Records: Lakers 14-15 (11th in the West), Trailblazers 14-13 (8th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 106.5 (6th in the NBA), Trailblazers 101.9 (12th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 102.9 (16th in the NBA), Trailblazers 104.1 (22nd in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Nash, Darius Morris, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard
Trailblazers: Damian Lillard, Victor Claver, Nic Batum, Lamarcus Aldridge, J.J. Hickson
Injuries: Lakers: Steve Blake (out), Pau Gasol (probable); Trailblazers: Wesley Matthews (questionable)
The Lakers Coming in: Whatever momentum the Lakers had after Steve Nash’s return in the middle of a 5 game win streak ended when the Lakers visited Denver the day after Christmas and forgot to bring their energy, focus, and defensive attentiveness. As Kobe said post game, the Lakers “played old” and looked like they had a “wheel stuck in the mud” all night. In essence, then, the same issues that have plagued the Lakers in most of their losses popped up again and the reminded us all how far this team still has to go before they really can be considered an elite team.
Part of that, of course, is the play of Dwight Howard. The big man’s play has been up and down this season and, to be fair, a lot of that has been related to his recovery from back surgery. Earlier in the year, Ethan Strauss commented that Howard’s recovery might not travel on a linear path and to this day I think that’s the best way to describe what we’re seeing this year. Some nights Howard looks like the defensive monster/dominant big man the Lakers so badly wanted. Other nights he simply looks like another guy. Obviously for the Lakers to be their best, they need the former on nearly every night, but that player isn’t yet wearing the forum blue. This, of course, is frustrating for everyone involved as it seems we don’t yet know what we’re going to get each night. Will it be the bouncy, active Dwight or the one who is late on rotations and extra handsy when playing defense?
Of course, the other Lakers also need to help Howard in more ways than they currently are. The defensive lapses by perimeter players are frequent. The lack of helping the helper has been an issue all season and it’s surely frustrating for the big men (especially Dwight) to see his man get easy baskets when he’s forced to help. This is especially prevalent on the dribble penetration given up by the Lakers’ wings, which forces big men to help on the ball and surrender the rebounding position that allows the team to finish off defensive possessions. When the defense breaks down, finger pointing ensues and whatever strides the team has made in terms of chemistry takes a hit as trust erodes.
Overall, however, it’s still about playing hard and this team doesn’t do it enough on the defensive side. In Mike D’Antoni’s introductory press conference he mentioned that this team should be allowing less than a point per possession. As of today, they’re allowing 1.02 and that will not get it done. Scheme tweaks can help, but will only go so far. Until the team makes the extra effort on D the way they’re trying to on O (at least on most possessions), they’ll continue to flounder and allow high point totals. Until they decide they want to defend for full possessions, they will allow the types of open shots that NBA caliber players make. If there’s an adjustment to be made, it can’t just be us looking at the coaches for answers, but us looking at the players for them to do more while they’re on the floor.
The Trailblazers Coming in: The Blazers have won 5 of 6 with their lone loss coming on the road end of a home and home with the Kings. Essentially, like the Lakers before their most recent game, the Blazers have been playing some pretty good ball. They’ve been beating the teams they should and had a couple of good wins over teams (the Spurs and the Nuggets) that are ahead of them in the standings.
Also like the Lakers, this team is very dependent on their starters for their production. Every night their first five must play well or they’ll lose and more times than not, they’ve been up to task. Especially impressive is the trio of Nic Batum, Lamarcus Aldridge, and rookie sensation Damian Lillard. Nearly every night those three are putting up big numbers and carrying this team on both ends of the floor. Of course we know that Batum and Aldridge are high quality players, but it’s the play of Lillard that has been eye opening. Though only a rookie, he plays with tremendous poise and seems to have a plan (and a sense of how to accomplish it) on every possession. He has all the requisite skills to be a fantastic pro for a long time and from what I’ve seen so far, there’s little evidence to suggest he won’t be.
Also playing well of late is J.J. Hickson. Though undersized as a Center, his work on the backboards and as a scorer in the paint has been a key to the Blazers’ success. Given up on by both the Cavs and the Kings, he’s seemingly found a home in Portland as a nice two way player and is showing that he may, in fact, cash in on the talent that once had folks in Cleveland thinking he was their PF of the future. We’ll see if he can keep up his recent play for the rest of the year, but if he can the Blazers will have found themselves a player for the long haul and done so right off the waiver wire.
Keys to game: When looking at the Blazers from a statistical standpoint, it’s difficult to find any one thing they do exceedingly well. They’re in the top half of the league on offense, but their defense is poor enough that they have a negative efficiency differential. They don’t rebound especially well, don’t take a lot of FT’s, and are only middle of the pack shooting wise. They’re pretty good at taking care of the ball and forcing turnovers, but even those numbers don’t stand out as especially great. Somehow, though, they’ve won more games than they’ve lost.
Part of that, again, is because of their individual talent at key positions and this is where the Lakers need to be concerned.
In Lamarcus Aldridge, the Blazers have one of the better scoring big men in the league. He can hurt you in a variety of ways, mostly by shooting his feathery jumper from the left wing and then using the threat of that shot to create angles for him to get closer to the paint. Pau Gasol will have his hands full in this game, mostly in being able to contest his shot while still playing him for the drive that sets up the rest of his arsenal. Pau will need to overplay LMA’s right hand, forcing him baseline and then contesting well when he raises up to shoot. Sometimes that shot will still fall, but Pau needs to make it as difficult as possible on him by not allowing him to get to his spots so easily. Battle him for position and make him take contested jumpers.
The other key player to slow down is Lillard. If Darius Morris starts, I would not be surprised to see him get the nod against Lillard as his size and athleticism will allow him to play the rookie tougher than Nash can. As mentioned earlier, Lillard possess a complete game and is effective working in isolation and in the P&R so whoever defends him will have his hands full. That said, the key to slowing any elite PG is to steer him towards help and to keep him off balance with different looks. Vary how you play him in the P&R by chasing over the top on some plays and then ducking under screens on others. Funnel him to the bigs but stay on his hip to make his pull up shots more difficult. Jump passing lanes and make him second guess whether or not his teammates are actually open. Lillard is not mistake prone by any means, but if you change up on him enough, you can at least get him thinking enough so that he’s not dictating the flow of the game when he has the ball.
As for the rest of the Blazers, the Lakers must simply defend them honestly and not allow them to find their rhythm.
Batum can be a dangerous player if he finds his stride so he must be marked early in possessions to ensure he doesn’t get easy looks. He can be a terror in transition so whoever is on him (I’m assuming it will be Kobe), must run hard in the open court and not allow him to streak up the floor for layups. Those shots will give him confidence on his jumper and once he starts hitting from deep you’re in for a long night. Make him work for all his baskets and live with the ones he knocks down.
Hickson must be kept off the boards, especially the offensive side. He averages a whopping 4.2 ORebs a game and his work on that end is a big key to his effectiveness. Much like Faried, Hickson will simply outwork you for position and then chase rebounds out of his area, so he must be marked and kept away from the ball first and foremost. If that means that Dwight has to box him out while Gasol (and others) clean the glass, so be it. But Hickson can’t be allowed to extend possessions and get his team extra shots. Especially since the Lakers can have so many issues securing stops and/or in defending for extended periods on a single possession.
The other key is the play of the benches. As I said at the top, the Blazers aren’t deep at all. In fact, they’re one of the few teams that has less talent in their reserves than the Lakers. When the benches come in, the Lakers back ups (especially Ron, Meeks, and Hill) must outplay their counterparts or, since the Blazers’ starters play such heavy minutes, push Portland’s main players hard to wear them down. Hitting shots is key, but so is playing strong defense and making sure that every minute they’re on the floor they’re playing to their strengths in order to make life as hard as possible on a team that’s shallow.
Overall, if the Lakers show discipline on offense by working for good shots, take care of the ball by avoiding turnovers, and end possessions with rebounds, they will be in a good position to win this game. Of course, this is true every night but against a team that relies on these keys to get their wins it’s especially the case in this game.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.