Records: Lakers 55-23 (2nd in West), Trailblazers 46-33 (6th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.1 (5th in NBA), Trailblazers 108.9 (10th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.0 (6th in NBA), Trailblazers 107.1 (14th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Trailblazers: Andre Miller, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Gerald Wallace, LaMarcus Aldridge
Injuries: Lakers: Devin Ebanks (out); Trailblazers: Greg Oden (out), Marcus Camby (questionable)
UPDATE: According to the LA Times’ Mike Bresnahan, Andrew Bynum missed today’s shoot around due to intestinal flu symptoms and his status for tonight is unclear. We’ll keep you updated with any information we get on whether or not he’ll play in this game.
The Lakers Coming in: There’s no need to sugar coat things, the Lakers are playing poorly right now. Kobe was able to laugh off a loss to Denver and another the Jazz, explaining them away as BS-ing. After dropping a third straight to the Warriors, those reasons excuses are no more. This team has lost its groove and it’s showing.
As we’ve been preaching here of late, the drop off is most noticeable on offense. The team has abandoned the little things in favor of trying to do the big things more often but are failing. Homerun passes and fading jump shots make the highlight reels but an over reliance on such tactics spells doom. If you haven’t noticed, the Lakers’ statistical profile on that side of the ball has also suffered. For most of the season they’ve been a top 2 team in terms of offensive efficiency rating (points per 100 possessions). After a solid week of under performing on that side of the ball, the Lakers now rank 5th.
Not everything is trending downward, though. As the Lakers offense has struggled, their defense – despite the eyes telling us they’re not quite at top form – is still performing well. They’ve held steady as the 6th most efficient defense and continue to make life hard for teams in the half court. Where they could be performing better is in transition defense and in finishing possessions by better securing defensive rebounds, but these have been issues for most of the year without them being fatal flaws. I’d love to see Gasol pick up his intensity in going after defensive boards and I’d like the guards to squeeze the foul line more to gobble up more long rebounds but some of this is directly related to fatigue. I’ve full confidence that this will be adequately cleaned up in the playoffs.
The Trailblazers Coming in: In the three weeks since the Blazers last faced our guys, they’ve played 9 games. In those contests they’re 6-3 with 4 of those wins coming over the Spurs (twice), the Mavs, and the Thunder. Needless to say, this team is playing pretty well. As has been the case since the trade deadline, Portland has gone small more frequently than not starting Gerald Wallace at PF and running their offense inside out by establishing LaMarcus Aldridge’s presence in the post.
An off-set of the trade and moving this team away from Brandon Roy’s perimeter oriented game and towards Aldridge, is that the Blazers now offer much more versatility and depth. Roy and Camby are now players that typically come off the bench giving the Blazers the equivalent of 7 starters. We’ve all seen how the Lakers benefit from having multiple players they trust to start and close games, Portland now enjoys that same luxury. And because Roy can effectively play both SG and PG while Camby can play PF or C, the Blazers also have a team that can mix and match lineups to counter what the opposition is doing. When the playoffs start, this will all prove invaluable.
Speaking of the playoffs, the Blazers are in a dog fight to stay in the 6th seed as the Hornets are on their heels. As Dave from Blazers’ Edge details:
The Blazers, of course, are fighting to hold onto the 6th seed and not get dumped into 7th, likely against these same Lakers should L.A. tally the win tonight. No matter what Portland fans would like to claim about their team’s successful history against the Lakers two truths stand out starkly: that success extends neither to road games nor the playoffs. There are reasons for wistful hope in a playoff series versus the Thunder, Mavericks, or even the Spurs. Little exists against L.A. for the guys in red and black. The Blazers need this game.
Keys to game: The Blazers are a familiar foe and as noted above they have much on the line tonight. They’d surely rather face the #3 seed and a win tonight helps them achieve that goal. Also motivating them is the fact that this game offers the last chance to avoid a season sweep at the hands of the Lakers. Expect a fantastic effort from the home team tonight.
If the Lakers want to thwart that push, they’ll need to stick to the game plan in how to beat this team. That starts with containing LaMarcus Aldridge. While’s he’s not been the amazing scorer he was in February, his 20 points a game in March/April still pace this team. He loves the mid left block and his goal is to turn and face which then opens up his jump shot or his hard drive to the middle where he shoots a running one hander. Gasol, Bynum, and Odom will all need to sit on LMA’s right hand and crowd him to make him go to his left hand. Even when he’s posting, the Lakers need to make him spin baseline to shoot a fade away rather than letting him get to the middle where he can effectively close down space and get an easier look.
Defending the other Blazers also comes down to understanding who does what well. Wesley Matthews and Rudy Fernandez are capable shooters that will fire away from three point range at will. They both need to be run off the arc to turn them into deep two point shooters. Nic Batum will also take the three pointer without hesitation, but his long stride also enables him to attack the rim if the close out is executed well. Considering Batum really hurt the Lakers the last game making deep jumpers, I expect that he’ll garner more attention tonight. As for Miller and Wallace, I’m quite happy surrendering the jumper to them all game. Both are much more comfortable attacking the paint with either post ups or off the dribble so both should be forced to shoot jumpers. Brandon Roy is the wildcard here as he’s still got the skill that made him great but doesn’t always have the leg power to execute his plan. He’s been great at using his hesitation dribble to get to the paint but has trouble finishing over length. The key with him is to keep him in front and simply contest his shots to make them more difficult. If he pulls out some of that old magic, just tip your cap.
As for the Lakers offense, I’d say “go to player X” or “take advantage of match up Y” but the way this group has been playing offense lately there’s no reason to say such things. This team just needs to get back to basics on that side of the ball in order to establish any kind of rhythm that can relied upon. Cut hard, screen hard, and move the ball. Do this every possession and good shots will come for the offensive threats that exist on this team. If these things don’t happen and the ball sticks while guys just stand around or just go through the motions in their movement, they’ll again struggle to score the ball. Obviously it all starts with Kobe and Pau, but Fisher, Shannon, and Barnes can all show more discretion with the ball in their hands to get their mates involved more.
Understand, this game has value. The Lakers may be pretty much locked in to the #2 seed (thanks to a faltering Mavs team) but LA is still only one game up in the loss column on both the Celtics and Heat for any potential Finals match up. Yes, that’s looking ahead (something I try to avoid) but wins today could be meaningful tomorrow. Beyond that though, is the fact that there’s no better time than to start playing better than in the next game on the agenda. That’s tonight in Portland. The Lakers have been in a rut. It’s time to get out of that.
Where you can watch: 7:00pm start on KCAL. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710am.