February 10, 2012

In the second game of the 2011-12 regular season between the New Orleans Hornets and Portland Trail Blazers, two defensive-minded Western Conference teams meet on the Hornets home floor. The first matchup between the clubs took place in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day matinee, a low-scoring affair won by Portland 84-77. Neither team was able to generate much offense for the majority of the afternoon, with New Orleans finishing at 41.2 percent from the field. The score was 20-15 in favor of Portland through the first quarter, and New Orleans only had 51 points after three periods, before mounting a fourth-quarter rally.

Following Fridays affair in the Crescent City, the Hornets and Trail Blazers still have two more head-to-head encounters left this season, but both of those will take place in Oregon. New Orleans will travel to Portlands Rose Garden on Monday, March 5, then head back there Thursday, March 29. The latter engagement is two days before the NCAA Final Four takes place in the Big Easy.

Fridays tilt is the Hornets second-to-last home game prior to the 2012 NBA All-Star break. On Monday, New Orleans will host Utah, prior to a 16-day break between home games. The Hornets will begin a six-game road stretch Feb. 15 in Milwaukee, followed by trips to New York, Oklahoma City, Indiana, Cleveland and Chicago. The portion of the trek that includes OKC, Indiana and Cleveland marks New Orleans lone back-to-back-to-back of 2011-12, with those games scheduled for consecutive days Feb. 20-22. The Hornets always spend the culmination of Mardi Gras away from home due to logistical concerns.

Intriguing matchup: Power forward, Gustavo Ayon vs. LaMarcus Aldridge
When the Trail Blazers were here less than a month ago, the Jan. 16 game marked one of the breakthrough moments of Ayons rookie season. Two days after his nine-point, seven-rebound performance at Memphis, Ayon collected eight points and five rebounds in just 20 minutes against Portland. Ayons role has expanded considerably since then, with him moving into the Hornets starting lineup after Jason Smith (concussion) and Carl Landry (knee) were sidelined by Feb. 4 injuries. Aldridge should be priority No. 1 for New Orleans interior defense. The sixth-year pro led the Blazers in scoring in the Jan. 16 contest, registering 22 points on 10-for-17 shooting from the field.


In an effort to make a fourth straight playoff appearance, the Trail Blazers are hovering around eighth place in the Western Conference at 14-12 overall. The early portion of the schedule has taken on a what-could-have-been tone for Portland, with numerous narrow defeats. The Trail Blazers were only 1-8 in their first nine games this season decided by five points or less and have not won a close game since Dec. 26, when they defeated Philadelphia 107-103 in their season opener. In the month of February alone, theyve lost by margins of 93-89, 95-92 and 111-107 to Utah, Sacramento and Oklahoma City, respectively. Portland has also been a completely different team on its home floor than on the road, sporting just a 3-9 mark in away games. The Blazers only road victories so far came at Oklahoma City, New Orleans and Toronto.

Whats new
Portland has had one of the most stable rosters in the league over the past few years, attempting to add pieces to a lineup that was supposed to be centered around power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, shooting guard Brandon Roy and former No. 1 overall pick Greg Oden, a center. However, with Roy now retired due to chronic knee issues and Oden again sidelined indefinitely by injury, the Blazers have had to improvise. As a result, four of their top eight leading scorers this season are new faces, headed by No. 2 offensive threat Jamal Crawford, a reserve. Portland point guard Raymond Felton was added in a June trade from Denver and immediately became the starter. Seventh- and eighth-leading scorers Craig Smith and Kurt Thomas join Crawford in providing firepower off Portlands bench.

Trail Blazers star
Aldridge has carried the title of best NBA player to never be named an All-Star for the past year or so, with many analysts and fans believing that the sixth-year pro has deserved that honor for leading an often injury-riddled Portland team to consistent success. The 6-foot-11, 240-pound former lottery pick possesses a potent combination of perimeter shooting ability and the athleticism to finish around the basket. The Blazers frequently run plays with the intent of setting up Aldridge for an alley-oop dunk. Aldridge has faced greater defensive attention as his career has progressed, but hes still increased his scoring average each of the past two seasons.

Trail Blazer on the rise
Fourth-year small forward Nicolas Batums NBA potential was on full display during Saturdays 117-97 victory over Denver. The native of France registered a career-high in scoring by pouring in 33 points against the Nuggets, including going a jaw-dropping 9-for-15 from three-point range. The 6-foot-8, 200-pounder is not just a long-distance shooter, though. The 23-year-old often is given difficult defensive assignments and uses his quickness and length to disrupt opposing scorers.

On the sideline
Nate McMillans seven-year tenure as head coach of the Blazers has been marked by constant adversity in the form of injuries to key members of his roster. McMillan who was Monty Willliams boss in Portland prior to Williams taking over the Hornets is recognized as one of the leagues best coaches, particularly at the defensive end. That shouldnt come as too much of a surprise as a player McMillan was one of the NBAs premier defenders while spending his entire career with the Seattle SuperSonics.

Did you know?
Portland backup center Chris Johnson is one of six LSU products currently playing in the NBA. The 6-foot-11, 210-pounder made his NBA debut in 2010-11, spending parts of that season with Boston and Portland. Johnson has appeared in 11 of the Blazers first 25 games this season, providing frontcourt depth behind Aldridge, Marcus Camby and Thomas. Along with Johnson, the other former LSU Tigers in the league now are Brandon Bass (Boston), Glen Davis (Orlando), Anthony Randolph (Minnesota), Tyrus Thomas (Charlotte) and Marcus Thornton (Sacramento).

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 Feb. 7)
Made 68 of his first 72 tries this season (94.4 percent).
Missed just nine of first 62 attempts this season.
Above-average athlete runs floor well in reserve role.
Name Career three-point percentage (through Feb. 7)
Slumping a bit lately, at 35.6 this season.
Had scorching recent two-game stretch of 13-for-20 on treys.
A reserve, but filled in as starter for the injured Felton on Monday.

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