Game Details: Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA. 6:30 PM. TV: CSN. Radio: KXTG (95.5 FM)
Projected Portland Starting Lineup: PG Andre Miller (#24, 6′2″, Utah), SG Brandon Roy (#7, 6′6″, Washington), SF Nicolas Batum (#88, 6′8″, France), PF LaMarcus Aldridge (#12, 6′11″, Texas), C Marcus Camby (#23, 6′11″, UMass)
Projected Los Angeles Starting Lineup: PG Derek Fisher (#2, 6’1″, Arkansas – Little Rock), SG Kobe Bryant (#24, 6’6″, Lower Merion High School), SF Ron Artest (#15, 6’7″, St. John’s), PF Lamar Odom (#7, 6’10”, Rhode Island), C Pau Gasol (#16, 7′, Spain)
The Trail Blazers are already on their third back-to-back of the young season, and it’s not likely that any of the remaining 16 on their schedule will feature two games that are as much polar opposites as these. Last night, the Blazers played one of the league’s worst teams at home with a day of rest. Today, they play arguably the very best, at one of the toughest arenas in the league. Although they pulled out a double-digit win against the Raptors yesterday, their play wasn’t exactly encouraging. Despite stellar games from Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Nicolas Batum, the Blazers did an abysmal job of taking care of the ball for long stretches. In all honesty, they should have won by twice as much as they did. Needless to say, that kind of carelessness isn’t going to fly tonight.
The Lakers should need no introduction. They’re the two-time defending champions and, as scary as it is to think about, they may very well be even better than they were last year. The usually inconsistent Lamar Odom has been playing out of his mind this year, a development we can probably credit to his Team USA experience this summer. In terms of free-agent acquisitions, the Lakers quietly had one of the best offseasons of any team not named the Miami Heat. Former Blazer Steve Blake is an ideal fit for Phil Jackson’s triangle offense, a pass-first point guard who can hit threes when necessary. In Matt Barnes, Los Angeles has one of the most hard-nosed players in the league, a guy who absolutely thrives as a bench defender on good teams. And Theo Ratliff has proven to be a solid insurance policy for the injured Andrew Bynum. Which reminds me, the Lakers are this dominant without Bynum. Speaking of scary thoughts.
And then there are the regulars, the guys we know well. Kobe Bryant is still arguably the best player in the world. Pau Gasol is possibly the best big man in the game. Ron Artest is still a top-tier defensive stopper who can score when he has to. Derek Fisher is a defensive liability at his age, but there are very few guys you’d rather have taking the last shot in a close game. Shannon Brown and Sasha Vujacic are proven offensive sparkplugs off the bench. There are no weaknesses at all on this roster, and truth be told, I’m hard-pressed to think of a reason why they won’t three-peat as world champions.
Which isn’t to say Portland can’t beat them tonight, but it won’t be easy. The Blazers have matched up well against the Lakers in the past, but for the last few years this series has been one where the home team usually wins. Even more than usual, Marcus Camby cannot get into foul trouble early. The idea of Aldridge and Sean Marks trying to contain Gasol and Odom is enough to give any Blazers fan nightmares. Aldridge has put together a string of impressive games, and that needs to continue tonight. With Rudy Fernandez likely out again with back spasms, the Blazers’ second unit will have to step up dramatically in order to hang with one of the deepest benches in the league. Wesley Matthews has struggled for the last week, but he knows how to guard Kobe (see last year’s conference semifinals), and will very likely see some time defending him. Armon Johnson made five turnovers last night against Toronto, which is unacceptable, and the Lakers will make the Blazers pay if that happens again.
More than anything, though, the Blazers’ chances come down to Roy’s willingness to take over if necessary. In the loss to Oklahoma City on Thursday, he seemed hesitant to take control in the fourth quarter. Tonight, they’ll be going against one of the all-time great finishers, and he needs to be able to flip that switch. Regardless, this is by far the Blazers’ biggest challenge of the year so far, and will probably be one of the toughest games they have all year. For every other game, we’ve been able to say, “if the Blazers do everything right, there’s no reason they shouldn’t come away with a win.” When it’s the Lakers, the Blazers have to not make any mistakes in order to even have a shot. Los Angeles just has too many weapons. Handing the defending champions their first loss of the season would be a monumental statement, but even just not embarrassing themselves would be an acceptable outcome for Portland.