Los Angeles Lakers (11-23) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (26-8)
Monday, January 5
Moda Center; Portland, OR | 7:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: KGWHD; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: Robin Lopez, Joel Freeland | Out for the Lakers: Kobe Bryant, Wesley Johnson, Julius Randle, Steve Nash
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The Blazers host the Los Angeles Lakers tonight for the first time this season, though neither team is at full strength in this matchup of one of the Western Conference's best teams against one of the worst.
The Lakers took out the Pacers at home last night in an 88-87 squeaker. The cost, however, was the health of wing Wesley Johnson, who injured his hip in the win and won't be available tonight. Guard Kobe Bryant will sit tonight's game out to rest, part of a new minutes restriction from coach Byron Scott that is intended to reduce the wear-and-tear on the 36-year-old's body as he gingerly navigates through his nineteenth season in the league after injuries derailed his past two campaigns.
Los Angeles has played three games this year without Bryant, surprising the Warriors two days before Christmas with an unexpected win, then promptly dropping the next two games to the Bulls and Mavericks.
In those three recent contests without Bryant, however, Johnson led the Lakers in minutes per game and and field goal attempts. Now that he's out, though, Scott will have to dig deep into an already-thin roster to find replacements at both starting wing positions.
The Blazers are suffering through some injury issues of their own; Center Robin Lopez is out another few weeks, and big man Joel Freeland, who'd served as a replacement starter in the middle recently, re-aggravated an old injury to his right rotator cuff against the Hawks Saturday and will be out of action for at least two weeks.
Both teams will be operating at less-than full strength tonight, each coach forced into moving deep reserves up in the rotation and/or playing non-conventional lineups to make up for a lack of key personnel.
The Lakers are generally one of the worst all-around teams in the league this year, average in offensive efficiency but dead-last in the NBA in defensive efficiency, according to basketball-reference.com.
Los Angeles doesn't defend well within the arc and struggles to stop teams from scoring in the paint, on the fastbreak and around the perimeter. Ball movement comes very easy against the Lakers and they send opponents to the line often, rarely forcing turnovers.
Blazers coach Terry Stotts will be working out a shortened frontcourt rotation, and L.A. is as good a team as any to iron out the kinks against.
Portland's offense was playing well enough heading into the loss to Atlanta, and though 18 turnovers didn't help the Blazers' cause, it was ultimately defensive execution that did the team in. Over the last five games, Portland has scored plenty of points with solid ball movement, burying teams with an outside attack that's featured almost 36 three-point attempts a night in that span.
The Hawks countered the Blazers' outside shooting by pounding the ball inside, however, and Portland had no response. Now that Freeland is out the next 7-8 games, how will Stotts run his rotation?
Big man Meyers Leonard could start next to power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, but that wouldn't improve the Blazers' interior defense. Center Chris Kaman could get pushed into the starting lineup, but he's probably not capable of big minutes at his age and his scoring is an important weapon off the bench. Power forward Thomas Robinson could get the start at power forward, shifting Aldridge to center, but that would put a sizable burden on the three-time All-Star defensively and is likely only a stop-gap option. Forwards Dorell Wright and Victor Claver could play spurts at the four next to Aldridge or Kaman, but again, that's far from a long-term solution.
Essentially, Stotts will have to stagger the minutes of Aldridge, Kaman, Leonard, Robinson, Wright and Claver in the frontcourt in order to match up with opposing teams' bigs, while trying to maintain some semblance of a defensive presence down low.
Though Stotts may be forced into juggling his post rotation on the fly to stay afloat tonight, Scott and the Lakers also have two huge holes on the wing to fill and are presented with many similar problems. If forward Nick Young is thrust into the starting lineup tonight, L.A.'s biggest scoring threat off the bench becomes either point guard Jeremy Lin or power forward Carlos Boozer. Yikes.
Guard Wayne Ellington will almost certainly fill Bryant's vacated starting role on the wing. He's hit 41.7 percent of his threes this year with Bryant on the bench, also a capable finisher at the rim who should see an increase in shot attempts tonight.
On the other wing, Johnson's most suitable fill-in is Young, who's made almost half his threes without Bryant this season while struggling with his midrange jumper and rarely taking it all the way to the hole. Still, Scott will have to work with a wing rotation that has just one healthy off-guard and one healthy small forward. Other available backups are either too small to effectively play on the wing for more than a handful of minutes or too slow to defend quicker players.
Starting point guard Ronnie Price will see an increase in his shot attempts tonight, but he's more of a spot-up shooter and doesn't create much of his own offense. His outside shot has been more than reliable lately but that's been with Bryant on the floor -- without him, Price has struggled to hit from deep.
Starting big men Ed Davis and Jordan Hill should get a lot of looks tonight, particularly with Stotts operating with a patchwork rotation up front. Hill's been slumping the last five games, only hitting his inside shots while struggling with the midrange jumper he likes to go to fairly often. Davis scores well inside and goes hard at missed shots, creating second-chance points.
Boozer should get up a few more shot attempts than normal tonight. He splits his field goal tries about half-and-half between the paint and the midrange, and he's been a consistent scorer lately on both. In fact, he's made over half his shots this season and almost 60 percent of them the last five games. Like Davis and Hill, Boozer will likely be poised to score in the paint tonight.
Lin, who may end up the lead reserve off the bench for Scott, has gotten to the rim well lately while hitting his threes and doing a decent job of setting up teammates. Like Young, much of his offense comes off the dribble and the Blazers will have to keep an eye on both players around the perimeter tonight, as both players pull up fairly willingly from beyond the arc.
Bigs Robert Sacre and Ryan Kelly should see some time for L.A. at the end of the bench, but neither shoots often and may not be a factor offensively tonight, even against a depleted Portland frontcourt.
Lillard struggled with his shooting Saturday against the Hawks, though he did pass the ball well. Price and Lin shouldn't prevent Lillard from getting penetration tonight, and Boozer, Hill and Davis probably won't provide much defense at the rim. Watch for Lillard to take the ball to the hoop against one of the NBA's weakest interior defenses. He's also hit over 40 percent of his threes the last five games, and the Lakers struggle to defend the perimeter.
Aldridge, who torched Atlanta for 30 points on 14-for-25 shooting, has gone into the paint for half his shots the last couple weeks, effectively scoring inside as his jumper has been off-and-on. Unless the short-handed Blazers put the game out of reach early, expect fairly big minutes for Aldridge as he'll be needed just as much on the defensive end as he normally is on the offensive side.
Guard Wesley Matthews was 4-of-11 from deep against the Hawks Saturday, finishing with 19 points after hitting all five of his free throw tries. Matthews has been raining threes for Portland recently, scoring almost exclusively via assists, a product of Portland's great ball movement.
Forward Nicolas Batum has played himself back into shape offensively the last handful of games, finishing with a 7-for-13 line from the field Saturday to continue his improved shooting. He's made 55 percent of his shots the last couple weeks and 43.5 percent of his threes. Batum's assists are down and his turnovers are slightly up, but that appears to be the cost of him looking for his own offense more lately.
Robinson, Claver, Wright and Leonard should all see a spike in minutes tonight unless Stotts decides to shorten his rotation, which isn't altogether unlikely, either. Not one has consistently demonstrated a shooting ability recently that instills much confidence, but then again, none of the four is likely to be called upon to score much tonight.
Kaman should still factor heavily into Portland's production down low and from the midrange against L.A., but his offense has seen peaks and valleys recently as he shot just 1-for-4 against the Hawks Saturday after making four of his nine attempts against the Raptors last Tuesday. Kaman is seeing most of his looks right at the rim, but his turnovers have increased lately and he's not quite the potent scorer he was early on in the season. He should get all the minutes he can handle tonight, though, and may be motivated to play well against his former teammates.
Reserve guards Steve Blake, Allen Crabbe and CJ McCollum haven't been a huge part of Stotts' offense recently. Of the three, only McCollum has made more than 35 percent of his field goals the last five games and he didn't show a lot in limited time against Atlanta. Blake uncharacteristically turned the ball over three times in that contest, though he's usually a steadying hand off the bench and should be able to find open teammates against a porous Lakers defense.
Los Angeles is not a great rebounding team, getting crushed last night on the boards against Indiana, 37-50. Hill, Boozer and Davis are serviceable on the glass but are far from great. Unfortunately for the Blazers, they'll be without two of their most effective bodies down low -- Lopez and Freeland -- and will have to ride the efforts of Aldridge, Kaman and Robinson. All three are good on the defensive side, while Kaman should clean up his fair share of Portland misses on the offensive glass, replacing the efforts of the injured Freeland.
Realistically, the Lakers shouldn't be able to come into the Moda Center without Bryant and Johnson -- their two starters on the wings -- and put up much of a fight. Still, the Blazers will have to platoon the center position for the next couple weeks, balancing the defensive burden on Aldridge by rotating in Robinson, Kaman, Leonard, Wright and possibly Claver to suit specific matchups.
If L.A. figures out a way to score in the middle regularly tonight, Portland may find itself in a much closer game than originally anticipated. Consider, though, that the Blazers still have the offensive firepower -- and the Lakers are a bad enough defensive team -- to run them out of the gym if the shots are falling for Lillard, Aldridge & Co.
With the Clippers, Spurs and Grizzlies looming on Portland's schedule in the next 12 days, Stotts and the Blazers will have to use the next few games against weaker competition to tune up their injury-depleted frontcourt, so don't be surprised to see a few struggles -- particularly defensively -- as players get used to shifting their roles around.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter
Sam Tongue's New year's Resolutions for the Blazers: