Records: Lakers 56-23 (#1 seed in West; 2nd in NBA), Trailblazers 48-31 (8th in West, .5 games back of Spurs)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 108.9 (10th in NBA), Trailblazers 110.7 (8th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.5 (5th in NBA), Trailblazers 106.9 (15th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Trailblazers: Andre Miller, Brandon Roy, Nicolas Batum, Lamarcus Aldridge, Marcus Camby
The Lakers Coming in: Now that the Lakers have clinched the number one seed in the West, the focus can completely shift to getting ready for the playoffs. In most years that would mean playing the best basketball possible in order to find that rhythm that can catapult the team to a long post season run. But with this team – one that has not been able to truly find that groove, even after 79 games – is it really possible? With only three games left, it looks like they’re certainly going to try. Even though Phil told Kobe that it would be okay for him to sit out the Lakers’ remaining games in the regular season to continue to rest his knee (and finger), that offer has seemingly been declined. Because after sitting out the past two games, it looks like Kobe has decided that he will suit up against the Trailblazers and try to play. Kobe’s mentality is also shared by Pau who, after the T’Wolves game, also said that he would prefer to play in these last few games after missing as much time as he already has this season. And while it’s tough to think that the Lakers will find that magical elixir this late in the season, it’s also nice to see that the team’s best players are stepping up to the plate and trying to get on the right track even if there are only three games left before the playoffs start.
The Trailblazers Coming in: With the playoffs approaching, the Blazers find themselves in a tough predicament. They currently sit in the eighth seed and are a half game back of the Spurs. And not only are the Spurs one of the hotter teams at this stage of the season, but in their two remaining games they face Minnesota in San Antonio (surely a win) and Dallas on the road (a toss up, but with the way the Spurs are playing you can’t count them out). Meanwhile in Portland’s three remaining games they face us, the Thunder (no pushover and also fighting to stay out of eighth) and the Warriors (should be a win, but the Dubs would love to play spoiler and have that unique style and some talent). I’m not saying Portland can’t move up and ahead of either the Spurs and/or the Thunder, but at this point it’s not looking good for them. They really need a two more wins to close the season and they definitely need to beat the Thunder when they visit the Rose Garden. The Blazers could have saved themselves some worry if they could have beaten the Mavs on Friday evening, but in a game that was marred by bad officiating and even worse behavior by the Portland crowd, the Blazers fell to Dallas. Now, they find themselves in a position of possibly having to face the Lakers in the first round. And while Portland is the team that I’d least like to face in an opening series, I’m pretty sure that feeling is mutual amongst the Blazers and their fanbase.
Trailblazers Blogs: Go check out the fine work that Dave is doing over at Bl*zers Edge (you’ll understand the * when you click the link). He’s one of the best and has been for a long time. Also give a visit to Portland Roundball Society.
Keys to game: For the Lakers, playing the Blazers is like playing a slightly less talented version of themselves. They have the star shooting guard in Roy, the finesse big man in Aldridge, and the defensive stopper at small foward in Batum (they even have the injured center with all that promise). You add those guys to Andre Miller (who like Fisher is a veteran leader that relies on intangibles) and Marcus Camby (a player that does what his team needs of him and doesn’t always need the ball to impact a game), and you have a very well constructed team that has a lot of similar traits to ours. So it’s no wonder why Portland is a tough match up for the Lakers and why a playoff series with them is not the most favorable outcome when the regular season ends.
So with similar types of players populating their roster, slowing their team should sound familiar. On defense the Lakers must clamp down on both Roy and Aldridge and get them out of their comfort zones. Both of these players are fantastic half court players and are the engine and the reason behind the Blazers very effective offense even though the team plays at such a slow pace. Their half court sets revolve around getting Roy isolated on the wing or Aldridge at the mid post and letting those guys go to work. Roy especially loves to operate at the top of the key where he can go in either direction just as effectively and use his deadly crossover and unrivaled hesitation moves to get into the lane or to create space for his mid range jumper. So, Artest will need to shade Roy and try to keep him to one side of the floor so as to not give Roy too many options in which to attack. Give him one thing – like a pull up jumper going to his right hand – and try to bother him as much as possible within that choice that you’re offering. As for Aldridge, slowing him will likely fall on Odom, though I would not doubt if Pau got some time on him as well. Whichever defender is on him needs to understand that he is a player that doesn’t care where he makes the catch because his jumpshot is so feathery that he’ll take it from anywhere. So while you can try to push him to 15-18 feet on the catch, understand that it doesn’t neutralize him to catch the ball that far out and that he will still turn and face to shoot the ball or back you down one or two dribbles and shoot his turnaround J. All you can do is contest his shot and close out on him hard and make him think twice before putting the ball up. The good thing about Aldridge is that his biggest strength (his shooting touch) is probably his greatest weakness as well because he’s likely to settle for the jumpshot more often than he should considering his size and his ability to finish at the rim.
The other Blazers present their problems as well. Andre Miller is a strong guard with size and will look to post up Fisher (or whatever other one of our guards that is defending him). And while Miller is not traditionally a dominant scorer, he is quite capable of putting up points as he is only one of three players that has had a 50 point game this season. Marcus Camby is a very good role player on offense and will only take the shots that he knows he can make while also being quite the deft passer from the top of the key. Then there is Batum who, at times this season, has flashed a more well rounded offensive game than many thought he had by being able to knock down the long jumper and also create off the dribble for himself and for others. Combine these players with guys like Bayless, Fernandez, and Webster off their bench and they have a lot of fire power that can put up points within their schemes. Stopping all these weapons will be a difficult task, but if the Lakers rotate well on defense and make a this team take contested jumpers they will struggle to score. They don’t have a traditional post player that they can just dump the ball into and that means that they will rely on their outside shooting to win. The Lakers defensive rotations will be tested today, but if they respond they will be in a good position to win the game.
On offense the Lakers do have that excellent post up threat and they need to feed him the ball. In his last 4 games, Pau is averaging 25 points on 58% shooting and has grabbed almost 13 rebounds (including 2, 2, 6, & 7 offensive rebounds) in those contests. The man has been a beast on offense and you have to feed the beast. Neither Aldridge or Camby have the strength to keep Pau from getting to the positions on the floor that he likes and Pau should be able to get off his jump hooks against both players. Plus with Pau feeling much more comfortable with his mid range jumper, we should also see him use that weapon more to keep the defender honest to the point that he can use his quick first step to attack the rim. So, get the ball to Pau and run the offense through the big Spaniard and good things will happen.
We’ll also see how Kobe plays upon his return. The Blazers have several players to throw at Kobe defensively and both Batum and Webster are especially built to guard #24. They’re long and strong defenders on the wing that can’t be easily posted up nor blown by on the perimeter. If Kobe is going to be effective on offense he will need to knock down the available jumpshots and use them as the lynchpin for his attack. If he can bury some of his 18-22 foot J’s, it will loosen up the D and allow him more freedom to move where he wants. Another key for Kobe, especially against these defenders, is to work well off the ball and to put in his effort away from the rock in order to make his catches easier and his looks cleaner. Use the motions of our sets to free him up and let our bigs set some screens on his defenders to help him shake free.
In the end, this should be a hard fought game. Nate McMillan is the only coach that has a winning record against Phil Jackson that has faced him more than ten times (Nate is 17-16 overall*). Also, Portland has one of the better records in the league when on the road and facing a team that has a winning percentage of over .600 (they’re 6-9 in those games*). Plus, there’s always the familiarity factor and the playoff seeding implications that I mentioned earlier. Portland has a lot to play for and they will be ready for this contest. However, this is a Sunday home game for the Lakers and they always perform well in these situations. They’re (likely) welcoming Kobe back and are looking to notch a few more victories before the playoffs start. This should be a hard fought game and one where both sides really show how much they want the win. I can’t wait. (*stats provided by the Elias Sports Bureau, via ESPN)
Where you can watch: 12:30pm start in the west on ABC. Also on ESPN radio 710am.