Until this season, the Los Angeles Lakers hadn’t made the NBA Playoffs in seven years; an eternity for a franchise with 16 championship banners in hanging in the rafters. It’s been eight since they have advanced past the first round.
With the Portland Trail Blazers down 3-1 in the best-of-seven series and now without injured All-Star Damian Lillard, the Lakers seem destined for the Western Conference semifinals. But that doesn’t mean they won’t have to work for it.
Let’s take a look at the keys to victory for Game 5.
Don’t Underestimate Blazers
On the surface, a Trail Blazers team missing Lillard, Zach Collins, Trevor Ariza, Rodney Hood and Nasir Little should stand no chance against a Lakers squad featuring LeBron James, Anthony Davis and a veteran bench.
However, sometimes a funny thing happens when a star is lost due to injury. The team rallies and role players step up their games enough to fill the void, while their opponent comes out lacking energy because they think they are in for an easy night.
Those factors, in addition to a shift to a less-familiar play style by a team losing their star, can sometimes produce upsets. For example, back in January the Lakers went to Oklahoma City and demolished the Thunder on the road.
They got the job done even though it was the second night of a road back-to-back and they were missing Davis, James and Danny Green. Everything pointed to a Lakers loss, but Kyle Kuzma and Rajon Rondo stepped up big time and earned one of the best wins of the season.
In the NBA, you just never know.
The Lakers can’t afford to let Portland come out hot and boost their confidence, especially since the weary Blazers have now had 5 days to rest while the league focused on social issues. Instead, the Lakers have to approach Game 5 with the mindset that the Blazers are just as dangerous as they have always been, which is easier said than done.
Call it killer instinct, Mamba Mentality, or whatever else you want, but the Lakers’ most important opponent in this game will be their own focus.
Slow Down CJ McCollum
If anyone is going to step up with Lillard out, it’s going to be CJ McCollum. While we tend to focus on his ability to break his man down off the dribble and get buckets, McCollum has also shown the ability to run the show when given the chance.
In eight games without Lillard, he’s averaging a whopping 32.4 points and 8.1 this season, though the Blazers only won two of those. McCollum will go out guns blazing, and it’s going to be on the Lakers to contain him as much as possible.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso and Green should all get reps as initial defenders, but the Lakers may have to send help and then put in the extra effort to recover out to shooters behind the arc.
If L.A. can slow down McCollum it could be a long night for Portland, but if not, the Lakers will have a fight on their hands.
Short on options, Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts has resorted to playing centers Jusuf Nurkic and Hassan Whiteside together in a twin towers approach that we rarely see in the modern NBA. From the Blazers perspective, it’s a gamble to deter scoring in the paint with Whiteside and Nurkic while praying the Lakers don’t burn them with the resulting wide-open perimeter shots.
In Game 1, the strategy worked as the Lakers shot 15.6% from 3, allowing Portland to get the win. The Lakers’ shooting has been more respectable since then, including a blowout win in Game 4 that saw them shoot a series-high 44% from behind the arc.
The game of basketball can be incredibly intricate, but in this series, the result has simply come down to whether or not the Lakers can make the open shots that the Blazers are giving them. Even an average shooting night should be enough to get the job done.
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