Portland is battle-tested, having just played eight meaningful seeding games at the NBA’s restart in Orlando, followed by a dramatic play-in game win on Saturday. They have the bubble MVP in Damian Lillard. The Trail Blazers are as hot a team as the league has right now.
The Lakers looked like a team trying to find reasons to be motivated the past two weeks (leading the silly notion from LeBron James‘ the Lakers had to lock down the No. 1 seed because nobody thought they could do it). The Lakers went 3-5 with the second-worst offense in the bubble and a whole lot of shots clanging off rims.
Does all that mean Portland has a real chance of a historic 1-8 upset in the first round of the playoffs?
Or, does it mean the Lakers need to get punched in the face to wake up, to realize they face a genuine challenge, then start playing like a No. 1 seed again? (Just like the 2014 Spurs, who got pushed to seven games by Dallas in the first round, but by the Finals were playing the most beautiful team basketball the league has ever seen in shredding the Heat.)
“They’re the No. 1 seed in the West for a reason,” Lillard said Saturday after Portland’s win. “They’ve got the best player in the world on their team. But at the same time, we didn’t fight as hard as we fought in the bubble to just say, ‘All right, we’re the eighth seed’ and just go out here and get beat up on.”
If the Trail Blazers are going to make this a series — and maybe pull off the upset — here are five things that need to happen.
1) The Lakers have to keep missing shots
Los Angeles looked out of sync during the seeding games — not just a little out of sync, either — but a part of that was they could not knock down shots. The team’s true shooting percentage of 53.7 was second-worst in the bubble (Washington, to answer your question). The Lakers shot 30.3% from three as a team through the seeding games.
Or, look at the Lakers’ shot chart from the bubble.
The Lakers shot okay at the rim, but their three-point shooting in the seeding games was awful: Danny Green 25%, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope shot 27.5%, Alex Caruso 15.4%, Dion Waiters 23.3%, Anthony Davis 29.2%, and J.R. Smith 9.1%. That’s what a slump looks like.
If the Lakers fall to the Trail Blazers (or even get pushed to a Game 7), some of those wounds will have to be self-inflicted. The Lakers will have to help beat themselves, and shooting like this certainly helps that cause.
2) Portland has to figure out how to slow LeBron James and Anthony Davis
Good luck with that.
Who are the Blazers going to match up on LeBron? Gary Trent Jr.? He’s gritty but undersized for that assignment. Mario Hezonja? Yikes. Carmelo Anthony? Double yikes. This is why Portland players were trying to find a way to get Trevor Ariza into the bubble after it started, he would have helped a lot in this matchup. Portland has no good options to cover LeBron, and even if they did, he is the master of having a pick set to get the matchup he wants. LeBron is poised to have a monster series.
Davis is another matchup nightmare, although Portland fares slightly better here. The combination of Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic up front means Portland starts with the physical size to match the Lakers. Collins cannot begin to guard the versatility of Davis, and Nurkic isn’t going to stay in front of AD on the perimeter, but they have the size to make a few plays. Portland also brings the athletic Hassan Whiteside off the bench, and he plays well when challenged and focused — if AD doesn’t get your focus, then who will?
This is the Lakers’ secret weapon in every round, their top two are unstoppable. Portland, however, has to find a way to slow them to have any hope.
3) Damian Lillard has to keep playing like the bubble MVP…
Does anyone doubt Lillard is going to keep up his MVP level of play?
Lillard is a particular problem for the Lakers because they lack the personnel to deal with small, quick guards who can score — Lillard averaged 36 points a game against the Lakers this season. He’s going to have to keep doing that and better, although his performance should not be in question.
4) …And he’s going to need help.
For Portland to have a chance, its bench and role players have to dramatically outplay their Lakers’ counterparts.
Portland has other stars, and we saw that against Memphis in the play-in game. CJ McCollum is better with a fractured back than 95% of the league. How much this team missed Jusuf Nurkic has been evident throughout the restart because he can score, rebound, and pass. The Lakers will at times do what Memphis did — double Lillard out high, take the ball out of his hands, and dare any other Trail Blazer to beat them. McCollum can do that. Nurkic can score and is a strong passer as a big man who can find the open guy. That’s where Trent Jr. and ‘Melo and everyone else needs to knock down their shots.
Portland’s role players will need to win them this series.
It should be noted the Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma probably played the best basketball of his career in the bubble. He was hitting threes (44.4%) and was making efforts — and second efforts — in defense we haven’t seen from him consistently. LeBron said he was the third Lakers’ scoring option, he has to live up to that billing.
5) Carmelo Anthony’s defense can’t be an anchor
We need to give ‘Melo credit: He slimmed down, worked harder on defense in the bubble and made more second efforts defensively than we can remember seeing. He played better on that end.
He’s still not a strong defender, and LeBron is merciless —’Melo will get targeted. Memphis did it on Saturday (trying to drag Anthony and Whiteside into pick-and-rolls), the Lakers are better at it.
Portland’s catch-22 is they need Anthony on the floor, he has become an important floor spacer in their offense. He averaged 16.5 points per game and shot 47% from three in the bubble. Coach Terry Stotts needs to keep Anthony on the court without him getting abused from mismatches on the other end.
It’s all a lot to ask, but that’s why eight seeds almost never beat one seeds.
“So you’re telling me there’s a chance…”