The Los Angeles Lakers are yet to know who they will face in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. The race for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference has come down to a fierce, four-way battle between the Memphis Grizzlies, Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs.
But after the Blazers has won five out of their seven seeding games, overtaking the injury-ravaged Grizzlies in the standings, it is now widely expected that Damian Lillard and Co. will challenge the Lakers at the beginning of their postseason.
If they hold onto the eight seed, they will only need to defeat the No. 9 team once in the upcoming play-in tournament to secure the last playoff spot in the West. Lillard’s form explosion is the main reason behind Portland’s untiring playoff pursuit.
The eight-year veteran is averaging 37.0 points while playing 41.4 minutes per game in the bubble, both league highest during the NBA restart. Portland also capitalized on the four-month hiatus that allowed Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic to heal their injuries and return to the starting lineup.
“I think by having that first-round opponent who is going to be tough, preparing us for the playoffs, I think we need that early on,” Markieff Morris said when asked about a potential first-round matchup with the Trail Blazers.
Kyle Kuzma agreed, even with readily admitting Portland would be a “very tough” series. “It’s not a worst-case scenario. I think any time you can be tested early in the playoffs, it’s going to help you in other rounds,” Kuzma added.
“Dame presents a lot of challenges, he’s an excellent player all around. You see his shot making, but he has leadership and everything else.”
League insiders reportedly believe the Blazers have what it takes to upset the Lakers in the first playoff round, especially considering L.A.’s inconsistency on both ends of the court.
But Kuzma, who has been brimming with confidence during the NBA restart, is ready to face Lillard — or anybody else who stands in the Lakers’ way. “I don’t think it’s worst-case scenario because we’re ready to play anybody,” he said.
Vogel hopes the defense will improve before playoffs
Lakers head coach Frank Vogel, who can also recognize the benefits of a tough first-round matchup against Portland, admits his team’s defense took a hit while the players focused on remedying their shooting woes.
But he is confident the Lakers will address the defensive shortcomings before the playoffs start. “We’ve got a lot of practice time between tonight’s game and the first game of the playoffs,” he said.
“We’ve got a lot of time to get some good work in and I’m very confident going into the playoffs with this group.”
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