Game 1 Preview: Blazers vs. L*kers

Ladies and gentlemen, here we go.  Welcome to the 2008-09 NBA season featuring your Portland Trailblazers!  This is the first of 82 game previews you’ll find here on Blazersedge.  Each game’s coverage will also include an open thread for you to chat in during the game and some of the best recaps you’ll find anywhere following each game.  The latter will almost always consist of my analysis plus you’ll have post-game quotes, observations, and thoughts from Ben Golliver after every home game.  Ben is live and in person at every home game along with the rest of Portland’s media corps…access we enjoy because of your participation and enthusiasm at Blazersedge, so keep it up!

On to business…

Game 1, 7:30 p.m. at Staples Center in Los Angeles

TV:  Broadcast nationally on TNT

A Look at the L*kers

The L*kers remain essentially unchanged from the squad that took the Western Conference Championship last season.  They are among the highest scoring teams in the league but unlike many offense-laden teams of recent vintage they also couple that with a top six field goal percentage defense.  They are willing passers, good on the boards, and take reasonable care of the ball.  They can score from anywhere on the court, particularly the free thrown line, where they prosper.  You won’t find this team making many fundamental mistakes.  They have few weaknesses.

The center of the L*ker attack is, of course, Kobe Bryant.  His overwhelming talent and game-changing court presence is one of the main reasons that I don’t do previews in a position-by-position matchup format as so many others do.  What does it matter that your small forward can edge out theirs in an arm wrestling competition when Bryant has a bazooka to your ear and pulls the trigger?  The gap between him and anyone you throw against him is so great as to skew the matchups much like a black hole bends the laws of space and time as we know them.

Reports have Kobe healthy and ready to go for tonight’s game in spite of last week’s knee tweak.  He averaged 28.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 5.4 assists per game last season while shooting close to 46% from the field.  He was extra trouble for the Blazers, averaging 33.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 6.0 assists per game against Portland while shooting over 48%.  He also exceeded his season averages in three point shooting and free throw makes and attempts versus Portland.  The only hint of an Achilles heel was his propensity to foul versus the Blazers, though he still managed five more minutes played per game against Portland than his norm.  The Blazers don’t have anyone who can watch Kobe effectively.  If they’re to beat this Achilles they’ll have to do just what Paris did:  sneak up from behind and hope for a lucky shot or two…an ignoble wish, but perhaps effective.

Despite the utter lack of Kobe control the Blazers have had a moderately successful history against the L*kers, even when L.A. has been hot and Portland’s prospects have been frigid enough to run supercollider experiments through.  The reason for this is simple:  Portland does a nice job of throttling down on everybody besides Kobe.  Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol, for instance, scored below their season averages in almost every game they played against Portland last season.  Slowing down secondary and tertiary options forces the L*kers to beat the Blazers with Kobe or their fourth through eighth men.  They’ve never been known for depth in Bryant’s solo years, which usually turns the game into Kobe versus Portland.  To their immense credit they often win.  However we’ve also seen plenty of games where that supporting cast has been taken out of the game not only offensively, but on the boards and defensively in transition and the halfcourt both.  When that happens not even Kobe’s immense fingers can plug the leaks in the dam.  You start to see the Blazers gain confidence and play with emotion and a little nastiness.  That’s when the wins come.  This will probably be Portland’s strategy again tonight.  Don’t just focus on Kobe.  Watch Odom, Gasol, and company as well.  If one or two of the supporting cast have great nights the Blazers will almost certainly lose.  But if Kobe has 40 and everyone else is in a stupor Portland has a shot even though the L*kers are certainly the better team.

The Storylines to Watch

First we’ll give you the L*kers view, courtesy of Kurt from the excellent ForumBlueandGold.

 

There are three things to look for with the Lakers. 

[Editor’s note:  It’s his quote so yes, I let him swear there.  Sorry for all of the tender young eyes among us.  Fair warning that there are a couple more instances of the “L” word below.]

One, the Lakers are starting Radmanovic at the three and bringing Odom off the bench. The reason is this: With Bynum and Gasol on the court, you don't need another slasher like Odom, you need someone who can stretch the defense out. Odom is coming off the bench and along with Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic and Trevor Ariza bring a fast-break, tempo-changing team on the court at the end of the first. (Actually, Odom is likely going to be in for someone at about the 6-minute mark.) He seems, as much as one can tell, to have accepted that role in a Manu-like way, seeing it as a path to a potential title. That said, saying it and having everyone accept these roles for a season are another thing.

That ties into #2, the bench. This is a Laker team 10 deep with guys who could start in some places, and that is going to win them a lot of games. When the second unit led by Farmar, Ariza, Vujacic and Odom take the floor the tempo is going to increase, the defense will be even more aggressive. Having starter-quality guys against subs will mean the Lakers will extend a lot of leads in the early second/fourth quarters. Now, doing that against a deep Blazers team will be a lot harder than most.

Finally, and this is the biggie, defense. This team will go as far as the defense will take them. The offense is going to score a lot, be one of the best in the league, no matter what lineup they go with. But, can they stop teams when it matters? The preseason suggested yes, this is a very long team that if they commit to defense should be good (and a healthy Bynum in the middle helps that). Defense is the difference between a title and another nice playoff run.

Kurt’s analysis is fascinating because it mirrors in many ways the process the Blazers are going through.  One of the interesting storylines in tonight’s game for Portland is Nicolas Batum starting at small forward while Travis Outlaw comes off of the bench.  Much like Radmanovic in L.A., Batum gives the Blazers a defense stretcher who doesn’t need to handle the ball to score.  He can also defend, a prized quality among Portland’s first unit smalls.  Batum is a stone rookie while Radmanovic has been around, but it’s still a parallel situation.  So, too, with Travis Outlaw coming off the bench.  He’s not the all-around player that Odom is but he’s a trigger-happy scorer who can get a step and pour it in.  His style fits better with Portland’s second unit.  It will be interesting to see how those substitutions are managed.

Second, Portland is also trotting out a deep bench with the likes of Outlaw, Rudy Fernandez, Channing Frye, and Joel Przybilla.  The L*ker bench that Kurt is so proud of is generally more experienced and well-rounded than Portland’s but the Blazer bench has the greater capacity to deliver a knockout blow if it can land punches.  Both units are tempo-changers.  This will be one of the important subplots of the game.  If one team can dominate while its second unit is in it has a serious leg up.

Third, both teams will be emphasizing defensive integrity.  Both teams had it last year and are only looking to improve.  The L*kers have the advantage here not only of experience but of having the proven offense.  They only have to hold opponents long enough to administer an offensive whooping on them.  The Blazers have to hold opponents all game long.  This will be a serious challenge for Portland, especially against an elite team like L.A.

The biggest storyline of the night, one also mentioned by Kurt separately but not quoted here, will be the debut and re-debut of Greg Oden and Andrew Bynum respectively.  Both teams have high hopes for their centers and it will be hard to contain the anticipation of seeing them battle against each other in Game 1.  Each player has to prove he’s capable of returning to pre-surgery form.  Bynum has to prove that his impressive games last season were no fluke and that he can perform against quality center opposition as well as the patsies of the league.  Oden just has to prove he can play, period.  Since this is the first game back for each expectations should probably be limited.  Bynum would be expected to look better because of his years of experience in the league.  A horrible showing from him would not be conclusive by any means but it wouldn’t be great either.  A poor showing from Oden should simply elicit a shrug of the shoulders at this point.  There are too many things that could be wrong at this point:  recovery, comfort, experience in the system, experience versus NBA talent, and just plain first game nerves.  Obviously a good showing from either would be just dandy and fans of both teams would be well-advised to accentuate the positive and not hang too much on anything that goes wrong.  Despite the hype this is not Shaq versus Hakeem in their primes.  This is two young guys who aren’t the offensive foci of their teams trying to feel their way back from injuries and claim a comfortable role while under fire.

Keys to the Game

1.  The Blazers can give up buckets, but they can’t give up easy buckets.  If the L*kers start a fast break parade this game is all but over.  Portland’s offense won’t be able to keep up no matter who the Blazers throw in there.  Getting back in transition will be a huge key.  This will be important for new wing players like Batum and Fernandez to remember (right along with the veterans).

2.  The Blazers have done well rebounding in the pre-season.  The game will be SO much easier if Portland can stay at least even on the boards.  You limit extra chances and foul trouble potential from playing extra defense on one end and you generate a few extra points on the other, provided you can hold your own on the glass.

3.  Watch how the Blazers deal with two situations:  defending picks and passes plus compensating for the L*kers’ defensive pressure.  All of our non-regulars from last year (which include Batum, Fernandez, and Rodriguez) will be put into situations of having to defend on screens.  How they fight through and how the defense maintains integrity will be crucial.  Oden is too young and new to have tons of pressure put on him because our wing guys can’t find their way around.  Also our young players have to be aware that the triangle offense is designed to open up two or three options on any given set.  They can't relax just because the ball got passed away from their man.  By the same token it’s almost guaranteed that the L*kers will channel the ball into the hands of these secondary scorers on offense instead of letting Roy and Aldridge get good looks.  The Blazers will probably be in trouble if Batum and Fernandez end up taking 16 shots apiece even though they are capable of hitting some.  This will be doubly true if the shots are early in the clock.  The response instead should be to get the ball inside to Oden or Aldridge and hope they command a double team, THEN move the ball around for an easy shot or drive.  Tonight may not be the best night to take the first look the defense gives you.

4.  As far as individual matchups, circle Aldridge versus Pau Gasol.  Pau tends to shrink when he can’t get rolling offensively.  He has a hard time with Aldridge anyway.  Lamarcus had games of 30, 23, 24, and a couple of 22’s against Gasol last season.  Lamarcus should not settle for quick jumpers either.  Take Gasol off the dribble or back him down to put pressure on not only Pau, but the entire L*kers defense.

5.  Beyond the Lamarcus-Pau matchup, as we said before, it will come down to winning enough of the other battles that Kobe can’t overcome the difference all by himself.  Odom is beatable if you run him hard enough.  Farmar, Radmanovic, Vujacic, and Walton aren’t necessarily going to scare you, though any of them could go off if you let them get comfortable and have the ball where they want it.  It’s incumbent upon the Blazers to not let that happen.  Bynum vs. Oden is the big wild card here.  Again, Kobe only needs one or two guys to go off in order to have a serious advantage.  Joel Przybilla could become a major key if we need some rebounds or good defense against young Mr. Bynum.

6.  On the one hand you want to say don’t let it come down to one possession with the ball in Kobe’s hands to decide it, but on the other hand you might actually be happy if it ends up that close.

Final Thought

I’ll say this now so I won’t be accused of party pooping or rampant Blazer apologizing after the contest is over:  this is just…one…game, win or lose.  Games against the L*kers are always invested with extra meaning by Portland fans and the first game of the season after such a long layoff would be pregnant with emotional carryover no matter who the Blazers played.  Combined that’s a potent concoction.  If the Blazers get obliterated it doesn’t matter.  It’s one game out of eighty-two and you know the team has things to work on.  If the Blazers win it’s not time to get fitted for rings.  They’ll have ups as well as downs.  I’m going to root like hell during the game as I always do, particularly against L.A., but when the final horn sounds I’m not going to assign more significance to this game than it merits, either way.  In fact it’s probably less important how well the Blazers are playing now than it is how they hit their stride (or not) come January.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

P.S.  If you didn’t get enough of the pre-season talk you still have a few hours!  Check out this pre-season preview over at the Rip City Project.

 

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