The Portland Trail Blazers have improved vastly since their last loss to the Indiana Pacers, with the continued development of All-Star guard Brandon Roy as a key to that success.
Roy, however, is expected to miss his second straight contest on Saturday night when Portland looks to end an eight-game skid against the Pacers.
The Trail Blazers (28-21) struggled early this season, exemplified by a 95-89 loss to Indiana (20-30) on Nov. 28 that dropped their record to 5-10. Portland hasn't beaten Indiana since Dec. 3, 2003, when it won 97-95 in overtime, and this skid is its longest against any Eastern Conference opponent.
The Blazers, however, have turned their season around by going 23-11 since last facing the Pacers. They're led by Roy, the reigning rookie of the year, who is averaging a team-high 19.7 points, 5.8 assists and 1.0 steals per game.
Roy, though, missed Friday's 91-82 loss to Detroit due to a death in his family, and is also expected to miss this contest.
Against the Pistons, Roy was replaced in the starting lineup by Martell Webster, who had seven points on 2-of-10 shooting. The third-year swingman is averaging a career-best 10.4 points a contest.
With Roy out, LaMarcus Aldridge will again be expected to carry most of the scoring load. The second-year center led all players with 22 points against the Pistons, and had 22 in November's matchup with the Pacers. Aldridge is averaging 16.9 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks this season.
Even with Roy out, Pacers coach Jim O'Brien knows the Blazers pose a tough challenge.
"I think it's a great credit to coach (Nate) McMillan and his staff," O'Brien said of Portland's recent success. "They're one of the top defensive teams in the league, one of the top 3-point shooting teams and they have a nice inside attack.
"I think they should get a lot of credit. They seem to have a wonderful chemistry and there's not a game I've watched where they haven't played like they're playing for the playoffs."
Indiana's postseason hopes have taken a hit in recent weeks. The Pacers lost seven straight before a 103-100 win over lowly New York on Wednesday night.
Indiana also has injury problems to deal with. Neither Jamaal Tinsley (knee) nor Travis Diener (foot) were available in the fourth quarter versus the Knicks, leaving the Pacers without their top two point guards. While Diener is expected to face the Blazers, Tinsley is scheduled for an MRI and will likely miss his 12th game of the season.
Still, Indiana is hoping to build some positive momentum in its last three games before the All-Star break. On Wednesday, the Pacers were able to bounce back from their most lopsided loss of the season, 116-89 against San Antonio on Tuesday night.
"It feels good," Indiana guard Kareem Rush said. "We've been struggling for a long time. It feels good to get off this losing streak. Hopefully we can go home and finish off the first part of the season good."
The Pacers continue to play without Jermaine O'Neal, who has been sidelined since the middle of last month with a bone bruise in his left knee. O'Brien expects the veteran forward to be back sometime after the All-Star break.
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