The L*kers did their job Thursday night and beat the Nuggets. Denver has no games until Monday's contest versus Sacramento. That means it's up to us to keep the heat on and hope alive. Which also means that, ladies and gentlemen, we have a game in mid-April against the L*kers that means something to both teams. It does not get any better than that.
A Look at the L*kers
You already know the L*kers as individuals. Kobe Bryant you may have heard about once or twice. Did you know Pau Gasol was a teammate of Rudy Fernandez on Spain's silver-medal Olympic team? (Is anyone else going to regurgitate if they hear the phrase "Spain's silver-medal Olympic team" one more time? Most teams are staring down the barrel of Game 80 now. Could we do a little deeper research? Otherwise why not just say, "Rudy Fernandez...his first name is Rudy."
"You mean like the movie, partner?"
"Yeah. Just like the movie."
"How about that?"
Wait...we were talking about the L*kers. Andrew Bynum is back and looking a little tentative but still pretty fluid. Lamar Odom will no doubt cause us problems. Derek Fisher still starts. Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, Luke Walton... Oh wait. There's a guy named Trevor Ariza who appears to be walking around with a large bullseye carved in the back of his head. That's different.
In any case, you've heard of all of these guys. The key lesson with the L*kers this year is not their individual talent, but how well they've put it all together.
Let's start with the offense. That Kobe is putting up 27 per game with 5 assists you probably already know. On top of that the L*kers are 4th in overall field goal percentage, 2nd in field goals made, 3rd in offensive efficiency, and 2nd in points in the paint in the league. They're 6th in the league in pace but only middle of the pack in fastbreak points. That's because they share the ball freely and know a good shot when they see it. All of their players benefit. There's not a guy on this team that can't score when he's in his comfort zone. (Some just have wider zones than others. Vujacic: beyond the arc. Bryant: on any reasonably flat surface.) L.A. has mastered the inside-outside game with Gasol and Bynum anchoring, the tertiary players setting up for bail-out jumpers, and Bryant looming over everything. You can't pick your poison with this team because they just don't let you. They mesh too well and live off of whatever advantage you give them. The only exception might be occasional malcontent Odom, but he's straightened out his perspective some as the wins have mounted. Besides he apparently hates the Blazers anyway.
The L*kers are 3rd in the league in offensive rebounding percentage, which also helps account for that points in the paint number and makes them even more dangerous. Good teams shouldn't get extra chances.
The teamwork has shown up even more clearly on defense. Los Angeles is actually the 5th most efficient defensive team in the league, which you wouldn't necessarily guess looking at the lineup. They're 6th in opponent field goal percentage, 2nd in steals, and 9th in blocked shots. They get after drivers and big men. Their offensive rebounding percentage is not matched on the defensive end, however, which may open a crack for the Blazers.
If the L*kers have a weakness it's their play beyond the arc. They neither shoot nor defend the three at the same level they prosecute the rest of their game. They don't really need to defend the three, though. They like it when you miss. They need to shoot them even less. They have plenty of guys who can hit out there, but they prefer the ball in the hands of their main players.
The L*kers have also allowed points in the paint, but that may be a function of Bynum being out as much as anything. The Blazers should definitely test it tonight though.
L.A. is 63-16 overall, 29-11 on the road. As both Blazer and L*ker fans know, they don't win much in Portland though. Then again, games in Portland generally haven't had immediate and tangible stakes attached. This one does. Nobody in that L.A. locker room is going to particularly care to lose tonight. The Blazers need to win this game too.
Did I mention this was going to be a good game?
Keys to the Game
You don't approach a 63-win team with big, sweeping plans for victory. If you're looking for exploitable weaknesses you're not going to find them...or at least not ones that they care about. Rather you want to do a lot of little things right.
1. The #1 Golden Rule against the L*kers is to make your shots, which means getting good ones. This is about more than just scoring. You're going to have a hard time beating L.A. if all you care about is putting up points. Rather you want to control the tempo. The Blazers need a little bit of up-tempo play. They can't grind it out or play stagnant because L.A. will just score enough points in one quarter or another to put the game away. Portland has to push the tempo without watching it get away from them, as the L*kers do like to play faster. The way you do that is put the ball through the net. If you take a quick opportunity and hit it, it slows the opponent down. Not only do they have to take the ball out of the net and inbounds, allowing you to set up defensively, they also have to start concentrating on how to stop you. Take that same early opportunity and miss it and now they're running carefree, probably scoring on you, and your confidence is shaken. You start over-thinking and hesitating and they control you. This is not a night where you say, "Run the ball and score early in the clock" or "Be deliberate and score late". You take the good shots where they come and you make them.
2. Offensive rebounding is another good way to keep the opponent from getting too comfortable on offense themselves. The Blazers should be able to get some extra opportunities tonight.
3. As long as it comes in the context of the greater offense, meaning the ball goes inside first, I think you have to ride your three-point shooting tonight. It generates a lot of points from multiple people and positions, it's hard to stop, and it's demoralizing.
4. Brandon Roy does his best to match Kobe's scoring. LaMarcus Aldridge does his best to equal or exceed Pau Gasol. Now what happens with the rest of the team? The L*kers have good supplementary starters and a strong bench. The Blazers are deep as well. The main guys should be able to keep us in it, but this game may be decided by the Travis, Rudy, and Greg.
5. The one thing you can always win if you try: emotion and hustle. This game is at home. Play like it. Feed on it. This game is important. Sell out for it. Come out with fire and passion. Get to every rebound and loose ball first. This is the underdog's best hope.
6. You better be up by more than 1 or 2 in the last possession if the L*kers have it. On the other hand, they had better also. *wink*
If the Blazers win tonight the division race is extended two more days to Monday. It'll probably be lost then, as Denver plays Sacramento at home needing one win to clinch. But stranger things have happened. It's the responsibility of the Blazers to make sure those Monday games mean something and that means taking care of business tonight.
You want to be considered a serious playoff team? You win this game. We've said that twice before this year, once in Denver and once in Houston. Portland got manhandled and squashed both times. Will it be a different story tonight?
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