Records: Lakers 6-0, Trailblazers 5-2
Offensive ratings: Lakers 116.7 (1st in NBA), Trailblazers 110.3 (4th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.7 (13th in NBA), Trailblazers 103.5 (9th 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
Injuries: Lakers: Andrew Bynum (out); Trailblazers: Greg Oden (out), Joel Pryzbilla (out), Rudy Fernandez (questionable)
Talking Defense: An undefeated start after six games is exactly what any fan could hope for when cheering on their team. And that’s we’re looking at with this Lakers group. So, no worries right? Not so fast.
The Lakers defense, while not awful, is underachieving. Even without Andrew Bynum in the line up, this group is giving up too many points inside and is not controlling their defensive glass. Obviously some of this will be remedied with a healthy Bynum patrolling the paint, but not all of it. A lot of what the Lakers are giving up in terms of both points in the paint and offensive rebounds is due to too easy penetration by opposing guards and wings, not because big men are beasting Pau and Lamar underneath the hoop. Against the Raptors, the defensive breakdowns were all perimeter based. And it wasn’t just Fisher that was giving up driving lanes against Calderon and Jack, but it was Kobe and Artest that were a step slow on D and trying to gamble for steals to compensate for being beat. And while some of those reach-ins resulted in steals, many led to easy driving lanes for DeRozan and Kleiza. Driving lanes that led to 58 points in the paint and 19 offensive rebounds because the Lakers bigs were late rotating to drivers and and when there weren’t late, they surrendered their rebounding position.
Again, these problems can be helped by Bynum’s return. There will be a domino effect of having ‘Drew back. But, Bynum won’t be guarding opposing wings and can do little to help his perimeter mates from getting beat off the bounce. If the Lakers are going to jump in defensive efficiency and get back to the level they showed last season, the guys on the perimeter are going to have to step up and not just rely on Bynum to clean up for them when he returns.
The Trailblazers Coming in: Portland is 5-2, splitting their last 4 games despite still not having all their big man depth at their disposal. Oden is still not ready to play after having off-season knee surgery and Pryzbilla is slated to return around the same time that Bynum will for the Lakers. But the guys that the ‘Blazers do have available are, you know, still pretty good. Brandon Roy is back healthy after last year’s meniscus tear and he’s again doing damage as one of the premier SG’s in the league. He’s leading them in scoring with 22 a game while still rebounding and distributing to teammates effectively. His shooting percentages are down, but after only 7 games I don’t think this is a long term concern. Andre Miller is still going strong, averaging 12 points and 9 assists a game as one of the best post up guards in the league that is an underrated playmaker. Combine that back court with a front court that has LaMarcus Aldridge’s ability to score both inside and out, Camby’s skill as a defender/rebounder, and Nic Batum’s emerging offensive game to go with his already stellar defensive game and you have the makings of a very strong team.
The Blazers’ reserves are more of a mixed bag. Their big off-season move was signing Wes Matthews from the Jazz as a combo guard that can play effectively with Brandon Roy or Andre Miller. Matthews brings his blue collar style to Portland and is averaging double digit points in his 22 minutes a night. Then there’s Rudy Fernandez whose off-season trade demands dominated the dialogue surrounding him, but maybe we should really be focussing on how his game is in decline. So far this year, he’s playing 7 less minutes a game than he was as a rookie and his scoring output has been cut in half since his first season (and is down 3 points from last year). Obviously he’s a talented player, but the struggles with his game that he showed in the World Championships with Spain have seemed to carry over to the start of the NBA season. As for the reserve big men, Donte Cunningham leads the way as the top minute getter (18 a game) and the Blazers just signed Sean Marks off the street to replace Fabricio Oberto who up and retired earlier this week. I think that’s all you really need to know about a group that can’t wait until Oden and Pryzbilla get back to provide solid depth.
Trailblazers Blogs: Portland Roundball Society has you covered. If you want more, check out Dave and Ben running the always great Blazers Edge.
Keys to game: I’ve always enjoyed it when the Lakers face the Blazers because they’re two teams that are built quite similarly. Both offenses revolve around dynamic shooting guards that are both high performers in the clutch and are buoyed in the post by rangy power forwards that can score both inside and out. The complimentary parts are also similar as the PG’s are veteran leaders and the SF’s are defensive aces that can be real difference makers on offense when their shots are falling. Obviously, (besides the Blazers distinct advantage at PG) the Lakers are better at each of these positions, but there’s a reason the Blazers give the Lakers such a tough game nearly every time they meet.
So, with such similarities in the teams, the individual match ups will be an interesting watch because there will actually be a fair amount of cross matching going on. Kobe and Roy likely won’t guard each other much, instead they’ll shift off to guard the less dangerous wing and allow Batum and Artest to do the dirty work on the defensive end. And we may even see Phil put Odom on Camby (who operates a lot from the top of the key and short corner along the baseline) while Gasol checks the more offensively capable Aldridge.
Whatever the match ups are, though, the key to slowing the Blazers’ offense is the same. Roy is their first option and he works a lot in isolation and in P&R’s from the top of the circle. He’s dangerous going to either hand and uses a great crossover and hesitation dribble to get himself free to take his deadly mid-range jumper. The Blazer’s will also test Fisher’s defense by puttting him in the P&R or going to straight post ups with Miller trying to back Derek down. Miller is quite crafty on the block and is good at scoring, drawing fouls, or making the correct pass if/when the double team comes. Fish will have his hands full tonight and it will be interesting to see if Phil goes to bigger defender at any point in the game to try and combat Miller down low if he has early success.
Aldridge is a big man with range out to 20 feet and is comfortable stepping out at any time to shoot. He’s very good in pick and pop scenarios and the Lakers hedge and recover D will be put to the test any time Aldridge is the screen man. Another play to watch for is the high low play between Camby and Aldridge with Camby being passer from the top of the key. The Blazers do a good job of reversing the ball to Camby at the top who then has the option to shoot his jumper or pass over the top to Aldridge who’s looking to seal his man off the ball reversal.
From a team wide perspective, the key to this game is controlling the glass. Portland is the best offensive rebounding team in the league. They effectively use their length to tip balls to themselves and gain extra possessions. The Lakers will need to keep Camby and Aldridge off the offensive glass if they hope to win tonight. The other key will be whose pace wins out. Portland traditionally plays at one of the slower paces in the league and that holds true again this season. They’re deliberate on offense and really make defenses work by moving the ball around and using the clock by exploring multiple options on any given play. The Lakers must understand this fact, not get impatient on defense, and play possessions all the way through. Then, when the Lakers secure the ball, they should push the ball back at the Blazers and see if they can get some easy points in transition. Pushing the pace will also all the Lakers to test the Blazers questionable depth across the board.
In the end, while this game is early in the season and thus can’t be considered too big, it is another test for the Lakers. Yes the Warriors and Kings were both over .500 when LA faced them, but they’re more upstart than established power. Portland is a real threat to not only make the playoffs this year, but they could do some damage once there. This is the best team the Lakers have played so far and it is a good measuring stick game to see if the early run that the Lakers are on is really sustainable.
Where you can watch: 6:30 start time out west on FSW. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710am.