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Lakers vs. Blazers Preview: Struggling Damian Lillard hosts stagnant purple and gold

Damian Lillard is off to a slow start this season. Can the Lakers make sure the superstar doesn’t have a breakout game against them on Saturday? 

Los Angeles Lakers v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

One of the many things Damian Lillard has consistently been good at throughout his remarkable career is exploding vs. Lakers. In the 30 regular season games Dame has played against the purple and gold, he’s scored at least 26 points or more 15 times. And he’s won 21 of those games as well.

So even if Lillard currently finds himself in what might be the worst shooting slump of his career, it’s hard to blame Lakers fans for believing that he will probably have his best game of the season on Saturday.

Maybe Dame always has his best games against the Lakers because it’s his life long dream to play for the purple and gold (this is a joke, Blazers fans), or because L.A. always has a spotlight for him to shine under, whether the team is good or bad. But whatever is it, Dame and the Blazers will probably want to get their winning mojo back by beating a vulnerable Lakers squad that he turned down the chance to join this summer. If he does, it won’t be a shock, as these are the same Lakers who have barely beaten non-playoff teams this season and embarrassingly lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder twice in a span of eight days.

However, the good news for the Lakers is that they’re facing a Portland team that has also had its fair share of struggles so far. The Blazers currently have the record of 3-5, and have also lost to several teams not expected to be playoff contenders, dropping matchups against the Sacramento Kings and Cleveland Cavaliers. A big reason for their early struggles is that Lillard is currently averaging a career-low 19.5 points per game, and is shooting only 23.4% from the 3-point range so far. And even aside from Dame’s unusual slow start, Portland’s defense, bench production and C.J. McCollum’s inconsistency has also contributed to the team’s sluggish performance so far.

In short, Saturday’s nationally televised game is a battle between two inconsistent teams that have yet to find their identity. In order for the L.A. to leave Portland with a victory, they need to get the job done on both ends of the floor throughout the entire game.

Here are some things I’ll be looking out for.

Lakers’ defense needs to show up in all quarters

According to NBA.com stats, the Lakers rank fourth overall in total points per game (112.3) and are 12th in the league in offensive rating (107.4), but while L.A. has the potential to outscore their opponents every night, that ability goes to waste if they don’t get stops and allow their competitors to hang around.

No matter who is in the lineup, the Lakers simply have to be more disciplined on defense than they were against the Thunder.

The little consistent mistakes L.A. has been making on defense the past few games (late rotations and no adjustments) can’t happen against a Blazers team that is ranked ninth in points per game (111 points) and sixth in both offensive rating (109.9) and points per 100 possessions (111.1).

Portland scores in multiple ways, from Dame and C.J. on the perimeter, Jusuf Nurkic inside the paint and Norman Powell’s ability to convert defensive stops into points. It’s not certain the Lakers can learn from their mistakes overnight, but they’ll certainly need to show more effort on that end if they want to limit the scoring production of a powerful offensive team like the Blazers.

Moreover, another task the Lakers have to be better at is rebounding the freaking basketball. Portland ranks fifth overall in rebounds per game (48.3) as Nurkic is currently averaging 11.6 rebounds this season. There’s no excuse for the Lakers, a team that literally starts two big-men in the frontcourt to be ranked 24th in rebounds per game (44.4). The team has to mark their territory in the paint and make sure the Blazers don’t capitalize on second opportunities on Saturday.

Who steps up for the Lakers?

With LeBron James sidelined and Anthony Davis’ status still unclear for Saturday’s game, the Lakers need more production from guys outside of Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony. This would be the perfect game for Malik Monk, Kent Bazemore and Wayne Ellington to outperform the sixth best 3-point shooting team in the league.

They Lakers can outperform the Blazers by knocking down 3-pointers from the corner, because that’s what the Blazers defense will dare them to do. And if L.A.’s bench can also outplay Anfernee Simons, Larry Nance Jr. and the rest, then that’s would be a huge advantage for the purple and gold. And lastly, it would be great if Vogel tinkers his rotations by always putting one of Davis, Westbrook and even Anthony on the floor at all times so that the offense never completely crumbles.

From injuries to their superstars and key rotation pieces, to massive meltdowns — especially on the defensive end — the Lakers have dealt with significant adversity to start the season. The silver lining is that this is all happening in the early days of November, and that there’s still a ton of time to figure things out. The team has no choice but to deal with the cards handed to them at the moment.

Hopefully the Lakers handle the Blazers (who will be on the second night of a back-to-back) the right way on Saturday. If they can win the offensive battle while outperforming the Blazers’ poor defense, there’s a good chance that L.A. makes up for their embarrassing loss against the Thunder.

And oh, they also might want to pray that Lillard does not go off for 40 or 50 points, because while an explosion from him may feel inevitable, it’s the last thing the Lakers need to start this LeBron-less stretch.

Notes and Updates

  • Trevor Ariza (right ankle injury recovery), Talen Horton-Tucker (right thumb injury recovery), LeBron James (rectus abdominis strain) and Kendrick Nunn (right knee bone bruise) will be out on Saturday. While Anthony Davis (right thumb sprain) remains questionable and Dwight Howard (neck stiffness) is probable.
  • It also doesn’t sound like Nunn and Horton-Tucker’s returns are imminent.
  • And in league-wide news, our own Anthony Irwin and Aaron Larsuel continued to react to the latest on the Suns and the Sixers in the latest episode of “The Hook.”

The Lakers and Blazers will tip-off at 7:30 p.m PT on Saturday. The game will be televised nationally on NBA TV and on Spectrum SportsNet.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicoleganglani.