vs. Portland Trail Blazers (35-17, No. 4 in the West)
Wednesday, February 11
Moda Center; Portland, OR | 7:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: KGWHD; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: | Out for the Lakers: Jordan Hill, Kobe Bryant, Julius Randle, Steve Nash
SBN Affiliate: Silver Screen & Roll | Timmay's Viewing Guide | Blazer's Edge Night
The Blazers play the Los Angeles Lakers for the third time this season tonight at the Moda Center before heading into the NBA All-Star break.
The Lakers hosted the Denver Nuggets last night in a game that featured two of the West's cellar-dwellars -- both L.A. and the Nuggets had won just a single game in their last 14 heading into the contest. Los Angeles lost, 106-96, and comes into tonight's meeting with Portland on a five-game losing streak.
L.A. has scored a decent amount of points lately, but that's come on 41.5 percent shooting from the field the last five games, good for No. 28 in the NBA in that span. The Lakers are average at ball movement, don't turn it over particularly often and have hit the outside shot with surprising regularity lately.
Still, though, L.A. is one of the worst teams in the league this year, and it's due in large part to a horrible defense. The Lakers are near the bottom of the league in Defensive Rating, giving up over 109 points a game the last couple weeks, up from 106.3 per game for the season. They're terrible at forcing turnovers and can't defend the paint, the perimeter or in transition.
Los Angeles, at 13-39 and No. 14 in the West, has fans talking about tanking for a better draft pick this spring instead of thinking playoffs.
Swaggy P is sad, Coach Byron Scott is calling his team "soft" and Lakers bloggers are defending role-players like forward Wesley Johnson against perceived slights from national writers.
Yes, the dislike of L.A. runs pretty deep with fans in Portland; Long-timers remember Clyde Drexler and the Blazers struggling with Magic Johnson's Showtime Lakers in the late-80s and early-90s and a string of first-round exits at the hands of L.A. for much of the mid-to-late-90s. Younger fans lament the 2000 Western Conference Finals.
Others don't like the Lakers due to the nature of their fanbase, approach to free agency or, simply, a disdain of Kobe Bryant, the face of the franchise for over a decade.
But do the Lakers deserve your sympathy this year?
Before the season started, L.A. was supposed to boast a starting five of guards Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant, along with Xavier Henry, Carlos Boozer and Jordan Hill in the frontcourt. The Bench rotation was to feature the likes of point guard Jeremy Lin, wings Wayne Ellington and Nick Young, forward Ryan Kelly, center Ed Davis and lottery-pick Julius Randle.
Injuries shelved Nash before the season even started, wore down Bryant before February and put Randle on the IR 14 minutes into his NBA debut. The Lakers now start Kelly and Ellington beside center Robert Sacre, forward Tarik Black -- an undrafted rookie who was claimed off waivers in December -- and Jordan Clarkson, the No. 46 pick in the second round of last spring's draft.
These injuries have ravaged L.A.'s roster, and any dreams that Bryant and Lakers fans had of the playoffs -- however delusional -- have dried up. Much of the focus on Los Angeles' play on the court this season has transitioned into evaluating the team's young talent, scouring potential lottery targets and hoping that the Lakers' 2015 first round pick ends up in the top-five.
That's right, L.A. may not even benefit from all its suffering if the team doesn't end up with a top-five selection in the draft, as its first-rounder this year is only top-five protected and will go to Phoenix if it lands at No. 6 or worse, per terms of the Nash trade from a couple summers ago.
Boozer, coming off the bench, has been leading the Lakers in field goal attempts the last several games. Last night against Denver, he scored 21 points on 8-for-15 shooting. Over the last five games, Boozer's nailed over half his shots, many of them coming at the rim where he's finished well in that span. He does, however, go to his jumper fairly often, which has been pretty underwhelming lately.
Ellington's been playing a ton of minutes as the starting unit's "veteran leader." He's been missing a lot of shots at the rim and from beyond the arc recently, but 52.6 percent on his midrange jumpers the last five games has kept him afloat. Ellington had a pretty big game last night, scoring 18 points on 8-for-13 shooting from the field and 2-for-5 shooting from downtown.
Outside of Boozer and Ellington, the Lakers have been inconsistent lately. Clarkson, Lin and Johnson have all been solid from deep, but are shooting poorly from the floor, otherwise. Davis and Black have shot well close to the hoop in limited attempts. Sacre often drifts out to the midrange, an okay jumpshooter with little touch inside. Young has been abysmal lately, his shooting woes continuing last night as he went 4-for-13 from the field.
L.A. plays at one of the slowest paces in the league, with much of their scoring coming off the dribble. The Lakers are playing like a team headed for the lottery, with little cohesion on the floor as the losses pile up.
Portland has been pretty average at scoring the last several games, with assists down and turnovers up. The shots aren't falling with consistency from anywhere on the court, though the team is drawing a lot of free throws.
The Blazers are getting pretty good performances from their stars, with power forward LaMarcus Aldridge averaging 21.6 point per game over the last five, connecting on 54.1 percent of his midrange jumpers. The three-pointer has abandoned Aldridge lately, but he rarely takes it. His scoring in the paint has dipped a little, too, but Sacre, Black, Boozer and Davis form one of the least-imposing big man rotations in the NBA, so Aldridge should certainly get his looks tonight. He hasn't really had a big night in two wins over the Lakers so far this year, but he hasn't been needed much, either, as point guard Damian Lillard played lead in both contests.
Lillard dropped 39 points on L.A. just over a month ago on 12-for-21 shooting, then followed that performance up less than a week later with 34 points on 13-for 23 shooting against Los Angeles.
That second matchup with the Lakers also brought this from Lillard:
Lillard's posterization of L.A. finished the Lakers off for good that game, as they had hung around all night and were within striking distance of Portland up until that point. The Blazers finished off Los Angeles, 106-94.
Lillard, who's had some shooting struggles of his own recently, hit six of his 10 shots and 10 of his 11 free throws against the Rockets Sunday night. Still, he made only a third of his threes in Dallas and Houston and hasn't gotten back to the solid outside shooting he displayed for much of the early season. L.A.'s backcourt should help with that.
Guard Wesley Matthews picked his spots against Houston, putting up nine shots and making only two of them. Outside of the Rockets game, though, he's been reliable from outside. Matthews also continues to refine his post game, where he's able to back down smaller guards and either hit the turnaround jumper or pass out to an open man when help comes.
Wing Nicolas Batum was pretty quiet in Dallas and Houston following a good night in Phoenix. He just can't seem to string together solid shooting outings, but Batum continues to be active on the boards and in setting up his teammates, with much credit given to center Robin Lopez' return to the lineup. In four games since coming back from injury, Lopez has changed the dynamics of Portland's offense, providing spacing for his teammates. He's also made 61.8 percent of his field goals in that span, a reliable option down low.
Big man Meyers Leonard and guard CJ McCollum have burst onto the scene lately as scorers off the bench in Portland coach Terry Stotts' offense. Leonard drags his defender out and often gets wide-open looks from the perimeter, popping off his screens instead of rolling to the hoop. He also provided the scoring spark the Blazers needed Sunday night when the Rockets made a late push. Leonard's confidence with the ball, screen-setting and understanding of spacing have all blossomed the last several games and he has, for now, earned a spot in Stotts' frontcourt rotation. McCollum has shown lately that he can come off the bench and also provide instant offense, driving to the rim with success and hitting open outside shots. Like Leonard, he's playing with confidence in himself and it shows.
Center Chris Kaman seems to have hit a wall offensively, injuries and age the likely culprits. The luster has worn off the low-post moves that bruised opposing reserves so often early in the season, and he's barely stepping out for jumpers. He played just 14 minutes and attempted 2 shots against the Rockets. Kaman won't play tonight due to an ankle sprain.
Point guard Steve Blake has distributed well off the bench, even as inconsistency has plagued his shooting. Wing Will Barton brings up the rear of Stotts' rotation. Forwards Thomas Robinson, Dorell Wright and Allen Crabbe haven't played significant minutes in a number of games.
Portland's defense has managed to bottle opponents up the last few games, for the most part. The Blazers held the Suns to 87 points last Thursday and the Rockets to just 98 on Sunday, both well below the averages of those teams. The Mavericks had just 96 points through regulation on Saturday night and needed a 13-point fourth quarter by Portland to steal the overtime win. Lopez' presence down low has really been the difference for the Blazers, as the perimeter defenders have a true rim protector behind them.
The Lakers have actually been among the better rebounding teams in the league lately, particularly on the offensive end. Davis, Sacre and Boozer all get second-chance looks and put-backs from grabbing their team's misses and going back up with the ball. Black is a good individual rebounder, as well. Portland snares a ton of rebounds, and the team's efforts on the defensive glass will be needed tonight. The Mavs picked up 20 offensive rebounds and Houston picked up 15 of its own, so the Blazers will have to put an emphasis on ending Los Angeles' possessions early tonight to prevent extra opportunities.
The Lakers seem like an easy matchup for Portland on paper and, really, they shouldn't be considered a huge threat to pull off the upset tonight at the Moda Center. Still, L.A. managed to keep both previous matchups with the Blazers fairly close until the closing minutes when Lillard flipped the switch. If Portland can come out tonight with energy and build a lead early, the injury-depleted Lakers, coming off a game last night, probably don't have the horses to keep the game close. That said, Los Angeles is a young team that features plenty of streaky shooters, and if they can also get some easy points on second-chance opportunities, the Lakers could again be in this game until the final minutes.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter
Note: This preview was started with last night's Nuggets-Lakers game in progress, and all cumulative stats reflect the previous five games.