Can you feel it?
That tingle in your stomach. That twitch that has you cycling through Blazers highlight videos on Youtube. That twinge in your neck muscle that flares up anytime you see yellow and purple together. It can only mean two things…
You really hate eating eggplant and squash on gamedays. And the Lakers are in town.
No matter which way you look at it, tonight is a statement game. It’s an opportunity to set the tone for the rest of the regular season (the Division and seeding race) and the playoffs. You could say the Blazers already made their statement on the road in San Antonio, but the Spurs were neither healthy nor the undisputed top team in the Western Conference. The Lakers are both.
The big news yesterday was Andrew Bynum’s return to not only games, but to the starting lineup, pushing Lamar Odom back into the sixth-man role. Watching Bynum in the Lakers win over the Nuggets last night (thanks guys), he looked moderately rusty, throwing up and airball or two, but was still very active and was using those long arms to get the rebounds other guys just couldn’t get at. Sometime in the third quarter he boarded a Laker miss and, without brining the ball down an inch, flushed it through for an and-one. He might have a few awkward sequences tonight, but he still looks like Andrew Bynum and that’s bad news for the rest of the league.
I know you want me to drink some of the Trevor Ariza haterade, but that’s not happening. I honestly don’t think players hold grudges for very long after one-time hard fouls like that. The fans in the Rose Garden will give him a warm welcome, anyways. Now Odom, he’s another story. Hate on him as much as you want. I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing LaMarcus dunk on his head a couple times. I don’t know what it is about Odom, but he’s always in the middle of things or, at the very least, engaging in some lively chatter with Portland’s bench. The intimidation tactics haven’t worked for some time now, though, and I expect the Blazers to dish out in equal portions whatever game the Lakers want to bring.
That last paragraph might seem out of place to some of you, but it’s there to emphasize the things Blazers-Lakers matchups are all about (especially in the Garden): emotions and energy. The crowd should be in playoff form and the Blazers should be able to feed off that all night long. If the Blazers lose because the Lakers outplay them, so be it. But I can practically guarantee Portland won’t be flat and lethargic for this one. It’s Gold, Jerry, Gold.
Speaking of Gold, here’s a little nugget from John Hollinger in his ESPN chat today:
Jay (Burke, VA) [via mobile]: Who is the one team the Lakers hope goes/stays in the 2,3,6, and 7 bracket and they avoid until the WCF?
John Hollinger: (2:17 PM ET ) Portland, I believe. Blazers are probably playing the best of that gang right now and have fared pretty well against L.A. over the past couple years.
Hollinger, by the way, is in Portland tonight and should have a prominent ESPN article on the game tonight. If you have ESPN Insider, go check out the rest of that chat here. There’s a ton of Blazers-centric stuff, and Hollinger has done a complete 180 on the team since his modest preseason prediction. Portland the new Bristol?
The most important group is going to be the bench. The starters are all going to have their hands full (say it with me, control the pace, control the pace) and it might be up to the subs to get a full-blown run going. Sergio can’t afford to get burned by Farmar (having somewhat of a down year), but I’m looking at Rudy and Greg to provide on both ends of the floor. If Greg gets early fouls and Channing has to get big minutes possibly guarding Odom, we might be in trouble.
Then there’s Travis. He’ll probably be the key to this game. Even if LaMarcus is smashing and Roy is keeping up with Kobe, Travis can win this game with one of those 13-15 point games as long as he is outplaying whoever he’s matched up with, whether it’s Ariza, Odom, Turiaf Mbenga, whoever. Don’t be surprised to hear us — and the national announcers — say he’s the x-factor, wild card, darkhorse guy, more than once in the playoffs.
One interesting wrinkle (that I should’ve mentioned earlier) is that Phil Jackson will not be making the trip due to lower leg swelling caused by plantar fasciitis. We can’t pretend to know the inner workings of that coaching staff, but Kurt Rambis is very capable of standing at the helm of the Lakers warship, so it shouldn’t make too much of a difference tonight. You might see fewer of those outrageously Lakers-esque calls going to Kobe, though, without Phil working the refs.
This could be a special, special night. One that could get the rest of the country drinking that Blazers brand kool-aid. Let’s just hope Violet Palmer isn’t officiating.