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Maybe we shouldn’t get too far ahead of ourselves since a few things still have to happen, but we easily could be heading toward a Lakers-Blazers first-round playoff series.
Raise your hand if you’d like to sign up for that.
With a healthy roster, major contributions from secondary options, and Damian Lillard lighting it up, the Blazers have been balling in the bubble like few squads and with a win over Brooklyn Thursday will secure the eighth seed in the West. That would earn them a spot in this weekend’s first-ever play-in game(s). Take care of business Saturday (and/or Sunday depending on a few things) and their reward would be a seven-game series with LeBron James and Los Angeles starting a few days later.
Making the prospects of a LeBron vs. Dame playoff series all the more intriguing and appetizing is the fact that Portland is precisely the kind of team the purple and gold, the favorites to raise the Larry O’Brien Trophy who have looked like anything but down in Orlando, want to avoid.
Portland, of course, has more work to do to secure a series with the Lakers. Currently in eighth after Tuesday's dramatic 134-131 win over the Mavericks that saw Lillard pour in an astounding 61 points, the Blazers sit .5 game ahead of the Suns, Grizzlies, and Spurs in the standings. Beat Brooklyn and in this new NBA the Blazers would only need to win one game (out of a possible two) in the Association’s first-ever play-in scenario to set up a Lakers showdown. It’s not a cinch, or a sure thing, but it’s increasingly looking like the Blazers are earmarked for the postseason—you betting against Dame right now?—and it's become a big talking point among NBA observers.
So that means we need to start talking about (hypothetically) the most intriguing first-round matchup by far. And for that we dialed up Greg Anthony from Turner Sports to ask him if he agreed that the Blazers present an extremely scary matchup for the Lakers. The NBA analyst, who spent 11 years in the league, wasn't ready to go out on a limb and predict Portland would pull off a significant upset like a few pundits across the sports media spectrum already have. But Anthony offered up some of his own specifics as to why Los Angeles should fear Portland.
This is a Very Different Blazers Team
Ravaged by injury earlier in the season, the Blazers have featured a relatively healthy roster in Orlando and the dividends are paying off. Getting back Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins has given them a shot in the arm while a rejuvenated Carmelo Anthony has been getting buckets like old Melo, giving Portland another clutch, consistent scorer.
Meanwhile, bubble MVP candidate Gary Trent Jr. has been bombing away from deep at an absurd clip and his emergence as a game-changing scoring option off the bench—since Rodney Hood (injury) and Trevor Ariza (opt out) aren’t available—should alarm Los Angeles.
“He’s an x-factor,” says Anthony. “The bigs, we knew who they were and how well they can play. But Trent Jr. is the one that’s kind of elevated his status, his standing, and really the stature of the Blazers.”
“Will we be the team that we want to be in Game 1 of the first-round that we were when we stopped? I don’t think so, but we’ll get better and better as the games go on.” — LeBron James
But let’s be real: the Blazers fortunes start and stop with Lillard. Portland’s unquestioned leader and certified assassin continues to play his brilliant brand of basketball in Orlando. Last year’s Western Conference Finals loser is starting to look nearly as formidable as the squad that went on a surprising playoff run in 2019. Now they arguably have more firepower on offense than last year's Blazers and when you put all their pieces together it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize why LeBron and company would prefer Memphis or Phoenix in the first-round.
“The biggest question for the Lakers is how are they going to matchup with the backcourt of the Blazers,” says Anthony. “The Lakers are in a lot of ways what we call inverts. LeBron, Danny Green, [Kyle] Kuzma, [Anthony] Davis and [JaVale] McGee is a huge lineup and with that comes a lack of footspeed. Dame and CJ [McCollum] are professional scorers so they want you to switch. You’re going to end up with bigs on an island.”
And in the postseason, when switching on defense becomes the norm, that could be an issue for the Lakers. If Lillard and McCollum (who could be battling a back injury the rest of the season) can continually abuse those mismatches, it’s going to be a grind for Los Angeles.
The Lakers Don't Look as Dominant
Adding another wrinkle to this potential first-round matchup is the fact that the Lakers haven’t looked like the regular-season juggernauts they were before the NBA shut down in March. At just 3-4, LA's offensive and defensive efficiency numbers in the bubble have been bad—if not downright disturbing. Their net rating is -5.6, third worst among the 22 teams that were invited down to Orlando.
“Will we be the team that we want to be in Game 1 of the first-round that we were when we stopped?” James asked after Monday’s win over Denver. “I don’t think so, but we’ll get better and better as the games go on.”
We all know LA has been absolutely dreadful—except against the Nuggets—shooting it from deep (28.3 percent). But that already wasn't a strongsuit before they arrived in Orlando. Exacerbating matters is the dynamic duo of James and Davis haven't quite clicked in the bubble like they did before the stoppage and the Lakers rotations remain unsettled without the services of Avery Bradley (opt out) and Rajon Rondo (injury). Coach Frank Vogel is trying to figure things out on the fly, including where Dion Waiters (signed in March) and JR Smith (signed in July) fit in.
And it remains a crapshoot who the Lakers third-leading scorer will be on any given evening. LeBron and AD will almost always get their numbers, but who else steps up? Kuzma did against the Nuggets, but could you make a case that these Lakers—with so many new pieces and so much tinkering still going on—are a much more vulnerable version of the team that rolled through the 76ers, Bucks, and Clippers in March? Right now you can.
The Lakers, of course, have LeBron and AD, two top five NBA players, and that should be good enough to beat most teams over a seven-game series. Even though the Lakers won’t have any kind of home-court advantage, and James hasn’t been shy about admitting how much he misses the fans, we all expect him to turn his game up another notch in the playoffs. But if LeBron, at age 35, can’t dial it up like we’re used to and his supporting cast struggles to matchup with Portland without the friendly confines of Staples Center, is it that far-fetched to envision Los Angeles becoming just the fourth team in NBA history to lose a seven-game series to an eighth seed? It's certainly not improbable.
Confidence is key
The confidence the veteran Blazers would carry into a series with the Lakers should not be underestimated. Anthony made the point on NBATV Monday that, unlike Memphis, Phoenix, or San Antonio, Portland wouldn’t be satisfied with just making the playoffs. Their poise, experience, previous playoff success, and Lillard's stupefying run through the bubble where he's put up back-to-back 50-plus point efforts and is averaging 37 points a game means just getting there ain't going to be good enough. They know they’re capable of making another run and that makes them doubly dangerous.
“There’s no doubt [the Blazers] would go into that series truly believing they could win," says Anthony. "They don’t have to win a seventh game on the road. Portland knows if they play well they can beat any of these teams. They know they can beat the Clippers, they know they can beat the Lakers. That is a big part of your success. They don’t look at themselves as an eighth seed.”
Crazy Things Happen During Crazy NBA Seasons
Don’t forget how the weird NBA seasons of the past (1999, 2011-12) have produced ridiculous results in the playoffs. The last time there was a major stoppage, the 2011-12 lockout-shortened season, the 76ers pulled off the 8 vs. 1 upset over the Bulls. Same thing happened in 1999, another lockout-shortened season, when the eighth-seeded Knicks knocked off the Heat in the first-round on New York’s way to its last Finals appearance.
And if there’s an eight seed that can make history in the bubble, we all know it’s the Blazers and not the Magic over in the East.
So Will it Happen?
Anthony isn't ready to predict history. “I would say 1-in-3” chance of the Blazers winning the series, he says. The idea of LeBron losing to the Blazers with AD—the best sidekick he’s ever played with—kind of seems unimaginable. Plus, betting against LeBron is often an embarrassing endeavor and the Blazers have absolutely no answer for him on defense. But Anthony is giving Portland more than a puncher’s chance to pull off a significant upset and he wouldn’t be shocked if something crazy happens given the uncertainties surrounding the Lakers entering the most unique postseason in NBA history.
“Having said all that, even with the Lakers struggling, at the end of the day the Lakers are going to have the two best players on the floor,” says Anthony.
Similarly, we're not picking against LA. Somehow, someway LeBron and AD, even with a supporting cast that remains a work in progress and a times unreliable, will find a way to sneak past Portland. But expect it to go seven games, feature plenty of heroics, bombs from beyond the arch, and social media sniping in the hardest first-round series James has ever seen.