Portland travels to L.A. to face a red-hot Kobe Bryant, a menacing (though underused) Dwight Howard, and tricky Steve Nash. The Blazers have grown since the beginning of the season. Will it be enough to overcome this kind of challenge?
The 14-13 Portland Trail Blazers travel to Los Angeles to face the 14-15 Lakers (attention Lakers fans: SCOOOORE...BOARD, SCOOOOORE...BOARD) in a game starting at 7:30 Pacific and televised on KGW TV locally. For all the chanting and record-pointing, the Lakers have won 5 of their last 6, NBA bluebloods beating up on the lower class (Washington, Charlotte) and the new-money pretenders (Golden State, New York). Some will credit the return of point guard Steve Nash but he was absent for the first three of those victories. In actuality the Lakers finally committed to playing reasonable defense...or at least backed into it by playing against teams with awful offenses and it stuck. Same difference. After a god-awful string of triple-digit games allowed to opponents Los Angeles has finally kept a team or three under 100. Throw in an overtime big-scoring win against the Warriors and voila! Winning streak.
It hasn't hurt that Kobe Bryant hasn't seen the south side of 30 points in the last 9 games, putting up 40 in L.A.'s last contest, a loss to the Nuggets. Dwight Howard hasn't been so lucky. He's topped 20 only once in that same stretch. He's shooting fine. They're just not giving him touches. He's rebounding and blocking shots well, though. Steve Nash has been playing big minutes, racking up assists, and hitting every shot he takes. Pau Gasol has struggled in 3 of the 4 games he's played in since returning from injury. So basically Kobe is going crazy on everyone, Nash and Howard are along for the ride as specialists, and Gasol is still wondering what the heck to do in this brave new world of Laker Dynastic Aspiration.
The most loopy thing about this recent run, however, is that Metta World Peace has been picking up tons of shots and scoring big. He's become a three-point outlet, firing away from the arc with impunity. He's also drawing foul shots, rebounding, and either getting a ton of steals or committing a ton of fouls trying to get them depending on the night. It's like somebody gave MWP a sesquiduodecuple-shot espresso and now he's going crazy all over the court.
Side note: Ask your barista for one of those and if she gets it right, marry her!
Side note #2: Marry her before you drink it.
Even with everybody back, the Lakers are still the Lakers. They don't want to run too much. It makes them feel old. They'd rather face their halfcourt attack against yours, mano-a-Kobe. They can score in the middle but they've fallen in love with the jump shot as they've aged, as one might expect from a Nash-Kobe-Peace combination. They're really quite good at shooting the three, though, and they draw more foul shots than anybody in the league. Their offense is efficient and deadly if you let them have their way. They play starters huge minutes which means your defense seldom gets a break. You're starting at Bryant, Nash, Gasol, MWP, and Howard an awful lot. Good luck helping out. If your rotation is slow they're one pass from paydirt in any given direction. They're also deadly on the offensive glass, as you'd expect. You are never safe until you have the ball in hand, headed the other way.
Once that happens, though, you're probably OK because they're not going to turn you over. Their defense is more maintenance than aggression. Howard will block shots and Peace will get up in your grill and try to smack you from time to time, but the blocks are more like a pleasant surprise than a reliable diet and World Peace is still only a shadow of what he used to be, drawing fouls more often than he intimidates.
The Big Sin of the Lakers' defense is fast break points allowed. They don't want you to fast break but like the speed limit on a farming road, it's more of a polite request than an enforced mandate. They trail everyone in the league in fast break points allowed. They're better about points in the paint given up but they're still closer to the bottom than the top. They excel when they get you jump-shooting against them in regular, halfcourt play. They still allow a reasonably high percentage there, especially from distance, but they know that their star power and free throw advantage will likely tell.
Ideally L.A. would like to play this game by the numbers...a big night from Kobe, flashes of talent from everyone else, huge rebounding from Howard, some three-pointers made, and you're just happy you could be on the same TV screen with them. The Blazers need to find a way to explode out of that Pleasantville story and add some explosiveness to the proceedings. That could come via turnovers, fast breaks, tons of threes hit, or maybe some defensive voodoo against Bryant.
Unfortunately even if they force Kobe into tough shots--something they've done in past victories against L.A.--it's hard to get past the Dwight Howard Factor. He scored 33 with 14 rebounds and 5 assists the first time these two teams met and the Lakers weren't even using him right. (Still aren't, in fact.) Then you have Nash vs. Lillard. Portland's rookie point guard has grown up defensively over the last month but this is a pretty advanced course to be mastering. If Lillard needs help, who do the Blazers cheat off of?
This is even more pronounced since Wesley Matthews is still in a day-to-day injury situation and hasn't fared well when he's braved his hip injury. He leaves a huge defensive hole at shooting guard. Maybe you put Nicolas Batum on Kobe and let Victor Claver have fun with MWP but how long can you play Claver? Sasha Pavlovic hasn't been playing that well lately. Will Barton just had a great game but Barton vs. Kobe doesn't seem like much fun unless Will can run up and down. Whatever schemes the Blazers employ, it's more or less a shell game. Move those things around so fast that you hope the Lakers don't catch on to the fact that you got nothing and are bamboozling them. Can it work? Maybe. Will it work, in L.A., where the Blazers haven't had any kind of success in years? Hmmmm...
LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum often step up big against big opponents. J.J. Hickson has been on a tear lately (though this is no journeyman center he's defending and rebounding against tonight). The Blazers are younger and faster. Damian Lillard is Damian Lillard. They'll just have to hope that all of that adds up to enough to give them a chance at victory tonight.
Silver Screen and Roll will talk about rebounding from that Denver loss with a smashing of the Blazers tonight.