Will Batum draw the assignment of slowing down Kobe or Gasol?
Before I give my insight about this Sunday’s matchup of Western Conference rivals, I need to provide a bit of background information.
My wife and I moved to Portland from Los Angeles in the summer of 2008. Sure, it rains a bit, it’s hard to maintain a tan as well as find high-quality Mexican food, but the quality of life here in PDX is excellent.
Unless you acknowledge that you are a Lakers fan.
There is no team that chaps Rip City’s hide more than the Los Angeles Lakers. My interaction with P-Town people is compromised when I wear my Lakers gear. People just get sour with the mere mention of the purple and gold.
Just this past Saturday, I had to leave my favorite sports bar in Northwest Portland because the bartender could not handle me asking him to put on the Lakers game so soon after the Blazers laid an egg in Atlanta.
While Portland is a great NBA city and has many sensible and grounded fans, it has an equal amount of those ruled by delusion. I can’t tell you how many times I hear that the Blazers would beat the Lakers if they matched up in the playoffs.
Some of the popular theories are: the Blazers match up well with the Lakers, Kobe Bryant is not the player he once was, and the Lakers can’t win at the Rose Garden.
I don’t know whether they are trying to convince themselves or if they truly believe this. But let me administer a dose of reality in plain and simple terms: there is no way the Lakers would fall to Blazers in a seven-game series.
First and foremost, it is difficult to contrast these teams’ rosters and see how the Blazers match up well. They are starting LaMarcus Aldridge and Gerald Wallace out of position at center and power forward (respectively), leaving them matched up against Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.
While LaMarcus is enjoying his most dominant and impressive season as a pro, the Lakers have three bigs more than capable of slowing him down. On the flip side, he is far too integral to their offense to risk foul trouble, so he would likely check Bynum.
That leaves small forwards to guard Gasol, which would force the Blazers into double team and scramble mode. Opening up lanes for drives to the basket or leaving people open for jump shots is hardly a recipe for success.
In all likelihood, Marcus Camby would get the starting nod, but the Blazers overall lack of length will leave them exposed on the glass and provide the Lakers with ample second-chance opportunities.
The Blazers’ lack of size will also force them to use two of their best options against Kobe elsewhere. Gerald Wallace has shown the ability to stay with Kobe as evidenced by the Bobcats’ success against Los Angeles.
Nicolas Batum has shown the league he has the potential to be a premier defensive player. Yet both will have log minutes at the small and power forward positions.
That leaves the primary assignment to Wesley Matthews, whose defense on Carmelo Anthony was one of the main reasons Utah was able to surprise Denver in the first round last season. He will provide some staunch resistance against Kobe. However, for all of Wesley’s efforts, the Lakers still swept Utah last season.
Matthews will be backed up by Brandon Roy, who is not quick enough to stay with Kobe and is still on limited minutes, and Rudy Fernandez, who is not strong enough to keep him out of the paint.
While it is true that Kobe is not as explosive as he once was, his game continues to evolve. Though he can deviate from time to time, Kobe has embraced his role as the primary facilitator.
He still possesses unlimited range, has an assortment of off-the-dribble and post moves and remains one of the best finishers around the basket in the game.
Whatever Kobe has purportedly lost, his work ethic, intensity and confidence in the triangle offense more than compensate for it.
On guile and guts, as well as under the guidance of one of the NBA’s best coaches, Nate McMillan, the Blazers always have a puncher’s chance in a single game.
Do you think the Lake Show will three-peat?
But when the Blazers visit Staples Center on Sunday, they will need so many things to go their way just to stay in the game, let alone in a best-of-seven series.
They will need to play at a high tempo to get easy baskets as well as to neutralize the Lakers' size advantage. They have to shoot the three better than Los Angeles, be active on the glass, as well as find a way to get some points in the paint.
Throw in a possible suspension to Bynum and a sore ankle for Kobe, and the Blazers could very well come away with a confidence-boosting victory. But you have to ask yourself, which team is more likely to suffer playoff ramifications from losing this game?
Scrappy, undersized teams who shoot the three well, who are active on the glass and who trap and/or play zone defense can have a measure of success against the Lakers.
Phoenix beat the Lakers twice last year and Houston won three times the year before, which proves it is not impossible to beat them in the playoffs.
But the slow down, grind-it-out nature of the playoffs works toward the Lakers’ half-court strengths. Neutralizing these advantages over a seven-game series has proven to be a difficult task.
No team has been able to do it in the past two years, and this year’s Portland Trailblazers team just does not have the personnel to pull it off.
And if you really think that the Lakers can’t win at the Rose Garden, just think back to game three of last year’s NBA Finals, where the Lakers went into Boston and beat their actual acknowledged rivals on their home floor to regain home court advantage.
Sorry P-Town, but I still have love for you. If it’s any consolation, you have made it tremendously difficult to enjoy these back-to-back championships. But it’s nothing a three-peat could not cure.