The Portland Trail Blazers have won 3 out of 4 games since retaking the floor in the NBA season restart in Orlando. The Nuggets, Rockets, and Grizzlies—all conference rivals—have fallen to Portland. The Blazers are hot in the hunt for the 8th seed in the Western Conference Playoffs bracket. Should they earn that position, a first-round date with LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers awaits.
As is typical when the team succeeds, Blazers fans are abuzz with tantalizing possibilities, including the one everybody wants to ask about: could Portland actually take the Lakers in a playoffs series? That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
I love love love that we are pretty much the hottest team in the NBA right now and many experts are saying we have a good chance to Beat LA. Can you see it and are you onboard? Could we even win a surprise championship this year?
The first step is to get there. As we speak, the Blazers are within half a game of Memphis and the 8th seed. They have to retain that position at least. All five teams chasing the Grizzlies still have either 38 or 39 losses. (Including the Phoenix Suns, of all people.) Portland is in the catbird seat with 32 wins, ahead of Phoenix (30) and the Spurs, Kings, and Pelicans (29). That gives them an edge, but not a guarantee. Every game still matters.
If the Blazers finish in 8th or 9th, they’ll face a play-in. Earning the 8th spot outright would be huge, as they’d only need one victory in that play-in series instead of two. That’s the clear short-term goal right now: take 8th and stay there. Then all they have to do is win a game and they’re in.
Assuming all of that happens and Portland does face the Lakers in Round 1 of the 2020 NBA Playoffs, I’d presume the Lakers would be wary, but not concerned. Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and (hehe) Gary Trent Jr. could present problems for LA. But the Lakers have a veteran backcourt in Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. They’re likely to get outclassed, but not bulldozed in a seven-game series.
The real issue comes in the frontcourt. LeBron James and Anthony Davis aren’t just an unsolvable problem, they’re a walking championship threat even on their bad nights, let alone their great ones. Portland will be saying, “If Dame and CJ go off, this could get interesting.” The Lakers will counter, “If LeBron and AD exist, we win.”
There’s a big difference between being the team nobody wants to face and the team everybody has to face. Portland is the former, LA the latter.
Talent isn’t the only issue either. Despite their 3-1 record and renewed lineup, the Blazers continue to struggle when defending the perimeter. They’ve allowed opponents a to shoot a combined 64-152 from the arc in the bubble. That 42% rate isn’t good, especially when you consider a single game against the Houston Rockets accounts for roughly a third of the misses. Houston’s “horrible” outing still amounted to 36%. Denver shot 50% from range, the Celtics 60%. Teams are getting open looks from three against the Blazers and they’re hitting them. Under those conditions, even sketchy players like JR Smith and Jared Dudley could prove dangerous.
Portland can get away with bad perimeter coverage when they’re locking down hard inside with a huge lineup, stopping opposing bigs and controlling the boards. The Lakers are just as big, and more talented. Who’s going to stop LeBron James? Who will keep Davis from dominating the glass?
The most likely outcome of an extended head-to-head matchup is LA scoring through their two stars, the Blazers having to send help to control the paint, and the three-point coverage getting even worse as a result. Instead of one thing leaking, everything would.
Add in Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins each averaging 4.25 fouls per game in Orlando against not LeBron-AD lineups and Portland’s vulnerability gets even more pronounced. Hassan Whiteside looks powerful coming off the bench on paper, but he’s not playing well in that role and he’s averaging 8.5 fouls per 48 minutes himself. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to see the Blazers relying on Mario Hezonja and Wenyen Gabriel to watch the Lakers frontcourt. God bless them, but that’s not a recipe for success.
Nothing is impossible. The Blazers would have a chance should the two teams meet. But confidence against the Lakers at this point is probably misplaced. That said, having the chance is WAY better than not, so for right now it’s, “Go Blazers!” and high hopes for them to win each game.