Now that the Portland Trail Blazers have secured the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed, let the conversation shift to whether they have a realistic chance to upset the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. If you think they do, it’s largely for one reason: They have Damian Lillard, who is currently lightning Disney World on fire. Of course, the Lakers have LeBron James and Anthony Davis. So, you know, not a bad superstar counter.
Below we’ll get into some of the questions and matchup dilemmas that figure to color this series, which I believe to be the most intriguing of all the first-round series. You can also find the schedule and TV information for each game, which will continue to update with results as long as the series lasts, here.
(1) Lakers vs. (8) Blazers
Game 1: Tuesday, Aug. 18, 9 p.m. ET, TNT
Game 2: Thursday, Aug. 20, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN
Game 3: Saturday, Aug. 22, 8:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Game 4: Monday, Aug. 24, 9 p.m. ET, TNT
Game 5: Wednesday, Aug. 26, TBD, TBD
Game 6: Friday, Aug. 28, TBD, TBD
Game 7: Sunday, Aug. 30, TBD, TBD
1. Star Wars
As we touched on above, if the Blazers have any chance to make this series interesting, let alone win it, Damian Lillard has to be something close to best-player-in-the-world type productive. At this point, that feels like a pretty good bet. In addition to Lillard, C.J. McCollum will have to play like a star. As a duo, in terms of pure scoring, the Blazers’ back court can keep up with LeBron and AD.
And they’ll need to. McCollum is playing with a fractured lower back, which sounds awful, but judging off the way McCollum played in the play-in game vs. Memphis, he’s still capable of creating one-on-one offense on a consistent basis. The Lakers don’t have a lot of defenders to throw at those two, especially without Avery Bradley. LeBron will likely have to spend time on Lillard, which is a tough matchup to James, to say nothing of the energy expenditure.
There’s a flip side to that coin, of course, which is that Portland doesn’t have a prayer of guarding LeBron individually. Gary Trent Jr., Mario Hezonja, Carmelo Anthony, forget about it. This is where Trevor Ariza opting out of the bubble really hurts the Blazers — not that Ariza would strike even an ounce of fear into James, but it would’ve been a one-on-one option to at least make LeBron work a little bit without having to collapse your defense with double teams (more in this in a bit).
So while LeBron is going to get wherever he wants in this series, he Blazers do at least have some size to contend with Davis, but Jusuf Nurkic and Hassan Whiteside are not going to keep up with him on the perimeter, where he’ll be operating a lot in both isolation and pick-and-roll with LeBron. Zach Collins could play a pivotal role here. Like LeBron with Ariza, Collins won’t make Davis blink, but it’s a reasonable matchup to at least make him work while keeping some semblance of defensive balance intact.
Davis will have his hands full, too. Nurkic is balling. He had 22 points and 21 rebounds in Portland’s play-in win over Memphis.
2. Doubles and Drops
The Lakers are almost certain to double and trap Lillard at least for stretches. If he gets hot, they’ll almost certainly commit to taking the ball out of his hands at all costs. Lillard has reached the point where you have to send multiple defenders at him the moment as he crosses half court if you don’t want to end up on the business end of a blow torch.
That opens up advantageous situations for the Blazers, who have the shooters to make the Lakers pay for sending two at Lillard. The math is going to leave either Carmelo Anthony, Gary Trent Jr. and of course McCollum open for a lot of shots, and those guys are all knocking them down a a high clip right now. Nurkic has also shown a nice feel for taking short-roll passes and either getting to he basket, finishing delicate push-shots or kicking to shooters. The Blazers are a very dangerous offensive team for the simple reason that Lillard is going to burn you one way or the other: Single cover him, and he’ll get 50; double him and open shooters make you pay.
For the Lakers it’s a bit different. They don’t have the collective shooting the Blazers do. The Blazers will happily live all series long with Danny Green, Kyle Kuzma and Dion Waiters launching threes. It’s not to say they aren’t capable to knocking them down, but it’s a better bet that they won’t than letting LeBron have his way.
The difference is you don’t have to double LeBron 40 feet from the basket like you do Lillard. They’ll let him shoot as many threes as he wants, too. What LeBron wants to do is play the pick-and-roll game to get switches that give him the advantage against a Nurkic or Collins, or heaven forbid, Carmelo Anthony. The Blazers likely won’t give him that opportunity if they can help it and will drop their bigs in retreating fashion as much as possible; make him hit pull-ups.
Of course, LeBron won’t settle for pull-ups. He’ll use the downhill runway to get to the rim. But Nurkic, Collins and Whiteside at least have a chance protecting the rim. On the perimeter, they’re cooked. This will be a series, I suspect, defined largely by the Lakers guarding Lillard pick-and-rolls aggressively and the Blazers guarding LeBron pick-and-rolls conservatively.
3. Carmelo conundrum
Anthony has been superb in the bubble, scoring 16.5 points per game on just under 46 percent shooting, including 47 percent from three. Say what you want about Melo, but Portland’s offense hasn’t a hard time sustaining itself — unless Lillard is just going crazy — with Melo on the floor. He’s a spacer. A shooter. I hear his back-down post-ups and one-dribble pull-ups are an analytical nightmare, but right now they’re a BIG part of what Portland is doing offensively.
Anthony’s defense is another story. He’s putting good effort in, and whether it’s because he’s slimmed down or simply trying a bit harder, he’s giving himself at least a fighting chance guarding guys off the dribble. Still, unless LeBron decides to take it easy on his banana-boat buddy, which we can safely presume he won’t, Melo is going to get relentlessly hunted via switches and forced to defend in space. If it doesn’t go well, at what point will he become a net negative even with his offense?
As long as Melo is making shots, he’s going to stay in the game, because at the end of the day the only chance the Blazers have of winning this series is in a shootout. They’re not going to hold the Lakers down. They’re going to have to aim for 120-plus points every game and take their chances that the Lakers aren’t hitting shots. Still, they can’t just be a defensive red carpet. Melo has to be at least competitive on that end so as to not force Terry Stotts into the difficult decision of having to decide whether to leave him on the floor.