In celebrating the return to basketball, we will be previewing potential first-round playoff series between the Los Angeles Lakers and the six teams who could finish as the eighth seed after eight seeding games in Orlando. Today’s team is the Portland Trail Blazers.
There are two things I would not like to be on the other end of: a bullet and Damian Lillard in the playoffs. The Portland Trail Blazers star has made a career of iconic, clutch moments in the postseason. Coming off a run to the Western Conference Finals, Portland has not been able to recapture that magic and, for now, are on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. Still, with Jusef Nurkic and Zach Collins coming back from injury, the Blazers may have a different look to them in the Orlando bubble.
The Trail Blazers are ranked tenth in offensive rating behind offensive powerhouses in Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, and Carmelo Anthony. They also have a perennial all-defensive player in Hassan Whiteside. Sadly they rank almost dead last (27th!) in defensive efficiency. By the way, I am being sarcastic about Whiteside who I view as Shawn Bradley with a 2K obsession.
They will have Jusuf Nurkic returning. He was an integral piece to the team’s success last season and was sorely missed after suffering a compound fracture in March of 2019. He averaged career-highs last year, in scoring (15.6), assists (3.2), and rebounds (10.4). It will be interesting to see him play with Whiteside, as that could lead to Carmelo Anthony guarding LeBron in that sort of line-up.
Lillard has missed a few games but he is having a career year. He is averaging career highs in points per game (29.0), field goal percentage (45.7), and assists per game (7.8). His running mate in McCollum is having a “down” year but is also scoring a career-high 22.5 points per game albeit on a career-high 19.5 field goal attempts per game.
That guard duo will ultimately be the key to any sort of upset the Blazers are hoping to have. The Lakers’ guard depth, especially in the absence of Avery Bradley (and to a much lesser extent, Rajon Rondo), will have to play a focused series to prevent either of the two stars from heating up and beating them with an explosive outing.
The Lakers were looking at a regular-season sweep of the Portland team before losing on January 31 of this year. They had previously won 136 to 113 on December 6 and 128-120 on December 28. The Lakers could not get anything going on January 31 considering Lillard went off for 48 and Whiteside looked like an NBA player (shooting 13/14 en route to 30 points).
In their first meeting, Anthony Davis absolutely dominated, scoring 39 points to go along with LeBron James’ 31 points. In the second, it was a more balanced bench effort with Kyle Kuzma leading all scorers with 24. Rajon Rondo had one of his more efficient games (15 points, 6/8 from the field), to go along with Kentavious Caldwell Pope’s 13 and Dwight Howard ‘s 11 points and eight rebounds. No other starters scored in double digits outside of James and Davis.
The Lakers will be able to score against these Blazers, even with Nurkic and Collins shoring up their frontcourt. Importantly, the team will be without Trevor Ariza who, even at this stage of his career, may have been their best wing defender and option to guard James. Instead, it may be Anthony who is tasked with defending his fellow 2003 draftee. The only question is whether the Lakers can limit Lillard enough to keep Portland from scoring at the same rate.
Historically speaking, the Lakers and Trail Blazers have met 11 times in playoff history. The Lakers won nine series, beating the team most recently in 2000, 2001, and 2002 en route to the three-peat. Meanwhile, Portland won in 1992 and 1977 (en route to their only championship; peasants).
The Trail Blazers sit 3.5 games outside of the eighth seed. They only need to secure a top nine seed and be within four games of the eighth seed before the end of the seeding games in Orlando to give themselves a chance at a postseason berth through a play-in tournament.
While the Lakers will be confident in their chances against any first-round opponent, the Blazers are clearly the potential matchup that could give them the most problems. If there’s one team I don’t want to see in the first round, it’s Damian Lillard and the Blazers.