The Blazers go for their sixth-straight win tonight when the Los Angeles Lakers visit the Moda Center.
Since a mid-December win over the Timberwolves put them at 13-13 with a .500 winning percentage, the Lakers have gone 7-26 and now sit tied with the Kings for the worst record in the Western Conference. Instead of riding the veteran talents of guards Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash into the playoffs, Los Angeles now has a 7.6 percent chance of winning the 2014 NBA Draft Lottery.
Three-fifths of the Lakers' starting lineup now consists of guard Kent Bazemore, who could hardly get off the bench for the Warriors prior to his trade to L.A., Kendall Marshall, a second-year point guard who was cast aside by Phoenix less than two seasons into his career and forward Wesley Johnson, a former lottery pick who is now on his third team in four seasons.
Now that guard Nick Young is out with a knee injury and will miss tonight's game, center Pau Gasol is the leading shot-taker for Los Angeles. Over the last five games, Gasol has scored 18 points on 54.4 percent shooting. Most of his points come in the paint off passes from teammates, though Gasol often steps out to the mid-range for jumpers, where he's a decent scorer. Gasol is most effective near the basket and boosts his scoring output by getting himself to the line for over four attempts a night.
Bazemore -- who's on track to attempt as many shots with the Lakers in seven to eight games as he did in the previous 44 he appeared in with the Warriors -- is making the most of his opportunity for playing time. Bazemore takes most of his shots near the rim, but will take jump-shots and steps out for more than four three-pointers a game, where he's been a reliable 38.1 percent shooter since joining Los Angeles five games ago. Bazemore draws more fouls than any other Laker with his aggressiveness, though he shoots only about 65 percent from the line.
Guard Jodie Meeks is playing pretty good basketball right now, hitting 55 percent of all his field-goals the last five games and over 38 percent of the 5.2 three-pointers he attempts a night. Meeks is useful off the catch and shoots either close to the basket or from outside, largely avoiding the mid-range.
MarShon Brooks -- a backup guard who couldn't crack the rotation in both Boston and Golden State earlier this season -- has experienced a resurgence since ending up with Los Angeles five games ago. Brooks is hitting almost 60 percent of his total shots and has only missed one of the nine three-pointers he's attempted since becoming a Laker. Expect him to drive to the basket on several possessions, where he's been a great finisher lately. Brooks' jumper isn't quite respectable, but he'll still try to score occasionally in the mid-range and the Blazers would be wise to force him there.
Jordan Farmar and Marshall man the point guard position for Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni, and both are solid distributors. Though Marshall broke out with Los Angeles earlier this year after receiving extended minutes for the first time in his young career, his offense has sputtered since the All-Star break. Marshall is still picking up over seven assists a night -- he's averaging over nine for the season -- but he's seen his field-goal percentage plummet to below 15 percent and his three-point shooting has likely bottomed-out at about 11 percent his last five games. Farmar has been on an opposite trajectory, hitting over 57 percent of his threes, dishing five assists and scoring about a dozen points a game in his last five. In a Friday night win over the Kings, Farmar had 30 points on 9-of-14 shooting while going 8-of-10 from deep.
Johnson was moved to the starting frontcourt so D'Antoni could insert Bazemore into the starting lineup, and he's responded by hitting about half his shots, though he's not proven to look for his shot as often as any of the other starters.
Big men Ryan Kelly, Jordan Hill, Chris Kaman and Robert Sacre round out the frontcourt and the end of D'Antoni's usual rotation. None has been a big impact player in about 15 minutes a night, but Kaman is still good for a little offensive spark off the bench, hitting over half of his six shots a game. Kelly, Hill and Sacre are all reliable when called upon, but rarely function as scorers.
The Lakers have had some decent overall success on the offensive side of the ball the last five games, hitting 50.2 percent of their shots, 47.9 percent of their threes and racking up 106 points a night. Even so, they've gone 2-3 in that stretch, largely due to their poor defense and inability to control the boards.
Los Angeles' defense has allowed 46.4 percent shooting on almost 92 shots a night -- the worst mark in the NBA and almost 10 more shots allowed than the average defense in the league -- and the Lakers put opponents at the free-throw line 25 times a game. They have terrible transition defense, can be scored on in the paint in droves and rarely prevent teams from moving the ball freely. The only thing Los Angeles is sufficient at defensively is keeping the three-point line under wraps, only allowing 33 percent long-range shooting for opponents the last five games.
The Blazers have played some weakened opponents their last several outings, allowing the team to get some solid rest for big men LaMarcus Aldridge and Meyers Leonard, who both came back last game against the Nuggets. Regardless of the competition, Portland has ratcheted up its defense, allowing only 92.4 points a game, 39.7 percent from the field, an astonishing 28.3 percent from behind the arc and restricting easy ball movement the last few weeks.
Portland should have a clear advantage on the boards, as they've had a +3.2 rebounding differential lately. Meanwhile, the Lakers are the worst rebounding team in the league, consistently getting out-rebounded by double-figures this season. Los Angeles' frontcourt is filled with talented individual rebounders, but they can't seem to put things together enough to function well as a unit, struggling mightily on the offensive glass. The Blazers have center Robin Lopez and Aldridge up front, both great individual rebounders this season. Portland is good at pulling in offensive rebounds as a team and serviceable at the defensive end.
Point guard Damian Lillard has been able to limit his shot-attempts the last couple games in a blowout win over the Nets and a couple nights ago against the Nuggets when Aldridge came back after sitting out five games with a sore groin. Since the Blazers' five-game winning streak started, Lillard is hitting about half his shots and almost 41 percent of his threes while getting to the line five times a game. Expect Lillard to go hard at the Lakers as they have a soft defensive interior and he's demonstrated a recent commitment to getting into the paint and finishing strongly.
Aldridge hit seven of his 15 shots Saturday night against the Nuggets, splitting his looks mainly between his usual jump-shot and attempts within the key. Aldridge helps get opposing teams in foul trouble with his size and strength and also picks up about three assists a night, a solid number for a big man, demonstrating his ability to find teammates when the double team comes.
Guard Wesley Matthews continues a streak of games where he's been aggressive but hasn't entirely found a ton of success on the offensive end. He's hitting about a third of his shots and 28.6 percent of his outside shots over the last five games, both well below his season averages.
Guard Mo Williams and wing Nicolas Batum have both hit about half their shots since the All-Star break and about 40 percent of their threes, two of Portland's better outside shooters in that span along with forward Dorell Wright.
Center Robin Lopez led the Blazers in scoring Saturday night for the first time all season as the Nuggets' interior defense struggled to rotate well. Against the Lakers tonight, Lopez should again look for his shot because Los Angeles is even worse than Denver at stopping opposing teams from scoring inside. Leonard will try and take his solid effort from Saturday night and carry it over against Los Angeles, probably the best frontcourt in the league for a young, offensively minded center to get extended minutes against.
Wing Will Barton has recently played himself into Portland coach Terry Stotts' rotation at the expense of guard C.J. McCollum's minutes, it appears. Barton has played more under control than usual the last several games, likely benefiting from more time on the floor with starters instead of in garbage time. Forward Victor Claver has also apparently earned himself a spot at the end of Stotts' rotation, good for about a dozen minutes a night and opportunistically hitting almost half the limited shots he receives.
Tonight's matchup could be a shootout, as the Lakers have averaged 106 points a game recently but have given up 118 points to the Pacers, 108 to the Grizzlies and Nets and 122 to the Kings on Friday night. In that same span, the Blazers have gone for over 107 points a night at less than full strength. With Aldridge back, the consistent output from Lillard and the recent inspired play from the reserves, the Blazers should be able to overmatch this Los Angeles squad largely devoid of upper-echelon talent. Still, the Lakers have put up some big numbers lately in D'Antoni's offense, so Portland will have to continue its improved defensive effort to put Los Angeles away tonight.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter