The Portland Trail Blazers (13-3) face the Los Angeles Lakers (9-8) tonight at 6:30 p.m. PST in the Staples Center. If the Trail Blazers pull out the victory, they will be tied with the San Antonio Spurs for the best record in the Western Conference. On paper, there is no reason that shouldn’t happen (though, as usual, be wary of desperate teams). Based on Los Angeles’ recent rotation, the starters match up accordingly:
PG: Damian Lillard vs. Steve Blake – Advantage, Damian Lillard
SG: Wesley Matthews vs. Jodie Meeks – Advantage, Wesley Matthews
SF: Nicolas Batum vs. Wesley Johnson – Advantage, Nicolas Batum
PF: LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Jordan Hill – Advantage, LaMarcus Aldridge
C: Robin Lopez vs. Pau Gasol – Advantage Pau Gasol
Kobe Bryant (Achilles) has been ruled out of the game, though he may return as early as Friday against the Sacramento Kings
Los Angeles’ biggest threat is their bench. The team may have been sewn together with mediocrity, but therein lies their subtle advantage, and the reason they remain above .500. The Lakers top 9 scorers all average within 7 points of each other per game and (centers excluded) they all shoot above 36 percent from deep. You never truly know who to watch out for because their offense could come from anywhere.
Keys to the game:
Rebounding. In each of the Trail Blazers three losses this season, they have also lost the rebounding battle. Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill are excellent on the glass, so LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez must be willing to join the scrum. Despite the overall challenges of his last two seasons, Gasol persists as a top 10 rebounder in the NBA (exactly 10th right now) and it’s important that the Trail Blazers make people forget that.
3-point shooting. The Trail Blazers and Lakers are 3rd and 4th respectively in 3-point percentage, but the Lakers are 2nd only to the Houston Rockets in attempts. We’re looking at a shootout in Staples tonight. The perimeter defense of Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum give Portland a leg up, but it may not matter if the Lakers get hot. The Trail Blazers must get hot first and be looking for the extra pass to the open man.
Damian Lillard has to take smarter shots. He is shooting the same percentage on twos as he is on threes this season (39.6%). That’s great from deep, but not so stellar from anywhere else. I like his aggression, but some of his drives are irresponsibly uncontrolled, and I want to see him reel it in. He needs to time his attacks better or look for the corner kick instead of flailing through opponents for an ill-advised reverse layup.
Make Jordan Hill work. Hill is playing with a mild ankle sprain and D’Antoni will try to limit his minutes. With Chris Kaman inactive tonight, this leaves the Lakers shorthanded down low. If the Trail Blazers can force Hill out of the game via exhaustion, foul trouble, or both, they’ll have no trouble abusing Robert Sacre in his stead. Once the middle opens up, Gasol will have to focus his energy on defense, and he can’t play 48 minutes on both ends like he used to.
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