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Lakers-Trail Blazers Preview: Return To Staples Center North

For the final week of their regular season, which starts tonight up in Portland, the Lakers have exactly one item on their to-do list: hold off the Celtics and Heat. I guess that's actually two items, but you go about them the same way, by winning the rest of your games. To review where we stand, Boston and Miami both hover just a game back of the Lakers with four to play. They have fairly light remaining schedules except that they face each other on Sunday. So, one of them will likely go 4-0 down the stretch while the other goes 3-1. The Lakers have the tiebreaker over the Celtics (based on each team's record against the opposite conference) but not the Heat (based on Miami's head-to-head sweep). Accordingly, if the Heat win on Sunday, the Lakers will probably have to run the table to keep hold of the NBA's third overall seed. If the Celtics win on Sunday, the Lakers can afford to drop a game.

Got it? Look, what it boils down to is, to preserve home-court advantage over as many potential Final opponents as possible, the Lakers should wake their asses up and start playing basketball. They may be bored with the regular season. We may be bored with the regular season. But these last few games are actually meaningful. Fortunately, tonight's opponent is one the Lakers typically perk up for. The Trail Blazers and their perpetually crabby fans at the Rose Garden - or "Staples Center North," as I've taken to calling it since the Lakers have won there on their last two visits - always make for a zesty contest when the champs come to town.

To be honest, I figured the Blazers would be riding a bit higher than they are at the moment. When they made the Gerald Wallace deal, I imagined they'd charge past the Hornets pretty easily and perhaps even make a fun at the five seed. Instead, they've gone 13-8 since Wallace hopped aboard. Perfectly respectable and an improvement on their pre-deadline pace, but not enough to put real distance between themselves and New Orleans, let alone threaten the Nuggets. The Blazers are in sixth place by a slim half-game margin over the Hornets. The winner in that race gets to avoid the Lakers in the first round.

The Portland offense has been on a nice roll lately. No one has held them below a point per possession since the Lakers did so on March 20, and they've been routinely putting up more than 1.10 points per trip. Their defense, though, remains prone to the occasional turd bomb. The Thunder, Warriors and Hornets have all carved big chunks out of the Blazer D in the last couple weeks. To make matters on that side of the ball worse, their best defender, Marcus Camby, is battling a neck strain and might not go this evening.

The Blazers' home-court advantage tonight will be somewhat offset by fatigue, as they played just yesterday in Salt Lake City. Camby sat that one out. In his absence Nate McMillan went small, starting Nicolas Batum and ladling out extra minutes to Wallace and LaMarcus Aldridge. The Blazers don't really have a healthy reserve center they can depend on. (D League call-up Chris Johnson is the nominal backup.) Camby's available is obviously mucho important, since without him Andrew Bynum will get to operate against Aldridge, who gives up at least one inch and 50 pounds to the Lakers' monster in the middle.


Of course, the Lakers got problems of their own. They need to get their turnovers, a leading cause of their three-game losing streak, under control. It shouldn't be a hugely difficult problem to fix, as it's mostly a matter of playing smart and attentively, but the Blazers have been the second-best in the NBA in forcing miscues. So if the Lakers don't clean their act up, we can expect plenty of empty possessions tonight.

The second thing that needs fixing is their three-point shooting. It's fallen off a cliff the past few games, and although we know that three-point accuracy varies wildly in small sample sizes, there are a couple longer-term problems to note. One is Kobe Bryant. His shooting from beyond the arc has been pretty grim all season long. For the year he's below 32 percent, which means he's headed for his worst season of three-point shooting since 2001-02. You'd hope he'd become more selective with his attempts, but the opposite is happening. Since the All-Star break, his three-point attempts have gone up, and you have to wonder whether at some point opponents will start deliberately sagging off him. That's what I would do if I were game-planning against the Lakers.

Oh, and Matt Barnes? He should probably stop taking threes altogether. He's in a horrible slump from long distance, and for the season he's joined Kobe below the 32 percent waterline. Lest you think that's a fluke, please note that it's pretty much exactly what he shot on three-pointers last year. And when Barnes hoists up a three, it's damaging in two respects: first because it's an inefficient shot, and second because it means he's not hitting the offensive glass, which is what he's best at.

How to get Barnes and the rest of the bench moving in the right direction is Phil Jackson's biggest challenge at this point. Steve Blake and Shannon Brown aren't playing well either, and the reserve lineups we've been seeing - usually involving the three B's, plus Lamar Odom and Bynum - have looked disorganized and easily flummoxed. One answer may be to put the ball in Odom's hands more often. Let him create off the dribble and execute some high-low sets with Drew. That certainly seems preferable to having Shannon dribble, dribble and dribble some more before throwing up a shot just inside the three-point line.

None of this stuff is reason for despair. Every contender has a few issues to iron out this time of year, and there's no one I'd trust with the ironing more than Phil. But with only four games left and real seeding consequences at stake, now would be a nice time to start dusting off that postseason form. 

 

                  Lakers                  

             Trail Blazers             

 


League Rank


League Rank

Record...................................

55-23

3

46-33

10

Net Points Per Game..............

+6.5

3

+1.5

14

Pace.......................................

90.7

21

88.0

30

Offensive Efficiency................

111.1

5

108.8

10

Turnover Rate.....................

12.4%

2

12.6%

5

FTA/FGA............................

0.29

16

0.28

25

Free-Throw %......................

77.7

8

80.1

4

3PT FGA/FGA.....................

0.22

16

0.23

13

3PT%.................................

35.1

18

34.1

25

Effective FG%.....................

50.2

12

48.7

23

True Shooting%...................

54.7

11

53.4

20

Off Rebounding Rate............

29.5%

4

29.4%

5

Defensive Efficiency...............

104.0

6

107.1

16

Turnover Rate......................

12.9%

21

15.5%

2

FTA/FGA............................

0.23

1

0.31

18

3PT FGA/FGA.....................

0.24

24

0.23

19

3PT%.................................

33.4

3

36.5

20

Effective FG%.....................

47.6

5

51.0

21

True Shooting%...................

51.4

2

55.3

21

Def Rebounding Rate............

72.1%

23

72.3%

22

Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore. Numbers are courtesy of Basketball Reference and HoopData. You can check out the Blazers Edge preview of tonight's game here.

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