Game Time: 7:30 p.m. TV: TNT
The Los Angeles Lakers come into this game at 18-13, 5-4 on the month. That's typical of the Lakers' story in 2011-12. The uniforms are there. Most of the stars are still there. The swagger is gone, at least away from home. At home, however, they're an impressive 13-2. Portland, on the other hand, carries a dismal 5-10 record on the road. This doesn't look good for the Blazers. Then again, no road game does.
Even with the home games, if you erased those uniforms and the accompanying mystique, L.A. would look like a good team, tending towards mediocre in several key areas. Last year they ran the 7th most efficient offense in the league. This year they're down to 15th. They've been a stingy team with possessions for years but this season they're just not converting their chances. They're dead last in the league fast break points, 18th in points in the paint. Their overall shooting percentage is fine but their three point percentage is awful. They're pretty good offensive rebounders. In everything else they're straight down the middle...just average. Combined it's an attack that doesn't quite live up to its previous billing, falling prey to the drawbacks of slower play without fully exploiting the benefits.
On the other end they look a little better. When they grind an opponent into a halfcourt offense their length and experience translate well. They defend the paint. Teams shoot a poor percentage against them everywhere. They don't foul. They're pretty good on the defensive boards as well. Their problem is the same as on the offensive end: lack of speed and energy. They allow fast break points. Their guards are neither mobile nor potent.
Still, this team still features Kobe Bryant. His shooting percentages are down this year (44% from the field, 30% from the arc) but he's firing any shot he pleases, resulting in a 29 ppg average. He's still good for 5 assists and 6 rebounds per game too. Pau Gasol, Bryant's right-hand man, is also shooting poorly from the field compared to last season but that still amount to 50%...excellent for a post player. He adds 17 points and 11 rebounds. Center Andrew Bynum, the third of L.A.'s Big Three players, is averaging 16 and 13, with 2 blocks and more than 3 offensive rebounds per game to his credit. Combined they're a formidable trio.
After that the Laker roster gets more muddled. Derek Fisher is experienced but no longer reliable, averaging under 37% from the field, under 27% from the arc, and fewer than 4 assists per game. Former Blazer Steve Blake is shooting almost as poorly at 37% and 32% with almost all his shots coming from beyond the arc. Ron "Metta World Peace" Artest has fallen off of a cliff and unlike Bumbles, he doesn't appear to bounce. He's shooting 34% and 21% and barely registering a blip in any other category. Power forward Troy Murphy has become something of a three-point specialist. Small forward Matt Barnes plays good defense and is one of the few Lakers capable of getting up and down the court. He also busts out the occasional offensive masterpiece despite his three-point percentage plummeting along with the rest of the team's.
Sum it all up and the Lakers still look like Kobe Bryant and the gang despite their upper-roster talent. They're going as far as Bryant can take them, the occasional great game from one of his sidekicks adding a win here or there. Despite his obvious prowess, though, Kobe may be past the days of loading a team on his back and taking them to the promised land. The Lakers will still win. They're a major threat most nights. But the lion doesn't spring like it used to and their days as apex predators in the league appear to be dwindling.
The key for Portland tonight is the same as it always has been, made more pronounced by L.A.'s slow demise. The Blazers win at home against this team by playing faster, playing with more energy, and scoring easy before the defense is set up. Year after year, victory after victory, that's been the secret. When the Blazers have fallen short in L.A. they've bowed to the opponent's style, usually on the road. Both teams grind out games but the Lakers win while doing so, the Blazers usually lose.
The best chance the Blazers have is to force the Lakers to win with deep shots. Portland needs to keep a wing--Batum, Wallace, Matthews, even Aldridge--watching Kobe at all times and pack the interior to keep Bynum and Gasol from easy looks. Anything outside for those two bigs (and anything the rest of the team can do, period) should be acceptable. Bryant shooting deep after a dribble should also be acceptable. If the Blazers can grab a rebound and push, they'll have the Lakers on their heels and the game in hand. Bynum is always a worry when the game slows down, but the Blazers have managed to make him miserable more often than not. Let's hope that trend continues. More to the point, don't play down to L.A.'s tempo and you won't have as much to worry about. The Lakers are on the second night of a back-to-back. Make them pay, if possible.
That said, even the best chances for the Blazers haven't panned out away from home this year. This will be a tough get.
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