For the first time in seven years, the Los Angeles Lakers are back in the NBA playoffs. They arrive on the back of a 52-win shortened season. Their reward for a clear top seed in the western conference is a first-round matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers, a squad that reached the Western Conference Finals just last year.
Of course, these aren’t the same Blazers. Offseason changes meant that key players like Seth Curry, Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless left the team, leaving its depth at dangerously low levels. Injuries to Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins and Rodney Hood accentuated that weakness and the Blazers struggled out of the gates, especially on the defensive end.
Eventually, Portland turned it around and with Nurkic and Collins back for the bubble games, they were able to get just enough help for the red-hot Damian Lillard to squeak by the Memphis Grizzlies on Saturday and finally attain the eighth seed.
So what should we know about the Blazers before game one on Tuesday?
First, the Blazers go exactly where Lillard goes. The point guard has been on a tear in Portland’s eight bubble games and had another phenomenal performance in their play-in game against the Grizzlies. In all, Lillard averaged 36.8 points and 9.6 assists per game, while hitting 48.9 percent of his shots from the field and a blistering 42.7 percent of his 3-point shots in the Blazers’ last nine games leading into the postseason. His brilliance in shooting from deep has only been matched by his ability to get to the free-throw line seemingly at will.
Lillard is one of the most explosive players in the league and with no Avery Bradley for the Lakers, their options in limiting his scoring bursts become a little more dangerous. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will likely get the bulk of those assignments and Alex Caruso could see some time on the first-ever NBA Bubble MVP. The Lakers have also shown a willingness to throw Kyle Kuzma at perimeter players that are burning them but shifty and explosive guards have given him trouble despite his improved defense.
The Lakers in recent games have been experimenting with different defensive coverages and it seems likely that they will at least try to trap Lillard at times and force him to get rid of the ball. Denying him the ability to burn them comes at a cost, of course. It involves a willingness to bet on C.J. McCollum, playing with an injured back, to carry the offense as well as Lillard does. Moreover, the Lakers will almost certainly hedge hard or trap Lillard in pick-and-rolls, forcing him to pass the big man (most likely Nurkic or Hassan Whiteside). That center will have the ball in a four-on-three situation but they will have to make the correct read quickly in order to beat the Lakers’ defense.
In fact, the big men will be a truly crucial aspect of how the Lakers guard Lillard. The team’s true centers tend to drop back in pick and roll coverage so that they can’t be burned by quicker guards and so that they can continue affecting shots at the rim. But against Lillard, that’s a death sentence. Dame lives for those opportunities to dribble around a hard screen and pull up for a deep three-pointer. The Blazers will set their screens high to allow him to get those opportunities. This may be a series in which JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard see limited, if any, playing time.
While the Blazers’ offense can put up points in a matter of seconds, their defense is just as capable of allowing the opposing team to score. Portland has struggled on that end all year, finishing the regular season with the fourth-worst defensive rating in the league. Specifically, on the wings, Portland has almost no one capable of defending LeBron James. In fact, LeBron’s 2003 draft class partner Carmelo Anthony will be tasked with guarding him for significant parts of each game, especially within the starting lineup.
LeBron hasn’t exactly been himself since the season re-started as he gets himself back into shape. But the Blazers provide a perfect opportunity for him to once again be the primary initiator of the Lakers’ offense. Portland will have to pick their poison between allowing him one-on-one opportunities against poor defenders or sending help and risking him finding shooters and cutters. Given the Lakers’ shooting woes in recent games, the Blazers may be willing to take that risk.
The Lakers have not really used their ultimate weapon of a LeBron and Anthony Davis pick and roll this season, saving it for when they need it in the postseason. Depending on how the Blazers perform, the Lakers may pull this out of their toolbox and force the Blazers defense to throw numbers at the two superstars.
Speaking of Davis, this series should have the big man licking his chops. Two years ago, AD had the best postseason run of his career, sweeping Portland in the first round as the underdogs. Davis was a monster in that series, averaging 33 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game. Nurkic, in particular, had difficulty sticking to the quicker and longer Davis, getting burned by the big man every time he caught the ball in or around the paint. Whiteside is faster and longer than Nurkic but he is a poor defender positionally and the Lakers will abuse him if he is the sole big man on the floor. Collins may be the Blazers’ best option to guard the Brow but it remains to be seen how injuries will affect him.
Nurkic can give Davis some trouble on the other end with his back-to-the-basket game. Davis will have to be disciplined and stay out of foul trouble while defending the center who has been a huge shot in the arm for Portland since his return from a broken leg.
For a more detailed analysis of Davis’ series against the Blazers and why it could be a blueprint for how the Lakers use him, click here.
The Blazers are without question the toughest team the Lakers could play in the first round. Lillard and McCollum pose such a threat in the backcourt that they can explode for 50 or 60 points and lead them to a win. It would not be surprising if Portland takes a game or two off of LA.
But this could also be a blessing in disguise for the Lakers. It gives them a true test in the first round while allowing their struggling offense to get into a rhythm against a porous defense. Guarding Lillard can give the team an idea of how they would defend James Harden in the second round if the Rockets advance.
Ultimately, even if this series is extended by some Lillard or McCollum, it should be a fairly easy route to the second round in the playoffs. As long as they can reasonably contain the Blazers’ backcourt, the rest of the team just does not have enough talent to outscore the Lakers four times in seven games. Moreover, their defense will be taken advantage of nearly every time on that end of the floor.