By: Jim Eichenhofer,, @Jim_Eichenhofer
March 10, 2013

The New Orleans Hornets and Portland Trail Blazers will meet for a third and final time this season Sunday evening in the Crescent City. Based on the previous two meetings, it’s virtually impossible to know what to expect in the rubber match between the Western Conference clubs.

On Dec. 16, Portland posted a thrilling 95-94 victory over New Orleans, with NBA Rookie of the Year candidate Damian Lillard connecting on a go-ahead three-pointer with just 0.3 seconds remaining. Roughly two months later on Feb. 13, the Hornets romped to their most one-sided win of the 2012-13 regular season, a 99-63 decision against the Trail Blazers. Memorably to those who were in attendance in the final game prior to the All-Star break, New Orleans reserve forward Lance Thomas had a chance to get the hosts to 100 points, but he missed a free throw in the waning seconds. When the Hornets score 100 points or more at home, fans win free French fries from McDonald’s, so Thomas decided to make it up to them by purchasing the fries the next night at the Canal Street restaurant. Approximately 100 fans took advantage of Thomas’ gesture.

Although defense has been a problem area for the Hornets at various stages of the 2012-13 season, they turned in their best performance in the Feb. 13 contest. New Orleans held Portland to under 20 points in every quarter and led by the unusual halftime score of 38-26. The Trail Blazers were a dreadful 32.4 percent from the field and 2-for-17 from three-point range.

Facing what’s considered to be his top competition for the Rookie of the Year award in Lillard, the Hornets’ Anthony Davis has been excellent. The No. 1 overall pick is averaging 18.0 points and 8.0 rebounds vs. Portland in the two games.

Intriguing matchup: Small forward, Al-Farouq Aminu vs. Nicolas Batum
Two players who competed in the London Olympics, for Nigeria and France, respectively, face off in the Big Easy. Aminu and the Hornets have done stellar work against Batum defensively so far, holding him to 5-for-21 shooting from the field. Batum had a quality all-around game in the Dec. 16 matchup, with 10 assists, five steals and five blocks.

Projected by virtually every NBA analyst to miss the playoffs this season, the Trail Blazers raised hopes of their fans by sporting a 20-15 overall record in mid-January, following a dramatic win over the Miami Heat. Since that stirring victory, however, Portland has gone through its share of adversity on the court. The Trail Blazers won just eight of their next 24 games, dropping them to 28-31 prior to this week’s three-game road trip to Memphis, San Antonio and New Orleans. Portland, which has experienced as much misfortune due to injuries as any NBA team in recent years, is attempting to return to the postseason after missing out in 2011-12. Portland must overtake several West teams in the standings such as the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah to qualify this time.

Star player
An All-Star power forward for each of the past two seasons, LaMarcus Aldridge has been the franchise’s cornerstone amid an incredible string of bad luck due to the injury bug. Aldridge was supposed to be part of a trio that included Brandon Roy and Greg Oden that would lead Portland into the future, but injuries ruined both players’ careers in Oregon. The University of Texas product combines an improved low-post game with one of the most lethal 20-foot jumpers among NBA frontcourt players.

On the rise
Although the Hornets’ Anthony Davis would like to have something to say about it over the final month-plus of the season, many NBA analysts have predicted that point guard Damian Lillard will capture the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award. Little-known after spending four seasons in college at obscure Weber State, Lillard has been a godsend for the Trail Blazers, who had a glaring need at point guard. The mature No. 6 overall pick is already one of the best shooters among point guards and has buried several big baskets, including the decisive trey vs. the Hornets on Dec. 16.
Portland ranks last in the NBA in bench scoring, and it’s not even close. Through March 4, the Trail Blazers were only averaging 17.0 bench points per game, while every other team in the NBA averaged between 25.8 (Indiana, 29th) and 40.8 (Dallas, first). New Orleans’ group of reserves averages 36.9 points, which is 10th in the league. The flip side of this stat is that it shows how effective and critical Portland’s starters have been.

On the sideline
Portland first-year head coach Terry Stotts is one of the least-known sideline leaders in the NBA, but has done an excellent job bringing together a very inexperienced roster. Stotts is seeking his second playoff appearance as a head coach in five total NBA seasons.

Did you know?
The first-ever win for a New Orleans NBA franchise took place on Nov. 10, 1974, when the New Orleans Jazz defeated the Trail Blazers, 102-101. The expansion Jazz began their inaugural season with 11 straight losses.

Players the Trail Blazers want shooting free throws in a close game… If the Trail Blazers need a three-pointer, three of their best options are…
Career FT percentage (through Mar. 7)
Already established as a reliable clutch player.
A 6-8 leaper with impressive quickness and wingspan.
Below 80 percent this season for first time in career.
Career three-point percentage (through Mar. 7)
Has gotten injured in both prior games vs. Hornets.
One of France’s top players at 2012 Olympics.
Lillard is also a major threat, at 35.0 as a rookie.