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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Los Angeles Lakers Preview

The Blazers take on the Los Angeles Lakers tonight for the second time in the last week. Kobe Bryant's playing status is uncertain.

Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers (29-8) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (12-25)
Sunday, January 11
Staples Center; Los Angeles, CA | 6:30 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNWHD; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: Robin Lopez, Joel Freeland, Allen Crabbe | Out for the Lakers: Julius Randle, Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant (day-to-day)
SBN Affiliate: Silver Screen & RollTimmay's Viewing Guide | Blazer's Edge Night

Update: Lakers forward Wesley Johnson is scheduled to start tonight. He's missed L.A.'s last three games and is averaging 9.4 points per contest while shooting 42 percent from the field and 37.7 percent from outside for the season. Kobe Bryant's status remains a game-time decision.

The Blazers complete the second half of a back-to-back set of games tonight when they play the Los Angeles Lakers at the Staples Center.

Portland hosted the Lakers last Monday night in a matchup that was much more closely contested than most Blazers fans had expected, considering the opposite trajectories of both teams. Los Angeles held a lead as late as the 0:43 mark in the fourth quarter.

And then Blazers point guard Damian Lillard -- who ended the evening with 39 points -- finished the Lakers off. Harrison Faigen of Silver Screen & Roll has the play-by-play of the game's final two-and-a-half minutes:

A late Lillard-led 10-2 run (he hit 2 consecutive threes plus a lob to [LaMarcus] Aldridge) gave the Blazers an 86-85 lead, and then another Lillard three with about 2:30 left pushed the score to 91-87. The Lakers were not ready to quit yet on this night, and [Nick] Young came right back for LA, drawing one of his patented fouls on a three pointer and hitting all three free throws to cut the lead to one. Two made Jeremy Lin free throws later and LA had a 92-91 lead. But it was not enough, as Lillard continued his nuclear explosion (it's a miracle they did not evacuate the Moda center and the surrounding area) and hit a backdoor layup on the next possession, followed by two intentional foul free throws to put Portland up by three with 18.9 seconds left in the game. One Jeremy Lin airball later and the game was essentially over, with the Blazers eventually winning 98-94 after some more free throws as the Lakers were forced to play the foul game.

L.A. does not employ an efficient offense, unable to consistently find assists and produce enough points to regularly stick with better teams. The Lakers don't push the ball well, don't find many easy buckets inside and rarely shoot threes, hitting them at a 30.4 percent rate the last five games when they do attempt them.

Guard Kobe Bryant -- who's sat out a handful of games since Christmas to rest -- has not yet indicated whether or not he'll suit up tonight against Portland. When he has played lately, Bryant has actually toned down the amount of attempts he's taken, choosing his spots better to keep his legs fresher. He still dominates the ball, though, and has been unable to hit consistently from anywhere except beyond the arc, where he's sank 40 percent of his shots the last three games he's played in. Bryant has begun picking up more assists and setting up teammates with with more willingness lately, but he's picking up plenty of turnovers in the process and, overall, hasn't helped his team win anymore than it had without him.

If you're the kind of person who revels in watching the 36-year-old Bryant limp his way across the finish line of his storied career -- carrying on his shoulders the willingness and confidence of a former superstar whose body can't cash the checks his mouth writes, leaving in his wake frustrated teammates, forced jumpers and countless 17-point, 7-for-23 shooting nights from the field -- then check out Grantland writer Brian Phillips' commentary on Bryant's slow and sometimes painful-to-watch transition into post-NBA life:

This season is the distillation of the go-it-alone challenge Kobe set for himself back when [Shaquille] O’Neal and Phil Jackson left L.A., or even sooner — Kobe, remember, is the star player who invited none of his teammates to his wedding. (It’s a wonder he invited his wife.) He can’t win, a fact that has no apparent bearing on the fury with which he is trying. We’re seeing Kobe stripped of everything except the will to succeed, a will that persists despite being hopeless. We’re seeing him face his doom with a fearlessness that is ludicrous, profane, and maybe slightly inspiring. We’re seeing the existential Kobe Bryant.

Frankly, the Lakers may be better off without Bryant; They played a close game with the Blazers on Monday without him in the lineup, got obliterated by the Clippers two night's later with him and beat the Magic Friday night with Bryant in street clothes.

Guard Nick "Swaggy P" Young hoisted 13 shots against Portland on Monday but made only three, consistent with his struggles from the field of late. His coach, Byron Scott, thinks Young needs get himself into the gym a little more often to get practice shots up (for what it's worth, Young disagreed and vowed to keep shooting to get himself out of the slump).

Point guard Jeremy Lin hit five of his 10 shots against the Blazers and has been shooting over 51 percent from the field the last five games, able to get inside and finish strongly. He's also made 52 percent of his threes in that span, half of them off the dribble.

Guard Wayne Ellington, who started in place of Bryant on Monday, shot 5-for-12 from the field but has otherwise struggled to score recently. Big man Jordan Hill had his best game of the season against the Blazers, registering 23 points on 10-for-15 shooting, his jumpers from the top of the key his most potent weapon.

Even former Blazer guard Ronnie Price got into the action against his former team, shooting 5-for-11 and picking up eight assists. Price has generally been bad from deep recently and hasn't shot well outside of Monday's game, though he did seem to go hard in his matchup with Lillard. Forwards Ed Davis and Ryan Kelly started in the frontcourt together against Portland, but they combined to shoot 3-of-13 from the field. Kelly hasn't played well in the starting small forward position in place of Wesley Johnson, who is questionable for tonight's game, and he's struggled from the field. Davis, on the other hand, had on off-night against the Blazers but is typically a very reliable scorer down low, earning plenty of praise for playing effectively within his skillset, which essentially amounts to hustling down low.

Forward Carlos Boozer should see some time tonight, and he's been sticking his shots inside the key lately, though his jumper has been just so-so. Big man Tariq Black, who's played just two games in a Lakers uniform, has displayed opportune scoring and has a nifty touch down low. He's earned his minutes, Scott said, and will likely bump center Robert Sacre out of the rotation and push Boozer for minutes.

L.A.'s defense doesn't prevent efficient passing, gives up tons of points inside, allows transition points, puts teams at the foul line often and struggles to stop opponents from scoring from both inside and outside of the arc. The Blazers picked up an uncharacteristic 15 fast break points against them Monday night and hit 11-of-26 threes while only turning the ball over nine times. If Portland is moving the ball well, the Lakers' defense will likely struggle.

The Blazers came out of the gates strong last night against the Magic, but eventually needed the calming influence of LaMarcus Aldridge to carry the team down the stretch and cement the victory. Lately, Portland has shot the ball fairly poorly from everywhere but the perimeter, where the Blazers have hit 38 percent of their attempts the last five outings. They turned the ball over 20 times last night, but 22 assists led to a 10-for-26 night from deep as Orlando was eventually overwhelmed.

The Blazers' defense has been the team's calling card the last several games, as opponents have shot 40.8 percent (No. 4 in the NBA) from the field against them and 25.5 percent from deep (tied for No. 1) while being run off the three-point line. Though Portland doesn't force many turnovers, the team clogs the passing lanes and effectively limits ball movement. The Lakers attempted just 14 threes on Monday but did manage 20 assists and only turned the ball over 10 times, so the Blazers should be prepared for another spirited effort from a team that's gone .500 in its last six contests.

Lillard iced the game against L.A. last week, but he came back against the Magic last night with a 3-for-10 outing, compiling five assists and getting most of his points at the foul line. Lillard has bounced up-and-down of late, his recent shooting percentages down from his season averages.

Aldridge salted Orlando away down the stretch with strong post play inside and a bevvy of jumpers. He's been a more reliable scorer lately and put up 21 points against L.A. Hill, Boozer, Black and Davis do not match up well against Aldridge, so don't be surprised to see him go off again tonight.

Guard Wesley Matthews sank four of his six three-point tries last night and spurred the victory late with his hustle and focus. Lately he's been decent inside the arc but has punished teams from deep, even though he struggled throughout the game against the Lakers last week after sustaining an injury early in the game. Matthews should get plenty of open three-point looks tonight, as L.A. does not defend the perimeter well.

Forward Nicolas Batum still hasn't been able to get his own offense in line, but he did drop four assists against Orlando and was a strong contributor on the glass, finding ways to help his team even when his own shot was off. Starting center Chris Kaman had a good night offensively against the Magic but opposing teams have begun to figure out how to force him into turnovers when he has the ball near the basket. A little less aggressiveness from Kaman might benefit the team, as he seems just as likely to hit a left-handed layup in traffic off a spin-move as he is to fumble the ball and turn it over.

Portland's bench has been limited with injuries to big men Robin Lopez and Joel Freeland, and now guard Allen Crabbe will be out for an undetermined amount of time. Wings CJ McCollum, Will Barton and Dorell Wright appear to be in line for bench minutes now, none of the three having a huge impact offensively lately. Point guard Steve Blake struggled against Orlando and hasn't shot or passed the ball as well as usual lately, but center Meyers Leonard has stepped up with his recent spike of minutes, hitting over half his shots and establishing himself as a threat from deep. Power forward Thomas Robinson shot well against Orlando and has generally played within himself lately.

Hill, Davis and Black are probably L.A.'s best individual rebounders, and Hill was able to secure 14 boards last week against Portland. As a team, the Lakers are fairly average at rebounding but they did blow Orlando out of the water Friday night on the glass and will have a shot against the Blazers' injury-depleted frontline. Kaman, Aldridge and Leonard kept Los Angeles' rebounders at bay last week, but the opposition has been able to make hay on the offensive glass against Portland the last couple games. The Blazers will need to do a better job rebounding on the defensive side of the ball if they want to prevent easy second-chance points, which almost sunk them last night against the Magic.

The Lakers played Portland strong on Monday and had the game in hand until Lillard willed his team to victory with a ferocious late-fourth quarter scoring outburst. L.A. has plenty of streaky individual scorers -- Young, Lin, Boozer, Hill, (possibly) Bryant -- and if more than a couple of them happen to get it going tonight, it could be another wire-to-wire game against a cellar-dweller. Still, even a banged-up Blazers squad should have enough talent to outclass the Lakers and if both Lillard and Aldridge have their offense clicking early tonight, Portland could scoop up the road victory on the second night of a back-to-back and get a couple days' rest before resuming play Wednesday night at home against the Clippers.

-- Chris Lucia | | Twitter

Sam Tongue's Key Matchup: