Seriously, you all should know how much I “clamored” for the #Blazer 5 Rookie Lineup but to quote Switch in The Matrix: “Not like this.”
— Candace Buckner (@blazerbanter) April 10, 2013
If you’re the kind of Blazer fan I am, about a month and a half ago, when it seemed like Portland might pull of the impossible and be in contention down the stretch, you probably looked at this third to last home game in April as being one of the biggest games of the season.
Blazers vs. Lakers in Portland. Always a showstopper; always must-see basketball. A contending Portland team against a flailing LA team needing every single win they can muster to have a shot at the post season.
Part of that narrative maintains. The Lakers are fighting for the last playoff spot on the Western Conference ladder, they need wins in the worst way as they try to hold of the Utah Jazz and avoid being one of the biggest flops in recent NBA memories.
Sadly, the home section of the story has changed. Portland’s second half schedule, as expected, was certainly too tough for the upstart Blazers to keep winning. They’ve faded down the stretch, and if things hold, they’ll end 2012-13 without getting a win in more than a month.
There’s no doubt that Wednesday’s game will be played in front of a vocal crowd, there’s no doubt that there will be some drama, and there’s not doubt that it will be fun to watch. But there’s just not as much riding on this game as we once hoped there would be. Sure, Portland can play spoiler, but with nearly half of the roster scratched or listed as probable or worse, and the rest of the roster consisting of rookies (both battle tested and green) and garbage-timers, hoping for a positive outcome from the Blazers is a classic example of setting yourself up for disappointment.
So after all of that, what is to be made of Wednesday night. Might I suggest you hop over to Portland Roundball Society and check out the estimable Danny Nowell’s treatise on what spring ball is all about (couched in praise for Will Barton’s coming of age moment against the Dallas Mavericks last weekend). If Sunday was a lesson in what can happen when the right player is given the right amount of playing time in the right game situation, Wednesday can be a lesson in young players rising to the occasion and taking advantage of to opportunities they have been given.
Blazers Starting 5: PG Damian Lillard, SG Will Barton, SF Victor Claver, PF Joel Freeland, C Meyers Leonard
Lakers Starting 5: PG Steve Blake, SG Kobe Bryant, SF Earl Clark, PF Pau Gasol, C Meyers Leonard
Basically any way you spin it, the match-ups for Wednesday night favor the Los Angeles Lakers. Even if the five-rookie starting lineup is a unrealized dream of a select few, Portland WILL be without Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews, two of the teams more able one-on-one defenders. Because of those rather important roster omissions, somebody will be tasked with trying to contain (or maybe even stop) Kobe Bryant.
Will Barton has the potential makings of a strong perimeter defender (long arms, good anticipation and reaction time, high basketball IQ), but as things stand at the moment, Kobe will have no trouble against Portland’s newest rookie of the moment. Bryant doesn’t have the step he once did, but he has the range to keep Barton up in his body, the quickness and craftiness to take Barton off the dribble, and the relative mass and strength to protect the ball inside and with his back to the basket.
If Will starts, and draws Kobe as his defensive assignment, he’ll have two things to try to accomplish. First, he needs to play within his abilities, meaning he can’t let the moment get the better of him and try to better Kobe one-on-one from a defensive stand-point. He needs to do things like shade Kobe to help-side defenders, find Kobe when shots go up to limit Bryant’s offensive rebounds and second-chance points, and stay at home on Kobe’s myriad of pump-fakes, head bobs, and various other tricks he employs to great effect to get defenders off their feet and in dangerous situations.
This last thing dovetails nicely with what will be Barton’s secondary prime directive: don’t foul. Staying out of foul trouble is doubly important for Will. He needs to stay on the floor because he’s one of Portland’s deeper rotation players who can score, and not fouling limits the number of points Kobe will get for free. Bryant is going to score (a lot), that absolutely can not be avoided. What can be avoided is letting Kobe pad his scoring numbers with trip after trip to the charity stripe. Thirty to thirty-five points from Bryant doesn’t kill you. Thirty to thirty-five points from the field and another 15+ from the free throw line does.
Moving on from Kobe, LA’s biggest advantage will be in the post. If/when the Lakers clinch a playoff spot, much of the media focus will be on who they play and how well they can be expected to fair in the first round. Their opponent will be either the Spurs of San Antonio or the Thunder from Oklahoma City. Bet that someone will pick LA to win their series, and bet that that person’s justification for that Laker win will be two-fold. One) Kobe plus a couple other future Hall of Famers who can and will turn it up in the post season. and Two) the Lakers still have arguably one of the best front court tandems in the league.
If you want to see what the Laker bigs can do and how they can do it, Wednesday’s is the game to watch. If LaMarcus Aldridge sits (which I think he will), Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard will make short work of Joel Freeland and Meyers Leonard. Nothing against Portland’s two rookie bigs, I believe both guys have the potential to be contributors at the NBA level, the Lakers are going to go inside a lot, and they are going to find very little in the way of one-on-one resistance.
What to Watch For
- Will Portland be able to capitalize on the advantages they will have. The Blazers are significantly younger than the Lakers and they have very little on the line. LA needs this win, and they know it. There’s a chance that the pressure gets in the collective Laker heads and causes them to play tight. The Lakers have Golden State, San Antonio, and Houston after Portland to finish the season. The Spurs are locked in a heated race with the Thunder for the number one seed and a date with the Lakers in the first round. As much as Gregg Popovich doesn’t care about the regular season, my guess is San Antonio tries a little bit in their last few games. Houston and Golden State are into the post season but fighting each other for sixth and seventh place, those teams are both going to try and finish the season strong. The Lakers’ last easy game is Wednesday. Hopefully that means they’ll fall flat on their face. Along with having nothing to play for and thus nothing to lose, Portland has an advantage at the point guard position. Damian Lillard should be able to eat Steve Blake alive on both ends. If Lillard can have a huge game, his team might be able to follow.
- Can the Blazers stay close and stay engaged. Portland let Sunday’s game against the Mavericks get away from them early. They came back and made it interesting, but never really threatened. If Portland can avoid getting down by big margins, they’ll give themselves a chance.
- Who shows up and who do they root for. The Blazers have drawn remarkably well in the last month and change considering the season has been over for awhile. LA draws well in Portland, I’m sure they draw well everywhere, and with the Blazers starting all rookies and not winning, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more Laker fans in the Rose Garden than Blazer fans. It will be interesting to see how the team responds/reacts to playing in front of a less favorable crowd, especially if it gets ugly.