PORTLAND - The New Orleans Hornets and the Portland Trail Blazers reached the NBA's All-Star break with virtually identical records, but they got there in wildly different fashions. With Wednesday night's 103-96 victory over the Hornets, the Blazers joined them in a tie for fifth place in the Western Conference. Technically, Portland heads to the break with a percentage-point advantage by virtue of having one fewer loss. But just 12 days ago, after the Blazers lost at Indiana, they trailed New Orleans by 5.5 games in the standings. Since then, the two teams have gone in opposite directions. Portland enters the break on a six-game winning streak, while the Hornets have lost six of their last seven.
What makes this fascinating is that both streaks can be traced to an identical event. Each team lost its starting center to injury. Where New Orleans has collapsed since Emeka Okafor strained his left oblique, winning just twice in nine games, Portland has thrived in the absence of Marcus Camby (arthroscopic knee surgery), going 10-4.
At the time Camby went down, I speculated his injury could cost the Blazers a game or two if he returned following the All-Star break, which he hopes to do. The explanation for why that prediction has proven inaccurate was on full display Wednesday. Instead of giving heavy minutes to the two remaining two centers on his active roster (Sean Marks and Joel Przybilla), Nate McMillan has successfully embraced smaller lineups that have opened up the court and ignited the Portland offense.
Since counterpart Monty Williams was equally willing to go small without Okafor, McMillan was able to play center-free almost the entire night. Przybilla played but four minutes, during which the Blazers were outscored by six points. Dante Cunningham handled 26 more minutes alongside LaMarcus Aldridge, lineups that are smaller than Portland's standard combinations but still somewhat conventional. During the other 18 minutes, Portland put Batum alongside Aldridge alongside guards Andre Miller, Rudy Fernandez and Wesley Matthews for an ultra-small, ultra-quick combination that spread the floor with three dangerous shooters.
The small lineup had an impact in the game during the first quarter, when the Blazers knocked down three triples in nine possessions en route to a 35-point period. When Portland returned to the same group just before halftime, however, Williams was ready. Putting a comparable lineup on the floor with David West at center and Trevor Ariza sliding down to power forward to make room for Jarrett Jack, Williams opted to use an active zone defense that took away the open looks available to the Blazers in the first quarter.
For the entirety of the middle two periods, the Hornets' defense was the story. Portland could only match its first-quarter total of 35 points in the second and third, shooting 11-of-30 from the field and getting badly outmuscled on the defensive glass. New Orleans took a six-point lead to the fourth and was poised to steal the road win.
McMillan went back to smallball at the 7:57 mark of the final quarter, with the Hornets still leading by four, 82-78. This time, Williams opted to stay in man and the Blazers caught fire. Running their offense through Aldridge in the post with three shooters keeping their defenders at home, Portland scored on eight of its next 11 possessions as part of a 16-6 run that completely turned the game.
All season long, shooting has been an unexpected weakness for the Blazers, who ranked 13th in the NBA in three-point percentage last season (.354) and fourth in 2008-09 (.383). At the time of Camby's injury, Portland was making just 32.9 percent of its attempts from downtown, which put them ahead of only the Toronto Raptors. Over the last month, that has changed dramatically, with the Blazers making 38.7 percent of their threes. Just three teams have shot better this season.
In part, Portland was probably due for a correction from beyond the arc. Batum, Fernandez and Matthews have proven too effective as shooters to continue struggling. Beyond that, the improved floor spacing and ball movement the small lineups have provided have created easier looks--especially in combination with teams' inability to defend the dominant Aldridge, whose 34-point effort Wednesday (on efficient 13-of-18 shooting) marked the fourth time in his last five games he's gone for 30 or more.
A great example of the looks the small lineup creates came during the first quarter when Miller, not Aldridge, was in the post. The Hornets brought help for Chris Paul against the one-on-one matchup and Aldridge cut through the lane to leave one defender on the weak side to handle two shooters (Fernandez and Batum). Miller threw to Fernandez, who drew the defense and dished to Batum in the corner for a wide-open triple. The New Orleans defense never had a chance.
None of this would work, of course, if the Blazers were unable to get stops at the other end of the floor. But Aldridge, who is reluctant to be called a center--possibly just because of the terrible luck Portland has had with injuries to its pivots the last two seasons--has grown into the role of primary help defender in Camby's absence. Most importantly, he has been able to do so while avoiding costly foul trouble, allowing him to log heavy minutes.
It is that issue--playing time--that presumably renders what the Blazers have been doing unsustainable in the long term. Every starter save Cunningham topped 40 minutes on Wednesday and Aldridge has averaged 40-plus the last two months. Portland badly needs to get him some rest, and Camby's return should provide that opportunity. To continue their success, the Blazers must integrate smallball in with bigger, more traditional lineups involving Camby. McMillan would do well to leave Przybilla entirely out of the rotation. While the veteran has made an admirable comeback from a ruptured patella tendon, Przybilla clearly is not 100 percent, and Portland needs Aldridge in the middle when Camby is not.
The Hornets, meanwhile, cannot possibly get Okafor back soon enough. Depth has been New Orleans' biggest weakness all season long, and Okafor anchored a defense that has been elite for extended stretches. Barring further injuries, the Hornets should be fine, but their recent stumble could be costly in the compact race for the last four playoff spots in the Western Conference. Just a game and a half separates New Orleans and Portland from Utah and Memphis, who are tied for eighth. With the Jazz struggling with last week's coaching change, the Grizzlies losing Rudy Gay to a shoulder injury and the possibility of a Carmelo Anthony trade weakening the Denver Nuggets' chances, the Hornets are not exactly in imminent danger of missing out on the postseason, but seeding figures to be critical in the West. The fifth seed (which would likely mean a matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder) is far more desirable than any of the last three.
Williams clearly wanted to head into the break with a win. He spoke about the urgency of this game beforehand and demonstrated it with his rotations. Four of his starters also topped 40-plus minutes, while just seven players saw the court after halftime. Williams sat rookie Quincy Pondexter and gave Marco Belinelli and Aaron Gray just cameo action. Jarrett Jack played well, but New Orleans needs more from its bench the rest of the way.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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