Starting Five: Trail Blazers at Sacramento Kings, 7 p.m.


All aboard the Sleep Train!

Really, can you imagine the difficult job the Sacramento Kings’ PR folks have in promoting that ridiculous name of an NBA arena? I once thought Louisville adapted the worst moniker by selling its naming rights and becoming Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, but cardboard pizza > locally-owned mattress pushers any day. Maybe it’s me, but I’m just partial to the good ol’ days when Mike Bibby rocked a head band in Arco Arena — yes, it was named after a corporate sponsor but at least the alliteration made the name appealing.

As awful as the Sleep Train Arena sounds, it’s still offers the same home court advantage for the Kings. Their two wins have come on the STA floor and tonight, the Kings host a Trail Blazer team trying to stop a four-game skid. Here are five things to watch in the game which should result in a streak-snapping victory for the Blazers.

1. No Cousins

Awfully talented and yet still a work in progress, DeMarcus Cousins won’t be on the floor tonight as he serves the final game in his suspension. (So, uhh, yeah. Don’t talk about Cousins behind his back, Spurs’ color commentator Sean Elliott will tell you.) His absence creates a 6-foot-11, 270-pound void in the middle, but not only that – the Kings will miss his team-leading 17.3 ppg. And for a squad that struggles to get buckets (91.4 ppg, 24th in the NBA), that’s a huge hole.

Without Cousins on Sunday night, the Los Angeles Lakers toyed with the Kings. Starter Jason Thompson is active and reserve forward Chuck Hayes is strong but neither are particularly well suited to carry the load inside and so Dwight Howard had his best game with 23 points and 18 rebounds. And with J.J. Hickson coming off a career night against Atlanta (19 & 18), he should have plenty of chances to reach his team-leading fifth double double. The Kings get a boost with rookie Thomas Robinson returning to the lineup after serving a two-game suspension but he’s no Cousins. Blazers have the clear advantage in rebounding and points in the paint.

2. Bench still struggling

Before Monday’s game and with a back-to-back looming, coach Terry Stotts said he would work his rotation against Atlanta with the intention of winning the game and worry about Tuesday later. But by the first quarter, Stotts seemed to try something different, sending in Will Barton for first-quarter run at the backup two spot. By the second quarter, the Blazers not only went with a ton a bench guys but in fact, four rookies on the floor (Barton, Meyers Leonard, Joel Freeland, starter Damian Lillard) with Ronnie Price.

Needless to say, the combination was interesting and I wrote in my game notes how clunky the unit looked. Atlanta started the quarter by attacking as five of their first six shots came from within 5 feet or less. Grant it, one was a fastbreak layup after a turnover but that goes back to the unfamiliar unit – Lillard’s flat pass to Barton was the second consecutive turnover in the offensive set with those guys.

The Freeland-Leonard frontline is still too raw to be reliable. Even their two-man game – Freeland sending a waist-high pass Leonard’s way and Leonard inexplicably leaping as if he’s about to catch an alley oop – seemed like it needs some more refining inside the practice facility. Leonard did finish off the glass and gave Freeland the assist, but believe or not, that layup at the 9:01 mark of the second quarter would be the bench’s only field goal until the fourth quarter (Price knocked down an open baseline jumper with 7:43 remaining in the game). On Saturday, the Blazers got just four points from the bench. On Monday, six total. It’s just unrealistic for certain Blazers to keep saying the bench isn’t a concern. It should be a top priority, especially on a night like Tuesday when the Blazers could’ve used some scoring and gusto from the reserves.

3. How will Lillard bounce back?

Every story you’ll read about Lillard will mention his confidence and poise. And unlike some of the other Blazer rookies, I truly believe that Lillard’s well runs deep with self-confidence. The kid has it. Then again, he’s also human and we humans sometimes have bad days. Lillard’s bad day ended with a 5-for-18 shooting performance with four turnovers to only two assists against Atlanta. I’m not so much interested in seeing how he’ll bounce back offensively but rather how he’ll respond after being subbed out the game with 36.6 seconds remaining for Price’s defense.

Moments earlier in a two-point game, Lillard allowed a DeShawn Stevenson screen to take him out of the play while his man walked down the lane uninterrupted. The play started with Atlanta point guard Jeff Teague looking back towards his bench for the call, Lillard pulled up his shorts – the universal sign that really means nothing but players employ it to signal that they’re ready to really D up. Like, for real this time. They’re going to play defense. But with his shorts properly tugged up, Lillard froze on a simple pick, snapped his head back and watched Teague drive in for the layup and Hawks’ four-point lead.

Kings point guard Isaiah Thomas can fly. So Lillard needs to regather his defensive chops and match speed with his assignment.

4. Follow the All-Star
Three Blazers made the NBA All-Star ballot today and only one has a realistic shot of being voted in. Again. LaMarcus Aldridge. Last night, Aldridge used strong words about the Blazers’ current situation. There’s a “sense of urgency,” he says, to win games. So if that’s the case, there’s no better time to show it than in snapping a four-game losing streak. And it starts with the team captain and 2012 All-Star, Mr. Aldridge.

We saw a bit of it last night when Aldridge turned it on just in time to give the Blazers a brief fourth-quarter lead. He made two free throws (82-80) then knocked in a 18-foot fadeaway jumper (84-83) for two of his four field goals in the game. However, the hero moment fizzled when Aldridge – an 83% free throw shooter – bricked both shots at the line as the Blazers were behind 91-87 in the final 36 seconds. Tonight, Aldridge has to show some of this urgency he speaks of and lead the way before this season gets real ugly.

5. That’s What He Said
The Kings used their 2011 lottery pick on Jimmer Fredrette and Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee writes about how Jimmer is finding his way with the team.

Prediction: After Atlanta, Hickson should understand now that he can get great numbers as his role as the Blazers’ junk yard dog. When Hickson tries to make traditional post-up moves, the ball stops and the Blazers’ offense looks best when things are free flowing. If the ball does stop on the block, it needs to be in Aldridge’s hands. Sacramento may still be a tough place for visitors but the Blazers need a win, and it’s hard to imagine the Kings being that competitive without Cousins.

Blazers 99, Kings 88

Tipoff: 7 p.m., Comcast SportsNet, 1190 AM/102.3 KEX

Officials of the night: Dan Crawford Bennie Adams Josh Tiven

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