If someone would have told you before the season started that the Portland Trailblazers would be leading the Western Conference on December 14th, you probably would have gotten a few sideways glances.
But here we sit, just 11 days before Christmas, and the Blazers reign supreme in the league’s superior conference. Riding the hot start of LaMarcus Aldridge, the Blazers have surged to a 19-4 record with a quarter of the season gone. The Sixers will be tasked with stopping the one-two punch of Aldridge and Damian Lillard tonight—easier said than done.
For those who haven’t had the privilege of watching him much this season, Aldridge has been spectacular, registering 23.5 points and 10.6 rebounds on a stellar 48.1 percent shooting. Aldridge has succeeded mostly due to his mid-range jumper—a shot that many teams are steering players away from—by being one of the league’s best shooters from a low-value area. Take a look at this shot chart that compares Aldridge’s percentages in shooting zones to the rest of the league:
The eighth-year veteran has been above-average in almost any area within 20 feet, which presents a ton of match-up issues for opposing defenses. If you’re able to force a player to take “bad” shots and he still makes you pay, it makes teams second guess their defensive philosophy. That hesitation, in turn, has given Blazers point guard Lillard more room to slash through the lane. Last season’s Rookie of the Year has picked up right where he left off, averaging 20.1 points and 5.6 assists a night.
If the Sixers hope to stop Lillard, keeping him off the charity stripe will be pivotal. Lillard is one of the league’s best from the line at 92 percent on the season, but he’s shooting just 39.7 percent from the field. He’s a talented offensive player, but he’s still prone to forcing too many shots.
As if playing the Western Conference leaders isn’t a tall enough task, team health is also working against the Sixers. Michael Carter-Williams missed his fifth straight game in Toronto last night, and early reports are listing him as doubtful for tonight’s game. Without the services of their rookie phenom, they’ll be hard pressed to stand toe-to-toe with one of the league’s hottest teams.
One positive note: the Sixers will get back to the friendly confines of the Wells Fargo Center after a mini-road trip, where they can hopefully shake of the stink of their road woes. They’re now 1-10 on the road on the season after last night’s defeat, and haven’t won since their triple-double fest against the Magic on December 3rd.
This is what tanking looks like, guys. Buckle up.