On the brink of an epic collapse, the Portland Trail Blazers franchise quickly rebuilt its roster with a barrage of misfits and the electrifying point guard Damian Lillard to reach an elite level once again. This franchise’s turnaround deserves a standing ovation for how it recovered from the degenerative knees of the heir to Kobe Bryant’s throne, Brandon Roy, and the catastrophic mishap of selecting Greg Oden over Kevin Durant. Instead, Portland has surrounded Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge with the perfect complementary players, leading to a top 10 ranked offense and defense. Albeit Portland’s recent struggles, they remain a top contender in the brutal Western Conference.
Frontcourt: After Robin Lopez suffered a hand injury, which sidelined him for 23 games, Portland surprisingly ripped off an impressive stretch of victories. However, toward the end of his absence, the Blazers began to really miss his defensive presence dropping eight of ten games. As a society, we tend to measure a player based on his statistics, but unlike his brother, Lopez’s true impact is predicated on defense and energy. To date, no statistic can put energy into perspective. A ruthless dunk or tenacious swat from Lopez can single-handedly alter the game’s momentum, especially in an arena with such a rabid fan base. The seventh-year center is currently averaging 9.9 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game this season.
In the prime of his career, LaMarcus Aldridge has manifested himself into an absolutely lethal weapon, whose skillset is unique amongst the NBA fraternity. Aldridge composes himself as a solemn, cerebral player, but beneath his uniform beats the heart of a cold-blooded killer. In the post, the power forward is nearly unstoppable possessing a fluent fade away, with an unblockable high release. This season, Aldridge has added the three-point shot to his repertoire, converting a career-high 43.1 percent. Undersized big-men have serious issues guarding the near 7-footer, confirmed by his shellacking of the Houston Rockets during the 2014 Conference Semifinals. Aldridge’s scoring average of 23.7 points per game ranks seventh in the NBA, notably ahead of Stephen Curry, Blake Griffin and Klay Thompson.
Small forward has been a glaring issue for Portland this season, as Nicolas Batum has failed to exhibit the high level of productivity we have grown accustomed to. Scoring is always a luxury with Batum, but his shooting percentages have dipped far below his career averages from both the field and three-point range with 37.5 percent and 27.1 percent, respectively. Although his offensive confidence is broken, Batum remains a valuable defender, serving as the glue to a fantastic starting unit.
Backcourt: The Trail Blazers were heavily scrutinized when they inked Wesley Matthews to an astounding five-year, $32.5 million contract in 2010. An undrafted shooting guard from Marquette, Matthews has since debunked this stigma, setting himself up for quite the payday when he hits free agency this summer. The intensity he performs with is unmatchable, translating into bothersome defense that will disrupt even the most talented guards. Matthews’ 16.3 points per game come majorly from beyond the three-point line, as he leads the league in total three-point attempts with 397. At just 28-years-old, Matthews will undoubtedly yield a ton of interest across the league this summer.
Damian Lillard narrowly earned his second All-Star berth after Blake Griffin was pronounced out due to injury. The point guard is constantly in attack mode averaging 21.6 points, 6.3 points and 4.7 rebounds per game, stimulating an offense that scores the eighth most points in the NBA. Lillard accomplished the rare feat of graduating from Weber State, which has paid dividends considering the level of maturity he plays with. He thrives in clutch moments, nailing buzzer beaters since he stepped on the hardwood in 2012, instilling terror into his opposition. As Lillard continues to evolve, he should pump up his fairly low shooting percentages to nudge himself into the conversation as the best point guard in the NBA.
Keys To Victory:
Exploit Lillard’s Defense: The one flaw in Lillard’s game is defense. He’s definitely improved on that end, but remains a subpar defender. Jordan Clarkson must seek to exploit this flaw by attacking the paint all night, rather than settling for ugly long-range jump shots, as he tends to do. If Lillard can approach league average status on defense, he can finally be spoken of amongst elites like Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul.
Ed Davis’ Minutes: If the Lakers have any shot at containing Aldridge, Davis is key. The big man only plays about 24 minutes per game because of his inability to create offense, but his defense is a far more valuable in tonight’s matchup. Aldridge dwarfs Tarik Black and Carlos Boozer, while Davis can easily hold his own against nearly every opposing big man in the league.
Turnovers: The Lakers have struggled to maintain leads lately because of the inordinate amount of turnovers. Jordan Clarkson and Jeremy Lin tend to over dribble, wind down the shot clock and either force an ill advised pass of jack up a desperation three leading to a ton of points in transition. In the electrifying atmosphere of Portland, these easy points will destroy the Lakers if they do not take care of the ball.
Los Angeles Lakers (13-39) at Portland Trail Blazers (35-17)
7:00 PM PST, February 11, 2015
Moda Center at the Rose Quarter, Portland, OR
TV: TWC SN
Radio: 710 ESPN (English) / 1330 ESPN (Spanish)
Trail Blazers Projected Starting Lineup
PG: Damian Lillard
SG: Wesley Matthews
SF: Nicholas Batum
PF: LaMarcus Aldridge
C: Robin Lopez
Key Reserves: PG: Steve Blake PF: Meyers Leonard C: Chris Kaman
Lakers Projected Starting Lineup
PG: Jordan Clarkson
SG: Wayne Ellington
SF: Ryan Kelly
PF: Tarik Black
C: Robert Sacre
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