After inexplicably losing the first game of their first-round series, the Lakers are back on track and find themselves in exactly the position most experts predicted at the start of the postseason: ready to close out the Portland Trail Blazers in five games.
But even though the Lakers have firmly taken hold of this series, and will face a shorthanded Portland team without Damian Lillard in their next game, a closeout game presents new challenges.
“It’s always the most difficult game in a series,” head coach Frank Vogel said before practice Tuesday. “You’re playing a team that’s a playing with great desperation, but is also willing to try anything to survive, so it’s the ultimate case of expect the unexpected, and you have to try to match their desperation.”
The Lakers have played like the more desperate team since game 1, and their star LeBron James has a sterling record in closeout games: 34-10. (For what it’s worth, Anthony Davis is 1-0 in such opportunities.) Despite James’ success in closeout situations, he also emphasized how difficult it can be to put a team away. There is an extra sense of purpose when the team that is behind has nothing left to lose, and it’s important to squash out any signs of life immediately.
“It’s the hardest game of the series, that’s what I know. It’s the hardest game because you know that the team you’re playing, they’re desperate,” James said Tuesday. “They’re going to give you everything that they got because they know they can be sent home. So I come in with that same desperate mindset. I feel the same way. If we don’t win, I feel like we get sent home. And that’s just always been my motive, my psyche, my mindset going into a closeout game. I haven’t always been victorious but I have that mindset, and hopefully we can do just that on Wednesday.”
The quality disparity between the Blazers and the Lakers through four games indicates that Los Angeles shouldn’t have too many difficulties. Add in the absence of Lillard, and it’s hard to put together a game plan that results in a Portland.
But this is a relatively new team. They’ve never been in the playoff fire together, even if individual Lakers have varying degrees of experience in the postseason. The Lakers passed every test that came their way during the regular season, but a closeout game is a unique situation. Think back to the 1999-2000 Lakers, who were postseason favorites for the first time. That Shaq/Kobe team went 4-6 in closeout games, adding a great deal of unnecessary drama en route to their first title.
Vogel doesn’t think this Lakers team will be overwhelmed by the moment, though he acknowledges that it’s impossible to know for sure.
“My understanding of our team and my belief in our team is that we’re gonna rise to the occasion in these big moments when it’s needed the most, and obviously that’s the one thing we have not checked the box on because we haven’t been there yet,” Vogel said. “But that’s in front of us, coming up hopefully over the next however long these playoffs proceed, and what we do in those big moments is really the last piece of my understanding of trying to learn new things about our team.”
It’s in the team’s best interests that game 5 reveals nothing new, that the Lakers continue to exercise their dominance over the Blazers, and they continue to show up on the biggest stages. This may be a new challenge for the Lakers, but they have prepared for this moment and will be ready to meet it.