After going 2-1 on their recent road trip, the Lakers come home to face a surprisingly very good Blazers team. Portland currently boasts a 13-3 record, good for 2nd in the West. So, even though the Lakers are a bit of a feel good story with their 9-8 record to start the year, they’ve got nothing on the Blazers in terms of exceeding expectations with their start.
Portland isn’t a drastically different team from last year, but they have added key players at key positions and seen growth and development from many of their holdovers. In the “new” department, the team added Mo Williams as a back up PG and sometimes backcourt partner to Damian Lillard. They also added Robin Lopez to their front court, giving them a more traditional Center to play next to LaMarcus Aldridge and provide a good presence on the backboards and in the defensive paint. This duo has done a good job of playing to their strengths while bolstering and providing support to a lineup that played too many minutes last season and desperately needed reinforcements.
The Blazers aren’t off to such a great start because of Williams and Lopez, however. They’re playing so well because the foursome of Lillard, Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, and Wesley Matthews are all playing fantastic basketball.
It starts with Aldridge and Lillard who are both playing all-star caliber ball. Aldridge remains one of the better offensive big men in the league, scoring 22 points a night will pulling down nearly 10 rebounds as well. Aldridge still brings his feathery jumper every night and has also done a good job of getting to the post and operating as a P&R partner with Lillard where he can finish either with his J after popping out or going to the rim with his length. Lillard, meanwhile, continued this season where he left off the last, scoring 20 points a night with 6 assists added in. What makes Lilliard so dangerous is his almost unlimited range, evidenced by his nearly 40% mark from behind the arc on almost 7 attempts a game. With Lillard bombing away, he’s able to then get into the paint when defenders pressure him up high and either score himself or pick out teammates for open shots.
Teammates like Batum and Matthews, both of whom are playing some of the best ball of their careers. Batum has turned into the all court threat and two way talent the Blazers thought he would become when they matched the offer sheet he signed with the Wolves last summer. Batum was always a player who flashed his potential frequently, but had too many down nights where his impact was not what it should have been. Those times seem to be gone as the Frenchman is scoring well (15 points a night) while still having an impact on the boards and with assists (nearly 7 rebounds and 5 dimes a night) all while hitting 40% of his threes. Matthews, meanwhile, is having a career season by scoring nearly 17 points a night while hitting 50% of his six attempted three pointers a night. Matthews is also a pesky defender and a solid positional rebounder (nearly 5 boards a night).
When you add all of the above to solid (not great, but solid) role players like Dorell Wright and Thomas Robinson, and it’s easy to see why this team is having the success they are. Whether it’s sustainable remains to be seen, but they have some top talent, are well coached, and play a style that perfectly fits their roster.
What this means tonight is that the Lakers are in for a pretty big challenge. Though the game is in Los Angeles, the Blazers offer match up issues in a variety of ways and have a style that can put opponents on their heels. With Aldridge and Lillard, both Hill (and Pau) and Blake will have their hands full defensively. As mentioned above both have very good range on their jumpers and both use that effectiveness to set up their rest of their offensive attack. Aldridge loves the left side of the floor where he can either shoot his spot up jumper or drive hard to the middle where he can either shoot his jumper off the dribble or initiate a post up where his turnaround J can be countered with a jump hook. Whoever defends LMA must crowd his jumper and force him to his left where he has less room to operate and will have a more difficult shot to take.
As for Lillard, slowing him will be a team effort but starts with Steve Blake. Lillard loves to do his work early in possessions by setting up his man with the threat of a speed dribble so he can pull up for a jumper uncontested. Blake, must stay as connected as possible to Lillard and must have the proper support behind him so if he does get beat off the dribble an easy lane to the rim isn’t readily available. The key to this type of D is in whoever guards Lopez as he should be the primary helper. You can’t expect the defenders guarding LMA, Batum, or Matthews to help as those three all shoot to well to help off of one pass away. No, the help must come off Lopez and the rest of the D must be ready to rotate and help the helper when Pau (or Hill, should he guard Lopez) rotate to Lillard.
Offensively, the Lakers need to try to find a way to crack the code of what the Blazers do well on that end. The Lakers rely heavily on the three point shot to fuel their offense, but Portland has allowed the fewest attempts and makes from behind the arc while also allowing the the lowest 3 point field goal percentage. In other words, what the Lakers do best on O, the Blazers do best in stopping. Something will have to have to give on that end for the Lakers to be successful tonight and that will likely have to start with them threatening the paint via dribble penetration, cuts, and post ups.
If there were any night for Pau Gasol to have a big night, this is it. Pau is one of the only Lakers’ players who can score down low without fully adjusting his game. Pau must work to establish position on the block and then move quickly once he makes the catch to force the D into a react position. If Pau can get a few quick baskets, he can then start to kick the ball out and get players open shots out of his post ups.
The Lakers must also threaten the paint via dives and in turning the corner off dribble penetration when running the P&R. This makes the Jordans (Hill and Farmar) just as key as Pau tonight. If Hill can dive into the paint and get some baskets out of the P&R and Farmar can turn the corner and get a few lay ups at the rim, the Blazers will have to rotate and it will open up passing lanes to shooters from behind the arc. The Lakers will then have to hit those jumpers, but that is true every night if they want their offense to function at a high enough level to win.
The first game back from a road trip is often most difficult and considering the Lakers just played on Friday and the fact that it was a holiday on Thursday does them no favors. With a strong opponent looking to bounce back after losing their last game (their first loss in 12 games), the Lakers will need to be sharp on both ends of the floor and decisive in their actions all night long.
Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.