The Portland Trail Blazers will face the Brooklyn Nets in the Barclays Center tonight, but it won’t be the test of mettle it could have been. Deron Williams (ankle), Andrei Kirlienko (back), and Brook Lopez (ankle) will be rested as they recover from injury. In fact, the only blue chippers remaining are Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, both of whom are questionable with injuries of their own.
This doesn’t mean that the Trail Blazers have it easy, by any means. A depleted Nets lineup is still better than most of the opponents they’ve played this season. Considering Portland’s propensity for playing down to their opposition, a road win this evening will be rather difficult. You think Rudy Gay was trouble in the 4th yesterday? Joe Johnson is one of the best clutch shooters in the NBA.
So here’s what needs to happen tonight:
#1) Damian Lillard needs to push. Hard. The Nets’ best interior defender is 37 years old and nursing a bum ankle. With no Deron Williams to keep up with Lillard up top, I want to see him getting in the lane as much as possible. Scoring on Kevin Garnett is no simple feat, but Damian Lillard possesses the quickness to make it possible. The best way to exploit a jumbled defense is to attack it relentlessly.
#2) Robin Lopez needs to rebound better than he has all year. Kevin Garnett and Reggie Evans have some of the best instincts in the league when it comes to reeling in boards. Lopez has enjoyed early praise for his career best rebounding efforts, but we’ve seen him shrink before. The Blazers can’t afford to have him disappear like he did behind Dwight Howard and the Houston Rockets.
#3) Wesley Matthews need to contain Joe Johnson. Matthews may be an excellent perimeter defender, but Johnson possesses a deadly crossover. The ball will be in Joe Jo’s hands a lot tonight (especially if Pierce ends up sitting) and he has no problem being asked to score. Matthews’ will have to play carefully in order to compensate for his middling lateral quickness. We’ll see if he can handle the shake, bake, and pull-up.
#4) The Trail Blazers, as a whole, need to stem the tide of points in the paint. For all their offensive majesty, their defense is still atrocious. Kevin Garnett hasn’t set a legal screen in 15 years, so if Damian Lillard and Mo Williams can’t maneuver them, expect a rough night inside. The onus is on Robin Lopez to help defend the pick and roll without straying too far to rebound.
#5) Portland’s 3-point shooters need to be hot. Brooklyn has been the fourth worst team in the NBA at defending the perimeter this year, allowing their opponents to shoot 38.4 percent from deep. This is Portland’s biggest natural advantage, as they are built around range. I have a sneaking suspicion that Dorell Wright will have a big game off the bench, with no Andrei Kirilenko to size him up.