In the world of professional sports, narrative is everything. We come to the games to see competition at it’s highest, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat and all that, but we pay attention because of the stories. Think of the Olympics. In a competition that lasts a month, the only thing that matters is the back story of how athletes we’ve never heard of, participating in sports that for the most part we care very little about, sacrificed their otherwise regular lives to devote themselves to the quest for Olympic Gold.
It’s the liberal application of these stories, bookended by some of the most intense competition ever that makes the Olympics an international television success every four years.
More than almost every other professional league, the NBA thrives off of narrative to keep it going. Eighty-two games is a long season. Fans, especially casual fans, need some through line to hold their interest from start to finish. No team in the NBA is more steeped in narrative. And no Laker narrative has been quite like the narrative of the Lakers in 2012-13.
Friday, when Portland travels to the Staples Center to try and go 2-0 against the Lakers on this season, very little of what’s at stake will have anything to do with the Blazers. The New Jersey Nets may have just fired their coach and are looking like one of the league’s most over-hyped teams, but nothing has overshadowed the Lakers mixture of futility and dysfunction. Even a story as interesting as a 15-game winning streak by the Los Angeles Clippers is framed against the failures of their Staples Center counterparts.
So, are the Los Angeles Lakers a bad basketball team? I don’t think so. Any team with four of the best players in the league (one of them the arguably the best player ever) can’t be that bad. I do think, though, that Dwight Howard might not be best suited to the personnel around him. I also think that with a bench as thin as LA’s they have very little room for error.
When the Lakers faced the Blazers at the Rose Garden to kick off Portland’s season, they’d lost nine straight (eight of those in the preseason and one to open their regular season campaign). I expected the Blazers to beat the Lakers since Portland almost always beats LA at home. I’m pretty sure nobody expected what would follow. There’s no need to go into the details of the Lakers’ foibles, anybody who has watched SportsCenter in the last two months knows them up and down.
With Steve Nash back in the lineup, the Lakers are a much better team. One of the best point guards in the game will have that impact on a squad. Kobe Bryant is still Kobe Bryant. In fact, he’s playing like the Kobe Bryant who knows in his heart of hearts that for his team to have a chance he’s going to have to play at an MVP level. Even so, the Lakers remain seriously vulnerable.
LA can still become one of the best teams in the West, counting them all the way out 30 games in is foolish, they just aren’t there quite yet.
Blazers Starting 5: PG Damian Lillard, SG Victor Claver, SF Nicolas Batum, PF LaMarcus Aldridge, C J.J. Hickson
Lakers Starting 5: PG Steve Nash, SG Darius Morris, SF Kobe Bryant, PF Pau Gasol, C Dwight Howard
First-five on first-five, Portland is slightly over-matched, especially with Wesley Matthews (most likely) out of their lineup. A front line of Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard should be able to overpower LaMarcus Aldridge and J.J. Hickson. Anything Nicolas Batum can do on offense will be doubled or tripled by Kobe Bryant. Steve Nash may be old, but he’ll be a tough cover for Damian Lillard.
The key for Portland Friday will be trying to replicate some of the things they did so well against the Kings on Wednesday. Those things would be getting stops, turnovers, and easy buckets. The Lakers, regardless of how poorly they may be playing, are not the Kings though. Whereas Sacramento basically abandoned their half-court offense once they got way behind, playing into the Blazers’ man-stopping perimeter defense, a Kobe Bryant-Steve Nash led Laker team will commit to playing a full 48 minutes in the half court. Because this will likely be a half court game, Portland needs to put even more of a premium on defensive rebounds and running whenever possible.
The Blazers will also need to find a way to score inside. Scoring inside is part of the easy baskets thing, and was something Portland did basically at will against the Kings. Dwight Howard is the definition of a force in the paint, but the Blazers can’t be tentative in attacking him. I’ll take getting to the free throw line as a by-product of trying to score inside. Wednesday, LaMarcus Aldridge shot 6-of-7 from the line, but Damian Lillard didn’t even take a free throw, Nicolas Batum only took four, and J.J. Hickson only had two.
Portland got a lot of dunks against the Kings, part of the reason they didn’t shoot many free throws. I’ll take dunks over free throws any day of the week, but I would love to see the Blazers getting to the line more often. I would especially like to see Meyers Leonard make more than one trip to the stripe. He’s proven to be quite a free throw shooter, and without much height coming off the Laker bench, there will be plenty of good opportunities for Meyers Friday night.
What to Watch For
- Can Portland not get beaten by LA’s reserves. Kobe Bryant will get 30. Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, and Steve Nash are still All-World talents. A strong all around game from Portland should be able to hang with a strong came from LA’s four All-Stars. If Portland lets somebody like Jodie Meeks have a big night, they’ll probably be in trouble. That goes for Metta World Peace as well. Although, as somebody noted on Twitter the other night, a good way to beat the Lakers might be to let MWP have a big quarter early in the game. In the event that happens, he won’t stop shooting, and will likely put up a shot or two in the fourth quarter that will sink the Lakers.
- The battle of the benches. Portland’s bench is bad, but so is LA’s. Will Barton had a great night Wednesday (I’m keeping him out of the starting lineup because I’m betting head coach Terry Stotts sticks with Victor Claver), so he could have a big night against the Lakers minimal reserves. Meyers Leonard could be effective too. Jordan Hill is LA’s only back-up big who plays. Meyers should be able to do some work offensively against Hill.
- Will Portland go to Hack-a-Howard, and if they do will it work. The Blazers didn’t need to rely on Dwight Howard’s historic inability to make free throws to beat the Lakers on Halloween. I’m all for putting Howard on the line every time he touches the ball. My only problem with it is that Dwight tends to make free throws against the Blazers. He once made 13 free throws in a game against Portland. To be fair, though, the Magic lost that night, proving a Dwight Howard team can lose when he misses a lot of free throws and when he makes a lot of free throws.