In just a few hours, the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers will face off in the first round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs. As you prepare for the series, here are five questions posed to the staff at Blazer’s Edge regarding trends, advantages, and how “real” the Lakers will end up being. Enjoy!
Everybody knows Damian Lillard is the greatest hope for the Trail Blazers in any and all situations. Other than Lillard, what is the single greatest potential advantage (or hope) the Blazers have in this series?
Dia (@diandraann): They want It. I know every team does, but there’s something about the Blazers desire to win. It’s unmatched in my opinion. You can’t out-heart these guys.
Adrian Bernecich (@abernecich): Jusuf Nurkic. Winning the first play-in game was crucial for Nurk, who looks tired and with the tragic passing of his grandmother, needs a break. With his playmaking, improved shooting, defense and general court nose, he will be key to Portland’s chances.
Kyle Garcia (@_kyle_garcia): Jusuf Nurkic feels like the obvious answer here. As he’s shown in the seeding games, he brings versatility on offense and necessary rim protection on defense, which will be key against a Lakers team that doesn’t make it rain from three. His play will be more important than ever in this series.
L. Hostetler (@corvallisonian): Gary Trent Jr. He’s doing it all on both ends of the court and showing great potential as the 3-and-D wing that the Blazers need him to be. He’s already shown enormous breakout potential. I hope he continues on his upward trajectory.
Nate Mann (nate_mann13): Energy and urgency. The Blazers just played nine win-or-go-home type games to get here, so their level of play already has the requisite playoff urgency. The Lakers, on the other hand, coasted through the seeding games and have more energy but less urgency. Portland needs to maintain their sense of urgency while matching LA’s energy right off the bat.
Ryne Buchanan (@ryne_buchanan) I think the fact that there is no real home court advantage is a huge boost for not only the Blazers, but any of the lower seeded teams. In addition, all of the pressure will be one the Lakers. They’re supposed to win. Portland has thrived in the underdog role in the past, and certainly plays the part here.
Miles Custis (@MilesCustis) CJ McCollum. McCollum showed down the stretch of the play-in game against Memphis that he is more than capable of handling the scoring load if a team puts all their defensive energy into stopping Lillard. He did the same thing in game seven against Denver last year. Do the Lakers have enough perimeter defenders to slow down both Dame and CJ?
Isaiah De Los Santos (@IsaiahDeLos) I like the Blazers’ non-Lillard/McCollum supporting cast over the Lakers’ non-LeBron/AD reinforcements. I’m not overly scared of Danny Green, Kyle Kuzma, Dwight Howard, etc. having a big game each night. However, L.A. has to plan for Jusuf Nurkic, Carmelo Anthony and Gary Trent Jr. each providing their own problems on a night-to-night basis. I think Portland has more bankable production outside of their two mainstays, even if they don’t have as much depth.
Ryan A. Sterling: The guard position, easily. The Lakers usually use a large lineup with LeBron James at point guard, and the combo of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, and Quinn Cook do not exactly scare me. Gary Trent Jr. and his defense will be a huge factor, and if Anfernee Simons can get engaged and force the Lakers to vacate the paint to stop the threes from raining, the Blazers will be in good shape.
What single factor for the Lakers scares you most? What will the Blazers have the hardest time overcoming?
Dia: Defense. It’s where we have struggled all year, and the Lakers defense has been solid. We are going to have to do more than just try to outscore.
Adrian: LeBron James, not just for the things he does but the things he is expected to do. Drawing as much attention as he does, he creates sleight of hand opportunities for other Lakers, particularly Anthony Davis.
Kyle: This team gives up almost a guaranteed 120 points per game regardless of who they’re playing. What exactly is the plan for at least slowing down LeBron James and Anthony Davis? If we can’t slow down Josh Richardson or Caris LeVert (although both are fine players), those other two seem nearly impossible to stop.
L.: Anthony Davis. We’re going to have a really difficult time defending his length unless Zach Collins (and his ankle) gets it together. Hassan Whiteside doesn’t have the speed or basketball IQ to guard someone like Davis effectively. Nurkic has been fleet-footed in his recent games, so he stands a better chance. Nurkic also has a chippiness to his play that serves him well here.
Nate: LeBron James. He’s still the best player in the world, and Portland has no one who can remotely match up to him. Not to mention, he doesn’t seem capable of losing until at least the Finals in recent history.
Ryne: The health of Collins is going to be a major factor. Despite his struggles offensively and with foul trouble, his defensive prowess is absolutely crucial. If he’s unable to go, or is compromised, an already shaky defense will be decidedly worse.
Miles: LeBron James. Portland at least has plenty of bigs to throw at Anthony Davis. With no Trevor Ariza or Rodney Hood, I’m not sure how they can slow down a focused LeBron James. I’m concerned with all the focus on how great Lillard has been in Orlando that LeBron will want to come out and remind the everyone that he’s still the best player in the NBA.
Isaiah: The fact that national basketball media is even talking about this matchup’s upset potential. I’m sure LeBron and AD are eating it all up and using it as motivation to make a statement in the first round.
Ryan S: I hate to go all “Leader in Sports” here, but it has to be the LeBron James factor. His strength on drives is still unreal even into his 30s, he can shoot from almost anywhere, and he draws referee attention like few others in NBA history. He is the complete package, and even worse for the Blazers, they do not have a player with the combo of size and speed to guard him. Damian and CJ have no chance, Trent is undersized, Collins is out, and Nurkic needs to be glued to Anthony Davis. Carmelo Anthony may be the best shot, but it is hard to imagine Anthony keeping his fellow 2003 NBA Draft pick contained for long.
What Lakers factor do you think is the most overrated? Is there anything the Lakers are known for that you don’t fear in this series?
Dia: I just don’t think they are the end all be all. People seem to have them on this pedestal, and as we have seen in their time in the bubble, while they have a lot of star power and potential, they don’t always live up to It.
Adrian: From what we’ve seen in the seeding games, the Lakers can fall apart above the shoulders. Clearly there’s something not clicking at the moment and if the Blazers can expose this, then they may have a chance.
Kyle: The Lakers have a dazzling defense, but for some reason I’m not as scared of it as I should be. I think that’s because we’ve seen Lillard demolish whatever defense teams put in front of him, and having Nurkic back in the lineup opens so much up for Portland that I think they can handle it.
L.: LeBron James has admitted to struggling to adjust in the bubble. His mentality and leadership mean a lot on this Lakers squad, and if James cannot get in the right head space to succeed in the playoffs, the Lakers are toast. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are ready to exploit any weakness they perceive in their opponents.
Nate: The Lakers finished with the third-best defensive rating in the league. But without Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo, it’ll be hard for their other guard defenders to handle Portland’s backcourt. The Blazers rely on outshooting their opponents, and despite LA’s strong regular season defense, I think games might turn into shootouts (which favors the Blazers).
Ryne: While the Lakers were clearly the best team during the (actual) regular season, this is a far cry from the top seeds we’ve seen in the past few years with the Warriors dynasty. I don’t think there’s a significant difference among any of the Western playoff teams.
Miles: While they have some veteran playoff performers, this will be the first playoff series for this Lakers team. The Blazers should have the advantage in chemistry with a more established rotation and everyone knowing their role.
Isaiah: That they’re the clear-cut top contender in the West. Even if that was true during the regular season, the bubble is an entirely new environment, and one they’ve struggled in while Portland has embraced the do-or-die stakes.
Ryan S: It has to be Anthony Davis and the supposed invincibility he gives the Lakers in the paint with James and Kyle Kuzma. He is banged up, and is not the same force in the paint he was in New Orleans. A lot of that is the Lakers system, and how it runs through James, but it is hard to look at this Anthony Davis and see the pillar of terror that made Blazer fans cry.
How much do you think L.A.’s so-so play in the bubble will be a factor? Are they legitimately struggling or do you expect them to just turn it on now that the games matter?
Dia: I think they’re legitimately struggling. They may rise to the occasion now that games matter for them, but I think we will continue to see a less than cohesive team.
Adrian: Never underestimate LeBron James and Anthony Davis. I’ve no doubt they’ll lift, but to what degree? And when does Rajon Rondo return? Danny Green’s Jekyll and Hyde shooting will also be a major factor.
Kyle: I think the moment they locked in the top seed they just checked out. That’s always been the MO of LeBron-led teams. Now they have something to play for, and while I wouldn’t be surprised if Dame and company catch them off-guard once or twice, LA will turn up the heat.
L.: I think they are legitimately struggling to find their identity within the bubble. That said, the combination of LeBron James and Anthony Davis is deadly. The Blazers cannot let their guard down despite the Lakers’ up-and-down play.
Nate: I expect LA to turn it on because Lillard’s play has everyone’s attention. Teams can’t not take him seriously. That being said, Portland could catch them by surprise the first game or two by treating it like a do-or-die situation. LeBron-led teams know how to conserve energy, and the Lakers might feel like they can coast through this matchup to prepare for the WCF and beyond.
Ryne: I think it’s been a bit overblown, they’ve had almost nothing to play for in the last eight games—wrapping up the top seed early on. I fully expect LeBron and co. to be in playoff mode come Tuesday. He’s literally never lost in the first round.
Miles: I’m not putting any stock in their bubble play. Portland played every game in Orlando as if it was a must win while the Lakers clinched the top seed early. I worry more about the Blazers being worn out after a challenging few weeks while the Lakers are rested and ready to ramp up their play.
Isaiah: Now that they have something to play for, I’m fully expecting LeBron to turn up his level of play to the greatness that we all know he’s capable of. Even if his team hides from the moment, he’s shown that he can single-handedly win games.
Ryan S: The bubble did not really matter to the Lakers, but the loss of guard depth from it is going to be Portland’s X-Factor. Their lineup is ancient by NBA standards, and that lack of depth will be the way Portland can get past them.
What percentage chance do you give the Blazers to win this series and why?
Dia: It takes everything in me not to say 50%. But if I’m being more realistic I’m going to say 35%. I think Portland is absolutely the underdog, and on paper the Lakers should win. But we have seen these guys fight over and over for their place. Dame especially thrives under pressure and being the underdog.
Adrian: 28 per cent. If the Blazers are to make the next round, things have to really go right for Portland and the Lakers have to stay mired in sub-par play. But there might be too many “ifs” in that statement.
Kyle: I’ll say 20%. My heart wants me to go higher but my brain wants me to go lower. This Portland defense is just too bad for me to believe that they can stop James and Davis. I think the Lillard-Nurkic combo is good enough to steal a game or two from the Lakers, but I would be shocked if the Blazers pulled off a genuine first-round upset.
L.: 100%. Because if I’m not all in, why bother watching?
Nate: I feel bad being the final entry with this level of pessimism (or realism?), but if I must throw a probability on Portland’s chance to beat a team touting LeBron and AD, I’d go with 10%. LA is still the #1 seed with the best player in the world (who’s rested) playing a defensively embarrassing Blazers team who just intensely competed for nine straight games after four months off.
Ryne: 30%. I do think there’s something to say about positive momentum and I think this will be a closer series than it looks on paper. I gave Portland about a 10% chance in the first round last year and look what happened? Anything can happen in the playoffs when a team gets hot.
Miles: 20%. Lillard and McCollum and Portland’s three point shooting gives them a chance in any series. I just think a rested and focused LeBron James and Anthony Davis will be very tough to deal with.
Isaiah: 50%. Portland is hungry, and they just clawed their way to make it here. They already know how to close games in the bubble and have gotten enough high-pressure situations to know what lineups they can depend on. The team’s top contributors are coming into the first round with their rhythm established rather than having to find it mid-series. Here’s hoping the team isn’t too worn out from the seeding games to put up a worthwhile fight.
Ryan S: I’ll go on a limb and say 60% Portland. The lack of true home court advantage and the power that brings makes this more even, especially since James is one of those players who feeds on the energy from the home crowd. The Blazers can absolutely take advantage of the Lakers depth, as long as they find some way to contain LeBron James. Whether or not they can slow him down means everything, and I believe Coach Stotts will find a solution.