Sunday, November 22
Staples Center | 6:30 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNW; 620 AM
Portland injury report: Meyers Leonard (Out) | Los Angeles injury report: None
Behind Damian Lillard’s marksmanship during "Lillard Time," as well as a huge performance from their frontcourt, Portland beat the other (much better) team from L.A. on Friday night. Tonight, they take on a team that, much like themselves, is a developmental lab for young talent. They also have Kobe Bryant thrashing about, fighting against the dying of the light.
Bryant leads the team in shots per game (16) and points per game (16.1) but is hitting at only a 34 percent clip. Worse, he’s only sinking 21.5 percent of his 3-pointers, while hoisting up a career-high 7.2 per game. It really is about time for him to step aside for benefit of the next generation, whose talents are at various levels of readiness.
Jordan Clarkson (15.5 points per game) is a ready-for-prime-time offensive wizard-apprentice, showing range (43.9 percent from three), explosion to the rim, and an impressive ability to improvise and score from just about anywhere. Julius Randle (11.1 points per game, 8.4 rebounds) is making some really nice strides in his sophomore campaign after missing all but last year’s opener with a broken leg, although he is not yet a consistent option offensively (only 43.6 percent shooting). Rookie combo point guard and second pick of the draft D'Angelo Russell has a bright future ahead of him, but at 19 years old has a lot of work to do in order to play up to the pro game. The lightning-quick changes of dribble direction by the 6-foot-5 Russell have helped him to 10.2 points per game, but he's only dishing out 2.7 assists and has yet to consistently find the outside shot which impressed at Ohio State, although he is coming off arguably his best game as a pro against Toronto. There is also rookie PF Larry Nance Jr., who has flashed some potential along with his size and athleticism, which has quickly earned him a rotation spot.
The Lakers have plenty of veteran filler, and coach Byron Scott (likewise veteran filler) is clearly groping for rotations, as 13 players are currently averaging at least 11.3 minutes per game. The free-swinging and always entertaining Swaggy P (aka Nick Young) has seen his minutes drop but his efficiency increase, while reigning NBA Sixth-Man Of the Year "Sweet" Lou Williams was brought in as a free agent scorer but has struggled his way to 32.8 percent shooting from the field. Roy Hibbert, Metta World Peace and Brandon Bass have been similarly unimpressive. Serviceable youth Tarik Black and Ryan Kelly round out the roster players of note.
The team is at its best in transition and on secondary breaks, using their youth and athleticism to cut through the chaos, or when utilizing pick-and-rolls. Their base half-court approach is a toothless motion offense with little movement, usually devolving into isolation play—basically resembling a disorganized and uninspired pick-up game. As you would expect from a young team, defense is not their thing, as they are No. 28 in the league in defensive rating. Hibbert is their only identifiable defender (thusly having the team’s highest Player Efficiency Rating), with World Peace generally being too old to be a consistent stopper. So yeah, one-and-a-half defenders on a team = not enough.
Many people are confused as to why Byron Scott is the head coach. Even those who understand he is a pretty good choice if you want to tank (since his strategies, in-game work, and grasp on the modern game are weak at best) openly question his draconian practices that are considered borderline health risks, his ability to develop young players (i.e., Russell wasn’t playing fourth quarters until recently, with no explanation why), and heavy play of the aging and oft-injured Bryant (36 and 37 minutes in each of his last two appearances, both blowouts). How long he stays in this position may be a good barometer of how committed the Lakers are to keeping their top-3 protected pick this year.
What the Blazers need to do to win
Get back on D and force the Lakers into their half-court offense: As outlined above, the Lakers’ half-court sets are generally pretty poor, and they get 30.5 percent of their shots up before nine seconds have come off the shot clock. You have to watch out for Clarkson/Russell and Randle/Nance getting together on pick-and-roll excitement going toward the rim, but if you manage to stay in front of that well enough, you’re likely to coax a low-percentage heave late in the shot clock.
Exploit D'Angelo Russell on defense: The youngster is definitely trying to find his footing (literally) and struggling mightily on the defensive side, although his straight-line speed does help him recover some. Whether the Blazers’ best player in Lillard gets this tasty matchup, or it gets switched off onto C.J. McCollum, it could be a scoring bonanza for whomever gets marked by the rookie. However, this focus shouldn’t come at the expense of…
Keeping the bigs involved: The Blazers have often looked their worst when their explosive young guards have reverted to lots of dribbling and low court awareness with their mind made up to score the ball. While that approach certainly may work against the Lakers, a much surer thing and better approach to team-building would be to share the rock and hopefully consolidate the most recent strong performance by Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis. Plumlee has a distinct athletic advantage over Hibbert and a height advantage over everyone else, while Davis has a reason to come out hard tonight against his former mates, and should probably be considered the most offensively-skilled big on the floor. Getting the ball inside should also draw defensive attention which could lead Portland to…
Hit open threes: A year ago Byron Scott stated that "I don’t believe (3-pointers) win championships," flying in the face of all logic and basically offering an affront to the concept of evidence. Of course, seven of the last nine NBA champions led all playoff teams in 3-point attempts and makes (The Warriors actually finished second in makes last year behind the Rockets, who took 463 more attempts). Under Scott’s insistence that they limit 3-point attempts, the Lakers finished No. 25 last year in both makes and takes from distance. This year, he has taken his theory to the next level by refusing to acknowledge the three on defense.
According to Silver Screen and Roll, as well as the eye test, the Lakers simply do not cover long-range shooters very often, but somehow opponents have only hit 32.7 percent of their 3-point shots against them. Basically, if the Blazers hit at a reasonable rate on their open threes (which we may assume there will be a lot of), they should be in good shape. On the season, Portland is about middle of the pack on smacking down open threes, hitting at 35.3 percent when a defender is 4+ feet away.
This could be an entertaining barn-burner with a lot of offense and not much defense, or could turn just plain sloppy based on some of the performances by each side so far this year. Even though they’re on the road, the Blazers should be favored here (Vegas agrees, at -3), as more of their young core is further along in its development, and has shown a much greater cohesiveness and sense of scheme than these Lakers. So show up for the bright young stars, but stay around for the win (if that’s your kind of thing).