The Lakers have now won two straight games in impressive fashion — a Christmas Day blasting of the Mavericks and then a thrashing of the Timberwolves on Sunday night. Both W’s were driven by the Lakers offense, with strong outside shooting and multiple players finding ways to have an impact being the general theme both nights. Tonight, against the Trailblazers, we’ll see if the trend continues.
The Blazers are a different looking team than the one the Lakers dispatched from last year’s playoffs. They’re rangier on the perimeter and at the forward positions, adding Derrick Jones Jr. from the Heat and trading for Robert Covington from the Rockets. This pushed Melo and Gary Trent Jr. to the bench and after adding Enes Kanter from the Celtics, this is a much deeper team that hopes to jump up in the standings this season with continued strong play from Dame and CJ in the backcourt.
A player I’ll be interested in watching tonight is Marc Gasol. After Karl Anthony-Towns sat out Sunday, Gasol found himself in a much lower stakes matchup and absolutely had his best gaem of the young season. His defense was sharper all around, and offensively he was much more involved as a passer and operating in the hub of the team’s halfcourt motion sets. Gasol finished the night with 8 assists, several on slick bounce passes to cutting teammates who got behind the defense.
Tonight will be a harder matchup, but it will be a much more natural one in going up against Nurkic. Nurk is the type of big-bodied center Gasol can typically bang with an help slow down (if not outright neutralize) via smart positioning and superb technique. That said, Gasol will also be put into countless P&R situations with Dame and CJ handling the ball, and it’s in those situations where issues can come up.
Gasol is sure to be in drop coverage in these scenarios, which the Blazers guards will eat up. So, Gasol is likely going to need assistance or outright struggle when at the point of attack, but better when playing 1-on-1 vs. Nurk. The question is whether there will be enough of the latter situations for him to have real impact when it’s easily forshadowed that he’ll have issues in the former ones. So, keep an eye on that.
Offensively, the Lakers will have different attack points than they did from their playoff matchup with Portland. There are better defensive wings, but the same guards exist and both Dame and CJ can be attacked in isolation and via P&R’s. Schröder can have a big impact here, but so can Bron (if he plays with his sore ankle), KCP, Kuz, and THT in transition induced cross matches, when hunting switches, or just in normal matchups. Put both those small guards into actions where they have to slide and defend on the move, involve them in screen actions on and off the ball to force switches, and then go to work when the matchup is favorable.
All of this is a lot easier if AD plays (which he is expected to after being upgraded from last game to probable on the injury report), but even if he doesn’t you can still use Harrell in some of these actions and put pressure on Portland’s guards to fight through screens or get caught in a place where their lack of size will show up — on the offensive glass or in isolation against a much bigger scoring threat.
I hope the Lakers go after both Dame and CJ defensively all game, not just because that may end up being where they find the most sucess, but also in an attempt to wear both down over the course of the game. With two scorers as great as them, you have to try to seek out any advantage you can over the course of a game and hoping to impact their stamina or soften up their legs by chasing them off screens or getting them switched onto bigger guys is as good a strategy as any.
In the big picutre, this game could very easily end up being a shootout where whoever is hottest wins the game. On Saturday night the Blazers played that exact type of game vs. the Rockets and CJ carried them home in duel with James Harden. Both Dame and CJ are capable of doing the same tonight, so the Lakers offense will need to be sharp and will have to find ways to create the types of open threes and avenues to the paint that spark high level production.
On the 2nd night of a back to back, that could end up being a bit harder and it will take a certain amount of focus (on both sides of the ball) and mental sharpness to stay engaged and to not settle for the types of bad shots that can allow the Blazers to find their own rhythm and establish momentum. In a way, then, this game offers a specific type of test that might tell us a little something about the approach this team will take this year. If they come out ready to play and show no ill-affects either mentally or phyiscally from playing last night, that will be worth remembering as the season advances.
Where you can watch: 7:00pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet and NBA TV.