The Los Angeles Lakers play by far their most important game of the regular season — while still missing several key pieces — as they face the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday night.
As the standings currently sit, the Lakers and Trail Blazers have identical records at 37-29, with L.A. sitting at the No. 6 seed via a tiebreaker and the Trail Blazers at No. 7. Normally, the difference between sixth and seventh wouldn’t matter, but not any more thanks to the introduction of the play-in tournament.
Because of the new play-in format, the No. 7 seed will not get a week off like the No. 6 seed, and will instead have to play one or potentially two games to earn their playoff spot. This makes being the sixth-place team far more valuable than ever before, and the Lakers desperately need to hold on to that spot.
If they defeat the Trail Blazers on Friday night, they will have a one-game lead with only five games remaining while also holding the tiebreaker. This means Portland would need to win two more games than the Lakers in the final five.
However, if the Trail Blazers win, they will hold a one-game lead and the tiebreaker over the Lakers, making it very difficult for L.A. to avoid the play-in tourney. As far as regular-season games go, there will be very few per season that hold this much weight.
Of course, as it has been nearly all season, the Lakers will be without several key contributors. LeBron James, Dennis Schroder and Talen Horton-Tucker have all been ruled out.
Meanwhile, Anthony Davis — who exited Thursday night’s blowout loss to the L.A. Clippers due to back spasms — is probable and planning to play.
Alex Caruso is questionable with a right foot contusion. If he is unable to go then that would leave the Lakers’ roster void of all its point guards.
The Lakers will need to crank up the defensive intensity the way they did against the Denver Nuggets in order to beat one of the most high-powered offenses in the NBA. Since acquiring Norman Powell at the trade deadline, the Trail Blazers rank No. 1 in the league in offensive rating and No. 6 in net rating.
Defensively is where they fall off, as they come in at 20th since the Powell deal. The Lakers need to play one of their best defensive games of the season while also remaining competent enough offensively to score on a porous Trail Blazers defense.
Should Davis be able to play, the Lakers will lean heavily on him to help protect the paint. Meanwhile, Caruso, if he plays, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will have their hands full with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.
In what definitely is the biggest regular-season game for the Lakers this season, it will be interesting to see what level of fight they have in them to avoid the play-in tournament.
Lakers (37-29) vs. Trail Blazers (37-29)
7:00 p.m. PT, May 7, 2021
Moda Center, Portland, Oregon
TV: ESPN, Spectrum SportsNet
Radio: 710 AM ESPN LA
Projected Lakers Starting Lineup:
PG: Alex Caruso
SG: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
SF: Kyle Kuzma
PF: Anthony Davis
C: Andre Drummond
Key Reserves: Montrezl Harrell, Wesley Matthews, Marc Gasol, Markieff Morris
Projected Trail Blazers Starting Lineup:
PG: Damian Lillard
SG: C.J. McCollum
SF: Norman Powell
PF: Robert Covington
C: Jusuf Nurkic
Key Reserves: Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Jones Jr., Enes Kanter, Anfernee Simons
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