It’s been a long time coming, Lakers fans. For the first time since Kobe Bryant ruptured his achilles to carry his team there, the Lakers are back in the playoffs. It’s been an arduous path back. I won’t go through all the ups and downs now, but there’s been many fits and starts, many ups and downs, many hopes invested and dashed. Now, though, this team has LeBron James and Anthony Davis and they’ll be facing off vs. Damian Lillard and the Blazers.
First things first, the Lakers are favored to win because they’re the better team. They’re the number one seed in the conference and while Dame is the Seeding Games MVP and this version of the Blazers is not the same as the one from earlier in the year, there are still flaws to be exposed and pressure points to attack. Yes, the Blazers are a game opponent who have an all-world talent in Dame who is capable of going nova for an entire series, but it’s the Lakers who should advance should they play smart, determined basketball.
Which, honestly, is what I think will happen. That’s not to say I am without worries. No, the Blazers specific strengths dovetail too closely with where the Lakers weaknesses reside. Dame and CJ have the potential to do serious damage vs. the Lakers point of attack defense and their shooting can spread the Lakers out just enough to put them into the types of rotations that are harder to make when playing lineups with two big men as often as LA does.
With that, then, it’s fair to expect close games and stretches where the Lakers are on their heels for extended periods of any given game. That is the power of Dame and, to a less lethal (but still very dangerous level), CJ. But even when taking all this into account, the Blazers still have to deal with the Lakers, too.
And while the general discourse around this series tabs Portland as upset ready, I find myself drifting back to the fact that one of these teams has LeBron and AD…and the other is the Blazers. Even with Dame, it feels like a lot to overcome.
Of course, the playoffs can be full of surprises. And I’d be lying if I told you I thought I had this all figured out. No, questions remain and the chess match is about to begin. So, with the premise set, here are 10 questions/things I’ll be watching closely for as these teams get ready for their race to four wins.
1. Can the Lakers make Dame less aggressive? In watching tape on the Blazers last two playoff runs, the teams that had the most success vs. Lillard were the ones who threw him different looks and made him move backwards and away from the shots he usually hunts, to either pass or veer into more difficult attempts after surveying his ground. Traps and double teams, funneling him towards early help from mobile big men, and physical defense all over the floor wore Dame down vs. the Pelicans two years ago and vs. the Warriors in last season’s conference Finals. The Lakers don’t have a Jrue Holiday or a Klay Thompson to hound Dame at the point of attack, so their job as a 5-man defensive unit is harder. KCP and Alex Caruso are likely to see the most time on Dame and while both of LA’s guards have strengths defensively, Dame can and will attack both mercilessly. So, the Lakers bigs take on great import in helping to slow Dame down and the JaVale/Dwight/AD trio will all need to be at the top of their games. They’ll need to aggressively help and rotate, they cannot drop below the level of screens and surrender open pull-up 3 pointers. They will have to move their feet, challenge shots, and avoid committing fouls. That’s a big lift and of the three bigs, AD is the only one I trust to do all of these things consistently. That said, how difficult this series is will almost surely depend on how well those bigs do their job at the point of attack and as helpers vs. Lillard.
2. Who defends LeBron? For all the talk about how the Lakers will defend Dame, the Lakers have had a top 5 defense all season and have a defensive minded coach who is known to be a strong tactician on that end of the floor. The Blazers have no such pedigree defensively and do not have an individual defender who projects to give Bron real problems over the course of a full series. If Bron goes to the post or if they go to heavy P&R actions w/ Bron at the top of the key, the Blazers will either have to live on an island with Bron vs. ill-equipped defenders or double team him. Considering Bron’s ability as a passer, neither of these are good options. Things only get harder for Portland if Bron is shooting the three pointer with confidence and to good results. A series where Bron shoots 38-40% from behind the arc is a nightmare for the Blazers and spells their doom even if other things break their way.
3. How many double teams will Anthony Davis see in this series? If there’s an area with growth potential in AD’s game, it’s how he manages and navigates the pressure of a 2nd defender and the scrambling action that happens behind it. Davis, too often for a player of his talent, can look befuddled and uncomfortable when the double comes, firing off-target passes and looking a beat slow when making his reads. If double teams become the Blazers standard operating procedure on every post touch that Davis gets, how will he handle it? Will he make the right plays? Will he still find ways to get his shot off? Will turnovers come in waves? If Portland doesn’t double, will Davis just feast on a frontcourt not equipped to deal with a player of his talent and gifts at his size? LeBron may be the King, but Davis can be the queen on the chessboard that is a playoff series. If he plays to his top level, these games can get out of hand. If he struggles, the Blazers will have life.
4. Can Danny Green hold up vs. CJ McCollum in isolation and in Portland’s secondary P&R game? He’ll need to. If the Blazers are going to compete in this series, much less win it, CJ will need to be near Dame’s equal in effectiveness (if not production some nights). Danny is much more a help defense savant than he is a point of attack terror, but he has the craft, smarts, and strength to match wits with the type of skilled tactician CJ is. He’ll need to hold up in space, however, to really be what the Lakers need. CJ is not fully healthy and that may be the factor that allows Green to do more than just survive on an island, but if CJ gets cooking and Danny becomes a bystander, the Lakers will have another hurdle to clear — particularly if it comes while Dame has it going too.
5. Kyle Kuzma is the X-factor in this series. His growth defensively — especially in the bubble — gives the Lakers another option to throw at CJ and, potentially, Carmelo Anthony on bench units. And his shooting since the restart makes him the perfect 3rd wheel in lineups where AD slides up to C and LeBron is doing his Point-PF thing. In a series where the Blazers are very likely going to be scrambling to cover LA’s stars, it’s Kuz who can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back by hitting open 3’s and attacking harried closeouts when Portland is forced into rotation. This is Kuz’s first taste at playoff action, so wondering if the lights are too bright or if the targeted gameplans that come with this environment will be issues for him. But the man never lacks for confidence. And if that self-belief can turn into real production, any crack in the door the Blazers were trying to wedge open gets that much smaller.
6. Are the Blazers tired or are they hitting their stride? Terry Stotts said that the seeding and then play-in game were a 9-game playoff stretch for his team. Well, 9 games is a series and a half in a normal run and that can mean a couple of different things. On the one hand, the Blazers could just be finding their groove now, playing to a level and with a rhythm the Lakers have not yet reached during a stretch where they had little to play for. If Portland can carry over the play that got them to this point and hit the ground running, they could very well steal game 1 and put the Lakers on their heels. On the other hand, the 9 game stretch that this team just went through was taxing mentally and physically. In Portland’s last 4 games, Dame played 40, 41, 44, and 45 minutes. CJ played 40, 38, 44, and 44. Nurkic played 29, 29, 33, and 41.1Remember, too, Nurkic had not played since late in the 2018-19 season after breaking his leg. He’s had a long time off. These games were all must win and, in a credit to them, they did just that. Now that they’re actually in the playoffs, though, the burden only gets heavier. They’ll need to be even more focused and play with even more energy to win even one or two games, to say nothing of winning 4 times in 7 games. I’m not going to question the mental and physical toughness of any of these guys. They’ve earned everyone’s respect and should get the benefit of the doubt that they’ll be ready. That said, the human body has its limits and I wonder how close (or far) the Blazers are from approaching theirs.
7. For all the reasons I’ve laid out already, the Lakers big men are going to be tested this series. Their defensive responsibility alone will be unlike anything they’ve had to deal with for a prolonged stretch of games. That said, if they can play well — particularly JaVale and Dwight — vs. Nurkic and Whiteside, they can steer this series in LA’s direction. If there’s two matchups I’ll be playing extra close attention to it’s actually AD vs. Nurk2This will almost certainly be a crunch-time matchup. and Dwight vs. Whiteside. On paper, these matchups favor the Lakers just on AD’s talent alone. But if Dwight can neutralize Whiteside’s production while also making him pay for his overzealous attempts to chase blocked shots while also keeping him off the offensive glass, the Lakers’ bench units can turn up the heat and then force the Blazers starters to play heavy minutes, potentially wearing them out even more.
8. Can Portland effectively play their 3 guard lineups vs. the Lakers? Excluding the play-in game, in the 155 minutes the Blazers had Dame, CJ, and Gary Trent Jr., on the floor together they posted a 129.6 Offensive Rating and were a +9.4 per 100 possessions. That’s a killer offensive group and I can only imagine Stotts will try to trot out that trio in crucial minutes in order to mash the gas pedal and try to put up points in bunches. Can the Lakers slow that group? If they can’t do it defensively, can they force that group to defend in ways that play Trent off the floor? This is where LeBron’s penchant for mismatch hunting will be important. If Bron ends up calling for guards to screen for him and is able to force switches where he can attack any of those 3 Blazers guards, things could get dicey. If the Lakers shooters can hit enough shots or if AD ends up wreaking havoc in the creases of the defense when Portland traps and rotates…you see where I’m going with this, right?
9. Can the Lakers hit enough shots? I’m honestly not sure. But a hot shooting series from 3 or 4 of their role players would be a huge turn of events. KCP, Green, Kuz, Morris, Caruso, and Waiters are going to get open shots this series. If they make them, the Lakers can break games open. If they don’t, it’s going to be a problem. It’s really that simple.
10. This is your time, Alex Caruso. If rattling off the most important Lakers, it’s easy to have Caruso something like 6th or 7th behind (at least) Bron, AD, Green, KCP, and Kuz. But, Caruso is the one guard in the Lakers rotation who does nearly everything well enough defensively to shoot up these rankings in a matchup with a Blazers team so dependent in Dame and CJ for their offense. Caruso may not be the best point of attack defender, but he holds up there. He may not be the best lock and trail defender, but he fights through screens and is smart enough to know when he needs to switch. He’s not their best help defender, but he has great instincts off the ball and rotates early and always seems to end up in the right place. If he can keep the defense honest offensively, he can end up with a really big role this series. If he can’t, he could end up being schemed to the point where Vogel will have no choice but to go with a more threatening offensive player. Again, now is your time AC.
Soon enough, the answers to these questions (and more that we didn’t even ask) will be here for us all to see. I cannot wait. I love the playoffs, man. I love the war of attrition, the way that teams relentlessly attack their opponents’ weaknesses, how there’s no hiding. You’re either good enough or you’re not.
And we’re about to find out who on this Lakers team is. The run, however long it goes, starts now.