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Lakers at Portland: What to watch with Matt Calkins, The Columbian

4/8/2011

Since the All-Star break, the Lakers and Blazers have played two very tight games, one at the Rose Garden requiring overtime, the other at Staples, both Lakers wins but decided by a total of nine points. Factor in a deep and versatile roster, a decent amount of playoff experience, a little bit of star power (LaMarcus Aldridge has slowed from his absurd February pace, but is still playing very well), and the Lakers' well-documented struggles playing in Oregon, and it's easy to see why Portland is generally seen as the most dangerous of the three teams L.A. could see in the first round.

(For the record, Portland is winning the unofficial "first round playoff cities the media would prefer to visit," followed by New Orleans and in a distant third, Memphis.)

Jayne Kamin-Oncea/US Presswire

Gerald Wallace, still finding his way with the Blazers the last time these teams met, has found a groove recently.

Technically if the playoffs opened today the Lakers would draw New Orleans- though tied in the loss column, the Blazers have one more win than the Hornets- but Portland is still very much a possibility. Particularly if the Lakers come out of tonight's visit to the great northwest with a win. So aside from the practical implications, from L.A.'s efforts to stay in front of Miami and Boston (the latter becoming a little easier after the C's were eviscerated by Chicago Thursday night) to Portland's preference to win as many games as possible and avoid the Lakers in the first round, Friday's game becomes one of those classic "message" games ahead of the playoffs.

Not that a loss leaves the Lakers wondering if they can beat Portland over a seven game series- the Blazers could shut out the Lakers without impacting L.A.'s overall confidence- but the Blazers have a chance to earn some on their end, making them that much tougher an out. Or, should they sweep the season series, the Lakers can add that much more doubt into Portland's collective mind.

Statistically speaking, the Blazers are an interesting bunch, and in some ways very similar to the Lakers. For example:

  • They are the league's slowest team, at only 88 possessions per 48 minutes, a number they've hit only four times in their last 12 games. (Congress looks at Nate McMillan's crew and thinks they're inert.) The Lakers, meanwhile, sport the NBA's 10th slowest pace and have slowed down considerably as the season as progressed.

  • Portland is careful with the ball, sporting the league's fifth best turnover percentage at 12.6 (L.A. is currently second at 12.3, despite staging their own Turnoverpallooza during their three game losing streak).

  • Portland is fifth, one spot behind the Lakers, in offensive rebounding percentage. Like the Lakers, they are in the league's bottom third in defensive rebounding percentage.

  • Both teams are above league median in three point attempts, but below in three point percentage.

Not to say the Blazers are truly Lakers Lite. L.A. is a measurably better team in all sorts of areas, but if there's one spot the Lakers might run into a little trouble, it's here: Portland is by percentage the league's second best team forcing turnovers. For the Lakers, this shouldn't be a problem, but the aforementioned 57 turnovers over the last three games says a little extra attention to detail would serve them well tonight.

For more insight into the Blazers, I hit up- at the very last moment, making him a prince of a man for coming through- Matt Calkins of The Columbian with some questions:

1. How much would a win boost the Blazers heading into a possible first round matchup with the Lakers? Players always say this sort of thing doesn't matter, but in this case, does it?

Calkins: A win tonight would "boost" the Blazers only because it would lessen the odds of them meeting the Lakers in the first round. No player or coach in Portland will admit it, but an opening-round series with L.A. is the closest thing the Blazers have to a guaranteed early exit. Portland needs to hold on to that sixth seed in the West in hopes of meeting Dallas in the first round, and capitalizing on matchup advantages.

Should they drop to the seventh position, the Blazers will be exploited by Lakers' frontcourt size while Kobe Bryant performs in typical fashion. I realize that Magic Johnson said recently that the "hate factor" would make the Blazers Los Angeles' toughest first-round matchup, and that may be true. But that doesn't make it any less likely that the Lakers would dispose of Portland within four or five games.

Also, I'm not sure how much "finishing strong" really matters in regards to the regular season. Two years ago, Portland won 10 of its final 11 regular-season games before losing to the Rockets in the first round. Meanwhile, the Lakers lost seven of their last 11 regular-season games last year and won the championship.

2. When the teams last met, Gerald Wallace hadn't been well integrated into the offense. Still very hit and miss. How have things gone since?

Calkins: I did a little research during the Blazers-Mavericks game earlier this week and found that, before Portland acquired Wallace, it was 8-19 against playoff-bound teams. Since obtaining him? The Blazers are 9-5 against teams that would be in the postseason if it started today. I don't think this is a coincidence. Over Portland's past nine games, Wallace is the team's leading scorer and rebounder. He went for 40 points in a loss to Oklahoma City last week, and scored 29 points in Thursday's win over the Jazz. For a Blazers fan, the best part about all of that is that Wallace never looks to fill the stat sheet for its own sake. Whether it's playing defense, crashing the boards or scoring when necessary, the 28-year-old has been team-first ever since he showed up.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

Brandon Roy clearly isn't the player he used to be... but what is he now?

Should Portland garner the proverbial title of "the team nobody wants to face" heading into the first-round, Wallace will be the primary reason.

3. Where can Brandon Roy still be relevant in a matchup against L.A.?

Calkins: Opposing players' scouting reports are displayed in the Blazers locker room before each home game. I've always been curious as to what Roy's looks like for another team these days. On one hand, of the three games Roy has failed to record a field goal in his career, two have taken place since March 22. On the other hand, the guy scored 21 points in 27 minutes against Dallas last month, and tallied 11 points on 5 of 8 shooting in Thursday's win over Utah.

At two separate points, both Bryant and Ron Artest have called Roy the toughest player to guard in the NBA. However, those days are clearly behind him. But despite his limited mobility, Roy's ability to create space and hit the big shot in the fourth quarter is uncanny, and while he has become a bit of a defensive liability, the fact that Roy has accepted a supplemental bench role keeps him relevant and makes Portland that much more dangerous.

4. Whether you're talking about Friday's game or the playoffs, what is the Blazers-specific formula for beating the Lakers?

Calkins: Praying? Voodoo dolls? Look, the Blazers don't matchup well the the Lakers. Wesley Matthews said last week that his team could "easily be 2-1 against the Lakers" considering how it blew a fourth-quarter lead in two separate games. But the Lakers have also struggled against the Bobcats in years past and would still sweep Charlotte if they for some reason met in the playoffs.

Portland coach Nate McMillan mentioned how if you run enough pick and rolls against Los Angeles, you might have a chance — and LaMarcus Aldridge has slowly morphed into one of the more elite pick-and-roll forwards in the league. Even so, against the Lakers, you don't find a "formula" for winning, you just try to maximize your odds.

Thanks again to The Columbian's Matt Calkins for his responses.