When the Portland Trail Blazers (33-40) visit the Utah Jazz tonight, LaMarcus Aldridge could very well miss his third straight game due to a right ankle sprain.
Since the injury, the Blazers have dropped three straight — which includes the March 27 game against the Brooklyn Nets when Aldridge initially hurt his ankle. It's no coincidence that the Blazers have floundered without their captain who averages 21 points and 8.9 rebounds per game, but not just for the transparent reasons.
So, how do the Blazers miss Aldridge? Let us count the ways …
Ripple effect on the bench
Whenever a Blazer starter sits out, hold your breath because that means someone from the lowest-scoring bench in the league (17.5 points per game) will have to play prime minutes. This cause for concern grows greater when the Blazers have to pull its best and most consistent bench player into the starting five, which would be rookie Meyers Leonard.
While Leonard shows that he can offensively hold his own against starting centers, his presence in the lineup only weakens the rotation. Over the past two games, only one bench player has produced a positive plus/minus number and Joel Freeland, performing in the backup big-man role normally reserved for Leonard, has been held scoreless in an 0-for-7 rut over this stretch.
Lillard takes on heavier load
Notice that Damian Lillard has been a little grumpy lately?
Aldridge leaves a huge hole in the Blazers' offensive flow and Lillard has tried to make up for it by giving the team an added element with his slashing ability. It has worked, as Lillard has performed as the Blazers' most active inside scorer. But whenever a point guard dares to enter the land of the bigs, contact can happen. So as Lillard has penetrated to the rim, he hasn't exactly enjoyed his crashes to the hardwood.
Over the last two games, Lillard has uncharacteristically engaged in prolonged complaints with officials. Last Friday against the Jazz, Lillard kept the pressure on the Utah frontcourt and on his 10th drive to the rim, he finished the layup but got knocked to the floor and demonstratively griped about the non-call. At the end of the game, Lillard, still heated, walked the opposite way of his Blazer teammates to approach official Kevin Scott, who dodged the conversation. By Saturday night, he still hadn't cooled down.
Once again, Lillard took on the burden of the inside scoring and carried on prolonged protests with official Leon Wood whenever he felt that he was fouled.The good thing is that Lillard's slashing has created 27 free-throw opportunities over the past two games, however the heavier burden — and more importantly, the consequences — has also frustrated the normally calm and relaxed rookie.
Who gets the ball?
For a team that has shown moxie all season, rallying from second-half deficits and discovering that four of the starters can deliver in the late-game situations, the Blazers looked young and lost as they failed to hold a lead against the Jazz last Friday.
During the fourth quarter in which the Blazers held a nine-point advantage, the starters committed six turnovers. Within the final four minutes, Nicolas Batum and Lillard, while working as the pick-and-roll ball handler, threw away back-to-back possessions. Both times they went around a J.J. Hickson screen and tried to get the ball back to him. In normal situations with a healthy Aldridge on the floor, he would have been the screener and the Blazers would have tried to get the ball in his hands.
Poor rim protection goes bankrupt
Even with Aldridge in the lineup, the Blazers have a difficult time in defending the rim. The Reggie Evans rebounding show last Wednesday night and the Nuggets lay-up line (see: every game in which the Blazers have played Denver this season) have proven that. Nevertheless, Portland thins out even more without Aldridge who has veteran defensive sense.
Against the Jazz, Leonard finished with only three rebounds in more than 32 minutes of play as the starting center. Then on Saturday night, the Blazers allowed the Golden State Warriors — a 3-point happy team that only averages 38 points in the paint — to work inside and score 56 near the rim.