, but he does lead the Kings in isolation points this season as well. Just to round out his profile, Cousins is also No. 13 in the NBA in offensive rebound putbacks. He does have a tendency to force shots and his 45 percent field goal percentage this season is not very efficient for a big guy as talented as he is, but that may be more of a result of being on a somewhat chaotic and unsuccessful team. In a game like the one on Tuesday that has no impact on the Kings' season, perhaps nothing will slow Cousins down more than his lack of interest.
The Kings offense is generally built around getting the ball up the floor quick in transition and getting quick shots off. As big as Cousins is, he does run the floor well and he does not hesitate on firing away. The Kings play at the fastest pace in the NBA at over 102 possessions per 48 minutes. Rondo loves to get up and down the floor and push the pace, currently leading the NBA in assists at 11.6 per game. This pace has lead the Kings to scoring 107 points per contest, third in the NBA. At the same time, however, that pace has led Sacramento to giving up the most points in the NBA at 109 points per game. This was a team built to score points and to give them up, and that's exactly what they do.
Key to a Blazer Victory
Contain the containable: Cousins, Gay, and Rondo are the Big 3 for Sacramento by every measure. Combined they average 55.9 points, 24 rebounds and 16.6 assists per game. That is a pretty massive stat line. The Kings will probably be without wings Omri Casspi and Marco Belinelli, but Darren Collison has had a great season shooting the ball and Seth Curry, little brother of Stephen Curry, has been scorching lately as well. He has averaged 15 points per game on 50 percent 3-point shooting in the last six games after averaging just four points per game for the season before that. Cauley-Stein has also been effective the last six games, with four games in double-digits including back-to-back games of more than 20 points. The Blazers can win the game and still let the the Big 3 hit their averages, but it's the others that need to be contained. Portland is better off forcing Rondo, Gay, and Cousins into bad shots than they are letting other role players get confidence. They can be very dangerous if they do.
Exploit that D: The Kings' offense is good, but their pace inflates the stats a little bit. The pace also inflates the defensive points per game, but the difference is that the defense really is that bad. Backup shooting guard James Anderson and rookie big man Cauley-Stein are the only players who constantly and clearly try on the defensive end of the floor. Cousins and Gay have the ability to defend but sometimes just lack the will. Rondo has had times in his career where he has been a very good defender but now he exerts himself on the defensive end only when he has a chance to gamble on a steal. The Blazers can get good shots whenever they want. They just need to attack and take what is given to them. Every bad shot or poor decision is a chance for the Kings to get out in transition where they want to be.
It is a home game for Sacramento, so the Kings will be motivated to put on a show for the fans if nothing else. They will play hard and it will not be a pushover game for the Blazers like the last time these teams met in Portland, but one of these teams is fighting for playoff positioning and the other is motivated by grudges against other teams. The Kings will be ready and loose, but if this becomes a dog fight or a battle of wills, this should be Portland's game to take (and it should be anyway).