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Trail Blazers vs. Lakers Preview: The Big Issue for Each Team

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The Blazers and Lakers each have a nightmare scenario going into their first-round matchup. We spell it out.

Portland Trail Blazers v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers will face the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1 of the 2020 NBA Playoffs series on Tuesday. Normally when the Blazers enter the playoffs, we do a huge statistical rundown of the teams involved, comparing likely advantages and disadvantages. 2020 isn’t quite the same. We’re hampered by three factors:

  1. With the return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins, the “Bubble Blazers” are wholly different than their prior regular-season selves. There’s no good way to get an overarching statistical look at them. Factoring in the whole season would imbalance the numbers towards the first 66 games, but the final 9 provide too small of a sample size to be meaningful.
  2. The Lakers were among the steadiest of teams during the first part of the season. We haven’t seen that team post-hiatus. The Bubble Lakers have fiddled with personnel, intensity, and execution, likely as a result of having nothing to play for since the return to Orlando.
  3. The game itself has changed in the Bubble. Pace, refereeing, homecourt advantage or lack thereof...this is likely to be an abnormal year.

With those caveats out of the way, we can still talk about how the Lakers were when they were on top of their game, compared to how the Blazers appear to be now. It’s reasonable to assume that Portland will try to uphold the style and level of play they’ve exhibited since their roster was restored in Orlando. It’s also reasonable to assume that, with the onset of the playoffs, the Lakers will wake up and return to their pre-bubble level of intensity...or at least try to.

L.A.’s core is made up of veterans, plus they field LeBron James. It’d be surprising to see them fall apart. What do they look like when they’re together, and what problems will Portland be likely to face?

The Essential Issue for the Blazers

Throughout Portland’s successful restart run, one issue has plagued them continually: three-point defense. It’s hard to overestimate how bad they’ve been.

Destroyed on the Outside

During Portland’s first game back from the break, the Memphis Grizzlies shot 31.7% from the arc against them. In their second game, the Boston Celtics shot 60.0%. Those are the outlying performances. Discarding those high and low efforts leaves the following results:

35.8%, 42.4%, 44.1%, 45.5%, 46.7%, 50.0%, 56.0%

The absolute worst three-point defense in the league this year belonged to the Golden State Warriors, who came in at 38.9%. Portland was 29th at 38.5%. Their numbers in Orlando far exceeded even their relatively-terrible precedent.

If the best three-point defense left you standing in the heart of downtown in a major city and average defense put you in the suburbs, the Blazers would be Grizzly Adams.

Saved Inside

Portland has been able to survive poor perimeter defense by scoring huge from the guard positions (with the occasional breakout from Carmelo Anthony and Jusuf Nurkic) and by treading water, at least, in the paint and on the boards.

The Blazers either functionally tied or won the rebounding battle in 6 of their 9 games in Orlando. They either functionally tied or won the points in the paint category in 7 of their 9 games.

Memphis gave Portland trouble in both categories. Factor out the two games against the Grizzlies and the numbers go to 6 of 7 games tied or won in both rebounding and paint scoring.

Against The Lakers

The Lakers are not a great three-point shooting squad. They ranked 22nd in the league this year, hitting 34.9% from the arc. They scored only 29.1% of their total points from distance, a Bottom-5 rate.

That doesn’t necessarily let the Blazers off the hook, though. The Nuggets, Grizzlies, Rockets, and Nets all hover near L.A.’s range for three-point accuracy. The Blazers still let them shoot an enormous percentage, getting burned just as badly by mediocre shooting teams as they did by Top 10 opponents.

L.A.’s starting guards, Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, are not bad from distance, at 36.7% and 38.5% respectively. [They’ve been horrible in the bubble, though, at 28% and 25%.] LeBron James shoots 34.8% himself. That’s on average. All will shoot better if given a steady diet of the “any NBA player should hit this” shots the Blazers are allowing.

But the real issue may not be distance shots alone. Against L.A., the Blazers cannot count on ending up even or better inside the way they have against so many bubble opponents.

James and Anthony Davis form the most formidable frontcourt duo in the league. The Blazers don’t have anyone who can stop either individually. They’d be ecstatic to take only a small production deficit against the pair instead of getting blown away.

For the season, the Lakers ranked 2nd in the NBA, with 52.8 points in the paint per game. They’re 4th in offensive rebounding percentage, 7th in defensive rebounding percentage. All of those numbers blow the Blazers out of the water.

Many teams are left with a choice between controlling the paint and guarding the arc. Portland might not be able to do either.

The Essential Issue for the Lakers

As always, the guards lead the attack for the Blazers. CJ McCollum is averaging 20.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 5.3 assists in the bubble. Damian Lillard far exceeds him at 31.0 points, 9.6 assists, and 4.3 rebounds.

Totaled, that’s 51.1 points, 14.9 assists, and 9.7 rebounds out of Portland’s starting guards since they hit Orlando. Both are playing big minutes without seeming wear. Both are shooting well inside and out. There’s nothing not to like here.

By comparison, L.A.’s starting backcourt has averaged just 13.9 points combined. That’s like, half of a McCollum.

On paper, the backcourt matchup should be a huge blowout for Portland.

The caution here is that both L.A. guards are veteran enough to defend Lillard and McCollum without getting overwhelmed. Plus the Lakers have Davis and James in wait to help. They’ll not be afraid to leave Zach Collins under any conditions, nor any substitute should Collins not play. Even Carmelo Anthony might get a bit of a free pass if it means trapping the guards.

This is not 2018. Both Lillard and McCollum will be ready for the defense that’s going to be thrown at them. Nurkic is playing better than he was when Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans gave the Blazers fits and ousted them from the postseason using a trapping scheme. Anthony and Gary Trent Jr. are bigger offensive threats than anybody the Blazers fielded back then.

So far, the Blazers have been able to score huge against every opponent they’ve come up against in Orlando. If the Lakers cannot put a stop to that—which means keying in on, and slowing, Lillard and McCollum—then Portland will continue to keep games close. Any win that comes down to a couple final possessions is essentially a coin flip.

If Portland scores 102 or below per game, they’re probably doomed. Any game the Blazers approach 120, they also have a chance to win, regardless of opponent. That includes the Lakers.

The Blazers have scored that high in 8 of their 9 bubble games. For that reason, you can’t count them out entirely. If it comes down to a puncher’s chance, the Blazers have plenty of punch.

The Difference

The difference between the two potential advantages is clear. The Lakers’ strengths exist as part of their bedrock identity, as does Portland weakness in combating them. Portland’s defensive issues are well-chronicled and persistent. Seeing them overcome them would be a major change. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are the best of the best in the NBA. Seeing them show up as anything less would be a surprise.

Portland’s guard superiority is also foundational, but their systemic production isn’t. The Blazers always have a backcourt advantage over the Lakers. It’s nearly unimaginable that Green-Pope and Lillard-McCollum would play at the same level. That doesn’t necessarily mean Portland will always score 120 against L.A., or any team.

Portland has a chance to win any given game, and thus the series. The Lakers still have the edge, though, Portland could win; L.A. will be expected to.

Next: Other factors that could influence the series.