Since it became clear the Los Angeles Lakers would meet the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the NBA Playoffs, pretty much everyone who follows the Orlando bubble experiment has said Damian Lillard and Co. are not a typical eight-seed opponent.
Portland heroically clawed their way to No. 8, overtaking the Memphis Grizzlies with an impressive 6-2 run in the seeding portion of the NBA restart orchestrated by the unstoppable Lillard. Lakers head coach Frank Vogel called the five-time All-Star “the hottest player in the league” after he averaged 37.6 points in Orlando and claimed the Bubble MVP accolade.
Meanwhile, CJ McCollum, the other half of Portland’s fierce backcourt, has shown he is very capable of taking the scoring responsibilities from Lillard if need be, making them a fearsome opponent.
“They have a two-headed monster in Dame and CJ. It starts and ends with those guys,” LeBron James said. “They control the tempo, they control the pace, they do all of the ball-handling, and they’re the rock of that franchise.”
Besides Lillard and McCollum, Portland also has future Hall-of-Famer Carmelo Anthony. The 36-year-old forward has thrived since he was offered a career lifeline in November and proved he can erupt for a 20-point game at any time during the series.
In addition, Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins managed to heal their injuries over the four-month hiatus and returned to the starting lineup, making the Trail Blazers a significantly different side the Lakers beat twice before the season stopped.
James has no doubts that had Portland stayed healthy, they would have ended the regular season much higher than in the eight spot. “They are the best scoring team in the seeding games,” he said. “So you have to get multiple stops. You can’t try to outscore them because they can score with the best.
“I don’t think they would’ve been an eight-seed if they had been healthy all year. That’s my mindset. I’m not going in as it’s a one-seed versus an eight-seed. I’m going in with it’s the Lakers versus Portland. I won’t be going in with my guard down.”
Rondo cleared to return in Blazers series
Rajon Rondo was cleared by the medical team to return to play after the guard was sidelined with a fractured right thumb for over a month. However, Lakers head coach Frank Vogel said it was “unlikely” Rondo would be active in Game 1 against Portland.
Rondo healed the injury sooner than expected, providing Vogel with a significant boost ahead of the first-round showdown. Rondo’s defensive contribution could prove significant in halting Lillard and McCollum later in the series.
Have you subscribed to our YouTube channel? It’s the best way to watch player interviews, exclusive coverage from events, participate in live shows, and more!