Preview and Chat: The Portland Trailblazers

Kurt —  February 26, 2008

Records: Lakers 39-17 (1 seed); Blazers 29-27 (10 seed, 4.5 games out of the playoffs)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 113.1 (2nd); Blazers 108.2 (14th)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 106.4 (8th); Blazers 109 (20th)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Luke Walton, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Blazers: Martel Webster (or Jarret Jack), Steve Blake, Travis Outlaw, LaMarcus Aldridge, Joel Przybilla

Lakers Notes: Tonight’s expected starting five for the Lakers (with Walton in for Radman) has an offensive rating as a group of 138.46 and a defensive rating of 99.03 (thanks to That, people, is crazy good.

The Lakers offense is a lot of fun to watch right now (unless you are Nate McMillan tonight) and a key reason is something often overlooked when focusing on shooting and scoring — the Lakers pass the ball well. That didn’t escape Kevin from Clipperblog after the most recent match up:

Now that the Lakers have five starters who are not just good, but top-shelf passers, they’re the best team in the Western Conference – and that’s with Bryant’s bum finger. With all the hemming and hawing I’ve heard over the past five seasons on sports radio in this town about Mitch Kupchak, the guy has done exactly what you want your General Manager to do: Recognize what kind of players your system values most, then go out and acquire them. Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Luke Walton, even Andrew Bynum relative to his age – all great passers and, by extension, perfect fits for Morice Winter’s system.

Part of what good passing can do is encourage guys to move without the ball. It has been pointed out in the comments several times, but when was the last time any of us saw Lamar Odom move like this without the ball? Not as a Laker. Not as I remember as a Heat player. With the Clippers? In Rhode Island? Doesn’t matter to me, he gets it now and is another reason the Lakers are a very entertaining basketball team right now.

Best Player In NBA History? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The Blazers Coming In: Back in December we were all marveling at a young Blazers team that was stringing together wins and did no wrong on the court. Now, they have lost five in a row, eight of their last 10. They are 4.5 games out of the eighth playoffs spot (which is a lot to make up the way the West is going). What happened? We asked Dave of the great Blazer’s Edge to explain:

It’s pretty common knowledge that Portland fields the third-youngest team in league history. They’ve already eclipsed the season win totals of either of those other two teams and seem likely to win more than both combined before the season is over. This comes after losing the player that every off-season move was designed to build around. It’s a remarkable season, one that clearly shows the talent present on this roster. None of that changes the fact that this is still a young team. Inconsistency is the only constant.

One of the main consequences of our youth–besides rolling the dice every time we take the court–is fatigue: mental, emotional, and just plain physical. None of our regular rotation players have played this many minutes with this much responsibility. Every player hits the wall at some point in the season. In our case the wall knows judo. We are losing loose balls we used to vacuum up. We’re drawing fewer fouls. We’re hitting fewer of our foul shots. The jumpers are falling short again and again. The subtleties of the game–rotation, communication, trust–are getting lost in the cracks.

With Oden out we’ve been playing with smoke and mirrors much of the season. We’re thin and small down low on both ends. It’s hard to win in the long run with no interior post game. The defenses we’ve employed have been of the extraordinary variety…tons of zone, tons of switches, tons of disguises. The surprise factor makes that work the first time you run through the league with it. The Wizard is out from behind the curtain now though. Worst of all our rebounding has been a slow, steady drain all year. We need five guys rebounding to even stay close. Teams have figured out we’re going to stay back to grab the board instead of running out, which frees them to pursue offensive boards to their heart’s content.

I would be remiss in not giving credit to the opposition as well. This is the playoff-run season. The league changes after the year turns. We’re playing a host of Western Conference opponents in a vicious battle for seeding. The focus is tighter, the energy is higher, the determination is deeper. The Blazers don’t know how to match that yet even for 48 minutes, let alone night-to-night and week-to-week.

I think most reasonable Blazer observers saw this kind of thing coming. However those same observers would be quick to point out that this team isn’t built for 2007-08, but 2010 and beyond. The same talent that gave us an improbable glimpse of the future in December will be in Portland for a long time to come. Bolstered by a monster center and a couple of acquisitions coming down the pipe, this team should be truly scary just about the time the current Western contenders are winding down their runs.

Other NBA news Apparently Yao Ming has a stress fracture in his foot and is out for the season. That’s a huge blow for a Rockets team that nobody wanted to face in the first round. But I think, with how tight the West is, we knew some team’s playoff chances would fall due to injury. Too bad it had to be Yao. My second thought — will he be healthy in time to play for China in the Olympics?

Where’s Waldo Sam? Sam Cassell has been bought out by the Clippers. Does he land in Boston? How much better would that make the Celtics come playoff time? Better than the new look Cavs? No answers here, just lots of questions right now.

Keys To The Game: It looks like Brandon Roy will sit out tonight after twisting his ankle Sunday. Which is too bad as a fan, I really wanted to see him play in this type of game, but a good break for the Lakers. In the 10 games Roy has averaged 19 points a game to lead the Blazers, although he was shooting just 43.8% (eFG%).

Really, none of the Blazers are shooting all that well, as a team they are shooting 46.5% (eFG%) in the last 10 games (compare that to the Lakers who are 53.7% as a team). The second leading scorer in the last 10 for the Blazers is Aldridge (16 points per, plus 7.5 boards) and he is shooting 45.1%. One guy to watch for is Travis Outlaw, who has one of the best PERs on the team and is shooting 47.1% from the season, they run a lot of isolation for him.

As Dave from Blazer’s Edge mentioned, the Blazers currently are not a very good rebounding team — opponents grab 30.1% of their misses (only two teams are worse). The Lakers, with their length and depth, should be able to get boards and offensive putbacks tonight.

Also, the Blazers operate at the slowest pace in the NBA — 8 fewer possessions per game than the Lakers season average, and still 5 slower than the recent Lakers. This is a game where LA should push the pace, control the tempo and get some easy buckets in transition. The Lakers will see some zone defense tonight, they need to attack it — get the ball into the soft middle of it and have Sasha et al. bomb over the top.

Where you can watch: Game time is 7:30, with a Fox Sports broadcast in LA and on NBA TV nationwide.