Blazers business trip

This five-game road journey will be key if Portland wants to make postseason

By Candace Buckner, Columbian staff writer

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For the final time this season, the Portland Trail Blazers will visit the other coast and have to adjust to different time zones. Sure, they will be able to enjoy those Philly cheesesteaks and deep-dish Chicago pizza, but there's also the critical matter of fighting for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

So, the Blazers simply can't act like tourists during this five-game road trip if they want to pass up on making early vacation plans come May.

Even better than Frommer's, here is the guide to the Blazers' business trip.

Monday at the Philadelphia 76ers, 4 p.m. (CSN)

Sixers record: 25-40 (10th in Eastern Conference)

Offense: 92.5 ppg (29th in NBA)

Defense: 96.2 ppg (9th)

Key Matchup: Damian Lillard vs. Jrue Holiday

When the Sixers visited Portland on Dec. 29, All-Star buzz surrounded point guard Jrue Holiday. Then, by the time Holiday left the Rose Garden — after putting up 29 points, nine assists and nine rebounds — his first career All-Star bid seemed all but certain. In contrast, Damian Lillard struggled with his jump shot in missing seven of 11 3-point attempts. Lillard finished with 20 points on 18 shots. Not very efficient, especially since Holiday stayed on the attack and schooled Lillard by making eight buckets inside the paint.

Tuesday at the Milwaukee Bucks, 5 p.m. (CSN)

Bucks record: 33-32 (8th)

Offense: 98.9 (12th)

Defense: 100.1 (20th)

Key Matchup: Blazer inside scoring vs. Larry Sanders

Larry Sanders, Milwaukee's man in the middle, has a lighter wallet after Sunday when the NBA fined him $50,000 "for using a derogatory and offensive term and publicly criticizing the officials." Good thing for the Bucks, Sanders makes his money not by talking, but by swatting.

Sanders averages a league-leading 3.1 blocks a game. For a team like the Blazers that has shown an aversion to scoring in the paint, the presence of Sanders will only force them to take even more outside shots. However, more ball movement, big mobility (i.e. pick-and-rolls with J.J. Hickson cutting to the rim) and a faster play of pace could make a difference for the Blazers and their chances of scoring points in the paint.

Thursday at the Chicago Bulls, 5 p.m. (CSN)

Bulls record: 36-29 (6th)

Offense: 92.4 (30th)

Defense: 91.8 (3rd)

Key Matchup: Terry Stotts' offensive mind vs. Tom Thibodeau's defensive schemes

Where have you gone, Derrick Rose? Without Rose — the 2011 MVP on the mend from an ACL injury that he tore last April — the Bulls have the lowest-scoring average in the NBA. Still, Chicago continues to plod along in coach Tom Thibodeau's system. It's far from pretty. It sets basketball back 30 years and yet it is keeping the Bulls alive in the Eastern Conference standings.

The Bulls sent two players to the All-Star Game this season (Joakim Noah and Luol Deng) and could likely send the same pair to the All-Defensive Team. However, the Blazers' offense has flowed remarkably well against other defensive-minded opponents. Portland has scored 97 points against the Memphis Grizzles and dropped 100 in a win over the Indiana Pacers, respectively the two top defensive teams in the league.

Friday at the Atlanta Hawks, 4:30 (CSN)Hawks record: 37-29 (5th)

Offense: 97.3 (17th)

Defense: 96.7 (12th)

Key Matchup: LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Josh Smith

When the Blazers and Hawks last met on Nov. 11, 2012, LaMarcus Aldridge had more personal fouls (five) than made baskets (four). Josh Smith also had a sloppy game. Though Smith scored a team-high 19 points, he needed 22 shots to reach that total. Maybe the American flag headbands both players wore that evening for Veterans Day threw off their games.

With no NBA theme night on the horizon, hopefully the two players can return to their skill sets and put on a decent power forward matchup.

March 24 at the Oklahoma City Thunder, 4 p.m. (CSN)

Thunder record: (50-17, 2nd in the Western Conference)

Offense: 106.7 (2nd)

Defense: 97.2 (13th)

Key Matchup: Nicolas Batum/Wesley Matthews defense vs. Kevin Durant

Nicolas Batum has the length and Wesley Matthews possesses the guts — and together they'll try to stop the top scorer in the NBA, Kevin Durant.

This season, discussion about Durant has focused on his entry to the 50-40-90 club. Durant nears joining elite company in shooting at least 50 percent from the floor, 40 from beyond the 3-point line and 90 from the free throw line. In 2009-2010, Steve Nash — who has reached the mark three consecutive seasons in his career — stands as the last player to enter the club. While Durant chases inclusion, on next Sunday night Batum and Matthews will pursue him.