In preparation of the Lakers' game against the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday (12:30 p.m., ABC), ESPNLosAngeles.com reporter Arash Markazi sat down with Dave Miller, who has over 20 years of experience as an assistant coach in college basketball and the NBA, to offer a scouting report on the Trail Blazers who the Lakers might also see in the first round of the playoffs.
The first thing you have to know about the Trail Blazers is there is no curse when the Lakers play this team. The Lakers lost nine games over five years in Portland because the Trail Blazers always came out stronger and outplayed the Lakers, out-hustled them, out-toughed them and took the game from them.
There were no curses involved.
Portland is simply a unique place for the Lakers to play because Portland hates the Lakers and that hostility has transferred over to the players who play at another level when the Lakers are in town. When the Lakers go to cities like Atlanta, Phoenix and New York, half the arena is wearing Lakers jerseys. In Portland you can count the number of Lakers fans at the Rose Garden on one hand while 20,000 Blazers fans are screaming, "Beat LA!"
Portland's motto this year has been we'll play who is available – no excuses. Nate McMillan has done an amazing job of managing this team after losing both his bigs in Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla for the season and remaining a physical team. Portland has been depleted by injuries and has still competed every night. They have a great bench and every player has been given a role and they've accepted their roles.
The Blazers have a hit first mentality when they play the Lakers. They're not afraid of them and are always out to strike first and it's imperative for the Lakers to try and curtail this because when Portland wins the first quarter they usually win the game. Portland is also 25-1 when they hold their opponents to 90 or less points so the Lakers have to get into an offensive rhythm and if they hit their average of 102 points they should win.
Against Portland you want to make sure you take good shots on offense because this team loves to run on turnovers. The Lakers have to limit their turnovers which have been their Achilles heel as of late. It's important the Lakers don't take bad or ill-advised shot because Portland will run on them when the floor is unbalanced off the rebound and kill them in transition.
This is an example of what coaches usually put in the personnel reports that are given to the players the day before a game.
• Miller is a pass first point guard who doesn't look to score but is capable of scoring. He had 52 points at Dallas this year so while he's not looking to score don't let him get off early. He loves to post on the block and he's one of the best in the league at drawing contact and just as importantly finishing through it. He is a smart player who will push the ball when the opportunity presents itself and pitch ahead to rim runners. He's always looking for bigs slipping screens and probes the ball but can attack the rim. He's crafty with the ball and will post you up. He's a good offensive rebounder. You must locate him in transition and stop the ball. It's important to protect the paint against him – stay squared and stay between him and the basket. Stay down on his pump fakes and make him take contested jump shots and block out.
• Roy is a three-time NBA All-Star who wants the ball in his hands. He's right below that Kobe Bryant/ Dwyane Wade class, but he's going to follow in their footsteps soon enough and be a premier player for a long time. You have to understand he's going to get his but you have to keep others under their average. Roy is very versatile and can play the 1, 2, or 3. He also has good size; good handles and likes the left to right crossover. You have to respect his range as a shooter and always locate him in transition. He's a tough player and a very good shooter going left. He will shoot the three but has an excellent range game and will finish at the rim with authority.
• Aldridge is a long, talented player who loves to run the floor and will look for quick post-ups. He loves the fade away jumper in the post. So the number one thing with him is to give him no transition dunks or easy transition scores like lay-ups. Don't let him post on the sweet spot in the paint, which means you don't want him posting with two feet in the paint. Make him catch the ball off the block because that easy fade-away jumper becomes a difficult fade-away jumper when it goes from 6-foot corner jumper to a 10-foot baseline jumper. The farther you get him away from the block the tougher the shot is and the toughest shot in basketball is that baseline jumper.
• Howard is a pick and pop guy. There are two types of screeners in this league, pick and pop and pick and roll, and he's definitely popping or shooting after the pick. He loves to shoot the elbow jumper. He's never had a pretty shot but it's a very effective shot. It's amazing that he still has some gas in his tank. He is a winner who was brought to Portland as a back-up but because of the injuries to Odon and Przybilla he has proven he can still play because he can make a shot and defend.
• Batum is a 21-year-old second year player and what makes him so good is he has a lot of European experience. Even though he's a young player he's extremely experienced and is used to the physical play after being exposed to the European game. He runs the court extremely well, is aggressive offensively and can handle the ball well.
• Fernandez is a high energy guy. He's like the Energizer Bunny when he gets in the game – he just goes. He's very crafty with the ball and elusive in transition. It's important to locate him and stop him from being a playmaker in the open court.
• Webster is an excellent shooter but he falls in love with shooting three-pointers. In fact, half his shots are three-pointers. He likes to catch and shoot and when his feet are set his shots usually fall. He's a strong post player who's long and can shoot over smaller guards. It's important to be there when he catches the ball and make him put the ball on the floor.
• Camby is a very effective shooting big man and the runs the floor well. He's a rim runner who will leak out and has a range of about 17-18-feet. He's mostly going to catch and shoot off the pick and pop. He's a good offensive rebounder and a great shots blocker. He prefers to post on the block and is looking for a turnaround jumper over his right shoulder. It's important to be aware of lobs to him after pin downs. Locate him in the transition and give him no easy baskets. Make him drive and prevent from the catching and shooting the ball. He prefers to dribble right so make him go left. Stay attached to him on the pop and always block out. Put a body on him because he does not like physical play.
KEYS TO BEAT PORTLAND
• 1. You have to jump on the Blazers from the start. Since the Lakers will be at home on Sunday they cannot simply match Portland's energy they must to exceed it. Portland is the third youngest team in the NBA and you have to surpass their energy and you accomplish that by executing on both ends of the floor.
• 2. The Lakers must defend without fouling. In the Lakers' loss at Portland on Jan. 8 the Blazers shot 39 free throws and made 32 of them. The Lakers shot 10 free throws and made 5 of them. That's a 32 to 5 advantage on the free-throw line in a 9-point game. The key is to defend without fouling and the Lakers can accomplish this by playing defense before their man receives the basketball. You have to play defense before your man receives the ball because if you're adjusting after your man gets the ball you're already beat. A great defender adjusts his defensive stance while the ball leaves the passer's fingertips and before the receiver catches it. That's going from an on-the ball defensive stance to a one-pass deny defensive stance.
• 3. Move the basketball on offense. All coaches tell their team to get the ball to the second side of the offense. What that means is when you have the ball swing, swing, swing and swing it. You don't want to come down and throw one pass and jack up a shot. You want to make the defense work and expend energy; to do that you take the ball from the strong side to the weak side and back to the weak side. You want to stretch the defense side to side like a rubber band and soon enough it's going to lose its elasticity and that's when you attack it.
• 4. The Lakers can't settle for jumpers. Play the game inside-out. Pau Gasol is not only a skilled passer but he's a willing passer as well. The Lakers' bigs don't have to shoot it every time, but they need to command the double team and set the table for their teammates, which means kicking out to the open man. Set the table and feed your teammates with the easy assist. The Lakers will make more outside jump shots if they bring it inside and when the double comes, kicking it out. Make the extra pass and the basketball karma gods will make sure there will be some net noise, not rim noise as has been the case with this team as of late.
• 5. You cannot give the Blazers second chance opportunities. You have to block out and make the theme for the night, "one and done" when they shoot the ball. The Blazers are fourth in the league in offensive rebound rate (28.4) and get a good number of their points on second chance opportunities.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Defensively the Lakers give Portland way too many easy baskets. They must contest all jumps shots. In Portland their rotations were non-aggressive and slow.
Portland plays so physical that they disrupt the Lakers. They impede cuts and bump and push and disrupt the timing of the Triangle. They make you catch it farther out on the floor than you want. In other words they make you run your offense out of the comfort zone by disrupting your timing.
The Blazers have been ravaged by injuries during the season to Greg Oden, Joel Przybilla, Rudy Fernandez and Steve Blake, who was later traded, and continued to play hard. Thirteen different Blazers have missed a combined 298 games because of injury or illness. Only Andre Miller and Martell Webster have played in every game and the Blazers have played two months without a legitimate center. That tells you how resilient and tough this group is. While their roster has been depleted with injuries, defense has carried them.
They've been consistent because Portland is a very well coached team with Nate McMillan. He played the game the right way and coaches the game the right way.
Portland is a team that pushes it when the opportunity presents itself. They are not a fast breaking team but they push it when opportunities arrive in the form of turnovers and ill-advised shots out of the offense.
You can't let Portland win the hustle boards, which are loose balls and offensive rebounds.
The Lakers have to take advantage of their size advantage. Sometimes I think the Lakers' inside game is reliant… reliant on their guards feeding the post-players. They must get the ball inside more often. In the Lakers' last loss in Portland, Bynum shot his first free throw with 49.9 seconds left in the game. That can't happen to your starting center against this team.
If Brandon Roy guards Ron Artest, it is imperative that Artest post him to death. Give him a heavy dose of the post and punish him down there. You want him to get a couple quick fouls because he'll have to play the rest of the game with his hands in his pocket.
If the Blazers go to a small lineup they can't force the Lakers into an up and down tempo; taking quick jump shots. The Lakers don't want to settle for jumpers; they want to play inside-out.
If you don't swing the ball on offense you never put the Blazers into a defensive scramble. It's easy to defend a 1,2 3 pass offense. You want the defense to make a mistake, have a miscommunication, somebody not fighting for a screen or somebody losing their man on a back cut, etc. If it's a one pass possession you're not making them expend energy on the defensive end of the floor.
And finally, while everyone wants to talk about the Lakers curse up in Portland let's not forget Portland has lost five in a row at Staples Center and lost the last time these two teams played at the Rose Garden. Again, there is no such thing as a curse when it comes to the Portland Trail Blazers.
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com