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Game 80 Preview: L*kers vs. Blazers

Game Time:  12:30 p.m. Pacific  TV:  ABC

The Blazers and L*kers take center stage today as a featured game on NBC.  The L*kers are 56-23 overall but have lost 4 of their last 6, likely as a result of having their playoff spot firmly cemented.  Pau Gasol has returned from injury.  Kobe Bryant has been resting the last couple of games but is expected back today.  Andrew Bynum is out until the start of the playoffs, meaning Gasol is playing center by default.  He hasn't exactly been suffering in the face of his teammates' vacations, forced or voluntary.  Gasol has scored 32, 26, and 29 in their last three games.  If somebody wants to remind me how and why the L*kers got him in the first place I would happily leave a flaming paper bag on the doorstep of the person responsible.  Other than that the L*kers are pretty much what you remember.  Lamar Odom has become their de facto rebounder but has taken a back seat in scoring.  No, he's taken that backwards-facing seat in your dad's old station wagon.  Ron Artest remains a mixed bag, sometimes giving you good numbers, sometimes bad, generally producing more when Kobe is out but always providing the threat of physicality, defense, and the occasional 20-point game no matter who he plays with.  The L*kers continue to manufacture bench minutes and continue to succeed in doing so.  Luke Walton is back.  Sasha Vujacic is struggling.  Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmer are doing well this week.  Josh Powell is good for a couple rebounds as the emergency replacement for the center replacement.  Their bench probably won't kill you but it's not designed to.  It's designed not to hurt them.  On those terms it's a fine unit.

The L*kers have been off and on with their offense lately.  When they can defend and rebound well they tend to win.  If not, it's a struggle.  But L.A.'s personnel present Portland difficulties on the offensive end nevertheless.  Portland has done a decent job of handling Gasol and making Bryant work for his points.  That's been a large key to Portland's success against them.  The tertiary players present difficulties.  Whichever of the Bryant-Artest duo Portland doesn't guard with Nicolas Batum has the potential to be an enormous matchup headache.  Artest has gone off on the Blazers before.  When Portland has to concentrate on stopping him their defense can't contain the main guys and all heck breaks loose.  Occasionally Lamar Odom can fulfill that role.  Both Artest and Odom present physical difficulties as well.  They tend to bruise the Blazers.  Portland has built up some resistance over the years but they're still a threat to intimidate.

This game may well come down to the team controlling the boards controlling the game.  Control of the boards often comes down to one team or another wanting it more, especially in Portland's case.  The L*kers don't have as much at stake in this game as the Blazers do.  Nevertheless they won't want to lose with Kobe coming back and they won't want to head into the playoffs on a down trend.  The Blazers would love this game because it keeps their hopes of finishing above Oklahoma City alive and it helps ensure that San Antonio will remain below them as well.  If Portland loses today and OKC wins then winning Monday's game would only pull Portland within 1 of their seeding rivals with 1 game remaining.  Winning today would allow the Blazers to go up on the Thunder without any help but their own.  The situation was the same against Dallas on Friday and the game was less than spectacular.  Hopefully Portland can pull it together and walk out with a statement win.

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--Dave (