Over the past four seasons, you'd be hard pressed to find a more successful team than the one that graces the hearts of this humble blog's members. In 4+ seasons, the Los Angeles Lakers have won 72% of their games, won two NBA Finals and lost a third, and have generally been the most feared and respected team in the league since the acquisition of Pau Gasol. That success has translated into the ability to go into any arena in the league and pick up a victory; the Lakers are hardly a shoo-in to win any particular game on the road, but you could never count them out anywhere. Well, anywhere except the Rose Garden.
Prior to last season, a trip to Portland was treated as a virtually guaranteed loss. L.A. made nine straight trips into the Rose Garden without tasting sweet victory, a span of time that traversed the entire dark period between championship eras (in which the streak made perfect sense) and came out the other side to continue on even as the Lakers were lighting fire to the rest of the league. The Lakers were the assorted forces of Greece, and Portland was Troy. There was simply no beating Portland on their terms. So the Lakers found a Trojan Horse.
On February 6th, 2010, the Lakers headed into the Rose Garden in dire straights. Kobe Bryant, the man who would play through an amputation, missed the game with injury. Andrew Bynum joined him on the pine early in the first half. Short 1.5 stars (Bynum was not then what he is now), there should have been no way for us to expect that this would be the time the streak would fall, but fall it did. Behind strong defense and the most dominating effort I can ever remember on the defensive glass from Lamar Odom, the Lakers, despite their casualties, killed Portland in Portland. The next season, last season, the Lakers repeated the feat with an overtime victory in February before once again falling to the Blazers in April, right around the time they seemed determined to lose to just about everybody.
That last loss matters not. L.A. has now won 2 of their last 3 in Portland. The fortress has been breached. Whatever power that building had over the Lakers is gone. The mystique has disappeared. Now, instead of having some weird streak pecking at them from the back of their minds, the Lakers know they can go in to Portland just like any other town. All they have to do is worry about the TrailBlazers team itself.
Oh ... crap.
As it turns out, the Portland Trailblazers don't suck. Insomuch as you can put faith in small sample sizes, they've been one of the best teams out of the gate this year. Sporting a 4-1 record, with wins against likely playoff teams in Philly and Denver at home, and coming off a very impressive road win in OKC (the Thunder's first defeat of the year), Portland is playing far above where you might expect them to be when considering the injury misery that has beset the franchise over the past few seasons.
Us Lakers fans live in constant fear of Andrew Bynum's health status ... well Portland had two Andrew Bynum situations in Brandon Roy and Greg Oden. And, unlike Bynum who, knock on a lumber yard, is currently healthy and looking great, both of Portland's injury situations are fully realized nightmares. Greg Oden is likely out for the season, after having been out for last season, and most of the season before that. He's played the equivalent of just about one season in five years as a pro. And he qualifies as the good news, because he hasn't given up. Brandon Roy gave up, because he had to. He's gone, retired after just five seasons in the league, and that is tragic no matter who you root for. Oden could have been a star (and could still be, though the odds are microscopic), with potential talked about in the same breath as our blossoming center. Roy was a star, however briefly, before basketball was ripped away from him.
And yet the Blazers are off to a strong start this season, and I join the chorus of folks who think it's no fluke. With Roy gone, they reloaded by bringing in Jamal Crawford and Raymond Felton to join Gerald Wallace, who was acquired in a trade last year, to man the perimeter. Wallace has done so with gusto so far, Felton has also been strong, and though Crawford has struggled a bit, his contract was a steal when compared to the money given to other dudes of similar quality this off-season. Portland is led by LaMarcus Aldridge, who turned into a bona-fide star last year and, when his game is on, is one of the more unstoppable offensive forces in the league. Portland's had plenty of talent over the years, and this year is no different, but this year, I think Portland has another big thing going for them.
They know who they are. They know what kind of team they will be. They don't have to worry about re-incorporating a star player that is having to learn how to deal with newfound limitations on the fly. They don't have to worry about bringing along a center prospect that changes the entire way the team plays. They don't have to prepare for multiple styles. They run through Aldridge at all times, with a strong, athletic host of perimeter players to surround him with. They have a specific identity, and they have 100% confidence that their identity will not change. They are finally comfortable, despite the tragedy encompassed within that comfort. And it makes them very, very dangerous.
What does it all mean for the Lakers? A tough game lies ahead. Portland is statistically a touch better on both sides of the ball than Los Angeles, though it's still too early to glean anything real from those numbers. Portland, like just about every team in the league, will struggle to deal with the Lakers' size. Aside Aldridge, the Blazers have two old, but extremely effective, old men manning the paint in Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas. Neither guy is any kind of threat offensively, but they do their jobs well defensively and on the glass. Still, if the Lakers can get the ball in to Andrew Bynum in the post, he should have no problems creating the kind of space and finding the kind of shots that we've been blessed with in the three games since his return. Bynum's size and recent success should force the defense to focus on him somewhat, meaning Pau Gasol will have all the 15 foot jumpers he wants. Which brings us to Kobe ...
Kobe's had an up and down week. His Sunday game was universally derided, with no one banging that drum harder than I did. On Tuesday, he took even more shots, but his performance was obviously much improved. Was his strategy much improved? I don't know. The shots he was getting certainly looked better on Tuesday against Houston. He had six assists and eight rebounds as well, proof that he was contributing all over the court. Still ... one game after Kobe killed his own team's chances in the search of his shot, one can't help but be concerned that he looked willing to do so again on Tuesday. The good news is that he found that shot in the 2nd half and led the team to victory. Hopefully, the benefits will be two fold; having found the shot, here's hoping it stays found and Kobe can continue with something close to the offensive production we saw in the 2nd half of the last game. Also, having found the shot, here's hoping Kobe won't spend quite so many possessions tonight looking for it again. I don't mind Kobe's shots numbering in the high 20s from time to time, depending on the circumstances, but it definitely shouldn't be a trend.