Your Portland Trail Blazers land in Los Angeles tonight to take on the Lakers and their league-leading bench unit at the Staples Center.
In case you needed some encouragement -- you probably don't -- to get the vitriol flowing against the Lakers, there's almost no shortage of ammunition. How about Kobe Bryant, at the age of 35, coming off a serious injury and as a shell of his former self defensively, signing a two-year extension with the Lakers that will maintain his desired stance as the highest-paid player in the league?
Even though Bryant's new deal completely dampens his team's ability to make a true splash in free-agency in the foreseeable future, the Los Angeles fanbase is so jaded by his selfish actions both on and off the court that they're not outraged -- in fact, his attitude toward "winning" and "being the best" apparently justifies his inability to take a real paycut for the sake of the team.
And then there's backup guard Nick Young, who garners praise if he tallies more than one assist a night and is commonly referred to by L.A. fans and media as "Swaggy P." And don't forget they have a new alternate uniform set with all-black jerseys they call "Hollywood Nights."
The Lakers are the antithesis of several aspects that Portland fans love about their Blazers, and even if it's all in fun, it's still not difficult to find reasons to dislike current L.A. coach Mike D'antoni's squad.
Alas, there is a game to play tonight, and this mish-mashed, pieced-together Lakers team has found a bit of success this year with Bryant on the bench.
Los Angeles might feature the NBA's most prolific outside-shooting attack. They're the top team in the league in three-pointers made and they convert at just a tenth of a percentage point worse than the Blazers, good for fourth-best overall in accuracy from outside.
The list of deep-threats for L.A. is a long one, containing guards Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks, Jordan Farmar and Young to go along with forwards Wesley Johnson, Xavier Henry and Shawne Williams. All but Henry attempt over three long-balls a game, and none of these guys shoots below 35 percent from downtown.
Needless to say, each Blazer will have to stick with his man on the perimeter, or it could to be a long night watching the Lakers attempt tons of three-pointers and likely converting a high percentage of them.
As is customary with teams proficient from behind the three-point line, Los Angeles boasts solid ball-movement behind D'Antoni's spread-out attack and the point guard play of veterans Blake and Farmar. Aside from moving the ball and hitting outside shots, though, the Lakers' offense ranges from pedestrian to downright terrible.
Los Angeles doesn't really push the ball, they're constantly getting destroyed on the glass -- even though they have two great individual rebounders in bigs Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill -- they rarely get to the line and they don't shoot or finish very well from within the arc.
The Lakers have a balanced attack, with no player averaging more than Gasol's 14.8 points per game, even though he takes 14 shots a night to get those points. Young is similarly inefficient when he's not hitting threes and Williams and Henry aren't particularly consistent yet, either. Outside of those players, however, D'Antoni's main playing rotation shoots reasonably well, no doubt bolstered by the value of the three-pointer in the current NBA landscape.
Defensively, the Lakers struggle quite a bit. Early in the season, they were getting blown out every few games. Lately, they've tightened up the defense a bit but they still often have a tough time keeping teams from taking a ton of shots and making a large portion of them. Los Angeles allows teams to get out on the fastbreak, move the ball around with relative ease and score inside. They are about average at defending the perimeter, which could spell trouble against the Blazers, widely known for their prolific assault from outside.
By now, you probably know the drill; Portland needs to stay focused on their end, staying within the offense and balancing the defensive attention Aldridge and Lillard get with deep connections from wings Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Dorell Wright. Lately, guard Mo Williams has seen an uptick in his own three-point percentage, and when he has Blake on him, Blazers coach Terry Stotts should give him the green light to either get to the rim and create for his teammates or get his own looks from deep. Ditto for Lillard. Blake and Meeks do not seal the perimeter well, and Portland's backcourt should take advantage of its scoring opportunities when these two are in the game.
D'antoni's rotation is more spread out than Stotts', as the Lakers play 10 guys at least 17 minutes a night; the Blazers only have six players who get more than 15 minutes per contest. The long rest since the last game should serve Portland well, because they'll be playing against fresh legs often. The Blazers need to stay true-to-form with their stingy defense of the three-point line, as you no doubt saw what happened when the Phoenix Suns beat them at their own game, attempting and hitting a ton of three-pointers en route to the blowout win that stopped Portland's win-streak at 11 games.
A good strategy for the Blazers might be allowing Young and Gasol to get a ton of shots up -- they lead the team in field-goals attempted and both require a high volume of shots to get their points -- while keeping the Lakers' outside attack at bay. The bulk of Los Angeles' scoring comes from their secondary players' ability to put points on the board, unlike the Blazers who almost always need to see solid production from their starters to earn victories. Pacifying L.A.'s bench players would go a long way toward securing a win for Portland.
Similar to many of the Blazers' games this season, tonight's matchup will largely be decided from the perimeter. Whichever team can move the ball best and hit open outside looks while preventing the opposition from doing the same will likely see a clearer path to victory. On the season, Portland has been the better team at both ends of the court from outside, but this Lakers team has won five of its last six games and three in a row at home while scoring from a variety of directions via D'Antoni's balanced offense. A win tonight would be a great bounce-back for the Blazers after the loss in Phoenix and would be a solid kickoff to a December schedule that features a litany of tough matchups.
-- Chris Lucia | Twitter