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Blazers vs Lakers: 5 Hidden Factors in the Series

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We know the rosters and the basic problems L.A. and Portland cause for each other. Here are the other factors shading the series.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Los Angeles Lakers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers are set to meet in Game 1 of their 2020 NBA Playoffs series tonight. Yesterday we talked about two overarching trends trends that could determine the course of the series. Today we’ll cover several other factors that might influence the outcome.

Foul Trouble

Between Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins, and Hassan Whiteside, the Blazers field one of the bigger, deeper frontcourt rotations in the league. They can replace size with more size, starting potential with starting potential.

They’ve needed it too, as foul trouble has been a constant theme for them throughout the Orlando restart. Nurkic has averaged 4.9 fouls in 31.6 minutes per game, Collins 3.1 fouls in 25.4 minutes per game, Whiteside 2.8 fouls in 16.3 minutes. That averages to a disqualification per 36 minutes for Nurkic and Whiteside, a comparatively tame—but still noticeable—4 fouls per 36 for Collins.

Over the last two weeks, opposing bigs have ranged from essentially absent (when the Blazers faced the Houston Rockets) to one of the best centers in the league in Nikola Jokic. The Blazers have fouled them either way. There’s no variance at all in LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Portland’s frontcourt trio will be facing all-world opposition every game. Whistles are likely to fly thick and fast in favor of the established stars, against the Blazers.

Because Lakers guards Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are performing comparatively poorly in the bubble, the Blazers are almost certain to cheat down on the Lakers’ bigs. Hopefully that’ll take pressure off of the frontcourt. It might end up drawing more fouls on Portland’s guards and wings instead.

It’s all but guaranteed that foul trouble will rear its ugly head in this series. The Lakers are 8th in the league overall in free throw attempts, 5th in opponent personal fouls per game, 6th in opponent personal fouls per possession. They’re relatively lousy at actually converting free throws, but the points they score at the charity stripe pale in comparison to the points they can generate off of mismatches against second- and third-unit players if Portland’s starters have to sit.

The Blazers may need huge efforts from Wenyen Gabriel or Carmelo Anthony to steal a game if the front-line bigs go down. That’s a thin thread, but there you have it.

Fast Breaks

Portland is not a fast-breaking team. They never have been under the Terry Stotts-Damian Lillard regime. Not so the Lakers. L.A. averages 18.4 fast break points per game, 2nd in the NBA.

Tempo traditionally slows in the playoffs as team defenses key in on each other. It doesn’t have to, though. If L.A. can force long misses and control the boards, they can still outrun the halfcourt-heavy Blazers.

I don’t expect the break to be a huge factor in the series. If it does, it’s a sign that things are going poorly for Portland.

Easy Points vs. Distance Shots

The fast break discussion highlights the great dichotomy between these two teams. Any buckets that could be termed “easy” belong to the Lakers. They’re 2nd in the league in points in the paint. They’re great at offensive rebounding and rank 6th in second-chance points.

Between all that and scoring on the run, they end up 1st overall in field goal percentage at 48.0%, 5th in effective field goal percentage, 9th in true shooting percentage. It’s quite an arsenal.

The only thing the Lakers don’t do well is shoot threes. Portland outclasses them completely with 37.7% three-point shooting, good for 3rd in league. Those extra points leave the Blazers very close to L.A. in true shooting percentage. This factor alone could even the scales.

Three-point shooting is the mode of the day. It’s also inherently more variable than the relatively easier buckets the Lakers score, especially when you consider the Lakers rank 7th in the league in three-point percentage allowed at 34.9%.

Portland might overcome L.A. with the long ball, but it’s near-certain that in order to do so consistently, they’ll need to find a way to compensate for the streaky nature of deep shooting by eating into the Lakers’ cheap chances. Preventing the fast break and controlling rebounds would be a great start.

Scramble Mismatches

Since they headed to Orlando, Portland has been “positionally agnostic” when covering the arc. They admit there might be a defender out there, they just don’t know quite who it is at any given moment. It’s not unusual to see Nurkic or Collins closing on three-point shooters as much as Anthony or the guards.

Two realities rear their ugly heads here:

  1. It hasn’t work that well. (See our first preview post.)
  2. If the Blazers send bigs to the perimeter versus the Lakers, who covers the scorers left inside?

The Blazers will almost certainly bet against the Lakers’ shooting, letting them hoist perimeter shots against lighter defense to prevent their stars scoring in the paint. If L.A. starts hitting threes, Portland’s demise will be quick.

Fatigue could also become a factor in Portland’s defense. The Blazers aren’t deep. They ride their main players for big minutes. If the Blazers do cover the arc, any late rotations back to the interior would lead to a ton of and-ones that will end up just as bad as three-pointers, with the added effect of making Portland’s key guys sit with foul trouble.

Blocks

It’s probably more of a curiosity than a deciding factor, but it’s worth noting that the Lakers and Blazers are 1st and 2nd in the NBA in blocked shot percentage. L.A. is best in the league at not getting their shots blocked, whereas Portland is right in the middle. Portland’s shot-blocking is also heavily Whiteside-dependent, though Nurkic has done well in the bubble. Either way, the arena crew might want to have the theme from S.W.A.T. ready.