You've heard plenty about the Portland Trail Blazers' next opponent, the Los Angeles Lakers, this year. (Game Time 7:30 p.m. Pacific, TV on CSNNW) They're talented. True. They're dysfunctional. True. They rely too much on Kobe Bryant when pressured and it's not working out as well as it used to. True. Expectations were sky-high heading into the season and the Lakers have utterly failed to meet them. Absolutely true, all of it.
But everything is relative. The guys in purple and gold have won 6 of their last 10. The guys in red and black have lost 7 of their last ten. They've traded places in the standings and the Blazers now look upward at their southern rivals. The Lakers own a horrible 17-11 home record but the Blazers carry an equally horrible 8-20 road record and have traditionally had trouble winning in L.A.
And then there's Dwight Howard.
No matter what you say about the guy, his injuries, his attitude, outlook, suitability to win championships, he kills this year's Blazers. He's huge, talented, and proven at the position the Blazers are weakest defensively. He's averaging 16 points and 12 rebounds on the year. He's poured in 27 with 14 rebounds against Portland.
That almost makes Kobe Bryant's 28.5 average versus Portland unfair. Considering the Blazers are worst in the league in points in the paint allowed and 27th out of 30 in shooting percentage allowed, facing the Howard-Bryant combo is a disaster in waiting no matter how they stack up against great teams.
Metta World Peace also likes to play the Blazers and Steve Nash often feasts on Portland's carcass as well. Portland will match up favorably with any power forward the Lakers throw out there (Pau Gasol is out) and the L.A. bench is nothing to crow about, but by that point does it really matter?
The Lakers want to play efficiently on offense, not fast. They're older. They depend on matchup advantages. They're perfectly happy to take it down, get the ball to the right people, beat you at your weak spot, and walk out with the win. They don't refuse the break but neither do they rely on it. Points in the paint and mid-range jumpers are their weapons of choice. They're not as good deep with only Nash and the bench guards excelling from distance. Howard creates plenty of open shots when you can't guard him with a single player, though, so your mileage may vary.
Defense is the Achilles Heel for the Lakers and it's a huge one. They're last in the league in fast break points allowed, 28th in points in the paint allowed. If they can keep you away from the easy buckets they're actually decent but they allow way too many mistakes, especially for a team whose defensive game plan equates to "Don't gamble and play the percentages." Lack of focus? Lack of energy? Whatever the cause it's the biggest reason they're 9th in the West instead of 3rd right now. If you get the Lakers reeling you can knock them out.
Unfortunately for the Blazers it takes a pretty good team to make the Lakers reel nowadays. Clippers, Heat, Celtics? They've all garnered wins against L.A. in the past couple weeks. Charlotte, Detroit, Minnesota? Not so much. Besides the obvious defensive issues with Howard and Bryant, Portland also has to face the fact that they're woefully under-powered in the exact areas the Lakers are weakest at defending. How many great games have the Blazers registered in the paint or on the break this year? Mid-to-long range jumpers don't put much pressure on the defense, yet those are the only two tricks the Blazers know.
Portland always concocts some kind of magic in the Rose Garden, summoning energy from the crowd and running out on a crazy rebound, dash, and dunk fest. Since the crowd in L.A. is much more subdued and decidedly Lakers-biased, that magic never seems to appear in Staples Center.
Finally you have to consider the post-trade-deadline rebound. It happens every year to teams in turmoil. The weeks leading up to the deadline are fraught with angst as key players wonder how much longer they'll be in uniform. Disharmony blossoms. Play suffers. Once the deadline passes and all players are secure for the year these teams usually bear down and refocus.
This could describe the Blazers a little bit. But the only significant Portland player on deadline watch was J.J. Hickson and he played energetically the last few weeks. With the playoffs in their sights and plenty of incentive to get there, the Lakers are far more likely to benefit from the deadline passing. This will be a quiet but important statement game for them.
In short, everything indicates that this will be a long, if not embarrassing, night for the Blazers. They always seem to save their best efforts for just this kind of occasion, but dang if I can figure out how they're going to overcome the talent and position gap if the Lakers don't fall apart. But fret not, Blazers fans. These two teams will meet again in the Rose Garden in April, and we all know how that goes.
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