January 16, 2012

Since making their full-time return to the city of New Orleans in 2007-08, the New Orleans Hornets have commemorated the annual Martin Luther King Jr. holiday with a home matinee each January. Mondays afternoon game vs. Portland marks the fifth consecutive year of the holiday game, with New Orleans boasting a 3-1 record in the previous contests. The Hornets lone defeat during the four-year stretch took place two years ago against San Antonio. The other contests resulted in New Orleans victories over Toronto, Indiana and Milwaukee. Mondays Western Conference matchup with Portland also represents the lone afternoon home game of 2011-12 for New Orleans. Each of the clubs other 32 regular season home tilts is scheduled to tip off in the evening.

The holiday matchup between the Hornets and Trail Blazers marks the first of four encounters between the conference rivals this season. Portland is scheduled to return to the Crescent City for a Feb. 10 game, followed by New Orleans twice visiting Oregon the following month. The Hornets will be guests in the Rose Garden on March 5 and March 29.

After the unexpected retirement of past All-Star shooting guard Brandon Roy due to chronic knee problems, the Trail Blazers were expected by many NBA analysts to falter this season. However, by relying on a deep and talented roster, Portland opened the regular season with six victories in its first eight games. Among the Blazers early-season triumphs were impressive wins over Philadelphia, Denver, Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Intriguing matchup: Power forward, Chris Kaman vs. LaMarcus Aldridge
In an informal preseason survey, Kaman listed Aldridge as the NBAs most underrated player, partly because Aldridge has never been chosen as an All-Star, despite often carrying the Trail Blazers offense. Kaman has made one All-Star appearance, in 2010. Aldridge possesses a dangerous package of offensive skills hes an accurate jump shooter with the range to consistently make 20-footers, but also the frequent recipient of alley-oop passes for dunks. The 6-foot-11, 240-pounders versatility makes him a considerable challenge to defend. Aldridges scoring punch has been a key barometer for Portlands success in the early part of the season in the teams first six victories, he tallied 20-plus points five times, but in two losses, Aldridge was held under 20 points in both defeats.


After a forgettable three-year stretch in the middle of the previous decade in which Portland finished below .500, the Trail Blazers methodically progressed into a high-caliber club, reaching the playoffs in each of the past three seasons, while averaging 51 wins. However, any chance they had of advancing deep in the postseason has been significantly hampered by devastating injuries. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft, Portland center Greg Oden was projected to be a franchise-changing player, but the Ohio State product been limited to a total of 82 games in his NBA career, over four-plus seasons. Oden hasnt played in an official game since Dec. 5, 2009. Meanwhile, All-Star shooting guard Brandon Roy experienced chronic knee problems, causing Roy to announce his retirement prior to the 2011-12 season. With Portland at a crossroads and expected by many analysts to drop in the Western Conference standings, the Blazers have instead gotten off to an excellent start this season. Like fellow Northwest Division contenders Oklahoma City and Denver, Portland has remained a feared team due partly to its outstanding depth.

Whats new
Portlands most significant offseason addition may have been the free-agent signing of guard Jamal Crawford, formerly of Atlanta and the 2009-10 NBA Sixth Man of the Year award winner. Crawford supplies instant offense off the bench, a dangerous three-point threat who can heat up quickly. The Michigan product is one of only four players in NBA history to score 50 points in a game with three different teams (the others are Wilt Chamberlain, Bernard King and Moses Malone). Aside from Crawford, the Blazers also signed cagey 17-year pro Kurt Thomas and burly frontcourt sub Craig Smith. Starting point guard Raymond Felton arrived in Portland via an offseason trade that sent Andre Miller to Denver. At 27, Felton is in the prime of his career and has been a key member of previous playoff-qualifying teams in Charlotte and Denver. In the 2011 draft, Portland selected former Duke standout Nolan Smith in the first round, though Smith has played sparingly early in his rookie campaign.

Trail Blazers star
A few years ago, the future of the Trail Blazers was expected to be centered around a Big Three of Oden, Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, but Aldridge has been the only member of that trio to avoid major health issues. Aldridge averaged 20-plus points for the first time in his career in 2010-11, carrying a shorthanded squad to a surprising 48-win season. How important was the 6-foot-11 power forward? Aldridge logged 3,211 minutes last season, the second-highest total in franchise history.

Trail Blazer on the rise
The son and namesake of a former NBA player, Wesley Matthews ranked as Portlands second-leading scorer early this season. Despite going undrafted in 2009, the Marquette product started 48 times as a rookie for Utah, leading to him signing a long-term contract with Portland. The 6-foot-5 two-guard is a quality one-on-one defender and perimeter marksman, shooting 40 percent in his career from three-point range.

On the sideline
Portland head coach Nate McMillan is one of Monty Williams coaching mentors. Williams was an assistant coach under McMillan for five seasons prior to taking over the lead job in New Orleans. McMillan is one of the most respected head coaches in the game, a trait that carried over from his 12-year NBA playing career. McMillan spent a dozen seasons as an unselfish, defensive-minded guard for the Seattle SuperSonics, earning the nickname Mr. Sonic.

Did you know?
Louisiana State product Chris Johnson is in his second season with the Trail Blazers. The backup center appeared in 10 Portland regular season games a year ago, when widespread injuries affected the roster at virtually every position.

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...
Name Career FT percentage (through Jan. 10)
Made 33 of his first 35 tries this season (94.3 percent).
Like Crawford, off to red-hot start from stripe (90.3 percent).
Native of France is an excellent fast-break finisher and dunker.
Name Career three-point percentage (through Jan. 10)
Launching nearly five attempts per game early this season.
More than doubled his makes in 2010-11, going from 54 to 118.
Owns all-time NBA career record for four-point plays.

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