Game 80 Preview: Lakers vs. Trail Blazers

Game Time 7:00 p.m.  TV:  KGW

This ought to be an interesting game.

On the one hand the Lakers are 55-23, second in the conference, one of the elite teams in the league.  On the other hand they've just lost three straight:  Denver, Golden State, Utah.  Or maybe those are both the same hand, providing reason for L.A. to want to win tonight.  Playoff positioning could be another reason, though frankly I suspect that with the #1 seed now out of reach L.A. doesn't particularly care about their first-round opponent.  Home court in the second round is still up for grabs, though.  Besides, nobody wants to head to the playoffs with the specter of a four-game losing streak in recent memory.  Most importantly of all, the Lakers know that there's a chance these same Trail Blazers could be their first-round opponents.  They won't want to leave a doubt in anybody's mind as to how that matchup would resolve.  That alone would make this game worth winning for L.A.

The Blazers, of course, are fighting to hold onto the 6th seed and not get dumped into 7th, likely against these same Lakers should L.A. tally the win tonight.  No matter what Portland fans would like to claim about their team's successful history against the Lakers two truths stand out starkly:  that success extends neither to road games nor the playoffs.  There are reasons for wistful hope in a playoff series versus the Thunder, Mavericks, or even the Spurs.  Little exists against L.A. for the guys in red and black.  The Blazers need this game.

The Lakers are one of the few teams in the league that remains unafraid of Portland's length.  They've got some of their own with Bryant, Odom, Gasol, Artest, and Bynum.  Plus there's plenty of size in that group.  Physically this is a touch matchup for the Blazers.  Portland's main advantage is agility among the wings.  But Portland's most agile and quick smalls are also among Portland's most inconsistent smalls.  Nicolas Batum has been on a great run lately and could be a potent weapon.  But depending on Wesley Matthews and Rudy Fernandez is not a recipe for happiness...or at least not happiness of the stable variety.  Neither Andre Miller nor Brandon Roy are speed demons.  At times Roy isn't even functional.  That narrows the advantage.  Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge is a good matchup, one which either player could take advantage of.   Lamar Odom, Ron Artest and Andrew Bynum may actually be the scariest Lakers to face, Odom because of his tenacity, Artest because of his size and defense, Bynum because of his height and strong rebounding ability.  Any one of them could punch a hole in Portland's dam that the Blazers will have a hard time recovering from.  In other words, Portland has plenty of reasons to worry even without invoking Kobe Bryant's name.

Oh, and Derek Fisher has been a Blazer Killer too.

And you have to watch Matt Barnes on the break.

And watch out for the Revenge of Steve Blake!

Why, then, do the Blazers tend to win in Portland and play close even when they do lose?  Hustle, energy, and a refusal to be intimidated.  Somehow, some way, when the Blazers play this team everybody turns into Gerald Wallace.  The rebounds, alley-oops, jump shots, threes, steals and break-outs...all of them magically appear.  Portland can't do much about Bryant when he gets on a roll but the Blazers tend to break in waves around him, letting him shoot up whatever he wants and then scoring 4 for every 3 he puts on the board.  If the Blazers could bottle those home efforts and unleash them on every team we'd be talking about a high seed in the playoffs instead of fighting to stay off the basement stairs.  There's just something magical about going toe to toe with the guys in purple and gold that brings out something special in this team.  The Blazers need every bit of their "A" game to succeed against these guys and they often get it.

Portland will have to conjure up that magic tonight.  They're coming off of a road game while L.A. is rested.  The Lakers should be loaded for bear.  Portland will need a strong Aldridge attack backed up by good shooting from the perimeter guys when L.A. doubles.  They'll need to poke away steals and run.  They'll have to fight like demons on the boards.  Assuming Marcus Camby plays the high-low game could be key, bringing Bynum out of the lane and making Gasol chase on defense.  Brandon Roy is often a key in Portland victories over L.A. but again the shooting of Matthews and Fernandez could be just as important.  Points galore from Wallace and Batum wouldn't hurt.  Andre Miller occasionally finding success on the drive or post-up wouldn't hurt.  In short, it's everything and the kitchen sink tonight.  Every shred of goodness this team has evidenced in the last month brought together in one game...that's the expectation.  This is Portland's playoffs started early and they will need to play like it.

KEYS:

1.  Count the loose balls, count the rebounds, count the free throws.  All will be indicative of how aggressively the Blazers are attacking on the floor.  If either team gains a significant advantage the other is unlikely to overcome the difference with shooting alone.

2.  Run on this team every chance you get.  They want to make this game nice and fair, their strength against yours.  Don't be fair.  Hit them before they're ready.  Make those big, older guys run up and down the floor!

3.  If the Blazers can do any kind of credible job defending the paint they have a chance.  L.A. doesn't shine as brightly when shooting deep and they don't run in non-obvious situations.  Keep them out of the key and they will have to manufacture points.  That doesn't always work for them.  (They've not exceeded 90 points in any of their last three losses.)

4.  Point #3 assumes you don't just let them grab the rebound when they miss.  They're a really, really good offensive rebounding team.  This may be the Blazers' biggest vulnerability tonight.

Silver Screen and Roll will talk a little more about the Lakers.

Game form for tonight's Jersey Contest.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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