9:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Lakers -6.5, Over/Under: 229.5
After the first few days of the NBA Playoffs it’s become quite clear that the Bubble has presented a harsh new reality for it’s participants, with momentum taking precedence over traditional advantages such as seeding, which brings us to Game Two between the Eighth-Seeded Portland Trail Blazers and the Top-Seeded Los Angeles Lakers from ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. After watching Game between these two sides, you’d probably think that their respective seeding was reversed, with the Trail Blazers (35-39, 8th in Western Conference) continuing to ride the wave of momentum that they’ve built throughout the seeding portion of their schedule, stealing Game One of this First Round Series with a dogged 100-93 victory on Tuesday Night. Though it’s only happened on five occasions in NBA History, Portland are a trendy pick to pull the upset over a No. One Seed, and quite frankly when you consider unique circumstances that this Postseason is occurring within, it’s really the perfect storm for an upset of this magnitude to take place. After all, there is no home court advantage, the rosters have been thinned, the players are confined to the controlled atmosphere created on the ESPN Campus away from their families, while so many teams have responded adversely to the four-month hiatus caused by the Covid-19 Pandemic. Essentially, we encourage you to abandon all conventional wisdom in regards to these Playoffs, which are easily the most unconventional in the history of the Association.
If you don’t know they’re story by now, we’ll enlighten you about the Blazers, who are arguably the most dangerous Eight Seed that the NBA has seen in recent memory. That’s because they never should have been an Eight Seed to begin with, certainly if they had the unit at their disposal for the duration of the season, which simply wasn’t the case. A year after advancing to their first Western Finals since 2000, Portland limped through an injury-ravaged campaign without their Staring Frontcourt and little depth to speak of, all the while being forced to integrate new faces in an attempt to stop the bleeding. And in all honesty, had it not been for the lengthy suspension of play, a very strong argument could have been made that Terry Stotts’ troops wouldn’t have even made in into the Playoffs. However, as we stated earlier, their trek to this point has not been under normal circumstances. One of a slew of teams out West invited to the Bubble, they took full advantage of the opportunity presented before them, winning six of their eight Seeding Games to force a Play-In for the Eighth Seed, which they outlasted the young Memphis Grizzlies, 126-122, last Saturday. At the forefront has been Damian Lillard (30.0 PTS, 46.3% FG, 40.1% 3FG, 4.3 REB, 8.0 AST, 1.1 STL, 26.9 PER), who has been nothing short of the MVP of the Bubble, and all things considered has made a very strong case to be that of the Regular Season as well; the five-time All-Star has never been better, averaging career-highs in a slew of categories including Points (30.0), Field Goal Percentage (46.3%), Three-Point Percentage (40.1%), Two-Point Percentage (52.4%), and Assists (8.0), with those figures raising exponentially during the Bubble to averages of 37.6 Points on 49.7% shooting from the field, including 43.6% from downtown, along with 4.3 Rebounds, 9.6 Assists, and 1.4 Steals. This is something that the Lakers found out first hand in Tuesday Night’s affair, as the 30-Year Old finished with Thirty-Four Points despite 9-of-21 shooting from the field (42.9%), including 6-of-13 from beyond the arc (46.2%), and 10-of-10 from the Free-Throw Line (100.0%). After getting off to a torrid start totaling Fifteen Points on 5-of-6 shooting (83.3%) in the First Quarter, Lillard was relatively quiet over the course of the following two frames, but eventually returned to prominence in the latter stages of the final stanza, draining a clutch 36-Footer with the game tied at 89-89, earning a lead that his side would not relinquish.
Lillard’s exploits aside, if there’s something to be taken away from Game One it’s that Portland is as healthy as they’ve been in months, and as a result are proving to be a nightmare for Los Angeles. With the presence of a healthy Jusuf Nurkic (17.6 PTS, 49.5% FG, 0.3 REB, 4.0 AST, 1.4 STL, 2.0 BLK, 22.6 PER) coupled with fellow Center, Hassan Whiteside (15.5 PTS, 62.1% FG, 13.5 REB, 1.2 AST, 2.9 BLK, 25.0 PER), Stotts has the requisite size to battle the Lakers’ Bigs in the Paint. Of course, the former missed the entirety of the season leading up to the hiatus rehabbing from a broken leg suffered well over eighteen months, while the latter was added in the Offseason as an insurance policy. Both have played very well since the Restart, offering excellent rim protection, while also plenty of production on the offensive end of the court. Nurkic has thoroughly embraced his return to action, with the towering Bosnian providing some sorely needed scoring the Post, averaging 17.6 Points, 10.3 Rebounds, 4.0 Assists, 1.4 Steals, and 2.0 Blocks in the Bubble, pushing Whiteside to the Bench, where he has become far more valuable after leading the league in Blocks (2.9). Say what you will about their overall defense as a team, but the Blazers sure can defend the rim, ranking Second Overall in Blocks this season (6.1), with the Lakers falling victim to eight on Tuesday, five of which came courtesy of Whiteside. And quite frankly, it’s not just the blocks, for that length deters strong finishes around the rim, which played a huge role in Los Angeles shooting a miserable 35.1% overall (which we’ll talk about shortly). After all, their dreadful three-point shooting aside, they were still held to 44.6% inside the arc, which is well below the 55.2% shooting they’ve enjoyed over the duration of the season.
Meanwhile, as much as the NBA shutdown benefitted their opponent, it’s become abundantly clear that it hasn’t helped the Lakers (52-19, 1st in Western Conference) at all, for they’ve struggled to look anything remotely close to the side that they were when league play was suspended. By and large, Los Angeles had spent the majority of the campaign at the top of the proverbial mountain, winning nine of eleven outings following the All-Star Break, with key victories over the likes of crosstown rivals, the Los Angeles Clippers (112-103), and the East’s Top Seed, the Milwaukee Bucks (113-103). For all intents and purposes, this team was clicking and performing well beyond expectations after undergoing a major overhaul in the Offseason, which saw the Front Office surround LeBron James (25.3 PTS, 49.3% FG, 34.8% 3FG, 7.8 REB, 10.2 AST, 1.2 STL, 25.5 PER) with a far more suitable Supporting Cast, headlined by All-Star Forward, Anthony Davis (26.1 PTS, 50.3% FG, 33.0% 3FG, 9.3 REB, 3.2 AST, 1.5 STL, 2.3 BLK, 27.4 PER). The two All-NBA fixtures complemented each other beautifully, with James deferring to the big man offensively to the point that he even led the league the league in Assists (10.2) for the first time in his storied career, while Davis looked like the frontrunner for Defensive of the Year honors. Furthermore, Frank Vogel appeared to have cultivated the roster into one of the most formidable in the league, particularly on the defensive end of the court, where they’re overall length and size led them to a top-ten finish in a slew of categories including Points Allowed (107.6), Field Goal Percentage (44.8%), Two-Point Percentage (51.0%), Three-Point Percentage (34.9%), Rebounds (45.7), Assists (23.4), Steals (8.6), Blocks (6.6), and Turnovers (15.9). Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to find many doubters in the championship credential back in March.
However, when it’s all said and done and we look back upon their 2019-2020 campaign in review, it will have to be divided into two halves: pre and post lockdown. As good as the Lakers were from October to March (49-14), they’ve been the opposite in the Bubble, losing six of their last nine games, including Tuesday’s debacle against the Trail Blazers. Maybe it’s rust, or perhaps it’s complacency born from the fact that they clinched the top seed out West just three games into the Restart, but whatever it may be, their flaws have been exposed and magnified of late, which is why everyone has been hitting the panic button in regards to this particular matchup with Portland. Since returning to action, Los Angeles has been terribly inconsistent, particularly on the offensive end of the court, where they’ve averaged just 106.9 Points on 44.1% shooting from the field, including a miserable 30.2% from beyond the arc. Granted, they really weren’t the most efficient of offensive teams pre-lockdown, but their play in the Halfcourt has left A LOT to be desired, particularly without James to facilitate. On of the biggest criticisms of Vogel’s troops this season has been their persistent reliance on the four-time MVP to create for his teammates offensively, with the attack lacking much of an identity whenever he’s taken a breather on the sideline. Simply put, most of the Supporting Cast aren’t adept at creating for themselves, and when you take away the team’s two Point Guards, Rajon Rondo (7.1 PTS, 41.8% FG, 32.8% 3FG, 3.0 REB, 5.0 AST, 0.8 STL, 12.4 PER) and Avery Bradley (8.6 PTS, 44.4% FG, 36.4% 3FG, 2.3 REB, 1.3 AST, 1.3 STL, 0.9 BLK, 8.9 PER), with the former breaking a bone in his thumb during practice in lieu of the Restart and the latter opting out altogether due to health concerns, the Lakers have been competing with a rather large hole at that position. Furthermore, both Rondo and Bradley are pests on the defensive end, capable of disrupting their opponents at the point of attack, and with James 35-Years old and having to rely upon to carry the Offense, there is no way that Vogel is going to have him chase around any of the litany of good Guards out West. Though he was activated for Game One, Rondo was ultimately held out of action on Tuesday, but is expected to return to the hardwood at some point in this series. While he certainly isn’t a marksman by an means (Career 31.6% 3FG), the veteran is fully capable of draping opposing Point Guards, and more importantly provides Los Angeles with a playmaking option sans James (5.0 AST), which is something that they’re in dire need of.
Given how poorly they performed in their 93-100 loss to the Blazers on Tuesday Night, it’s hard to imagine the Lakers playing any worse. On the night, they shot just 35.1% from the field, including an absolutely abysmal 5-of-32 from downtown (15.6%), while also netting just 21-of-30 Free-Throw Attempts (64.5%), despite assisting on a healthy Twenty-Two of their Thirty-Four Field Goals, and committing a mere Nine Turnovers. By and large, those last two statistics are typically indicative of efficient basketball, but anyone who watched Game One would be left felling otherwise. Simply put, it’s become cliche to refer to the NBA as a make or miss league, but this performance was a case of one team proving incapable of knocking down open shots. It’s not that they didn’t have many good looks, it’s that they failed to take advantage of them. To his credit, James totaled Twenty-Three Points, Seventeen Rebounds, and Sixteen Assists, which tied a career Playoff High, and if his teammates could have knocked down a few more open shots, he’d have had over Twenty Dimes. The likes of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (0-of-9 FG), Danny Green (4-of-12 FG), Alex Caruso (1-of-6 FG), and Kyle Kuzma (5-of-14 FG) are counted upon to make opponents pay for throwing all that attention towards James and Davis, and that quartet was nothing short of embarrassing, combining for Twenty-Seven Points on 10-of-41 shooting overall (24.1%), including 3-of-21 from the perimeter (14.2%). And then there is Davis, whose uneven performance as rather misleading; sure he totaled a team-high Twenty-Eight Points, but after posting Twenty-One in the First Half, he was relegated to just Seven following Halftime, and managed to shoot just 8-of-24 on the night (33.3%), including 0-of-5 from deep. Los Angeles are used to having a significant size advantage, but it was clear that they were troubled by Portland’s size in Game One, with Davis effected more than one would think. With concerns over his aggressiveness swirling, keep an eye on the big fella heading into Game Two.