Losers of 4 of their last 5 games, including a hard fought loss to the defending champs in Oakland on Friday night, the Lakers are right back in action tonight against the Trailblazers. Portland is currently .500 with a 16-16 record, good for 7th in the West (tied with the Pelicans).
This is a fine effort through 32 games, even if it is still likely considered somewhat disappointing. The Blazers were looking to make another leap this year, looking to build on their surge in the 2nd half of last season after they’d acquired Jusuf Nurkic in a trade from Denver. But, with early season injuries to Nurkic and Al Farouq Aminu, the team has not been able to have their full lineup for stretches, which has surely impacted their overall record.
The medical woes continue tonight, too:
Noah Vonleh (dislocated finger) is questionable, Damian Lillard (right hamstring strain) is out for tonight's game vs. Lakers.
— Casey Holdahl (@CHold) December 23, 2017
Missing Dame is, of course, huge. A dynamic scorer who pumps in 25 points a night also dishes 6 assists and grabs 5 rebounds a game. He is the fulcrum of their offense and in tandem with CJ McCollum forms one of the best backcourts in the league. Remember, too, it was Lillard who hit the game winning 3 to beat the Lakers in Portland the last times these two teams faced off.
With Dame out McCollum must carry a heavier burden and Portland will need everyone else to step up offensively too. Nurkic, Evan Turner, Mo Harkless, Aminu…all of them need to look for extra buckets and work within Portland’s offensive system to be more aggressive.
So, while defending Dame a pain, the Lakers defense will be tested in ways they typically wouldn’t this game. Blazer players who normally wouldn’t be as aggressive will be looking to score tonight and doing so within the construct of a scheme that is already difficult to defend. The Lakers will need to be aware of all the flare screens, back cuts, and motion Portland uses and do so with even more of an attentiveness than normal since a guy like Dame won’t be there to carry so much of the load.
Of course, I’ll take this over the alternative. Especially since the Lakers are on a back to back and may be as mentally fatigued as physically.
In terms of the Lakers attack, Portland has been one of the better defensive teams in the league and that’s even with the aforementioned injuries. Portland plays a mostly conservative scheme, making you execute to beat them. They’ll hang back in the P&R with their bigs, daring you to hit mid-range shots as they protect the paint against the types of drives which yield shots at the rim and kickouts for open 3 pointers.
The burden, then, will be on the Lakers to loosen up this defense by making some perimeter shots in the half court and punishing the Blazers in the open court via transition chances. This would be a great game for Jordan Clarkson to find his stride after several rough outings recently. JC has the ability to hit mid-range jumpers and get to the paint even against soft hedges. If he can provide a spark off the bench, it would be a big boon tonight.
Lastly, I’m interested in seeing if both Lonzo and Kuzma can continue their good play. Kuzma has been on fire of late, scoring 25 points or more in 3 straight games. Lonzo, meanwhile, had one of his best offensive games of the year by hitting 3’s and then using the threat of that shot to get into the paint. The Lakers could really use both of these trends continuing tonight.
Make no mistake, this is a winnable game. Like the Lakers, the Blazers are only 3-7 in their last 10 games. The Lakers are on a back to back, which hurts, but they’re at home and could get some extra energy from the crowd to put them over the top.
Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time on Spectrum Sportsnet.