This season comes with high expectations for both teams. The Lakers want to return to the Finals, and this time to close the deal. To do that, they need to win enough games to gain the home court advantage.
Phil Jackson has been around long enough to know a win in October counts just as much in the win total as a win in April. He will not be messing around in this game. Furthermore, he is a great coach. Sure, he has been blessed with great players throughout his runs, but many coaches have. Not all the coaches blessed with great players have come through as well as Jackson has.
On the other hand, Nate McMillan is no slouch. He has done a phenomenal job of molding the Blazers into his vision of a winning team. He continues to work. The dinner he held at his house for his most important players is just one example of the types of things he has done in turning the franchise around and creating huge expectations for this team.
McMillan knows Portland might surprise everyone. To do that, he needs the team to stay together, to have that elusive "chemistry" that turns decent teams into good ones, good teams into great ones, and great teams into Champions.
In the match-up of two great coaches, this time it is McMillan who blinked first. He reversed himself and elected to start Travis Outlaw at the Small Forward after previously announcing it would be surprising Rookie Nicolas Batum.
That is a surprising move. The reasons he had given for starting Batum were manifold and sensible. Outlaw is more productive on the second unit, provides things for that unit that Batum can't, and Batum does the same for the starters.
At the same time, McMillan seldom makes mis-steps. He knows what his team needs and when they need it so let's wait and see how that works out. Meanwhile, coaching seems like a good place to start the game preview.
Jackson has proven for 2 decades that he knows how to coach. He will show that tonight. Greg Oden will have to do some damage before Jackson decides to double him. As a result, the Blazers will be able to start their offense inside with Oden and LaMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge is more likely to draw the double.
Since he saw plenty of double teams last season, he is already used to finding the open man out of the double team. With Steve Blake and Brandon Roy on the perimeter, there should be plenty of open looks. Travis Outlaw tends to hold the ball for a moment after receiving a pass, so when it is his defender who sags, Outlaw needs to make quicker decisions.
If Aldridge finds the open man and the Blazers keep the ball rotating their starting 5 will put up a lot of points. Doubles on Aldridge will also give Oden the chance to get a few rebounds on the offensive glass. Conversely, if the ball stops they will end up taking contested shots against the clock. That will lead to a long night.
At the other end, Jackson has the Lakers buying into Tex Winters' famed "Triangle". When the players move correctly and read the defense right it creates open looks. The Lakers are a veteran team that consistently scores well, particularly at home. The Blazers can cause problems for the Lakers with their exceptional length as long as they stay disciplined.
This is another place starting Outlaw is an interesting choice. The Blazers have been practicing their rotations with Batum in that role. Now they need to adjust for Outlaw. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly is a consideration.
So the teams have similar game plans for their starters: for Portland, pound the ball inside, probably starting with Aldridge but getting Oden some looks. For the Lakers, they certainly want to get some inside looks for Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, but they want those looks to come from more the triple post set-up.
The coach who convinces his players to stick with the game plan longer has the advantage with the starting units.
If the second units were straight-up in minutes played, it could be a very entertaining game as well. Lamar Odom is as good as almost any player in the League. Trevor Ariza is expected to be a contributor, and Jordan Farmar was just brutal against the Blazers last year. That doesn't even address the contributions of a guy like Luke Walton who, while never achieving the things the Big Redhead did, still can hurt teams who forget about him.
At the same time, the Portland backcourt of Sergio Rodriguez and Rudy Fernandez has the potential to be very explosive. Their second unit looks less intimidating without the high-scoring Outlaw but should be able to hold the line with Channing Frye providing a little scoring punch up front.
Overall, this game will come down to who gets the best production from their mystery people; you know Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum will score for the Lakers. You know LaMarcus Aldridge, Travis Outlaw, and Brandon Roy will score for the Blazers.
You suspect Radmanovich and Farmar will add a few points. And that Fernandez and Oden will get theirs too.
Of course, Oden will be an interesting sub-plot. Nobody really knows how he will play. He could come out aggressive, get Bynum in foul trouble, and have a great night, maybe something like 15 and 10 with a couple of blocked shots.
Alternatively, he could come out hacking, get called for a couple quick fouls, and spend most of the game on the bench with foul trouble. You can say the same thing about Rudy Fernandez.
He could come out and be the player we saw in the Olympics, throwing down dunks on the big men, hitting big treys, and generally scoring at will to be a game-changer. Alternatively, he might get the Rookie syndrome, come out passive, and force Brandon Roy to play big minutes. Against a player with the scoring capabilities of Kobe Bryant, that is a recipe for disaster.
This is a very important game for Portland, even if they lose...which they most likely will. If they can come out, stay close to L.A. and lose by maybe 6 - 10 points, they will build confidence. They will be able to say they just stayed with a Finals quality team on its home floor and, if they had gotten a couple of breaks, maybe walked away with a win.
That confidence will be meaningful for their Friday tilt with the Spurs.
Conversely, if they come out lifeless and get run off the floor, it will be a disaster. It might be just one game in the standings and an opening night at that, but this game matters for the Blazers season.
Look for a game in the low 100s with L.A. winning by 8 - 10 points or so.