Records: Lakers 26-29 (9th in the West), Trailblazers 25-29 (10th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.1 (8th in the NBA), Trailblazers 101.9 (16th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.4 (T 15th in the NBA), Trailblazers 105.5 (T 25th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Earl Clark, Dwight Howard
Trailblazers: Damian Lillard, Victor Claver, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, J.J. Hickson
Injuries: Lakers: Pau Gasol (out), Jordan Hill (out for the year); Trailblazers: Wesley Matthews (questionable), Elliot Williams (out)
The Lakers Coming in: The trade deadline came and went and the Lakers stood pat. This really shouldn’t be a surprise, especially if doing a simple checklist of the Lakers’ assets. The team is mostly made up of high salaried core players who they’re not likely to trade and a group of low value cheap assets who other teams are unlikely to want. In between those two groups are moderately priced to slightly overpaid veterans who are difficult to trade in any market without taking the exact type of contract back. These variables create a formula that equals what we saw the Lakers do. Rumor had it the team was trying to off-load back of the roster players (Duhon and Ebanks) for 2nd round picks in order to create roster spots. That makes more sense than making a trade for a player as the Lakers are likely going to explore the buyout market when players are set free from their current teams. We’ll see what happens on that front, but that is still a ways away.
On the court, the Lakers are coming off one of their better wins of the season against the Celtics. On the night the organization paid tribute to their fallen owner, the team played inspired basketball for nearly every minute of the game, running away from the C’s in the process. Coming off that win there’s a cautious optimism in the air. The team’s offense is starting to click and that’s enabling them to avoid the turnovers and long jumpers that can fuel the opponents fast break chances. With the Lakers also starting to sort out their half court scheme, the defense is starting to look competent more consistently and that will spell trouble for opponents if the offense can continue to operate at a top 10 efficiency level.
The Trailblazers Coming in: While the Lakers have started to rattle off wins, the Blazers have been doing the opposite. They’ve lost six in a row and seven of ten overall. In their first game after the all-star break, they lost to the Suns, in Portland, in a game that they typically wouldn’t lose.
There are several theories for why the Blazers have been playing poorly of late. First, it could just be a regression to the mean. Portland has a negative efficiency differential and their expected win-loss record is 21-33. This team found a way to win games when they likely shouldn’t have and it could be this is finally catching up to them. Second, the Blazers really are a shallow team with depth problems all over their roster. Their starters play heavy minutes every night and it could simply be that after a little more than half a season they’re starting to wear down. Third, some of it could just be bad luck on a couple of different levels. Right before the all-star break Wesley Matthews sprained his ankle, further testing their non-existent depth. Three of their last six losses have come by 6 points or fewer.
What ails this team is probably a combination of all these (and some other) factors, but the fact is they’re struggling to get some wins. At the trade deadline they dealt for the Thunder’s Eric Maynor who may be able to help their back court rotation and give Lillard some much needed in game rest. Maynor had seen his minutes decrease lately to Reggie Jackson and, with him coming up for an extension, the Thunder cut bait on a guy who once looked like one of the better back up PG’s in the league. His torn ACL may have altered that status permanently, but this was a good gamble for the Blazers and one that could turn out well for them in the short and the long term.
Keys to game: Several things favor the Lakers in this match up. First, the Blazers don’t have a good option to defend Dwight Howard. In the two games he’s played against the Blazers, he’s averaged 27 points and 14 rebounds (6 offensive). He’s too big and strong for J.J. Hickson and too much everything for Miles Leonard or Joel Freeland. If the Lakers make it a point of emphasis to get Dwight open and then look for him when he breaks free, they’ll be well on their way to establishing control in this contest. On Dwight’s end, he needs to set good screens and dive hard. He also needs to move quickly into the open spaces that are available in the half court. Against the C’s he battled fronting defenders and found his way to the glass. He slipped along the baseline to make himself a target for entry passes. He ran the floor well and tried to establish the post early. Do those things tonight and he can hit those averages I mentioned earlier.
The other key on offense is finding ways to get Kobe going without forcing the action. With Matthews questionable to play, I can only assume that Nic Batum will guard Kobe. Batum is a long, athletic, rangy defender that can bother Kobe’s jumper and slide with him when he drives to the rim. Kobe can still work against him some in the post, but tat length will bother him if he tries to isolate too often. The Lakers can try to free Kobe up with good off ball picks and that should get him some openings to either shoot his jumper or attack off the dribble. What they can also do is continue to park him on the weak side of the floor when they run the P&R. With Kobe on the weak side, his man becomes the primary helper in the paint when the big man dives. When the ball is skipped to Kobe he gets to operate against a closing out defender and that offers countless options for him to attack the D. In any event, getting Kobe the ball in space is important because it will let him make the right pass/shot read more easily and should set up makable shots for him and his teammates.
Defensively, I don’t want to undersell the entire Blazer roster but the Lakers’ game plan really comes down to slowing Lillard, Aldridge, and Batum.
Lillard’s all court game needs to be bottled up with consistent help when he’s working in isolation. Nash will try to stay with him but he’ll need a secondary defender ready to step when he gets beat. When Lillard operates in the P&R, his defender will need to chase over the top to avoid surrendering the wide open jumper and the hedge man will need to be there to deny penetration. If the Lakers can keep Lillard off balance in the half court, they’ll have done most of their job towards slowing him down.
Aldridge, though, is a different story. The Lakers really don’t have a good defender to put on him. I’d imagine Clark draws the match up and with his combination of length and quickness, he’s got good tools to do the job. However, Aldridge has superior bulk and size and should use that advantage to gain the position he needs to get off good shots. If Clark can successfully keep him from getting middle, he’ll make his job easier, but he must also be able to defend without fouling and do it all while being a help and recover man in the P&R.
Batum, meanwhile, is the wild card. He can get hot from the outside and loves to run the floor for easy baskets. He’ll need to be marked all over the court and can’t be allowed to get too many easy baskets as that will only let him find his rhythm. An assertive Batum can spell trouble, so the Lakers will be better off guarding him aggressively in hopes that he takes a back seat on that side of the floor.
Wednesday’s win was a great way to pay homage to Dr. Buss but now the harder work begins. The Lakers need to find a way to play with emotion and effort consistently when there’s not a buzz in the air or an energy in the building like there was against Boston. Tonight things will be back to normal, but the Lakers need to find a way to dig down and bring that same level of execution, concentration, and desire.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.