Batum will carry the defensive weight against Mavericks

TUALATIN, Ore. — One man, four assignments.

Portland Trail Blazers forward Nicolas Batum said he will be asked to guard four different players during tonight’s game against the Dallas Mavericks at the Rose Garden.

Batum’s primary focus will be Mavericks forward Caron Butler. But he will also likely match up against Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry and Jason Kidd.

Part of Batum’s heavy workload is normal — he is widely considered to be Portland’s best and most versatile defender. But another part is a tribute to the Mavericks’ loaded roster, which only became stronger after the team added Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson via a late-season trade.

Heading into Wednesday’s NBA action, Dallas was tied with Denver for second place in the Western Conference, five-and-a-half games behind first-place Los Angeles. The Mavericks have been one of the best teams in the league since the All-Star break, and they are one of the front-runners to emerge from the Western Conference playoffs and compete for the NBA championship.

Batum offered high praise for Nowitzki, referring to the West Germany-born sharpshooter as the best European player in the history of the NBA. Batum had similar praise for the highly efficient Mavericks, who rank third out of 30 teams in average turnovers (12.9).

“(Dirk) has got a great, great team,” said Batum, following Wednesday’s practice at the team’s workout facility.

Dallas (47-24) presents the Blazers with a serious litmus test. Just 11 regular-season games remain for Portland. And while the eighth-place Blazers (42-29) are all but guaranteed to make the playoffs, the team’s 8-2 record in its last 10 contests has been padded with a string of victories against some of the league’s less accomplished teams, such as Washington and Indiana. Moreover, Portland has fallen to Western Conference elites Denver and Phoenix during the same span.

The Blazers have also mightily struggled from the field in the last two games, shooting just 34.3 percent (57 of 166) and failing to break the century mark each time. A tendency for Portland’s opponents to shift to a late-game zone defense — capitalizing on the Blazers’ lack of reliable outside shooters — has caused further pain.

Portland coach Nate McMillan spent the last two days saying his team simply needs to knock down open shots and shoot its way out of a slump. And while acknowledging that reserve forward Martell Webster must contribute more from the perimeter, McMillan said the entire team needs to make what it takes.

“All of our guys: If that shot is there, knock it down,” McMillan said. “You can’t put that just on Martell. But we certainly need that from our guys coming off bench, and the guys who are in the lineup. When we’re shooting the ball well and knocking down shots, it opens up more for us in the paint.”

Batum said part of the responsibility falls on him. After a fast start upon being promoted to the starting lineup Feb. 23 in place of Webster, the second-year forward is shooting 20 percent (2 of 10) behind the 3-point line in his last two games.

The late-game zone defenses Portland is seeing have been coupled with opponents locking in on and locking down star guard Brandon Roy, who is shooting just 30.5 percent (18 of 59) from the floor in his last three contests.

The Blazers must move the ball more and not settle, Batum said. And when the ball comes his way, he must be prepared to fire.

“The last game, I wasn’t ready,” Batum said. “I just watched B-Roy play. Just stood straight up and wasn’t ready. So, they told me to be ready, take my shots and knock down my shots.”

Blazers guard Rudy Fernandez did not practice Wednesday, and is listed as day-to-day. Fernandez, who is recovering from a left quadriceps strain, attempted to run, but ended up sitting out the session. McMillan said Fernandez will be re-evaluated after today’s shootaround, and a decision will then be made whether he will play against Dallas. … Roy is recovering from a left knee bruise, which he suffered during a recent game. The injury is not expected to keep Roy out of the lineup tonight, though.

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Today’s Game
Mavericks vs. Blazers, 7:30 p.m. at Rose Garden
TV: 54 (TNT)
Radio: 95.5 FM
Probable Starters
Blazers (42-29)
Position/player Ht. Pts.
G Andre Miller 6-2 13.8
G Brandon Roy 6-6 22.2
F Nicolas Batum 6-8 9.9
F LaMarcus Aldridge 6-11 17.4
C Marcus Camby 6-11 4.3
Mavericks (47-24)
G Jason Kidd 6-4 10.2
G Caron Butler 6-7 15.5
F Shawn Marion 6-7 12.0
F Dirk Nowitzki 7-0 24.8
C Eric Dampier 6-11 6.5

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