Blazers’ improved defense to be tested by Pelicans’ guards
PORTLAND, Ore. — Last season, the Portland Trail Blazers were 21st in defensive rating in the NBA, worst of any team that reached the playoffs.
The Trail Blazers are ranked second, behind only the Boston Celtics, as they prepare to play host to the New Orleans Pelicans Saturday night at Moda Center.
Portland (13-10), one of the better offensive teams in the league the past few seasons, started the season poorly at that end but has begun to pick up some steam the past two weeks.
“I’m pleased we’ve sustained our defensive focus, and I’m glad our offense is rounding into shape,” said Terry Stotts, in his sixth season as the Blazers’ head coach. “But in this league, you’re continually striving to maintain or to get better. That’s where we’re at. We need to get better.”
The Blazers weren’t good enough Thursday night at Moda Center, falling behind Milwaukee by 24 points early in the fourth quarter before succumbing to the Bucks 103-91. That came after Portland went 4-1 on a five-game road trip.
“The first game back home is a set-up for a letdown,” point guard Damian Lillard said. “We talked about that before a game. We wanted to come out and play above that, but (the Bucks) came in ready. They played a great game, and we made one too many mistakes to give ourselves a great chance to win it.”
Thursday marked the return of Portland power forward Al-Farouq Aminu, who had missed the previous 13 games with a high ankle sprain. “The Chief” totaled six points — on back-to-back 3’s in the second quarter — and five rebounds in 22 minutes off the bench.
“He looked good,” Stotts said. “It will take him a couple of games to get fully back into the swing of things, but he’ll help us at both ends of the court.”
New Orleans (11-11) comes in off a 114-108 loss at Utah Friday night. The Pelicans are using a lineup featuring three guards — 6-4 Jrue Holiday, 6-1 Rajon Rondo and 6-4 E’Twaun Moore — with twin posts Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. Rondo had an standout game against the Jazz, contributing 13 points on 6-for-9 shooting to go with 11 assists in just 29 minutes.
Davis’ availability is questionable after he suffered a groin injury Friday.
“We’re not as big as we would be starting Dante (Cunningham) at small forward,” coach Alvin Gentry said. “We’ve done a good job playing against bigger teams. That’s where our team defense has to be really solid.”
Moore normally winds up defending players much taller, though that won’t be the case against Portland with 6-5 small forward Pat Connaughton.
“I just have to match their physicality, knowing I can’t give them anything easy,” Moore said. “I try to make them work for everything.”
Holiday has been very effective offensively of late, averaging 17.7 points and 3.6 assists over the past seven games.