Game Details: Rose Garden, Portland, OR. 7:00 PM. TV: CSN. Radio: KXTG (95.5 FM).
Projected Portland Starting Lineup: PG Andre Miller (#24, 6′2″, Utah), SG Wesley Matthews (#2, 6′5″, Marquette), SF Nicolas Batum (#88, 6′9″, France), PF LaMarcus Aldridge (#12, 6′11″, Texas), C Dante Cunningham (#33, 6′9″, Villanova)
Projected New Orleans Starting Lineup: PG Chris Paul (#3, 6′, Wake Forest), SG Willie Green (#33, 6′3″, Detroit), SF Trevor Ariza (#1, 6′8″, UCLA), PF David West (#30, 6′9″, Xavier), C Aaron Gray (#34, 7′0″, Pittsburgh)
Chalk this up to either the crazy season the Blazers have had or the stiff competition in the west, but if Portland beats New Orleans tonight, they will be looking at fifth place in the Western Conference. Portland has won its last five games (granted, four of them were against Cleveland, Toronto, Detroit, and Minnesota, but still), while New Orleans has dropped its last two. The Hornets have owned the Blazers in their two contests so far this season, but those may as well have been different seasons. The first time around, New Orleans was undefeated through the first two weeks of the season and looking at possibly becoming an unlikely title contender. By the second time they played, in late November, Portland’s injury situation was beginning to look a little more like it does now, but LaMarcus Aldridge had yet to start playing the way we’re used to him playing now.
That’s not to say the Hornets aren’t still a better team than the Blazers on paper as of tonight, because they are. However, the teams are more evenly matched tonight than they were the first two times around. For starters, the Hornets are without starting center Emeka Okafor, leaving them trotting out Aaron Gray in the middle. Dante Cunningham will start for Portland, and he’s coming off a career game against the Timberwolves. He’ll be looking to build on that momentum tonight, and without a presence like Okafor to account for, he has a better shot at it than usual. David West isn’t on quite the tear LaMarcus is, but he’s having a solid season nonetheless (he leads New Orleans with 18.9 points a game). In their previous matchups, an argument could be made that he was a superior player to Aldridge. Now, not so much.
Chris Paul is having something of a down year, but that’s relative. Chris Paul’s down year still leaves him as one of the most dangerous point guards in the game. Even with Aldridge making the leap that he has, Paul is still the best player on either roster tonight. He hasn’t played well against the Blazers the last two seasons, but he’s still not someone you want to dismiss. This is why all the talk you hear of the Blazers possibly looking to move Andre Miller is ridiculous—Miller is no CP3, but you’d sure as hell rather have him out there against a talent like Paul than you would Patty Mills.
With Okafor out, the Blazers’ game plan tonight should be attack, attack, attack. LaMarcus didn’t do much Monday night in Minnesota, but he didn’t need to because of the level of the opponent. The combination of tonight’s opponent and the lack of interior depth point to another huge night for him. For all that’s happened this season, it would be nice for the Blazers to be able to ride a six-game winning streak and fifth place in the conference into the All-Star break. It won’t be easy, but this game is winnable.