The Trail Blazers came into training camp with the modest goal of making the playoffs after two years of regular-season futility. LaMarcus Aldridge explicitly said that his team would finish No. 7 in the Western Conference ("Mark my words," he said). That humble goal has been replaced by championship aspirations in the intervening months, and Thursday's game was a great example why as Aldridge made 15-of-29 FGs and 14-of-17 FTs on his way to a career-high 44 points, lifting the Blazers past the visiting Nuggets. He added 13 rebounds, five assists and two blocks as Portland moved half a game behind the Spurs and one game behind the Northwest-division-leading Thunder.
Aldridge shot 7-of-12 from within eight feet of the basket and Denver's defenders were simply helpless against him. He backed down Kenneth Faried and Anthony Randolph in the halfcourt, outran defenders in the open court, and all night long he took exactly the shots he wanted. In addition to gimmes in the paint and his usual assortment of flawless mid-range jumpers (only Dirk Nowitzki makes more shots from 10-14 feet, and Aldridge leads everyone from 15-19 feet), his ability to get to the FT line 17 times was impressive and encouraging. Although he took a season-high 19 free throws back in late November, Thursday marked the third time all season that he's reached double-digit attempts. With the exception of FG percentage (47.7 percent), steals (0.9) and blocks (1.0), Aldridge is shattering his previous career-highs across the board.
One wrinkle worth pointing out -- Aldridge's huge game was almost predictable considering no team gives up more points (26.4) and rebounds (12.7) to opposing PFs than the Nuggets. Denver's inability to contain opposing PFs may not mean much vs. Portland, since fantasy owners will play Aldridge regardless of matchups, but it could tip the balance in favor of lesser guys like Glen Davis, Jared Sullinger or Markieff Morris. Interestingly, the Blazers themselves give up the fewest points to opposing PFs, perhaps because they're expending all of their energy trying to contain LaMarcus defensively.
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Wesley Matthews pitched in 24 points with four assists, one steal and a pair of 3-pointers in the victory, and starting C Robin Lopez was competent as usual with 12 points, nine boards and two blocks. Even Nicolas Batum had six points, seven rebounds, 10 assists and two steals despite playing with a bulkier splint on his fractured finger. The injury hasn't cost Batum any games (zero DNPs all season) and it doesn't seem as though it will, but it certainly seems to be affecting his shot as he's making just 42.5 percent of his field goals in January.
Trail Blazers rookie C.J. McCollum led the team's reserves with seven points in 11 minutes. He's cracked double-digit points just once since returning from injury and Portland's bench continues to be a fantasy wasteland. Terry Stotts has a tight, stable rotation which leans heavily on the starting five and has produced a mere 23.6 points per game from the second unit, led by Mo Williams' 9.4 per game on 40.4 percent shooting. Only the Warriors get less scoring from their bench, at 23.1 points per game, which is a huge reason they traded Toney Douglas to acquire Jordan Crawford.
The Nuggets are on a much different trajectory than the Blazers. Thursday's loss was their third straight and it bumped them 3.5 games behind the No. 8 seed Mavericks in the race for a playoff spot. There is no cavalry to ride in and save the season, either, now that Danilo Gallinari is done for the season following ACL reconstruction. JaVale McGee also remains out indefinitely with a stress fracture in his tibia, and he's still limited to working out on a zero-impact elliptical machine. He was incredibly bad five games prior to the injury this season, and I can't see any reason to have him stashed away in 12-team leagues.
Fantasy owners are also feeling the brunt of Denver's poor production. Ty Lawson had 13 points and 11 assists on Thursday and he's been the most valuable Nugget this season, but even he has been limited to season-long fifth-round value in nine-cat leagues. Wilson Chandler, who scored 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting in the loss, has also salvaged mid-round value and his rest-of-season outlook brightened with the news that Gallinari wouldn't return this season. Randy Foye and Kenneth Faried have each offered borderline value on the season (productive spurts followed by barren stretches), while J.J. Hickson has only been worth using for his 50.4 percent shooting and 9.1 rebounds per game -- on the whole he's hurting roto owners in standard leagues.
The most disappointing Nuggets player to this point (it's competitive) might be Faried, who is averaging 10.0 points, 7.7 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.6 steals and 0.9 blocks in under 24 minutes per game. Denver is playing with the fifth-fastest pace in the NBA, which seems like it should play to Faried's strengths, but a few minor injuries have sapped him of his usual explosiveness and his defensive failings continue to limit his playing time -- for instance, he didn't leave the bench in the final 15 minutes of Thursday's game. Owners may want to keep the lessons of this game in mind going forward, and selectively deploy Faried in matchups which won't require him to play much (if any) defense.
Lakers at Heat
The Lakers fell in Miami on Thursday despite a spirited team effort led by Jodie Meeks (22 points, four 3s, two steals) and Pau Gasol (22 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, three steals). They were out-rebounded 35-48 by a Miami team which ranks 27th in the league in rebound differential at -3.6 per game. That's not unexpected, however, given that the Lakers are themselves dead last with an atrocious -5.5 differential (the top best teams are the Thunder, Pacers and Trail Blazers).
The Lakers also allowed the Heat to shoot a scorching 57.7 percent from the field. Once again, this comes as no surprise since L.A. ranks 26th in defensive efficiency (ahead of only the Knicks, Kings, Pelicans and Jazz), while the Heat rank 2nd in offensive efficiency (trailing only the impressive Trail Blazers). These aren't just fun facts, they're clues to future performance which fantasy owners will do well to keep in mind when setting lineups on a busy night with multiple lineup options, and especially when choosing teams for daily leagues.
Nick Young scored 19 points with two 3-pointers and three steals in 33 minutes off the bench, but he shot just 8-of-20 from the field in a typically inefficient, volume-shooting performance. He's flirted with top-100 fantasy value this season, but owners should begin looking for replacements soon -- Xavier Henry could return on Sunday or Tuesday, Steve Nash could play as soon as Tuesday, Kobe Bryant is on pace for an early-February return, and even Jordan Farmar is due back in 2-3 weeks. That influx of healthy guards is a looming threat for Young, as well as guys like Wes Johnson (averaging 16 minutes in the past two games), Jodie Meeks and Kendall Marshall.
Marshall was able to record 11 assists vs. Miami and he's been a delightful find for fantasy owners who plucked him off the waiver wire. As a full-time starter in January he's averaging 11.5 points, 2.0 threes, 3.7 rebounds, 11.7 assists, 0.7 steals and 3.5 turnovers, and his 44 percent shooting from downtown reveals greater shooting range than anyone (including Mike D'Antoni) expected. To reiterate, however, his fantasy value is in mortal danger with Nash, Kobe, Farmar and Steve Blake all filtering back from injuries over the coming weeks. Enjoy the production and/or look to trade him while you can.
Fellow pleasant-surprise Ryan Kelly struggled to just seven points and five rebounds in 26 minutes on Thursday. The 6'11" rookie continues to start at PF and seems to have earned Mike D'Antoni's trust, but few coaches have been more fickle with their frontcourt rotations this season. There's a reason L.A. ranks No. 2 in the league in bench scoring, behind the Spurs, and D'Antoni could turn to Jordan Hill at a moment's notice.
The Heat won with Ray Allen scoring 10 points in yet another start at SG in place of Dwyane Wade, who has missed four straight games and may sit out again on Sunday. Although it's being billed as a precautionary absence (the Heat are listing him out for "rest") it's clear that Wade's balky knees are the root of the problem. His trade value is at a low point and fantasy owners can't do much more than sit on him until he's active, at which point I implore you to trade him for anything with two legs and a jump shot.
With Wade sidelined the bulk of the scoring fell, as usual, to LeBron James (27 points, 13 boards, six assists) and Chris Bosh (31 points, six rebounds). Bosh did his damage in 34 minutes, going 15-of-22 from the field, and once again this performance was written in the tea leaves -- the Lakers give up the third-most points and second-most rebounds to opposing centers (the Bucks are last in both categories, though presumably Larry Sanders' return will help them move up the rankings).
LeBron's FT percentage has hovered near his career average at 75.2 percent this season, but on Thursday he went just 7-of-13 at the stripe. That's easy to forgive in light of his ridiculous, career-best 58.0 percent shooting from the field, which has helped him inflate his scoring to a healthy 28.1 points per game in January. He leads the NBA in field goals made within five feet of the hoop, a remarkable feat made more impressive given the PF/Cs who rank behind him -- Blake Griffin is No. 2 in the league, followed by Nikola Pekovic, Dwight Howard, DeMarcus Cousins, David Lee, Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. Let the good times roll.
I've provided links to specific statistics/information throughout this column, but in case you're still curious they were drawn primarily from: Rotoworld.com, NBA.com/stats, HoopsStats.com, ESPN.com, PopcornMachine.net, BasketballMonster.com and Basketball-Reference.com. I didn't use NBAWowy.com today, but that's another fabulous source for unique stats.
And finally, if you're looking for an exhaustive injury report I will direct you to this page on Rotoworld. It's truly depressing how many names are on the Injury Report these days.