It’s not a question of if we make the playoffs. We will. And when we get there, I have no fear of anyone — Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Denver … whoever. I have zero nervousness about that. But I’m not talking about just me. Us as a group. We will make the playoffs. And we will compete. — Kobe Bryant
The above is the guarantee that Kobe Bryant gave Sports Illustrated writer Jack McCallum in an article published yesterday. The degrees of difference between the plight of the Los Angeles Lakers and the rebuilding effort of the Portland Trail Blazers (two teams separated in the standings for first team excluded from the Playoffs by a measly half a game) has never been made more clear than by the words of Kobe Bean Bryant.
When the Blazers tip-off for their second and final appearance in the Staples Center in Los Angeles against the Lakers, they will be one or two bad stretches of a couple of games or more from an early off-season. In that very same game, the Lakers (a team with the same number of loses as the Blazers and just one more win) will be looking to get another win to build on their last big win (against the Celtics) to continue their stalking pursuit of the Houston Rockets and the eighth seed in the Western Conference Playoffs.
Portland is padding the landing, in a lot of ways, looking for positives in bad performances, preparing their fan base for what’s to come (a potent back court of Damian Lillard, Eric Maynor, and Wesley Matthews and no more minutes for Nolan Smith). The Lakers are making guarantees, being featured on more national television games than any other teams under .500, and are being hailed as the ever popular “team nobody wants to meet in the first round of the Playoffs,” regardless of the fact that ESPN’s Hollinger Playoff Odds give LA a 33% chance of evening making the Playoffs, roughly the same odds ESPN gives the 8th seeded Houston Rockets of NOT making the Playoffs.
To say that there is a significant difference between the Lakers and the Blazers at this point in their respective seasons or in the perceptions of their respective franchises is a pretty serious understatement. That they’ll both be outside of the Playoffs come the end of April probably won’t change that. These teams and these franchises will be on the same level the day Damian Lillard guarantees that his team will make the Playoffs when they are four games under .500 and 9th or lower in the Western Conference.
The chances that Damian Lillard makes that kind of guarantee are about as high as the chances that Kobe Bryant is able to make good on his guarantee, regardless of what happens at Staples Center Friday night.
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 Kobe Bryant, SF Metta World Peace, PF Earl Clark, C Dwight Howard
All is not lost for the Blazers even if on paper this match-up certainly favors the Lakers. The primary reason for Portland fans to feel positive coming in to Friday’s game is that the Lakers still haven’t played in real life the way projections on paper suggested that they would play. LA might be coming together a little bit as the pressure continues to mount, but there are still serious issues in the Lakers’ game. Portland can’t expect that LA is going to beat themselves, not at home, not against a team they’re battling for position, but they aren’t the super team they’re supposed to be (which we all know) and they haven’t found a way to correct some of the mistakes they’ve made that have led them to being three games below .500.
For the Blazers to have a chance on Friday, and even potentially win, they have to be aware that their margin for error basically does not exist. In Portland’s last game, a disappointing and actually pretty embarrassing loss to the Phoenix Suns, the Blazers proved once again that they can fight back from big deficits. But they also proved that even against a team with a terrible record mistakes are costly.
If Portland wants to beat LA, they have to limit errors and mistakes. That means not turning over the ball, finishing at the rim, getting good shots, and controlling the defensive glass. It also means playing defense. The Lakers are going to try and get out early and make this an uphill battle for the Blazers from start to finish. Dwight Howard is going to have easy access to the bucket, and that’s where LA is going to be able to do their quickest and most efficient damage. Keeping DH from having a huge first quarter should be Portland’s first goal.
The Blazers’ second goal for Friday should be to take advantage of the opportunities that will be given to them. There are going to be chances for Portland. The Lakers are a combustible group. They have a tendency to check in and out of games depending on how everything is flowing. If the Blazers can find a way to put scoring runs together and get a little momentum on their side, they have a chance to expose the cracks in the Lakers’ armor. Getting the Lakers to crack is the best way to bet them.
What to Watch For
- Can the Blazers play a complete game. Portland has shown time and time again that they can make a comeback when they get down big. They’ve also showed that if they can avoid getting down big, they can win. If the Blazers can avoid long stretches of not scoring, and if they can keep the score close for 48 minutes, I wouldn’t be surprised if Portland comes away with a win.
- Will the Blazers be able to ignore the implications of what this game means to both teams. Across the board, Portland has maintained that the Playoffs are still a goal and still a possibility. Kobe is guaranteeing the Playoffs (as I’ve already made clear). The team that wins Friday will be that much closer to achieving their goal. That means a lot for LA. If the Lakers miss the Playoffs, it will be only the second time Kobe Bryant has been excluded from the post season in his career. It means a little bit less to the Blazers. They’re thinking much longer term than just this season or this stretch run. However, the importance placed on Friday’s game with regards to the Lakers and their post season comes with a lot of pressure. All of that pressure is on LA. If Portland can play free and loose, like Friday’s game doesn’t mean anything, they might be able to make the Lakers feel that mounting pressure and then hopefully crack under that pressure.
- Damian Lillard. Dame has had big games in New York against the Knicks and in Miami against the Heat. Having a big game in Staples against the Lakers could be just another step on the road to the Rookie of the Year. The difference between a big game against the Heat and a big game against the Lakers is that 33 points from Lillard at Staples might be enough for Portland to get a win.