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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Los Angeles Lakers Preview

Can the Blazers get their mojo back against a long-time rival?

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers (21-24) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (21-25)

Only 0.5 games separate the No. 12 seeded Portland Trail Blazers and the No. 13 seeded Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference standings as they prepare for battle on Sunday evening.

Both teams have two things in common. For one, they aren’t happy with their subpar records, even with strings of injuries to top players. Secondly, both teams could wake up one week from today, and theoretically find themselves at the door of the No. 6 seed, if the basketball gods work in their favor.

The Blazers continue on their six-game home stand, where they are 11-9 at the Moda Center, whereas the Lakers are 9-14 away from Los Angeles. All eyes will be on LeBron James as he has only 261 more career points to conquer before usurping the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the all-time record in regular season points scored. Based on his current average of 29.6 points per game, he will reach the milestone in nine games, barring a Kobe-esque offensive tirade that hastens the day.

Trail Blazers vs. Lakers — Sunday, January 22 — 6:00 p.m. PT

How to Watch: Root Sports Plus, NBA League Pass

Blazers Injuries: Justise Winslow (out), Gary Payton II (probable)

Lakers Injuries: Anthony Davis (out), Lonnie Walker IV (out), Austin Reaves (out), LeBron James (questionable)

SBN Affiliate: Silver Screen and Roll

The Matchup

  • Play LeBron the Way You Played Luka: James is the centerpiece of the Lakers’ offense, akin to the way Luka Doncic is for the Dallas Mavericks. He also dominates the ball similarly to the Slovenian star. Unlike Dallas, the Lakers don’t have the shooting prowess to give Portland a real scare. The Blazers should use the same strategy they deployed against Doncic. Bring a second defender — Josh Hart or otherwise — to trap James on every offensive possession. Don’t even give the year-20 veteran the luxury of taking uncontested three-pointers, for he is liable to burn teams if he gets hot. Force Dennis Schroder, Kendrick Nunn, Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverley to shoot. All four players shoot 35 percent or worse from distance, unlike the Mavericks’ cast of characters in Spencer Dinwiddie, Reggie Bullock, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Davis Bertans, who all shoot 36 percent or better.
  • Don’t Try a Zone: All season long the 2-3 and 2-1-2 zones have worked well for Rip City. However, with a champion as seasoned as James, it won’t work well against his ball club. He and Westbrook are too good at passing the ball to the weak side corner and wing and will pick apart a zone. The Lakers are a mixed bag in isolation. James and Westbrook have the most offensive liberty in creating their own shot. Both future hall-of-famers are shooting less than 40 percent in isolation this season. A zone will nullify any opportunities for these two to isolate and be the source of their own demise. Playing man will work for Portland against L.A.
  • Protect the Paint: The Lakers trail only the Memphis Grizzlies in points in the paint this season, where they score 56.7 points per contest. Meanwhile, Portland is No. 23 in the association allowing 51.4 points in the paint per game. Thomas Bryant is back and active as ever. Schroder has long had a reputation as one of the best slashers in the NBA, especially when going downhill. Then, of course, there’s James and Westbrook. Notice, none of the keys outlined have to do with the Blazers’ offense. Why? Because Los Angeles’ defense is substandard. While they defend the long ball exceptionally well (34.6 percent conceded), they are a bottom-10 team in key areas such as second chance points, fast break points and points in the paint allowed. Defense will lead to offense for the Blazers, and fast break opportunities intermixed with stellar paint play will naturally open the floor. Therefore, Portland must own the paint on both ends, but especially on defense.

What Others Are Saying

A Lakers win against the Memphis Grizzlies was marred by an altercation between NFL hall-of-famer Shannon Sharpe and several Grizzlies players, yet Ron Gutterman had this to accentuate on Lakers Nation:

Despite season-long struggles in the final minutes of close games, the Lakers stayed within striking distance when a Dennis Schroder steal-and-score gave L.A. an unexpected late lead and a victory. It was perhaps one of their best wins of the season, and keeps them alive in an ever-competitive postseason picture.

James credited the Lakers for their mentality in a game when the team easily could have conceded defeat. “Stayed resilient throughout the whole game,” James said. “When we got down or got killed off the glass, we continued to stay with the game plan all the way down to the DS steal and three-point play, which also became the game-winner. We game-planned. When we do that, we give ourselves a chance to win.”

Darius Soriano of Silver Screen and Roll discusses how the pairing of James and Westbrook has improved greatly this season.

This season, however, things have noticeably changed. Are there still some clunky possessions? Yes, and particularly in crunch time. Does the way that defenses guard Russ still have a negative impact on LeBron? Of course it does. But the duo has found their stride in the minutes they share the floor, not only in transition (as is expected), but in the half court via better defined roles and each player being put in better position to succeed.

For Russ, this means handling the ball much more when he’s on the court with LeBron, and being the “point guard” and lead playmaker for those lineups. It means allowing him to isolate more, run more pick and rolls, and (in general) be catered to as a primary weapon rather than being put into the corner as a floor spacer (with no gravity) and being asked to set screens on the ball or work as a weakside cutter when it’s clear that’s not what he wants to do nor how he instinctively plays the game at this point of his career.

Instead, it’s LeBron who is doing these things more often, and it’s creating more beneficial possessions when both share the floor.