By Dan Kelly @DanKelly_NBA
BROOKLYN (41-29) at PORTLAND (33-37)
“Portland is a place where young people go to retire.”
PLAYOFF RACE: With 12 games to go the Nets are 4th in the East. They’re 2.5 games behind the Knicks and Pacers, with both of those teams struggling with injuries. Tyson Chandler is out with neck issues and David West has a serious case of back spasms. A second seed in the playoffs means avoiding the Heat until the Conference Finals. But of course, so does the 7th seed, which is where the sagacious old Celtics presently find themselves. The Blazers have fallen out of playoff contention in the West, unless the Lakers fall apart and the Blazers get very hot.
CIRCUS TRIP: The Circus is at Barclays so the Nets are on the road for a stretch of 8 games in 17 days. So far Brooklyn is 3-1 on the trip with the loss coming against the Clippers. The Nets could go 6-2 on the trip which would be a wild success. They’re 4 remaining Circus Trip games are at Portland, Denver, Utah and Cleveland.
CORNER POCKET: The Nets shoot a respectable 40.3% from the corners and the Blazers aren’t far behind them at 39.6%. Those percentages are good for 9th and 11th in the league. Despite not having a resident corner specialist, and their slow slow pace, the Nets have attempted 136 more shots from the corners than the Blazers.
RIM JOBS: The Blazers have allowed 2,268 shots from less than 5 feet from the rim. That’s the second most in the NBA. And teams are converting 59% of those very desirable shots. The Nets have allowed 2,049 shots from within 5 feet and opponents are shooting 59.6% when the get there. Not exactly a pair of intimidating defensive front courts. Overall the Nets’ defense is ranked 17th in points per possession and the Blazers defense ranked 24th. Portland is starting J.J. Hickson, whose natural position is power forward, at center. They don’t really have anyone who can block shots.
THE ROOKIE: Damian Lillard has received a lot of attention for his offensive savvy and effectiveness. The rookie point guard from Weber State is averaging 19.5 points, 6.5 assists, and 3.2 rebounds per game. He’s particularly dangerous shooting the ball from the top of the key and the left wing where he hits close to 39% on three point attempts. He gets into the paint with relative frequency and shoots 51% in the restricted area. He’s also hit a couple of game winners including this one:
Lillard has not received much positive attention for his defense. He’s struggled mightily on that end (as most rookies do). His pick and roll defense is sieve-like. He’s not physical enough to force dribblers away from the screen and he’s not strong or determined enough to fight back into the play after being screened. In fairness, Lillard is carrying a lot of offensive weight to be doing it on defense as well. But he can’t continue to be that bad if the Blazers plan to ride him into their future.
NBA BOARDERS: J.J. Hickson and Reggie Evans have both ascended from limited benchmen to consistent starters. They’ve both done it with rebounding. Hickson is 8th in the league in rebs/game at 10.8 and Evans is 10th with 10.2 rebs/game. Hickson’s rebounding percentage is 20.8 while Evans’ is a universe-leading 26.8.
BENCH WARS: The Nets have the decided advantage in bench scoring, but Portland makes up for that by never playing their bench. Only Eric Maynor (acquired in midseason from the Thunder) and Meyers Leonard get regular minutes. The Nets have five bench players who score more than the Blazers’ leading bench scorer, Meyers Leonard (4.6 ppg). The heavy starter minutes seem to have taken a toll on Nicolas Batum (11.2 ppg in March), though the rest of the Blazer starters have been unaffected.
MUST WIN?: Only 4 of the Nets’ remaining 12 games are against playoff teams. The Knicks, who have 13 games remaining, play 9 playoff teams. The Pacers play 6 out of 11 against contenders. The Nets could probably stomach a loss against the Blazers and still catch the Knicks, but catching the Pacers looks trickier. Especially considering that the Pacers come to Brooklyn on April 12th. That game could be the biggest of the year.
UPDATE: Joe Johnson will miss tonight’s game. LaMarcus Aldridge (flu) is probable for Portland.