The Portland Trail Blazers trailed by 11 at the half to the Sacramento Kings last night at the Rose Garden, but erased that difference in the third quarter and outplayed the Kings down the stretch to earn a 95-88 victory. Here are Five Thoughts from the game.
1. Enter Jerryd Bayless
Tuesday was supposed to be all about Andre Miller, who started at point guard for the first time all season. (Previously, Miller had started alongside Steve Blake in a three-guard lineup.) While the revamped starting five played well, outscoring the Kings' starters at the beginning of the first and third periods, Miller spent the entire fourth quarter on the bench as Nate McMillan went with Blake and Jerryd Bayless in the backcourt and Brandon Roy at small forward.
It was a well-timed breakout game for Bayless, who has had big individual efforts before but never a performance that felt quite so impactful and repeatable. Playing in the flow of the offense--and off of Roy--Bayless wreaked havoc on the Sacramento defense down the stretch with his ability to penetrate. In arguing for Bayless to get more playing time, Blazersedge's Benjamin Golliver noted how efficient Bayless has been thanks to his frequent trips to the free throw line, and that's exactly how things played out tonight. Bayless attempted 10 free throws and just six shots from the field, scoring 14 points on 11 shooting possessions (a solid 63.6 True Shooting Percentage).
McMillan has been searching for an additional creator to help relieve pressure on Roy. Miller has done so at times, but his poor shooting has also empowered opponents to run defenders off of him and at Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge. Bayless commands more respect on the perimeter, and he also was the Blazer most capable of slowing down--not stopping--Tyreke Evans. Portland has been best this season with Roy at small forward instead of inconsistent Martell Webster (or Rudy Fernandez or Travis Outlaw, both currently sidelined). The assumption was the two guards alongside him would be Blake and Miller, but Bayless may just have forced his way into that group.
2. Tyreke Evans, Fearless Finisher
Tonight was my first opportunity to see Evans in person, providing an interesting point of comparison with the Every Play Counts breakdown I compiled based on his NBA debut. Then, Evans was playing point guard alongside Kevin Martin, while now he primarily plays off the ball alongside either Beno Udrih or Sergio Rodriguez. Still, I would argue that the importance of Evans' position change has been exaggerated. How the Kings used Evans wasn't considerably different from when he was at point guard. (The biggest change I noted: no post-up opportunities tonight, for whatever reason.)
In my conclusion, I argued the biggest thing Evans needed to do to become more successful was finish around the rim. He certainly did that Tuesday night, scoring from a variety of odd angles despite defensive pressure in an impressive performance. According to ESPN.com's shot chart, both of Evans' misses came from the perimeter. In the paint, he was a perfect 7-of-7. While Evans hasn't been that good over the course of the season, it seems the concerns I raised about his finishing were overstated. Hoopdata.com shows him making 58.0 percent of his attempts at the rim, and there have certainly been plenty of them.
So what happens when Martin eventually returns to the lineup, besides a boost for my fantasy team? I don't think Evans will be stifled, although adding another high scorer will naturally mean fewer plays called for him. The bigger concern should be whether Sacramento's ball movement degrades with Evans and Martin, neither of them good passers for their position. Udrih and Rodriguez have played well enough to demand regular minutes, so I would expect to see some three-guard lineups that hurt the Kings at the defensive end but make them very dangerous scoring the basketball.
3. Joel Przybilla, Defensive Force
It ranks fairly low on the list of Blazer disappointments thus far, but Joel Przybilla has not been as effective in 2009-10 as he was a year ago. That Przybilla's two-point percentage has dropped from last year's career-high 62.7 percent isn't a surprise, naturally, but the veteran center has declined at the defensive end as well. With Greg Oden out for the season, Portland will need the kind of production that Przybilla offered in Oden's absence during the entire 2007-08 campaign and extended stretches last year. He gave that and more last night, controlling the paint against a Sacramento team that is not especially physical with 10 rebounds and a pair of blocks.
By far, the most telling number on Przybilla's line in the box score was +27, his plus-minus for the game. With Przybilla on the court, the Blazers crushed the Kings. When he sat, Sacramento dominated (outscoring Portland by 20 points in those 17 minutes). In a single game, plus-minus can be meaningless or even misleading, but in this case it seems to fairly reflect Przybilla's presence. The Kings went on runs precisely as Przybilla left the game in both the first and third quarters, and the time he spent sitting with foul trouble late in the first half allowed Sacramento to build its largest lead.
Of course, plus-minus also measures the ability of substitutes, and the Blazers' poor performance without Przybilla reflects the team's hole behind him at center. Veteran Juwan Howard is getting those minutes, playing alongside 6'11" Aldridge. Portland has been outscored by 7.3 points per 100 possessions with Howard on the floor, per 82games.com. The Blazers could go smaller by giving Howard's minutes to Dante Cunningham, who is already playing as Aldridge's backup. Down the road, the hope is that rookie Jeff Pendergraph will be able to fill that spot when he returns from hip surgery.
4. The Surprising Kings
Few teams have exceeded their SCHOENE projection more than Sacramento, which was projected to be far and away the league's worst team. Instead, the Kings are hanging around .500 without Martin. I think the improvement can be traced to two areas: depth and shooting.
Sacramento president of basketball operations Geoff Petrie and his staff did an excellent job of adding rotation-caliber players to the roster this offseason without spending much money. All three draft picks (Evans, the promising Omri Casspi, and second-rounder Jon Brockman) are contributing, as is Rodriguez. Add in a bounceback season for Udrih, the development of Donté Greene in his second year and Kenny Thomas playing competent minutes and the Kings have 10 players with per-minute winning percentages of .450 or better even without swingman Francisco Garcia, who has yet to play after breaking his arm in a freak accident during training camp. When Martin returns, one of Paul Westphal's biggest challenges will be finding enough minutes for everyone. I'd suggest cutting the playing time of small forwards Andres Nocioni and Ime Udoka, which dovetails with the earlier discussion of three-guard lineups.
With Martin out of the lineup, the Kings don't take a ton of three-pointers, but their accuracy (38.1 percent) has been terrific and good for fourth in the league. Udrih has rediscovered his stroke, lost last year, which accounts for much of his improvement. Greene has shown the ability to hit consistently from beyond the arc and Casspi is probably the best shooter in this year's class of rookies (he's hitting an even 50.0 percent of his threes, which is better than his free throw percentage). Up front, even if Spencer Hawes and Jason Thompson don't have three-point range, they are both excellent from midrange. That ability helps space the floor for Evans' drives and helps explain why Sacramento boasts one of the league's top 10 offenses.
The Kings have also made progress at the defensive end of the floor. Last in the league by a mile in Defensive Rating a year ago, improved schemes, the addition of Evans and the maturation of the young big men has helped Sacramento get to 27th on defense. That's enough to at least not undermine their efforts at the other end of the floor. The Toronto Raptors, for one, would be thrilled to play defense like that.
5. Obligatory Seattle/UW Boosterism
It was a big night for Seattle basketball at the Rose Garden. Not only was Brockman making his first trip to the Pacific Northwest during the regular season, the game also marked the first time former Seattle Prep teammates Hawes and Webster started against each other. Add in Roy and the game featured four players from the Seattle area and three former Huskies. (Webster would have made four had he not passed on his college career to enter the draft out of high school.)
Aside from the usual heroics from Roy (25 points, 10 assists), it wasn't an especially good night for the Seattle contingent. Hawes managed just four points and two rebounds in 28 minutes of playing time and was outrebounded by Brockman (three boards during a nine-minute stint). Webster knocked down a pair of three-pointers but was otherwise quiet.
Join Kevin to chat about the Blazers, the Kings and everything else that's happening in the NBA Wednesday at 2 p.m. Eastern/11 a.m. Pacific on Baseball Prospectus. If you can't make it then, leave your question ahead of time.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.