Preview and Chat: The Portland Trailblazers

Darius Soriano —  February 20, 2012

Records: Lakers 18-13 (5th in West), Trailblazers 17-15 (8th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 102.7 (16th in NBA), Trailblazers 104.4 (11th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 100.6 (10th in NBA), Trailblazers 99.2 (5th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Trailblazers: Raymond Felton, Wesley Matthews, Gerald Wallace, LaMarcus Aldridge, Marcus Camby
Injuries: Lakers: none; Trailblazers: Greg Oden (out indefinitely)

The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers lost on the road again last night but that’s not close to being the story of the day in Laker-land. After the loss, Kobe held court with the media, and spoke his mind about the trade rumors circling around the Lakers and specifically Pau Gasol. The money quotes have been out there since Kobe uttered them last night, but here’s the gist of them from ESPN LA’s report:

“Basketball is such an emotional game, you got to be able to have all of yourself in the game and invested in the game. We didn’t have that,” Bryant said after Gasol had 17 points and 12 rebounds against the Suns. “Pau, it’s hard for Pau because of all this trade talk and all this other stuff, it’s hard for him to kind of invest himself completely or immerse himself completely into games when he’s hearing trade talk every other day. I wish management would come out and either trade him or not trade him.” Bryant made it clear that he prefers that the Lakers choose to not trade Gasol, the four-time All-Star who Bryant paired with to win consecutive championships in 2009 and 2010. “I talked to (Gasol) a little bit about it,” Bryant said. “It’s just tough for a player to give his all when you don’t know if you’re going to be here tomorrow. I’d rather them not trade him at all. If they’re going to do something, I wish they would just (expletive) do it. If they’re not going to do it, come out and say you’re not going to do it. This way he can be comfortable, he can go out, he can play and he can invest all of himself into the game.”

My thoughts on Kobe’s comments are two-fold. First is that I’m glad that Kobe spoke his mind here. Normally it’s the team’s best player that’s in the center of these types of trade rumors (see Melo, now Dwight Howard) and can’t really speak up about how trade speculation can affect a player or the team. In this case, Kobe is the team’s best player and its leader, and is in a position to positively affect his teammates by speaking up about how this situation may be affecting a key contributor. This plays well in the locker room with his mates and shows that he has their backs (especially Pau’s). Second, I don’t think this changes the front office’s approach nor does it affect Pau’s trade value. Mitch has openly said that he’ll make a deal only if it improves the team, and I don’t expect that to change now that Kobe has spoken up. Kupchak has made it clear that he doesn’t have to trade Pau, and if these comments inspire a bunch of low-ball offers for the Spaniard, I expect those will be rebuffed (as they have been up to this point).

Do Kobe’s comments bring Gasol’s mental state more to the forefront than they already were? Yes, they do. However, I’d argue that after every loss or poor performance by Gasol the questions about where Pau’s head’s at were there already. I don’t think that was going to change until after the trade deadline for this season and/or until the Lakers make another big move that does or doesn’t involve him down the road. This would be an ongoing story with Kobe talking or without him talking, so I don’t see much of a difference.

Lastly, some of what makes a team successful is a bunker mentality where the players can rally together and find a common enemy (of sorts) that serves as extra motivation. Phil Jackson was a master of this during his time with the Bulls and the Lakers, and I’ve got a sneaky feeling that Kobe learned a thing or two about this tactic during his time under Jackson. Right now, this Laker team needs all the extra kick in the pants it can get. If this helps in that area, I’m all for it.

The Trailblazers Coming in: At the start of this season, the Blazers were the surprise team of the Western Conference (along with the Nuggets), looking like a real contender that could make a deep playoff run. They started their year 7-3 and boasted wins over the 76ers, Lakers, Nuggets, and Thunder. Since that point, though, they’re only won 10 of their 22 games and are now 8th in the West. Of course, as the Lakers know, the Western standings are a slippery slope where a team can have home court one week and struggle to hold onto a playoff spot the next. That said, the Blazers are a team that’s seemingly lost its way and there seem to be several reasons for it.

Inconsistent guard play has really hurt them. Raymond Felton has played very poorly this season and has become the whipping boy for many Blazer fans (as well as Coach Nate McMillan). Jamal Crawford has come in and seemingly thrown Wesley Matthews for a loop, stunting what looked to be a development path that was on a strong upward trajectory. When you combine these factors with Nic Batum not getting a contract extension before he’s set to reach restricted free agency and some strong questioning about Nate McMillan’s coaching style, you have a team that’s just not where it could be. Whether they turn it around or not remains to be seen, but they have the talent base to do so.

Trailblazer Blogs: Check out Portland Roundball Society and Blazers Edge for all your PDX news and analysis.

Keys to game: From Phillip’s recap last night:

The Lakers were able to kind of make a game out of what looked as if it would be a blow out. This falls in the ugly category because it led to Kobe playing 40 minutes and Pau playing 36. The Lakers were able to bring the lead down from 25 to 10 more than once in the fourth quarter, and with the score just a few possessions away from the lead, Mike Brown continued to go with Kobe and Pau down the stretch in a game that was a lost cause from the beginning. (Monday), the Lakers will be playing their third game in four nights, and their second of a back-to-back against a very good Portland Trailblazers team.

So while the Lakers return home – a place where they play like one of the best teams in the league – fatigue may be an issue. The Lakers must be ready to compete from the opening tip against a Blazer team that always wants to bring its best effort when they face off against the Lakers. This match up is a blood feud of sorts, so if nothing else goes right, the willingness to go hard all game must be there. Of course, the game will come down to more than just effort. As John Wooden said, we shouldn’t mistake activity for achievement. If the Lakers are going to win this game, they’ll actually need to do some things well.

Defensively, this starts with containing all-star forward LaMarcus Aldridge. LMA’s game is based on strong post play and a feathery jumper, so Pau Gasol will have his hands full. Pau will need to make sure he’s changing ends well, because Aldridge runs like a gazelle and likes to establish position early in the clock to make defenders honor the space he eats up on the block. If Pau can push him farther from the hoop and make him dribble to get into his post moves, that’s already a minor win on any given possession. Pau, though, can’t simply bang on LMA to try to get him off his spot. This is because one of Aldridge’s pet moves is spinning off his man and catching lobs for easy finishes at the hoop.

As hinted at above, pace will also be a factor. In the last matchup between these teams, the Lakers were careless with the ball against pressure Blazer D and that led to fast break chances. This was especially true for Gerald Wallace, who dominated the game with his activity level and his ability to race the floor to get easy baskets. If the Lakers are to slow Wallace, they’ll need to make him a half court scorer by racing back on D and being more careful with the ball when trying to initiate their own sets. By taking care of the ball, the Lakers won’t allow Felton, Batum, or Wallace to play full court basketball, while also limiting the trailing options of Crawford and Matthews to shoot uncontested jumpers against a collapsed defense.

This translates to a careful, deliberate attack on offense by the Lakers. Meaning post touches for Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. In the last match up, Bynum used brute force to overpower the slender Blazer bigs and scored at will early on. This led to double teams that Bynum struggled to navigate (which led to the aforementioned turnovers that helped the Blazers’ offense). At this later stage of the season however, Bynum has made some strides in dealing with the double teams he’s seen, often making his moves before the double can be fully established, making good passes to strong-side wings, or hitting a sliding over wing at the top of the key. Of course there’s still room for improvement in this area, but if the Blazers attack Bynum in this manner tonight, he should be better equipped to make them pay.

Of course, the Laker shooters must also make the Blazers pay for double teaming Bynum (or Pau or Kobe). Murphy, Fisher, Goudelock, and Blake will all see minutes tonight and all must hit some shots to keep the defense loose. Matt Barnes and Ron can also help out by slashing off the ball into the open spaces when defenders turn their heads to watch the ball. If LA’s small forwards can move well off the ball, they can get buckets in the paint and draw fouls on the Blazer big men, which will also further aid Bynum and Gasol. It’s a circle of effectiveness but all sides must play their parts.

Ultimately, tonight would be a good game to win. Not only because of the standings but because of all the peripheral drama I mentioned earlier. Nothing soothes things like a quality win and tonight would represent exactly that. Here’s to the Lakers getting it.

Where you can watch: 7:30pm start on Fox Sports West and TNT. Also listen live at ESPN Radio 710AM.

Darius Soriano

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