For much of Saturday afternoon, it looked like the Portland Trail Blazers were finally going to see their luck run out in the clutch. But after trailing for much of the game against the plucky Memphis Grizzlies, the veteran Blazers were able to get one more fourth-quarter explosion, this time not coming from Damian Lillard, but his fellow backcourt star CJ McCollum, who overcame a fractured back to roast presumptive Rookie of the Year Ja Morant repeatedly down the stretch and help the Blazers pull of a 126-122 win that earns them the right to move on and face the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs.
“I think the reason that we competed so hard, the reason that we fought so hard to get into the playoffs is because we feel like we’re capable of doing anything. We can beat anybody,” Lillard said on ABC postgame when asked what he had left for the Lakers. “Now we’ve just got to get rested and get ready for the next thing. Our work is just beginning.”
The Lakers, who wrapped up practice before this game and thus did not have the benefit of an extra day to prepare specifically for Portland, can now officially task all of their assistant coaches with figuring out the best plan of attack to limit Lillard, McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic (while taking advantage of Portland’s abysmal defense on the other end).
Lakers head coach Frank Vogel said his team spent most of Saturday’s session working on things that needed to be improved regardless of who their first-round opponent would be.
“You look for things that apply to both opponents,” Vogel said. “There are principles and concepts that apply, and we kind of took some of those and put it in play in terms of what we’re going to work on. But today’s practice was really more about what we do than about opponent scout and prep. I think we got a lot done, and I think we got better today.”
The Lakers will have a few days now to prep for Portland specifically. They are 2-1 against the Blazers this year, and their stars have been especially productive in those matchups. For all the talk of the Lakers having to find a way to deal with quick guards — a genuine possible issue — Nurkic and his fellow defensive sieve, Hassan Whiteside, will have to find a way to slow down Anthony Davis, who is averaging 32 points against Portland this year and will likely feast on the Blazers’ lack of interior defense.
LeBron James was held slightly below his scoring average against the Blazers this year, and his assists were slightly up, but his past production also has to be thrown out to some degree. The Blazers don’t have Trevor Ariza, and while he was hardly a “LeBron stopper” (if such a thing even exists) at this stage, he was better than their current options, which include Gary Trent Jr., Skinny Melo and Mario Hezonja. Lol.
And for all the concern about the Lakers finishing their eight (mostly meaningless) games in the bubble as the third-worst offense in Disney World, Portland’s 27th-ranked defense (on the season) that allowed teams to score 120.4 points per 100 possessions in the bubble (third-worst of any team at Disney) may be exactly the Los Angeles needs to get its offense unclogged.
Basically, Lillard may be a PROBLEM [snort emojis], but he’s not the only one in this series. Color me optimistic that there is a better chance the Lakers figure something out defensively to slow Portland than there is that the Blazers find a way to stop L.A. with any regularity. This series will likely feature some tight games, but an upset seems astoundingly unlikely.
The first round of the playoffs will tip off in Orlando on Tuesday, August 18 at 6:00 p.m. PT. Game One will be televised on Spectrum SportsNet.