Among the more entertaining in L.A.'s run of 11 wins in 12 tries coming out of the All-Star break was the Lakers' 106-101 overtime victory against the Blazers in Portland on Feb. 23. Kobe Bryant went off for 37, while Ron Artest made eight of his 13 shots en route to 24 points, one shy of his high in a Lakers uniform. Meanwhile, as a team the Lakers made up a seven-point deficit with under two minutes remaining, pushing the game into the extra period and eventually to a win.
This was good stuff.
Sunday evening, the Blazers come to town, looking a little different from the group L.A. defeated at the Rose Garden last month. They've since made the trade with Charlotte for Gerald Wallace, and Marcus Camby is back in the lineup following January knee surgery, adding size, rebounding and a defensive presence inside for an otherwise undersized team. Portland comes in on a roll, having won seven of nine. On the other hand, the Blazers have struggled mightily at Staples Center, losing 15 of their last 18 visits.
If the season ended today, the Lakers and Blazers would miss each other in the first round of the playoffs, but the potential for a matchup is real, making tonight's game interesting on a lot of levels. Obviously Portland can't expect to thrive against the Lakers in the postseason without showing an ability to win in L.A. Meanwhile, the Blazers, particularly with Wallace in the fold, are a well-coached, active, deep and versatile team capable of throwing multiple bodies at Kobe.
To get a better feel for tonight's game and what might come in April, on Saturday's installment of ESPNLA On Air, Andy and I hit up Jason Quick, who covers the Blazers for The Oregonian, for some insight:
On what has gone well integrating Gerald Wallace, and where the Blazers have found problems:
"If you ask him, he'll say the worst part of coming to the Blazers is they're playing him a ton at power forward, and he feels like he's mostly a small forward. He's only 6-7, but he's pretty physical. They've been playing him a lot at power forward. That's where he's starting now -- they've moved LaMarcus Aldridge over to center. The Blazers seem to play better when they play small like that. It seems to ignite some energy and gives them some more versatility defensively. He's just starting -- [Saturday's win over Philadelphia was] as a starter. They're [now 3-0]. That's hindered his progress a little bit with the team, because he was coming off the bench. He was playing 39 minutes a game with Charlotte, and then he had to come here and come off the bench.
"He's still playing a lot -- he's playing about 32, 33 minutes minutes with the Blazers -- but he's starting to fit in better. ...
"The Blazers, throughout much of the season, would start some possessions in zone, and then right in the middle go man to man, and he was getting mixed up on that. The Blazers also switch a ton, probably more than any other team in the NBA they switched on the pick-and-rolls, and he was getting a little confused with that. But now they've simplified their defense, and he's starting to make an impact.
"He gives this team some physicality. This was kind of more of a finesse team, with Marcus Camby at center, LaMarcus Aldridge at power forward -- those are some pretty finesse players. But Gerald, as we saw in Miami, he took it right at LeBron James. I haven't seen a Blazer physically dominate LeBron James in my whole time here, but he did that, and the Blazers as a result won in Miami."
On Marcus Camby, and how the team compensates for a lack of size:
"The thing is, Marcus Camby still isn't totally back from his knee surgery. They're still limiting his minutes to about 20 a game, and Marcus has been, I would say, highly ineffective since he had his surgery late in January. He just returned in late February, and he's been a shell of the player he was prior to his knee injury. This team plays a lot of zone, and they try to make up for it there. ... They have a bunch of guys running around, and they cover for each other a lot, but big teams worry the Blazers, and of course, that's the Lakers' hallmark is their length."
On the possibility of seeing L.A. in the first round of the playoffs:
"I don't think anybody wants to see the Lakers in the first round. This would be an absolute nightmare playoff matchup for the Blazers. I think the worst matchup of any that could possibly happen."