Regardless of where the series stands, game 3 is a pivotal turn where a team can either bury their opponent (go up 3-0) or reaffirm/establish control of where the series can go. For the Lakers and the Blazers, this is as true as ever as the former are looking to build on their momentum from a dominant game 2 and the latter are looking to bounce back and reclaim what was theirs after a 1st game W.
For the Blazers, if they are to accomplish this they’ll need to do it while banged up. Damian Lillard dislocated a finger on his left hand in game 2 and while he’s almost certain to play, the Lakers were already starting to influence him to that hand off the dribble to set up their defense at and behind the point of attack. CJ McCollum is still nursing a fracture in his back and Zach Collins has been ruled out for the series after suffering a foot/ankle injury right before the series began.
Shorthanded and not at your best physically, while operating as the 8th seed vs. an opponent coming off their best game since the season restarted is not an enviable position to be in. The Blazers are tough physically and mentally, but one has to wonder how far that can carry them when they’ve already been pressing as hard as possible for over a month just to get here in the first place. I trust Dame and CJ to play hard and smart, to compete at the highest level. But, as I wrote in my series preview, the human body has its limits and we’ll see if Portland is at theirs.
From a strategic standpoint, game 3 is also where I expect to see the most adjustments — particularly from the Blazers offensively. The Lakers defense was strong in game 1 and dominant in game 2 by showing extra pressure at the point of attack with their big men and forcing every Blazer not named Dame, CJ, or Gary Trent Jr., to hit shots. So far, the team has not done this well enough and head coach Terry Stotts is sure to try to find ways to make everyone’s lives easier by getting the ball to spots on the floor that force the Lakers into rotation in order to stretch them out and gash them.
One thing to watch for, then, is for Nurkic to take on a bigger role as a roll and pop man in the P&R. Look for him to slip into short rolls in order to get pocket passes where he can make shot/pass decisions at the nail. Also look for him to catch passes popping out to the arc after P&R’s and then flow those into dribble pitches or quick swings that flow into a secondary P&R where, if done quickly, the Lakers will struggle to cover the full floor against the Blazers guards.
The Lakers must work under the mindset that their current approach is working and they need to stick with it, but be ready to tweak things to counter the counter should Portland adjust. This is the chess match of the playoffs and my hope is that the Lakers are thinking one or two steps ahead rather than needing to find adjustments on the fly.
On the Lakers end, things still come down to them making shots. In game 2, KCP’s early makes from 3 took the lid off the basket and, I think, relieved some pressure on the entire team. Then, once AD’s jumper started to fall, the team’s offense got rolling to the point that, when combined with their defense, blew the game open.
In this game, then, that shot making needs to continue. Be it KCP or Danny Green in the starting group or Kuzma, JR Smith, Dion Waiters, or Markieff Morris off the bench, hitting the open jumpers they’re sure to get will go a long way in putting Portland behind the 8-ball. I do not expect any Dame led team to fold mentally, but the Lakers getting hot from behind the arc can dishearten Portland and have a domino effect in how this game plays out, forcing them to grasp for fixes that, based on the current state of both teams, may just be out of the Blazers’ reach.
Further, there are a few things I hope to see the Lakers build on that worked in game 2.
First, I want to see LeBron target his individual matchups to force the defense’s hand. If Melo is on him, I want to see him attack off the dribble. If Trent is on him, I want him parked in the post. LeBron can devastate as a scorer, but he can be equally devastating when drawing help and then passing to teammates for open shots either at the rim or behind the arc.
Second, AD is at his best when looking to score on the move. I want to see him continue to run the floor and attack the offensive glass from the wing, leveraging his length and athleticism advantages vs. whoever Portland defends him with. Further, I’d love to see more grab and go situations with Davis where he looks to push the ball off misses, either bringing the ball up the court himself or throwing outlets on the run and then filling the middle lane for return passes where he can try to finish going downhill.
Lastly, the Lakers must continue to punish the Blazers on the offensive glass. Nurkic is a very physical rebounder, but Whiteside is a “stand and jump” one while Grabriel is a “hustle to the ball” guy. The latter two are not the type to body you up and even when they try, the Lakers have strength advantages whenever Dwight is in the game. If the Lakers can continue to get offensive rebounds and get extra shots, it’s one way to mitigate some of the scoring issues they’ve had in the bubble.
Every playoff game is important, but considering the Blazers health and the way the Lakers won game 2, this is a contest where LA can really put Portland on the ropes and dictate how the rest of the series plays out. Play hard, play smart, and hit some shots and this thing can go their way.
Where you can watch: 5:30pm start time on ABC.