Records: Lakers 49-20 (2nd in West), Trailblazers 40-29 (6th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.7 (2nd in NBA), Trailblazers 108.6 (11th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.5 (7th in NBA), Trailblazers 107.0 (14th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Trailblazers: Andre Miller, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Gerald Wallace, LaMarcus Aldridge
Injuries: Lakers: Theo Ratliff & Devin Ebanks (out); Trailblazers: Greg Oden & Elliot Williams (out)
The Lakers Coming in: The wins have been piling up, but that’s not really today’s news. This morning we learned that Andrew Bynum will be suspended two games for his flagrant foul on Michael Beasley, meaning he’ll be out for tonight’s game vs. Portland and Tuesday’s contest vs. the Suns. And while the two games is a bit excessive (I think the league’s ruling is indicative of Beasley’s hard fall and not necessarily the foul itself), this is what can happen when you shoulder shiver a player in mid-air and it results in him taking a horrendous fall where he can’t return to the game. I’ve said it already: Bynum’s aggression is a good thing, him not making a play on the ball and committing a reckless, dangerous foul is not. He deserved to be suspended and now he and his team suffer for him making said play.
All that said, I hope Bynum learns from this. I hope he learns that he must play big, but must also play smart. That he can give a hard foul, but must do so within the context of playing the game not with a frustrated shove that’s a danger to other players and to his own team. Because with Bynum’s embracing of his new role as a defensive anchor comes a greater responsibility to actually be there for his team. He’s no longer an extra piece to the puzzle but a main part in which his absence can make all the difference. So as he sits and watches his team in these next two games, I hope he examines all of this and comes back as focused and ready to play as ever. Odds are, he’ll see how much his team needs him.
The Trailblazers Coming in: There may not be a team playing better that is so under the radar right now. Portland is 7-3 in their last 10 games but have wins over some really strong opponents. Miami, Dallas, Orlando, and a Philly team that’s been playing great ball have all fallen to Portland this month. They’re slowly getting healthy with the return of Marcus Camby and Brando Roy and seem to be adjusting quite nicely to the acquisition of Gerald Wallace they made at the trade deadline. With Wallace now a fixture in the starting lineup and Aldridge moving over to center (along with Roy and Camby providing good support off the bench), the Blazers now have a lot more talent at their disposal and it’s showing each night. They’re able to throw diverse lineups at teams where they begin games relatively small with their starting group, but can then go big (Miller, Roy, Wallace, Aldridge, Camby) or a mixture of both styles (with Rudy Fernandez and Patty Mills thrown into either back court positions) and match up with nearly any lineup their opposition throws at them. This is now a team that will be an extremely tough out in the playoffs – regardless of seeding – and teams would be wise to try and avoid them in the first round this year.
Keys to game: As noted above, Portland will go small tonight and with the absence of Bynum they may just get away with it. Mike Trudell has tweeted that the Lakers will start out cross matching with Artest guarding Gerald Wallace and Odom’s assignment a bit less clear. If this does indeed happen, I could imagine Odom guarding Andre Miller in order to neutralize the PG’s excellent post game while Kobe guards Batum and Fisher chases Wesley Matthews around screens and around the perimeter. The Odom/Miller match up is one that LA went to last year when Kobe missed a game in Portland (a game LA won) and LO did a very good job laying off Miller on the perimeter and then bothering him any time he went into the paint. I hope to see some of this same tactic tonight.
As for the rest of the defense, the major key is slowing LaMarcus Aldridge. Pau will certain have his hands full tonight as LMA tries to get position on the left block to go to work with his soft turn around jumper or attempt to drive hard to the middle with his strong hand. Pau likely won’t get much help on D tonight as Portland boasts enough shooters and slashers to make helping defenses pay, so he’ll need to be strong in keeping Aldridge off his spots and smart in how he guides him around the court so he can effectively challenge his shot. Remember too that Pau will be playing without a safety net tonight since Bynum won’t dress, so that means foul trouble will need to be avoided and his rebounding work will need to be at peak level. Portland is too good an offensive rebounding team for Pau to be in single digits tonight. Obviously, Odom too will need to be at his best on the glass and if he’s on a Miller (as I hope/expect) he should be able to effectively leave his man when the shot goes up and go after every loose ball that comes off the rim.
Offensively the Lakers will need top shelf performances from all their main threats. The last time these two teams met, Kobe had a great game in going for 37 points and Gasol black swan’d his way to 18 points, with several coming on strong fourth quarter/overtime finishes against Aldridge. Artest also had a very good shooting game when he poured in 24 on only 13 shots, making countless big jumpers throughout the entire contest to keep the game close when his mates were struggling. With Bynum out, these guys will need to again show up tonight and be effective on O to make up for the fact that Big Drew won’t be around to clean up on the offensive glass and earn extra possessions when shots don’t fall.
I’d love to see Pau get going early and take Aldridge to the mid post where he can go back to work with his mid-range jumper or attack off the dribble. Aldridge has improved as a defender but Pau has more than enough skill to go at him and get buckets at the rim and on the wing when given space. As for Kobe, after the T’Wolves game he vowed to be “more than ready” for this contest so we’ll see if he’s able to deliver. He’ll likely be matched up with Matthews, a player that Kobe’s been able to score on in the past by using his height advantage in the post. This is where Bynum being out can actually aid the Lakers as now Kobe will move out of the two guard front and into the post more where he can isolate at the elbow on the weak side and in the hub of the Triangle after players clear through the lane when executing their ball side cuts. If Kobe can make some short jumpers early, he’ll influence the D and potentially force help that will only open up the offense of Odom, Artest, and Fisher when they spot up and slash on the weak side of the formation.
One last thing to watch for is the pace of the game. Portland likes to play at a slow pace but in the last match up they tried to push the ball only to run out of steam late. The Lakers were able to manage their quick start effectively enough but ultimately wore them down late with strong post play and by using their size advantage. Tonight, the tables may turn as the Lakers are the team that has the horses to run the floor more tonight. With LO a starter and Barnes back (or at least close) to full strength, the Lakers could do themselves a favor by getting into the open court more and looking to get baskets in early offense. Pau can run with Aldridge and Odom should be able to clear the glass and push the ball too. If Kobe’s ankle looks as good as it did in the 2nd half of the ‘Wolves game, he too should be able to do a bit more work in early offensive sets, especially in early post actions where the back line D isn’t quite set.
In the end, this game is very much important for both teams. Portland has slew of tough games ahead of them and tonight gives them a chance to face off against a Bynum-less Laker group and earn a win that can give them even more confidence for this final stretch before the playoffs. Meanwhile the Lakers need to continue to build on their post all-star run and stay ahead of Dallas in the loss column for the #2 seed. Neither team wants to take a step back tonight and that means we should have a good one on our hands.
Where you can watch: 6:30pm start on Fox Sports West. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710am.