The Blazers face the Los Angeles Lakers tonight for the third and final time this season.
L.A.'s 2013-14 season, in all likelihood, will go down as the worst campaign ever for the storied franchise. Decimated by injuries, the Lakers have struggled to field a competitive lineup all year long. At this point, Los Angeles coach Mike D'Antoni's squad is playing for pride and embracing the spoiler role -- guards Nick Young and Kendall Marshall recently referred to the team's ability to shake up the Western Conference playoff picture as "player hating."
The Lakers did a decent job of hating on some players in March, going 5-9 for the month and earning victories over Portland, Oklahoma City and most recently, Phoenix. In those same four weeks, though, Los Angeles had a 48-point loss to the Clippers, dropped a game to the league-worst Milwaukee Bucks and suffered a 36-point thumping at the hands of the Timberwolves.
To call the Lakers inconsistent would be an understatement, as they were blown out by a sub-.500 Minnesota team last Friday, then came out two nights later and dismantled the 44-30 Suns.
One thing not lacking right now for Los Angeles is offense, though it's come from all directions as center Chris Kaman, guard Kent Bazemore and forward Jordan Hill have all taken turns leading the team in scoring the last three games. The Lakers are among the NBA's leaders in points and assists per game the last five and lead the league in field-goal percentage in that span. Five players are shooting between 41.7 and 53.8 percent from behind the three-point line in those outings, none taking fewer than 2.4 outside shots a night. Los Angeles also boasts the second fastest pace in the league this year, according to basketball-reference.com.
If the Lakers are able to put up such impressive offensive numbers, their defense must be pretty bad for them to be sitting at 25-48 and No. 14 in the West, right?
Forum Blue & Gold's Darius Soriano shed some perspective on Los Angeles' defensive woes in an article yesterday:
"...when discussing the Lakers' putrid defense I would try to explain what is actually making it, you know, putrid. This might lead to an exploration of the team's transition woes, their inability to stay in front of their men on the perimeter, how some of their wing defenders are habitual gamblers, how their bigs fail to protect the rim adequately, and how the lack of communication between the five players on the floor exacerbate all of the above."
"So, rather than get into how dribble penetration allowed on the perimeter exposes slow-footed big men who, even when they do rotate, aren't then protected by the perimeter players who should be helping the helper but don't, I'll just post a few numbers that basically confirm the team's terribleness. Since the All-Star Break, the Lakers are:
- Tied for 29th in the NBA with a defensive efficiency of 112.2
- Last in defensive rebounding percentage at 68.6%
- 27th in fast break points allowed at 17.2 points per game
- Last in points in the paint allowed at 51.3 points per game
- Last in opponent's effective field goal percentage (which accounts for the value of three point field goals) at 54.5%"
Basically, if the Lakers don't manufacture a ton of points on a nightly basis, they're not likely to win due to the ineptitude of the defense.
Hill operates mostly in the paint, averaging 11 shots a game his last five. In that span, he's doubled his season scoring average, pouring in over 16 points a night on 63 percent shooting.
Guard Jodie Meeks -- who scored 21 points on the Blazers in a win about a month ago -- is shooting over 46 percent from the floor, 41.7 percent from long-range and 90 percent from the line on four free-throw attempts a night the last five games. Not a huge fan of the mid-range, Meeks either shoots from deep or takes it to the hole.
Marshall requires the least amount of assistance from teammates in order to get his points, more than 80 percent of his scores inside the arc coming off the dribble. Lately, though, Marshall's slumped a little, hitting only 36.1 percent of his field-goals and 18.2 percent of his threes the last five games. He leads the team in assists in that span, registering 6.6 a night, but also turns the ball over more than three times a game.
Bazemore has hit about half his shots the last handful of games, and almost 42 percent of his threes. Forward Xavier Henry -- who's missed three of the last five games with various injuries and is considered day-to-day still -- is converting similarly to Bazemore in limited action. Backup forward Ryan Kelly is shooting the ball well, making 48.6 percent of his shots and almost 54 percent of his threes the last five contests.
Forward Wesley Johnson plays decent minutes, but a small role in D'Antoni's offense; same goes for center Robert Sacre. Big man Pau Gasol, who's missed a string of games due to a bout with vertigo, has been upgraded to "probable" for tonight's game. He dropped 22 on Portland a month ago. Backup center Chris Kaman, who exploded for 28 points against the Suns a couple nights ago, has made 58.1 percent of his field-goals the last five games.
The Blazers should be able to score against this shaky L.A. defense, as they've dictated the tempo in each of the last three games against the Hawks, Bulls and Grizzlies. With forward LaMarcus Aldridge back in the lineup since last Thursday, Portland is holding onto the ball well, hitting a solid 47.2 percent of its shots and almost 40 percent of its threes.
The Blazers' defense has similarly improved in that course of time, allowing just 42 percent shooting from the field and 21.4 percent from outside while giving up only 14 foul shots a game. True, Atlanta, Chicago and Memphis don't exactly form a murderer's row from an offensive standpoint, but Portland's defense has been markedly better with its All-Star power forward healthy.
Point guard Damian Lillard has really pumped the brakes offensively the last several games, getting up about 14 shots a night, converting on just 35.2 percent of them and about a third of his threes. He turned the ball over four times against the Grizzlies on Sunday, but has otherwise been pretty reliable with the ball lately and has picked up over six free-throw attempts per game.
Aldridge has made 41.2 percent of his shots since returning to the lineup for Blazers coach Terry Stotts. That's a few percentage points below his season average from the field, but Aldridge's presence alone helps grease the gears for Portland's offense, establishing a threat from both the mid-range and inside, drawing the attention of the opposing defense and opening things up for his teammates.
Guard Wesley Matthews hasn't been able to get his field-goal shooting to normal levels the last five games, making fewer than 40 percent of his attempts from the floor. His three-point shot, however, has gained some of its reliability back, as Matthews has made a respectable 38.2 percent of his outside shots recently. Forward Nicolas Batum is shooting at about his season averages from both inside the arc and outside the last five outings, making 43.8 percent of his shots and 36 percent of his threes.
Backup guard Mo Williams has been electric off the bench, making 51.1 percent of his shots and 35.3 percent of his threes for a dozen points a night the last week, his floater dialed in right now. Center Robin Lopez has picked up 12.6 points a game in that span, on an efficient 61 percent shooting.
Stotts' bench rotation after Williams consists of Forward Dorell Wright, wing Will Barton and big man Thomas Robinson. Wright has been ice-cold his last five outings, hitting about a quarter of his shots. Barton has similarly struggled from the floor, making just a third of his. Robinson, on the other hand, has been a huge spark and a somewhat surprising model of efficiency, making over 72 percent of his limited attempts.
The Lakers are one of the worst rebounding teams in the NBA. Kaman and Hill are solid rebounders by percentage, but neither garners more than two quarter's worth of game time a night. The Blazers have a huge advantage on both ends of the boards, totaling almost 10 rebounds more per game than Los Angeles over the last five. Percentage-wise, Portland also has a huge edge on the glass.
The Lakers will likely want a shootout tonight, because the chances of them winning via their defense are slim-to-none. Last time these two teams met four weeks ago, Los Angeles caught the Blazers overlooking their opponent and dropped 32 fast break points on them while forcing 20 turnovers in a 107-106 win in Portland.
If the Blazers come out focused, execute their offense and don't give into the Lakers' desire to turn the game into a track meet, they should be able to take advantage of this injury-riddled Los Angeles roster that was already relatively bereft of talent. Expect Portland to try setting the tempo early and continue dictating it throughout, as it's done each of the last three games. If tonight's game doesn't devolve into a highlight-reel of fast break points for the Lakers like the last matchup between these teams, the Blazers have a good chance to rattle off a fourth-straight win with just six more regular season games remaining on the schedule.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter