The Los Angeles Lakers return to Staples Center to start a three-game homestand, as Damian Lillard and the fifth-seed Portland Trail Blazers mark their first opponents.
Both teams are eagerly hoping to snap their current losing streaks. At 22-11, the Lakers enter play on a four-game skid, their worst of the season. For the Trail Blazers, they stand at 18-13 but have dropped three consecutive contests and want to conclude their road trip on a positive note.
Los Angeles has labored through the last four games as they’ve aimed to float above water in the absence of Anthony Davis and Dennis Schroder. LeBron James, Kyle Kuzma and Montrezl Harrell remain the only players L.A. can rely on to score. But oftentimes, it’s primarily James who shoulders the weighty workload.
The Lakers have acquired minimal help from their motley crew of role players, who have struggled to generate offense off the bounce to relieve pressure off of James. It doesn’t help that L.A. chose the most inauspicious time to go cold from deep, shooting just 28.9% from beyond the arc in the last four contests.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope seemed to recapture some of the magic he displayed earlier in the season but finished 0-for-4 from deep against Utah. The Lakers will desperately need Caldwell-Pope to dissect Portland’s inconsistent perimeter defense.
Portland allows opponents to hit 43.1% of their field goals in the 22-24 feet range, ranking first in the league. Los Angeles needs everyone ranging from Kuzma to Alex Caruso to Talen Horton-Tucker — who is shooting 50% from 3 in the last three games — to emerge from their slumps and get back on track.
But the perimeter isn’t the only region where the Lakers could succeed. Portland is without their best center Jusuf Nurkic, and Enes Kanter isn’t the ideal replacement for defensive purposes. Opponents are succeeding on the glass against Portland, who are lacking in big bodies to rebound adequately. That opens the door for players like Harrell to feast down low, and tonight is a matchup that aligns in his favor.
In order for L.A. to win on the defensive end, curtailing Damian Lillard’s absurd playmaking and scoring ability will be pivotal. The All-Star guard has elevated his play to another level, despite missing backcourt partner C.J. McCollum and Nurkic, a frequent pick-and-roll partner.
Lillard can attempt a pull-up jumper from anywhere on the court, he can attack the basket whenever he pleases and he can set up his teammates for open looks when plausible too. Los Angeles’ guards will have their plate full, but Lillard isn’t the only guard supplying a threat.
Gary Trent Jr. has also augmented his efficiency in the absence of McCollum, averaging career-high averages in points per game (15.2), rebounds (2.1), assists (1.3), 3-point percentage (42.8%) and 3-point attempts (7.7.).
If the Lakers hope to snap their four-game losing streak, forcing someone other than Lillard to score will be crucial, and finding a rhythm from 3-point range on offense is a must. The current 28.9% clip won’t cut it.
That could be aided by Schroder potentially returning. He is listed as probable and Lakers head coach Frank Vogel said this week the hope remained Friday’s game would be when Schroder gained final clearance from the NBA’s health and safety protocols.
Newly signed center Damian Jones could make his debut as well.
Lakers (22-11) vs. Trail Blazers (18-13)
7:00 p.m. PT, Feb. 26, 2021
Staples Center, Los Angeles, California
TV: ESPN, Spectrum SportsNet
Radio: 710 AM ESPN LA
Projected Lakers starting lineup:
PG: LeBron James
SG: Dennis Schroder
SF: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
PF: Markieff Morris
C: Marc Gasol
Key Reserves: Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, Alex Caruso, Wesley Matthews
Projected Trail Blazers starting lineup:
PG: Damian Lillard
SG: Gary Trent Jr.
SF: Derrick Jones Jr.
PF: Robert Covington
C: Enes Kanter
Key Reserves: Carmelo Anthony, Rodney Hood, Anfernee Simons, Nassir Little