The playoffs are here and I could not be more excited. I’m also pretty anxious, honestly. The Blazers are a strong opponent and not your typical 8 seed. And with the Orlando Bubble not offering your typical environment and the Lakers not looking anywhere near their best, the circumstances are far from normal and certainly not ideal for a top seeded team.1As I type this, the Bucks — the East’s top seed — are in the process of losing to the 8th seed Magic.
If you want my full thoughts on this series, you can find those here so I won’t dive too deep into the big picture details that we’re sure to get answers to over the next week or so. Instead, then, let’s look more closely at this specific game and things to watch for in the hopes of taking a 1-0 lead.
First, the Lakers need to find their offense overall, but particularly with their starting unit. For as much as we’ll continue to focus on how to defend Dame and the Blazers, the Lakers cannot afford to put up subpar offensive ratings at the start of each half. No, they’ll need for Danny Green and KCP to hit some threes, for AD to work his mid-range jumper (and get some shots going to the basket), and they’ll need Bron to be assertive getting downhill in order to score at the rim and create shots for his teammates off those drives.
What can also help the Lakers to get out to good starts offensively is getting out in transition and really pushing the pace after defensive rebounds. Since the NBA’s restart, the Blazers have allowed 129 points per 100 transition plays that come from live rebounds, per Cleaning the Glass. This ranks 2nd to last in the league during this stretch and would have been the worst number in the NBA if posted over the full season. The Lakers, meanwhile, were one of the best transition teams in the NBA before the restart and can really take advantage of poor defenses who are not focused on getting back.2I’m focusing on their pre-bubble transition offense because the Lakers offense since the restart has been low energy overall. That said, if you’re interested in their stats from Orlando, they were 12th out of the 22 teams with a 116.7 offensive rating on transition plays coming after defensive rebounds.
So, I’m hopeful LeBron hunts transition chances off misses by pushing the ball up the court via the dribble and look-ahead passes to teammates getting up the floor. I’m also hopeful that AD and JaVale look to leverage their athleticism by running the floor hard and looking to get to the front of the rim so they can provide Bron a big target for his deep passes.
Defensively, we’ve already covered a lot of ground on how to try to limit Dame, but it bears repeating: you cannot go under screens if you’re defending at the point of attack and if you’re the helping big, you cannot play passively in drop coverage. You cannot allow Dame to walk into open 3’s, you must make him a driver, you must show him help early to make him a passer, and if you can force him to pass you must rotate hard to shooters — especially CJ and Gary Trent, Jr.
The Lakers must bring a level of defensive intensity and focus equal to the moment they find themselves in. You’re not going to slow the Blazers entirely, but you can make their lives harder and skew them towards less efficient looks. This should be the Lakers goal on every defensive possession, but it will take a major commitment vs. a schematically sound team with the threats Portland has.
Lastly, playoff series are won by exploiting the big things more often than your opponent can, but individual games are often won on the margins by doing the “little things” more often. So, if I’m making a checklist, I really want to see the Lakers take care of the ball and avoid turnovers, win the rebounding battle (particularly on the 2nd unit), avoid fouling jump-shooters, and make their own FT’s. The Lakers have size and athleticism advantages vs. this team and they should play to those advantages as much as they can.
Enjoy this game, you all. More to come later.
Where you can watch: 6:00pm start time on TNT and Spectrum SportsNet.