Preview: Kings @ Trail Blazers

The Trail Blazers (13-20) play host to the Sacramento Kings (14-17) tonight, in the penultimate game of 2016. Having lost six straight games, fallen out of the playoff standings and with the franchise player’s health in question, is there any chance of snapping the streak tonight?

The Trail Blazers have slipped to 10th in the West and find themselves just four games ahead of the bottom of the conference. Usually, a visit from the Sacramento Kings would have teams licking their chops. But with Portland’s current run of form and DeMarcus Cousins’ dominating performance in last meeting between the two sides just eight days ago, it’s not hard to see the losing streak continue to grow.

After rolling his right ankle against San Antonio, then missing Monday’s loss to Toronto, Damian Lillard’s status remains uncertain ahead of tonight’s match-up. Lillard’s absence makes an already disappointing season even worse. Thankfully, the injury is not expected to keep the star on the side-lines too long.

Losing your leader in points, assists, usage rate and win shares (for what that’s worth with this record) naturally adds further strain to an already struggling roster. C.J. McCollum stepped up against the Raptors dropping 29 points along with 7 assists. But (and it’s almost like this has been said before) greater contributions are required from the rest of the team in order to get some W’s.

Return of the King(s)

Since their victory over the Trail Blazers, the Kings have managed to pull together a four-game win streak. That total doubles their previous largest streak so far this season and has result in the northern Californian franchise leapfrogging Portland in the standings and into contention for a playoff spot.

Generally speaking, Sacramento’s weapons are limited beyond Cousins, however there are plenty of holes in the Portland defense ready to be exploited. Back-up point guard, Ty Lawson, is showing signs that he is not yet washed-up and with a weakened Trail Blazer back-court could have a decent showing. The 5-11 29-year-old has dropped 16, 19 (a season high), 15 and 12 over the last eight days. Though nowhere near the level of production he was renowned for just three years ago, these are marked improvements for a player who has played for four teams across his last 98 games and is considered by some to be on his last chance.

Want-away forward, Rudy Gay also presents something of a threat. Returning to action on Boxing Day, after a six fame absence, the 30-year-old had a 17 point and 9 rebound haul. He is more than capable of a big night. As trade rumors swirl, Gay could be looking to impress any potential suitors.

Is this a rivalry?

Perhaps the key narrative to this game will be the lack of affection between Cousins and Meyers Leonard. It’ll be interesting to see if Terry Stotts reverts to the “tactical” use of Leonard as the Cousins “irritator” (given its abject failure in the last meeting). Or whether, with Al-Faroq Aminu back in the fray, a different strategy is implemented.

Limiting Cousins remains the number one priority and the ability or inability to do this is lynch-pin to either team’s success. The Kings have the 21st ranked defense in the league. Cousin’s reputation is not forged on his defensive abilities, but his huge frame alone creates issues at the rim.

Getting him away from the hoop will help the cause tremendously. If Leonard is utilized for his ability to knock down the three, rather than try to annoy his opponent, Portland will be in good shape.  Or, if Leonard bugs the Kings’ big man enough for an ejection, then the Trail Blazers have an even better shot.

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