Portland Trail Blazers (48-26, No. 4 in the West) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (20-54, No. 14 in the West)
Friday, April 3
Staples Center; Los Angeles, CA | 7:30 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNWHD, ESPN; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: | Out for the Lakers: Kobe Bryant, Julius Randle, Ronnie Price, Nick Young, Wayne Ellington
SBN Affiliate: Silver Screen & Roll | Timmay's Viewing Guide
The Blazers head to Los Angeles tonight to face the Lakers for the fourth and final time this season. Portland leads the season series between the two teams, 3-0.
L.A.'s usual spring routine of gearing up for the playoffs has shifted the last few years to anticipation of the NBA Draft Lottery, salivating over potential top-5 picks and hoping upon hope that the Lakers' hodge-podge of fringe-NBA talent loses more games than it wins down the stretch.
Of course, Los Angeles' first round draft pick this year is owed to the Phoenix Suns if it falls outside of the top-5, per terms of the 2012 Steve Nash trade. With the Lakers in a tight race with the Timberwolves, Sixers and Magic for the league's worst record this season, expect them to come out motivated to lose tonight -- or rather, expect their fans to lament any effort toward victory.
If L.A. plans on piling more losses this season, Andy Kamenetzky of Lakers Nation says the team has hired and stuck with the right coach for the job:
[Lakers coach Byron] Scott appears to disdain anything that melds progressive thinking and hoops. He’s openly disdainful toward analytics. He insisted three-pointers don’t win championships, despite serious evidence to the contrary. There’s the disinclination to establish games through the use of pick-and-roll, which happens to double as [point guard Jeremy] Lin’s specialty. To say the least, the NBA has become a pick-and-roll dominated league, but Scott’s basketball universe still revolves around iso, postups, long two’s, and this particular season, Kobe.
Scott’s explanation that pick-and-roll encourages "standing around" is confusing on its best day. (I’ve rarely seen less ball and player movement than whatever the hell system the Lakers ran this season.)
Los Angeles has lost three of its last five games, the only two wins coming by two points each in overtime against the 'Wolves and Sixers. In that span, the Lakers rank No. 20 in the NBA in points scored per game (97.6), No. 23 in field goal percentage (43.3 percent) and No. 22 in three-point shooting percentage (31.6 percent). They're ball movement is average -- thanks in large part to the emergence of rookie point guard Jordan Clarkson -- and they are decent at getting to the free throw line. Los Angeles doesn't have as much of an issue with turnovers as you might expect, all things considered, but playing at one of the league's slowest and deliberate paces may be a contributing factor.
The Lakers give up a ton of points and assists, have trouble defending within the perimeter and foul often. Lately, they've actually been mediocre at defending the three-point line -- a sizable improvement in that area of the game.
Guard Wayne Ellington had been leading L.A. in field goal attempts per game the last couple weeks, but he separated his shoulder in a loss to the Pelicans on Monday and has been ruled out for the season.
Scott opts to start two point guards -- Lin and Clarkson -- alongside forwards Wesley Johnson, Tarik Black and Ryan Kelly. The bench rotation consists of forward Carlos Boozer, center Jordan Hill and guard Jabari Brown. With Ellington injured, either forward Ed Davis or center Robert Sacre could get promoted back into the regular rotation after missing Wednesday's game with DNP-CDs.
Clarkson has been on a tear the last five games, averaging 19.2 points, 6.6 assists and 5.6 rebounds (two of them offensive) while shooting 51.5 percent from the floor. He's not much of a three-point shooter yet, but the second-round draft pick goes to the rim hard and is a solid finisher among the trees. Clarkson also has a functional midrange game, which he goes to fairly often. Lin is the other weapon in Scott's two-pronged point guard attack, though he's struggled recently with his shooting from everywhere on the floor except for right at the hoop, where he's converted a decent 56.3 percent of his attempts the last handful of games. Both players in L.A.'s starting backcourt draw shooting fouls fairly well with their respective abilities to get to the basket.
Hill comes off the bench, but don't be surprised to see him leading the team in field goal attempts tonight. He's put up about a dozen shots a game the last five at a 45.7 percent clip, occasionally stepping out into the midrange -- where he's somewhat ineffective -- but doing most of his damage in the paint. Hill is most useful as a rebounder, especially on the offensive end, and gets a lot of his looks by grabbing his teammates' misses (of which they provide many).
Johnson's made about a third of his shots the last couple weeks, struggling particularly with his jumper. Boozer's only played one game in the last five, scoring four points on 2-of-9 shooting Wednesday against New Orleans. Kelly and Brown play big minutes and get up about eight shots a piece, but both have struggled inside the arc lately. Brown has hit 50 percent of his threes the last five games, however. Davis and Black are both good scorers inside in limited attempts and very rarely venture outside of the paint. Sacre is most useful as a hype-man on the end of the pine.
The Blazers come into tonight's contest following a 126-122 loss to the Clippers at home that featured a blown 19-point first half lead for Portland, over 50 percent shooting by both teams from the field and from outside, a whole host of jump shots by both squads, an accidental tap to the nards of Blazers center Chris Kaman by Clippers guard Chris Paul and the subsequent retaliation and finally, a 41-point fourth quarter by L.A. that buried Portland for good. The loss put the Blazers a full game behind the Clips in the Western Conference standings and delivered to L.A. the head-to-head tie-breaker outright with a 3-1 record this year against Portland.
The offense has been (mostly) flowing for the Blazers lately, as they come into tonight's matchup with the No. 6 Offensive Rating in the NBA the last five games, according to NBA.com. They're shooting well from the field and serviceable from deep, but the ball movement and rate at which they draw free throws both have room for improvement heading into the postseason.
Portland's defense has been less than stellar the last few weeks. The Blazers allowed the Clippers 126 points, 30 assists on 46 made field goals, 53.5 percent shooting from the field and 53.6 percent shooting from outside while forcing L.A. into only six turnovers.
Blame it on the loss of guard Wesley Matthews, point guard Damian Lillard's individual defense, nagging injuries to forward Nicolas Batum and center Chris Kaman, forward LaMarcus Aldridge's sore thumb or any other number of random factors. The truth is that Portland's defense, while definitely overstated by some, needs to make improvements heading into the postseason.
Offensively, Aldridge continues to carry the team. Not much more needs to be said at this point about how well he's playing, especially through injury. Aldridge has averaged 24.8 points per game the last five on 49 percent shooting while drawing over six free throws a game. He's relied on his jumper a bit more as the season has worn on, but if last spring's playoff matchup with the Rockets was any indication, he'll be back to banging inside more often in time for the playoffs.
Lillard fought through Paul's pesky defense on Wednesday night to shoot 7-of-14 from the field while picking up 10 assists. He also hit half of his six threes. If you're hoping to see a big game out of Portland's third-year, two-time All-Star guard, you'll be happy to read his averages in three games this year against the Lakers: 29.8 points, 6.7 assists, 3.3 rebounds, 7.7 free throws attempted, 57.7 percent field goal shooting and 42.1 percent three-point shooting.
Both Batum and guard Arron Afflalo had solid games Wednesday against the Clips, combining to shoot 13-of-22 from the field and 7-of-10 from deep. Batum has made a staggering 59.1 percent of his threes the last five games.
Center Robin Lopez went just 3-of-9 for seven points against Los Angeles a couple days ago, but he's made 51.5 percent of his shots the last five games and the Lakers offer little defense down low. Kaman has converted 54.5 percent of his shots in that span but also had a quiet night against L.A. (in terms of offense), finishing with eight points on 3-of-6 shooting.
Portland's bench took a major ding on Wednesday when forward Dorell Wright went down with a broken hand. His long-term status is up in the air, but he'll definitely sit out tonight's contest. Coach Terry Stotts had been using Wright as both a small forward and stretch-four in recent weeks, which would indicate his playing time may be distributed among multiple players. Guard CJ McCollum has already seen an increase in minutes lately, and has responded by hitting over half his field goals and 41.7 percent of his threes the last five games off the bench. Look for more scoring opportunities for him now that Wright's out, who was second among reserves in field goal attempts behind Kaman the last couple weeks.
Wing Allen Crabbe, guard Alonzo Gee, forward/center Meyers Leonard and big man Joel Freeland could all be in line for the minutes Wright will be leaving on the table. Of the four, only Freeland has been in Stotts' rotation lately. Point guard Steve Blake remains one of the first players off the bench.
The Blazers have been a good defensive rebounding team and decent on the other side of the ball the last few weeks. Kaman and Lopez have both stepped up from the center position, especially offensively. Aldridge generally gets his boards on the defensive side. Hill and Davis are both solid on the offensive end for the Lakers, but the team is fairly average at rebounding, otherwise. If Portland's rebounders can handle the scrappiness of L.A.'s frontcourt, they should be able to perform well on the glass tonight behind superior talent and execution.
The Blazers have just eight more regular season games remaining before heading into the playoffs. Games against the Lakers, Nets and Timberwolves are the most winnable down the stretch as Portland hopes to carry some momentum into the postseason. If the Blazers are serious about taking care of business this spring, they'll use tonight's game as an opportunity to show that they won't let Wednesday's late-game meltdown against the Clippers carry over. As much as Lakers fans want their team to lose, however, L.A. doesn't just roll over for opponents and the effort is still there, so Portland will still have to execute on both sides to escape Los Angeles with a victory and head home for a date with the Pelicans on Saturday.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter