A lot has changed since the Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers faced off on Halloween. The Lakers have changed coaches and playing style, and are slowly starting to right the ship following a sluggish start.
Portland has emerged as a feisty young team to watch down the stretch, thanks in part to rookie point guard Damian Lillard injecting some life into the lineup. The team's offense is starting to come together, and its defense will soon follow.
The circumstances are different for this game. The Lakers have home-court advantage, and are out for revenge following their early-season loss. They have a new attitude and a new coach in Mike D'Antoni, and will be ready to show young Portland just who rules the roost in the Western Conference.
It won't be easy for either side. Portland has won six of its last seven games, and a win over the veteran Lakers would establish the Blazers as a definite contender a couple of years from now.
With the adrenaline pumping and fans cheering from start to finish, this game is bound to be a barnburner.
Time: Friday, December 28, 10:30 p.m. EST
TV: Time Warner Cable Sportsnet, KGW HD
Records: Portland Trail Blazers (14-13) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (14-15)
Betting Line: Portland (+9), Los Angeles (-9)
Injuries: Wesley Matthews (hip, out), Steve Blake (abdomen, out)
Key Storyline: New-Look Lakers Seek Vengeance for October 31 Loss at Portland
When the Lakers faced the Trail Blazers early in the season, Mike Brown was still the team's head coach. The failed Princeton offense was in full swing, and Portland was just wiping the floor with their veteran opponents. To add insult to injury, this was also the game in which point guard Steve Nash suffered the leg injury that kept him out of the lineup until recently.
The Blazers ended up winning the game 116-106, thanks to 22 points and 11 assists from Damian Lillard. Nicolas Batum led the team in scoring with 26 points of his own, and Wesley Matthews added 23. The lone bright spots for the Lakers were 30 points from Kobe Bryant and 33 points and 14 rebounds from Dwight Howard.
But the second round is going to be different. Far different. Matthews is out with a hip injury, Nash is healthy and Mike Brown's Princeton offense has been replaced with Mike D'Antoni's run-and-gun game.
Los Angeles can now keep up with young and feisty Portland, and the entire team will be out for blood from beginning to end. The Lakers know that their early-season loss was a fluke and nowhere near indicative of how the team can perform as a whole, and will seek to expose the flaws of the young and inexperienced Blazers.
The stage is thus set for a dogfight, and the Lakers would love to see themselves reestablished as the alpha once the dust settles.
Key Matchup: Metta World Peace vs. Nicolas Batum
Mike D'Antoni has started using Metta World Peace as the Lakers' sixth man as of late, but the former St. John's star and 2004 Defensive Player of the Year is still managing to play 36.5 minutes per game since assuming that role.
World Peace has also performed well in D'Antoni's offense, completely reestablishing himself as both a scoring threat and defensive pest. He is averaging 13.8 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game on the season, but has been great in the Lakers' last five games. Over that stretch, World Peace has posted 17.2 points, 8.2 boards and two steals per contest.
Be it as a starter or force off the bench, World Peace is going to have one mission on defense: slow down Nicolas Batum. The 6'8" Frenchman is much like the man defending him in that he has two notable skills: defense and three-point shooting.
On the season, Batum has averaged 16 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.7 steals, and has shot 35 percent from long range. He's still learning how to be more versatile as a scorer, as more than half of his field goal attempts come from beyond the arc, but is still young at 24 and has plenty of time to adjust as necessary.
Batum and World Peace could very well battle to a stalemate, as both are so similar in playing style and will likely have similar agendas in terms of shutting each other down. However, World Peace does have the experience advantage. He has 13 years' experience compared to Batum's four, and that could definitely factor into their battle.
Of course, Batum can shift the matchup in his favor so long as he isn't completely married to shooting from long range. He has a decent mid-range jumper, and can also drive the lane fairly well. If he can keep World Peace guessing and moving, he will easily have won.
World Peace simply cannot allow that to happen, especially since Batum scored 26 points the first time the Blazers faced the Lakers this season.
X-Factor: Pau Gasol
If the Lakers are to get their revenge against Portland, they'll need Pau Gasol to have a near repeat performance of the Halloween game. The Spanish seven-footer scored 16 points on 7-of-14 shooting and had nine rebounds in the Lakers' first game against Portland, but that was in the Princeton offense.
Ever since D'Antoni took over, Gasol has struggled mightily and is currently having the worst season of his career. In spending most of his time outside of the paint, something which he has complained about, Gasol has averaged just 12.6 points and 8.7 rebounds, shooting just 42 percent from the field.
To Gasol's credit, he has steadily improved in the three games since Steve Nash returned to the starting lineup. He has posted just 13.6 points and eight rebounds, but has also dished out 5.6 assists. Most notable of all is that Gasol has shot 46 percent from the field over that small stretch, a sign that he could slowly be getting out of his funk.
The Lakers need him to continue his improvement streak against Portland, and his versatility on offense should allow him to do that. All that Gasol has to do is stay focused and let Nash get him the ball. No creating, no taking control himself, just letting his point guard create a play for him and take the wheel from there.
He has enough experience and athleticism to do just that against a young Trail Blazers team, and his continued improvement will cement his spot in D'Antoni's rotation. He may not be the best fit, but his performance against Portland could show that he fits just enough and should thus not be traded.
Portland may have run the table when the Lakers visited the Rose City in October, but they won't be allowed the same type of fun when they visit the City of Angels. The Lakers will be better prepared this time around, and actually playing in a system they all seem to enjoy will make a great difference.
Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash will both score and create plays for themselves and their teammates, which will leave the young Blazers absolutely dumbfounded.
Dwight Howard will be no match for whichever man Portland coach Terry Stotts puts in the middle, be it Meyers Leonard or J.J. Hickson. Metta World Peace will have a hard time keeping up with Nicolas Batum, but will slow him down just enough to keep the Lakers ahead most of the way.
Who will win?
Gasol, despite his struggles in the run-and-gun game, will be the man of the hour late in the game. He'll sink some key shots, headlining them all with a dunk that sends the Staples Center crowd into a ground-shaking frenzy and makes Lakers superfan Jack Nicholson run onto the court in celebration right as a time out is called.
This game is going to be close, but the Lakers will be in control a majority of the time. Portland will keep it close, but will not have given enough of an effort by the final buzzer. The Lakers will win, and have their revenge for losing on Halloween.
Los Angeles Lakers 109, Portland Trail Blazers 103
All statistics in this article accurate as of December 26, 2012