With a win against the Utah Jazz earlier this month, the Los Angeles Lakers clinched the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference for the first time since 2010, the same year they won their last NBA championship. Since then, they’ve been patiently waiting to see who they’re going to see in the first round, and with the way things have shaped up, they’re going to have to wait a little longer.
Not only will there be a play-in tournament for the eighth seed for the first time in NBA history, but there are four teams — the Portland Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs — that are still in contention for the eighth and ninth seeds with just two days left in the season. For basketball fans, each game has been must-watch television. For Lakers head coach Frank Vogel, it’s been strictly business.
“I haven’t been focused on enjoying it or not, I’ve been focused on ‘if we play this team, these are the challenges.’ So that’s how I watch each of those opponents,” Vogel said after practice on Wednesday.
The Trail Blazers are the team that currently occupies the eighth seed and if they beat the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday, they’ll clinch it. As surprising as the Nets have been in their seeding games, the Trail Blazers are playing at an entirely different level right now — or should I say: Damian Lillard is on another level right now.
Over the Trail Blazers’ last two games, Lillard has scored 112 points on 55% shooting from the field, including 44.8% shooting from 3-point range. His 61-point outburst against the Dallas Mavericks was his second 60-point game of the season and his sixth game with at least 50 points. He’s really good, and the sole reason Lakers fans don’t want to see the Trail Blazers in the first round.
But while the Lakers are mindful of the run Lillard is on and are respectful of the Trail Blazers as a team, they’re not scared of them — in fact, they’re hoping to see them in the first round.
“It’s not a worse-case scenario,” Kyle Kuzma of the Trail Blazers winning the play-in. “I think that any time you can get tested early in the playoffs, it’s going to help you out in the other rounds. Obviously them getting the eighth seed would be a very tough matchup for us. Dame presents a lot of challenges. He’s an excellent player all around. You see his shot-making, but there’s also his leadership and everything else.
“I don’t think it’s a worst-case scenario, because we’re war ready. We’re ready to play anybody.”
Markieff Morris also believes a first-round matchup with Portland would be a good tone-setter for the Lakers, especially when compared to their options.
“[The Trail Blazers] have been playing well,” Morris said. “I think for us that’s good because it’s going to make us play to the level of competition, to the top level ... I think we need that. I have to say that, against those other teams, it wouldn’t be as hard, but playing against a team that’s really got it going and a player that’s obviously been the best player in the bubble. It’s going to be a good matchup, and it’s going to be good for us to play them in the first round, play hard and try to get to the second round.”
The Trail Blazers beat the Lakers in their last meeting in February behind 48 points, 10 assists and 9 rebounds from Damian Lillard, but Los Angeles leads Portland in the series 2-1. Neither of those things really mean anything, though, because both teams look drastically different from when they did before the season was suspended, both in their roster composition — the Blazers have gotten Jusuf Nurkic back, while the Lakers have added Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith, for example — and in the way they play.
With the amount of star power on both rosters, the history between the two teams and the overall nature of the season, a first-round with the Lakers and Trail Blazers would be an instant classic. But before it can be, the Trail Blazers will have to hold up their end of the bargain, and win their way in.