It’s not very often that the top two teams in the NBA face off, and even less often that the Trail Blazers are considered one of those two (granted, sharing the honors with the Spurs and the Heat, who also boast a 14-3 record). However, the planets have aligned and the stars will battle in the Moda Center tonight. The league leading Indiana Pacers (16-1) are in town.
I’m eager to see how the Trail Blazers handle them. Indiana has the best defensive rating in the league right now (92.6), and Portland has the best offensive rating (111.5). The game will be all about who executes better, but the Trail Blazers have two significant advantages: playing at home and 3-point proficiency.
The former stands for any team with a crowd behind them, but the latter is invaluable to the Trail Blazers tonight. A big part of the Pacers’ defensive success has been 2014 Defensive Player of the Year (trust me on this one) Roy Hibbert. But, as a center, Hibbert won’t be scaring anyone off the 3-point line. Instead he will duel with Robin Lopez, who isn’t expected to generate offense anyway.
While this will make things even more difficult for Portland’s guards who have struggled to score inside, it does mean that Indiana’s biggest defensive weapon is powerless against Portland’s biggest offensive weapon. Expect Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, and Mo Williams to be playing the deep game all night.
Unfortunately for the Trail Blazers, they won’t be playing 5-on-1, and the Pacers have much, much more in their arsenal than Roy Hibbert. All-star small forward Paul George (2013 Most Improved Player) has continued his meteoric rise to average 23.8 points per game this season (more than any Trail Blazer). Although not as flashy as a Chris Paul or Kevin Durant, he has the most complete game of any NBA player not named LeBron James.
The trick will be containing Paul George without leaving David West (another All-star) free to go about his business. In a league that is shifting toward the stretch four, West remains one of the most deadly back-to-the-basket bruisers around. Give him room and he will get you every time, wrap him up and he will get you most of the time. Aldridge is going to have his hands full in the post.
So we’re going to do the keys to the game a little bit differently tonight. I’ve provided a checklist for the Trail Blazers to succeed, and each one must be marked off if they hope to give the Pacers their second loss of the season:
[_] – The Trail Blazers need to play deep.
Indiana is excellent at defending the three, but Portland is outmatched inside. In order to get open looks, the Trail Blazers must exhibit the ball movement that has garnered national recognition and make good use of some high screens to create extra space for Damian Lillard and Mo Williams.
[_] – Nicolas Batum needs to lock down Paul George.
George has been held under 20 points just three times this year—if Batum can tack on a fourth, the Trail Blazers might just survive the onslaught. Don’t expect Batum to be an active scorer tonight, but watch for a trademark hot-flash just in case he has energy left over for offense.
[_] – LaMarcus Aldridge needs to play David West tighter than a Sunday neck-tie.
I anticipate this being a problem, since foul trouble is the last thing Portland needs from Aldridge tonight. This is where playing at home is nice. Although we can pretend Portland is the Mecca of balanced officiating, referees will always have a leaning; intentional or not.
[_] – The Trail Blazers need to convert in transition.
What’s the best way to score on an elite defense? Don’t give them a chance to defend. Quick baskets are easy points against a team that allows the fewest in the league (86.5 per game). That being said, forcing turnovers will be an awkward necessity for the Trail Blazers, who rank 30th in doing so.
[_] – Robin Lopez can’t let Roy Hibbert push him around.
Despite off-season concerns, Lopez has admirably fought his way up to 4th on the offensive rebound leader board. Hibbert is hot on his heels at 6th, but has more than 20 lbs and two inches on Lopez, who is not used to opponents larger than he is. The Trail Blazers must make the most of each possession, and Robin Lopez must provide them with as many extra ones as possible.
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