Records: Lakers 39-19 (3rd in West), Trailblazers 32-24 (5th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.7 (2nd in NBA), Trailblazers 108.1 (12th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 105.0 (9th in NBA), Trailblazers 107.2 (15th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers:Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Trailblazers: Andre Miller, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, Joel Pryzbilla
Injuries: Lakers: Matt Barnes & Theo Ratliff (out); Trailblazers:Greg Oden & Marcus Camby (out), Brandon Roy (questionable)
The Lakers Coming in:We’ve been down this path before: Lakers stumble some, Lakers look great for a few games, rinse, repeat. Is this time different? A cynic would say undoubtedly say no, but I’m not so sure. The Lakers seem poised to make a push as there are now less than 25 games on their schedule before the playoffs start. And with the team nearing full health, there are no longer any excuses to meander through the regular season andrisk further slippage in a Western playoff seeding race that will be tight at the top. Plus, with the recent trades of Carmelo Anthony and Deron Williams, the lower seeds are setting up in a way where the Lakerswould surely like to be in the #2 slot in order to find the most favorable match up available while still having home court in the 2nd round. Essentially, the incentive to finish the season well is too strong for the Lakers to rest on their laurels after winning a couple of games convincingly.
The Trailblazers Coming in: Somewhat quietly, the Blazers have moved up to 5th in the West on the strength of their 6 game win streak before the all-star break. They’re showing great chemistry through another rash of injuries and are clearly operating as a team that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
The key to their strong play has been LaMarcus Aldridge. The all-star snub has simply been playing out of his mind, averaging 29 points a game in February and rebounding well too (though his 8 boards a game this month are slightly down from the 10 a game he averaged in January). Aldridge has consistently flashed his feathery jumper and done great work on the offensive glass (grabbing nearly 4 a game this year) to be the offensive anchor for a team that’s sorely missed the once great Brandon Roy on the wing.
Speaking of Roy, he’s listed as questionable tonight but could very easily suit up to play. After going through another surgery (this time on both knees), Roy is looking to come back this year and make an impact to help his team make a playoff push of their own. The only question now is what role he’ll take on and how coach Nate McMillan deploys him as the Blazers have been getting strong contributions from Wesley Matthews all year (16.5 points per game this year, nearly 19 a game in February) and don’t want to disrupt the groove that he has going. So, it’s a delicate line that McMillan has to walk as his team is playing as well as it has all year but are looking to mix in the player that’s been the face of the franchise for the past several seasons. How this gets managed will likely be a major factor in how this team plays going into the post-season.
Keys to game: A back to back game, on the road, in an arena that the team has traditionally struggled in. If there’s a game that I see as a real test for the Lakers it’s tonight’s match up with the Blazers. If the team is able to clear this hurdle and come out with a victory, I’ll be very encouraged.
To get it done, the Lakers will need to play a discipline game as the Blazers aren’t a team that really hurts themselves. They’re a top 10 in terms of taking care of the ball and play at the third slowest pace in order to promote a methodical, controlled attack. Aldridge and Andre Miller operate well in the half court and the team plays to their strengths by running them both into the post to force the defense to either help down or leave them single covered where they can create good looks. So, right out of the gate Gasol and Fisher will be tested on defense and the onus will be on them to slow down an offensive attack geared to put them in disadvantageous positions. Whether or not they’re up to the challenge will go a long way in determining who wins this game.
The Lakers can’t get too caught focusing too much on just these two players, though. As mentioned earlier, Matthews has turned into quite the reliable scorer and Nic Batum is also a player with the potential to knock down shots from long range or put the ball on the floor and attack the rim. Paying more than just partial attention to these players is vital towards getting the needed defensive stops.
On offense, the Lakers face a bit of a tough task solely based off match ups. Aldridge (length) and Pryzbilla (size) offer direct counters to the strengths of Gasol and Bynum. Plus, with Batumon the wing the Blazers also have a very good perimeter defender to match up with Kobe. Tonight, then, execution of the Lakers’ sets takes on an even greater importance than normal. The ball must move to the open man and the players must cut and screen well in order to create the space and passing angles needed to execute those passes. The last thing the Lakers need is to go one on one against long defenders with the rest of the Blazers’ D ready to pounce once a player commits to shooting.
The other major key to this game will be rebounding. The Lakers andBlazers represent two of the best offensive rebounding teams in the league so both teams will have to protect their defensive glass as the other team crashes the paint hard hunting for extra possessions. For the Blazers, this may be a difficult task as they’re one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the league ranking 27th out of 30 teams in defensive rebound rate. Meanwhile the Lakers rank 18th (but have been better than that since Bynum returned) so whichever team is able to protect their own backboards will have a leg up in winning this game.
In the end, this is a contest that isn’t a must win but is a win that will go a long way towards stabilizing this team. On twitter, Magic Johnson is calling for a minor trade to shake up the team and prepare them for their finishing kick while I’m sure the current players would much rather have this same group stay together so they can finish what they started back in training camp. But, the best way for the players to get their wish is to play well and win games like this one tonight. Lets see if they can do it.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on KCAL. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710am.