Preview and Chat: The Portland Trailblazers

Phillip Barnett —  March 23, 2012

Records: Lakers 29-18 (3rd in West), Blazers 22-25 (12th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 104.5 (13th in NBA), Blazers 105.0 (11th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 101.7 (10th in NBA), Blazers 103.8 (13th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Ramon Sessions, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Blazers: Raymond Felton, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, Joel Pryzbilla
Injuries: Lakers: none; Blazers: Elliot Williams (out), Shawn Williams (out)

The Lakers Coming In: After two straight losses to Utah and Houston, the Lakers bounced back with good performances from Kobe, Pau and Ramon Sessions. Kobe went into the game against Dallas with little rhythm offensively, having shot three-for-20 and 10-for-27 in the two games prior, but he ended up having one of his most efficient nights on the season in Dallas, scoring 30 points on 11-for-18 shooting. Pau Gasol also had a big night, scoring 27 points (his second highest mark of the season) on 13-for-16 shooting with nine rebounds. On top of that, Ramon Sessions seems to be coming into his own in this Laker offense, as he had his best night as a Laker (granted, he’s only played in four contests in the Forum Blue and Gold), recording 17 points and nine assists — more assists than any Laker point guard had recorded up to this point in the season. In the post-game thread, Travis noted that it was his first time being able to see Sessions play as a Laker, but was able to sum up his effectiveness pretty well: “The best part is his game is controlled and even though the ball is in his hands a lot, he rarely gets in trouble or lets the defense hone in on him.”

The Trailblazers Coming In:  Portland is coming off a big win over the Memphis Grizzlies that saw Nicolas Batum score 24 points, which included four three-pointers. Wesley Matthews, who has recently become a starter after Portland effectively got rid of two-fifths of their starters at the deadline, chipped in 18 points and nine rebounds. While most expected the already struggling Trailblazers to be playing for a lottery pick the rest of the season, they currently sit at 2-2 since the trading deadline, just like the Lakers — who many expected to be much improved with the addition of Sessions. Instead, Portland has now won two of three against playoff bound teams (the other loss was an embarrassing effort against the Milwaukee Bucks), and have been either really good or really bad with their new roster and coach.

Portland Trailblazer Blogs: Portland Roundball Society is a fantastic blog to check out all Blazer news and analysis.

Keys to the Game: I mentioned that the Blazers lost two of their five starters at the trade deadline, and they happen to be two guys who were best against the Lakers’ strengths. As far as under appreciated ballplayers go, Gerald Wallace may define that more than any other small forward in today’s game. He’s an energy guy who can knock down jumpers, attack the rim, pass well, and defend the hell out of some of the league’s best perimeter scorers. If you needed one guy to shut down Kobe for one possession, he’s one of the first three guys that I’d consider, and he’s no longer a member of the Portland Trailblazers. The task of guarding Kobe will now fall on either Nicolas Batum or Wesley Matthews, who Kobe has destroyed over and over again. With Wallace gone, Kobe should feel a lot more comfortable working within the offense, especially in the mid to low post with Matthews guarding him or around the perimeter with Batum guarding him. While Batum is no slouch on the defensive end himself (he’s the kind of tall, lanky defender Kobe has struggled with in the past), he hasn’t had the same success stopping Bean that Wallace has had.

The other guy the Blazers lost was Marcus Camby. While one of the oldest players in the NBA, Camby was still a serviceable post defender who was still rebounding at a nice clip. Before the trade deadline, Camby was at his best defensive rating in seven years and starting every night with the condensed schedule at age 38. Now with Camby gone, the Blazers lose some of the frontcourt depth that’s needed to counter the Laker bigs over the course of 48 minutes and now start Joel Pryzbilla, another aging big man but one less skilled than Camby. A heavy dose of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol should give the Blazers all they could handle on the night, and both Drew and Pau have had relatively good games when Camby was on the helm.

Even with Wallace and Camby gone, this is still a team that won’t allow you to key in on one guy defensively. The Blazers will run their offense through LaMarcus Aldridge (as they should), but both Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews could give the Lakers issues. Batum was fantastic from behind the 3-point line in January and February, averaging better than 42 percent from range. However, teams have finally started to close out and run the Frenchman off the three-point line, lowering his shooting from behind the arc to 32 percent in March. Even with his significant drop off, he’s still a dangerous shooter when open (as Memphis found out), and it would be wise for the Lakers to run him off the line and not trade two points for three. Wesley Matthews is another guy who can score the ball. While Kobe has repeatedly killed Matthews when Bean has had the ball, Matthews is the kind of guy who moves around a lot and has given Kobe problems himself. He moves well without the ball and is an excellent spot-up shooter, which accounts for 33 percent of his overall offensive production. Per mySynergy Sports, Matthews is hitting 42 percent of his spot-up threes and scores 45 percent of the time he spots up (this is accounting for the times he’s fouled). Finding Matthews, keeping Batum off the three-point line, and working hard to keep Aldridge from going off will all be instrumental, but obviously much easier said than done.

Where you can watch: 7:30 PM start time on Fox Sports West. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.

Phillip Barnett