"Clarity" would certainly be the wrong word to describe the Western Conference playoff ladder, but things do seem to be clearing up, at least a little. Looking at the standings through Saturday, there is at least the potential for separation among the bottom three teams, based on what happens Sunday when the Lakers and Blazers tussle at Staples (12:30 pm PT, ABC).
Oklahoma City has 30 losses, San Antonio and Portland 31 each. Obviously the Lakers can push Brandon Roy and Co. to 32 with a win this afternoon, which wouldn't guarantee they'd face the Blazers in the first round but would make it far more likely. (Should the Lakers lose, I'm going back to my original plan: Look at the Web Thursday morning and see who landed in the eight spot.)
How the Lakers handle today's game could provide insight toward their preferred playoff opponent, or at the very least if they fear a series sending them into the Rose Garden up to three games. Saturday in El Segundo, Phil Jackson indicated Kobe Bryant will play, and theLakers will bring a full effortdespite having wrapped up the W.C.'s top seed. (Rest will likely be doled out this week against Sacramento and the Clippers.) The result should be a playoff atmosphere, and a fun game to watch.
The Blazers, 17-7 (.708) since the All-Star break and winners of 11 of 14, are a dangerous team for a variety of reasons:
Brandon Roy is awesome, his versatility making him a difficult cover over seven games.
The Blazers are still thin down low, but the acquisition of Marcus Camby has improved their defensive posture substantially. Portland is 15-6 (.714) since picking him up from the Clippers.
Between Martell Webster and Nicolas Batum, the Blazers have the type of wing length able to bother Kobe. Particularly in Batum, who has in the 34 games he'd played since returning from a torn labrum in his right shoulder, has established himself as a hugely important player in Nate McMillan's system. Batum is long, athletic, and most importantly, takes pride in his defense. He's got skill in the open floor and is a quality three-point shooter (42.5 percent), but his most critical role in a series would be slowing Kobe.
The Blazers may be young, they may have athletes, but they play slower than any team in the league and are among the NBA's most efficient offenses. They're happy to work in the halfcourt, and don't have a style easily disrupted by the natural tendency for things to get bogged down in the playoffs. If they need to play in the mud, they can. They've practically lived there all year.
After losing 16 trillion man-games to injury, I don't think adversity is something that will cause them to shrink.
Any road venue is tough come playoff time, but man alive, the Rose Garden is a hostile place for the Lakers.
Portland doesn't turn the ball over (second in the NBA in team TO's at 12.11 a night, hit the glass pretty well (seventh in rebound rate), and are a top-third team in free throws attempted per field goal attempt.
For more, ESPNLA's Arash Markazi sat down with former Hornets assistant Dave Miller Wednesday night when the Blazers beat the Clippers, and together they assembled this scouting report. It's a comprehensive breakdown, well worth a read.