As we wrote after the Lakers’ loss to Raptors on Friday, the Lakers’ record isn’t what many would like (this includes me), but the level of play and some heartening signs have been visible lately. The young trio of Russell, Clarkson, and Randle played well, the starting lineup has had some good stretches, and Kobe has found a bit of a niche as a playmaker who is looking to attack a bit more than the early season catch-and-shoot (and miss) guy he’s been.
This may not be exactly what we were looking for when the season started, but it’s coming together better than what the first couple of weeks of the campaign hinted at. Well, that’s the hope at least. As with any young team, there is a two steps forward, one step back progression to the season and it would not surprise to see things change up some tonight when the Trailblazers visit Staples Center.
Hopefully not too much, though. Especially when talking about some of the progress the young players are showing. The Blazers offer a dynamite young backcourt and a nice group of young PF’s to match up with the Lakers’ trio of the future.
It starts, of course, with Damian Lillard who is now a bonafide star at point guard. The Oakland native and small school export has become a household name in Portland, showing off a knack for big shot making with a steady (and fiery) demeanor that lends itself well to the Pacific Northwest. He is flanked by another small school product in C.J. McCollum, a player who is finding his stride as a combo guard who can score at all three levels of the floor. McCollum plays with a great understanding of pace and an ability to keep his defender off balance with feints and hesitation dribbles, capitalizing with a smooth jumper and nice work attacking the basket.
This duo will give Russell and Clarkson all they can handle and more. Defensively, there is no rest to be had. Lillard has unlimited range on his jumper and attacks the rim fearlessly. He is an expert at splitting the P&R so it will be important for his defender to get over the top of picks and to have the hedge man in position to challenge the jumper but not be too aggressive or else get blown by off the dribble and surrender straight line drives to the rim.
As for McCollum his work on and off the ball requires a steady attention that the Lakers’ guards can often lack. There can be no ball watching working away from the action nor any relaxing when it seems McCollum isn’t in a position to attack. Whether it is Clarkson or Russell who draws this assignment, awareness and smarts will be as important as being active physically.
The counter to this will be what the Lakers guards do offensively. Russell had his best game of the season on Friday, looking smart, active, and aggressive in how to create scoring chances for himself and his teammates within the framework of the offense. I would imagine he draws Lillard defensively which could mean some openings in the P&R as Lillard is known to get caught on picks and not always recover as well as he needs to. If Russell can get Lillard moving and then picked off, he can start to play 5-on-4 where his shooting and passing can create scoring opportunities.
Clarkson, too, should be able to get his chances both in isolation, coming off picks, and when working in the P&R. Clarkson was not as aggressive on Friday, but I expect that to change tonight. I look for him to continue to attack off the dribble and look to get into the paint where he can create shots for himself and for his big men should they continue to work towards the rim in delayed dives out of the P&R.
I’ve not yet mentioned Randle, but he too should look to be aggressive against his defender. The Blazers offer young, athletic PF’s in Meyers Leonard, Noah Vonleh, and Ed Davis. All three have length and the ability to challenge shots, but Randle has a strength advantage against all three. It will be interesting to see if he can get into the body of any/all of them and then create the needed separation to get his shot off. If he can, he should be able to build on his strong Friday.
Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.