There's no two ways around it. The circumstances surrounding Los Angeles Lakers basketball are in dire straits. Since starting the season 9-4, the Lakers have been stuck in third gear and have remained a .500 squad, a no man's land in which the Lakers aren't good enough to be considered among the league's elite, and not bad enough to be considered as ready to blow up and rebuild. The team was destroyed last night by the same Phoenix squad that they clearly outmatched just two nights ago, and the frustration over the stasis, in both achievement and design, boiled over as Kobe Bryant expressed a desire for Pau Gasol's situation to be resolved with haste, one way or the other.
To make matters worse, the Lakers have three games before the All-Star break, and all three look to be difficult contests. The next two, a back-to-back road set against the defending champs (who have won 6 of 7 games, with centerpiece Dirk Nowitzki rounding into form) and the OKC Thunder (by far the best team in the West) look to be damn near un-winable, especially considering the Lakers' road record following last night's capitulation is now 5-11. You can never say never (New Jersey just torched Chicago yesterday, after all), but if the loss total grows by two after those two contests, it certainly wouldn't be a shock.
If you do count those games as pre-existing losses, tonight's contest comes into sharp focus. The Lakers already have bad performance, bad publicity, and bad chemistry as issues plaguing the team. If they head into the All-Star break on a four game losing streak, the firestorm will be difficult to deal with. Which makes tonight's game the lone decent chance for salvation.
That's not to say the Lakers will, or even necessarily should, win against the Portland TrailBlazers. Portland is a good team, not to be taken lightly. But the Lakers have been every bit as good at home as they have been bad on the road, at least in terms of overall results, and the history of these two teams has been as constant as you will find in the NBA. The book on Portland is that LA can't beat them in Oregon, and can't lose to them in California. There have been a few exceptions (in both directions) in the past couple seasons, but the vast majority of the time, the Lakers have done the business when Portland has come to town.
Portland comes into tonight's contest not in the best shape themselves. Their 17-15 record puts them at the back of the Western Conference playoff hunt, and their back-court play, which was supposed to be a strength at the start of the season, has been disappointing thus far. Wes Matthews and Raymond Felton have both dropped off from prior year's performance according to PER, and Jamal Crawford is shooting worse than he has since 2004. Lamarcus Aldridge has been excellent, but not quite as dominant as he showed he can be last season. On the bright side, Nic Batum has been a breath of fresh air, and the Blazers have been delightfully lacking in major in-season injuries thus far. Still, their performance has fallen off the pace they set for themselves, both with their strong finish last season, and the strong start to this one.
Portland does have the kind of pieces that could theoretically cause the Lakers problems. Aldridge is a tough matchup for Pau Gasol (who in turn is a tough matchup for Aldridge). Marcus Camby is a savvy defender that'll make Andrew Bynum work for his success. And, in Matthews, Gerald Wallace, and Batum, the Blazers have a stable of long perimeter defenders to throw at Kobe. Wallace torched the Lakers the last time these two teams played, one of the few guys at the SF position with the strength to attack Ron Artest with strength, and he's also got the speed to attack with speed.
Still, the Lakers are at home, they are just as much trouble for Portland as Portland is for them, and they need this victory to avoid a run in to the All Star break that is just begging for implosion, all of which should set the stage for a competitive contest.