Game 70 Preview: Trail Blazers versus Lakers

Update (Noon Sunday)Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times reports that Los Angeles Lakers center Andrew Bynum will be suspended for two games for his flagrant foul, which includes tonight's game against the Blazers. Video of the ridiculous foul is up over at CBSSports.com. -- Ben

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Game Time 6:30 p.m.  TV:  KGW

I try to say as little nice about the Los Angeles Lakers as humanly possible but I have to start with this:  the Lakers have been getting kind of a bad rap this year.  Everybody squawks about the bad losses they've had to the Bobcats and Cavaliers instead of citing their 49-20 record, a mark that roughly 26/30 of the NBA would like to have.  People slaughter Kobe Bryant for taking hectic late-game shots in a defeat in Miami when they've won 11 games besides that one in their last 12.  If Portland had won 11 of 12 people around the league would be agog.  Instead they're more a-gagging about anything the Lakers do.  Part of it is being the World Champions.  Part of it is being unlikeable.  Part of it is just being the Lakers.  People are kind of fed up with all three and ready to have some new Bulls or old Celtics or Spurs.  But that perception doesn't change the tenor of tonight's contest.  No matter what you've heard (or in some cases, thought) the Blazers are facing an elite, championship-level team on the road tonight.  That makes things pretty simple.  Portland isn't expected to win this game.  They'd love to for playoff positioning.  They'd love to because they could face these same Lakers in the first round of the playoffs.  They'd love to for confidence.  They'd love to because they, themselves, are doing well lately, winning 7 of their last 9.  But a victory would be way more happy-making than a loss would be sad-making for Portland.  Every game is important at this time of year in this conference, but this is one in which the Blazers have little to lose.  If it doesn't go their way, well, it wasn't expected to.

One of the key issues tonight is whether L.A. center Andrew Bynum will be suspended for his clubbing of Minnesota forward Michael Beasley in their last outing.  Bynum has not done well against the Blazers lately but he's a big body that Portland just can't match at this juncture.  His rebounding threat alone would be enough to bend Portland's game.  Without him the Blazers are looking at a trio of Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Ron Artest in the frontcourt.  All three guys have done serious damage against the Blazers with Artest and Odom playing annoyingly above average versus Portland.  History aside, on paper LaMarcus Aldridge, Gerald Wallace, Marcus Camby, and Nicolas Batum seem like good counter-threats in terms of size, speed, and skill. 

Another key issue will be the health of Kobe Bryant.  His ankle problems have kept him out of practice.  He's not scored more than 20 nor played more than 33 minutes in L.A.'s last three games.  He's not shot over 40% in their last four.  If Bryant is hobbled the Blazers gain a huge advantage, not just in potential lost points for L.A. but in being able to pay extra defensive attention to everyone else.

Even if both issues trend Portland's way, this is still a tall order.  The Lakers are 24-8 at home.  They have the third-highest point differential in the league.  They score extremely well in the paint, they get good shots without needing to break for them, they pass, they draw fouls, most of their regular players can hit a three, they're impeccable rebounders, they're tough defenders, and they're smart.   Some teams are well-rounded, some are good.  These guys are both.  The Blazers have had L.A.'s number a little bit in the Rose Garden--though recent losses may be changing that perception--but wins in Los Angeles have been as rare as hen's teeth for Portland.

In order to prevail the Blazers are going to have to master the boards and the paint.  The Lakers will happily shoot, and win, with jumpers but they've traditionally killed the Blazers by torpedoing them in the lane and on the glass.  Odom or Gasol goes on a tear, causing the Blazers to sag and pound inside, allowing Artest or Derek Fisher to go hog-wild from the arc.  Kobe can have a pedestrian game against Portland in Staples Center and the Blazers can still end up floating sideways because of this phenomenon.  Portland has got to see if Wallace, a slower-than-usual Camby, and the new Aldridge can overcome this issue.  Needless to say the smaller players will also have to keep up the pressure.  When Portland has defeated the Lakers it's been because of non-stop energy attacking on offense, never giving L.A. a chance to breathe or celebrate their own scores.  When Portland savages the rim it opens up the floor for those back-breaking threes.  In this case the game will be inverted from last night's Philadelphia contest.  The Lakers will let the Blazers shoot all the jumpers they want, depending on eventual misses and good rebounding to see them through.  The same shots that broke the over-pursuing Sixers defense won't faze L.A.'s.  Portland will have to make the Lakers work hard inside, perhaps draw some fouls on them, in order to succeed.  A consistent, fast, threatening attack is the way to go.  This will be true even of the bench.  Portland is playing a shorter rotation than they did at the beginning of the year and they can't afford three people in the second unit to no-show the game no matter how well the other six are doing.  Brandon Roy and Rudy Fernandez may be as much of a key to this game as Wallace and Aldridge.

Remember this in the end:  Kobe Bryant doesn't really beat the Blazers.  Yes, he's hit some Sportscenter, last-second threes but those were mostly back in the Shaq days and accounted for a couple among dozens of losses.  Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Ron Artest beat the Blazers with occasional help from Derek Fisher.  Watch how easily those players score, rebound, and run to see how this game is going.

Blazers-Lakers is never dull on either end.  Let's see what happens tonight.

Silver Screen and Roll is your L.A. hookup.

This would be the game form for tonight's Jersey Contest.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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