Records: Lakers 19-3, Trailblazers 9-13
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.1 (7th), Trail Blazers 109.9 (11th)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 102.7 (3rd), Trail Blazers 111.0 (21st)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee
Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Rodney Hood, Carmelo Anthony, Hassan Whiteside
Injuries: Lakers: Avery Bradley (out); Trail Blazers: Zach Collins (out), Jusuf Nurkic (out), Gary Trent (day to day)1Aren’t we all?
Lakers coming in: The Lakers embarked on a challenging 3-game road trip earlier this week and have started 2-0, beating the Nuggets and Jazz on back to back nights. Their defense was excellent both games and their offense was devastatingly efficient against the Jazz in particular.
With these types of performances, it’s fair to say the Lakers are playing some of their best basketball of the year and it comes in the face of (and probably in response to) critics pointing out their relatively soft strength of schedule and lack of wins against top teams.
So, here they are, the 19-3 Lakers, winners of 10 straight on the road and undefeated when not playing in STAPLES Center, holders of the league’s 7th ranked offense, 3rd ranked defense, and the 2nd best net rating. I don’t know what their future holds or how good they’ll be when the playoffs come, but they look great right now.
Trail Blazers coming in: After starting the season 5-12, the Blazers have won 4 of their last 5 games. Right before that streak began, they signed Carmelo Anthony, who promptly won Western Conference Player of the Week after playing in only 3 games. There’s more to the Blazers season than those two sentences, but, honestly, their may not be a better encapsulation of what’s gone on than that.
A team that was in the Western Conference Finals last season played so poorly to start the year that they went and signed Carmelo, who had not played in the NBA for over a year after being waived by the Rockets last season. And, just like that, the Blazers seem to be right back on track.
The NBA is a funny place, man.
Of course, the story of the Blazers is more complicated than that. That WCF sweep at the hand of the Warriors led to the Blazers shaking up their roster, letting long time PF Al Farouq Aminu and Enes Kanter walk in free agency, trading Evan Turner for Kent Bazemore, and swapping Moe Harkless and Myers Leonard for Hassan Whiteside as part of a 3-team trade. Injuries have hit them hard in the early stages of the year — starting PF Zach Collins wrecked his shoulder and will be out months, Dame has been dealing with back issues that had him miss a few games, and starting C Jusuf Nurkic hasn’t played this season after breaking his leg last year. Being so thin on the front line led to the Melo signing and here we are.
So, the new look Blazers are looking to climb back into the playoff picture. They’re playing better ball — their most recent W was over the (also stabilized) Kings with Dame, McCollum, and Melo combining for 77 points in the process. They’ve still got a ways to go until their heads are back above water, but they’re starting to look a bit dangerous again, which matters for tonight’s game.
Keys to the game: There’s a reason some were calling this the Lakers toughest road trip of the season even though it’s only 3 games. Denver and Utah are hard places to win, but Portland has been, historically, a different type of beast for the Lakers. They’ve rarely played their best here and with Dame and CJ packing scoring punch from the guard spots, it’s been even more true lately.
In saying that, the Lakers backcourt has their hands full defensively and their bigs will need to have their backs considering all the screen actions Terry Stotts has installed in their offense. P&R’s, wide-pin downs, floppy actions, and flare screens are happening every time down the court and it takes a big effort to fight through those picks and a certain awareness and collective intelligence in how to manage them as a team. If the Lakers are going to win this game, controlling the Blazers screen game and showing the right amount of help while remaining disciplined is going to be a major key.
On the other side of the ball, the Blazers do not have a lot of quality size and this will be a game where the Lakers can leverage their front court strength to make things challenging for Portland’s defense. If the Blazers stick with their current starting 5 for this one, Rodney Hood will be tasked with defending LeBron and Carmelo will have to defend AD. The Lakers two best players should be able to feast on these matchups, but spacing the floor for them and knocking down shots when help comes will be imperative. If the Lakers shooters hit 3’s, this game can get out of hand by the 3rd quarter. If they don’t, Bron and AD will have to score in bunches to have to exceed Dame and CJ’s production. That’s more than possible, but I’d prefer the Danny Green’s, KCP’s, and Kyle Kuzma’s of the world get hot.
One other area to watch is the offensive glass — on both sides of the floor. The Lakers size advantage should lead to offensive rebounds, but the Blazers ability to attack the paint and mid-range while requiring help from defensive bigs could expose the Lakers on the glass. Whiteside is an opportunistic rebounder and can be a load to move inside once he has position. Dwight, JaVale, and AD will need to get to the backboards and the guards and wings will have to help out by chipping inside and battling on the glass.
If you’d have told me the Lakers would go 3-0 on this trip, I’d probably not have believed you. They’re playing well enough to do just that, though, so I’m hopeful they bring the required focus and energy to close this trip out strong.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet and ESPN.
*All stats via stats.nba.com