The most intriguing rivalry in the NBA may seem like a mismatch on paper ... and in a way, it is.
The Los Angeles Lakers simply cannot beat the Portland Trailblazers. Well, at least when they play in Portland.
The Lakers' 111-94 loss to the Blazers Monday night wasn't just an aberration, it was the continuation of a six-game losing streak and a four-plus-year drought the Lakers have had at the Rose Garden.
The last time the Lakers won in Portland (2/23/05), Frank Hamblen had just taken over as Lakers coach for Rudy Tomjanovich and the Blazers starting lineup included Nick Van Exel, Damon Stoudemire and Ruben Patterson. Yeah, it was that long ago.
Now, this may not seem like a big deal at the moment. If the season ended today the Lakers and Blazers wouldn't meet in the first round. In fact, Portland would have to upset the Jazz (who own a 2-1 series lead and would have home-court advantage) just to reach the West semifinals. But the season, of course, does not end today and the Blazers are only two games from falling to the No. 8 seed -- thus setting up an epic series with the Lakers.
A Blazers-Lakers series in Round 1 could rival that of Warriors-Mavericks in 2007, when Dallas had the league's best record (67-15) but lost in six games. The Lakers would certainly be the clear favorites going in, but no one would be surprised to see the Blazers pull the upset (even in six -- like the Warriors), while stealing a win at Staples Center. Portland poses more matchup problems for the defending West champs than just about any other team in the conference, with Brandon Roy’s speed and playmaking ability, Travis Outlaw’s explosiveness off the bench and LaMarcus Aldridge’s versatility. While the Lakers have proven they can beat any team at home or away, only three current Lakers were on that club which won in Portland four years ago.
It would be one thing if the Lakers didn't have anything to play for in Oregon or if they simply overlooked their opponent, but neither excuse applies. Not only have the Lakers talked about breaking their Rose Garden losing streak for a couple years now, but their last two games in Portland have been significant. They were coming off a two-game losing streak to Denver and Phoenix heading into Monday's massacre and were locked in three-way battle for the best record in the NBA with Boston and Cleveland. Last April, the Lakers were battling New Orleans for the best record in the West and lost 112-103 to a Blazers club that was simply playing for pride.
The Lakers have tried to dismiss their inability to beat Portland in the past. "They’re a good young team," said Kobe Bryant last year, as if talking about a little brother that got lucky again. "Mark it down to rainy weather, depressing faces," said coach Phil Jackson recently. Either one can cite plenty of excuses, but if the Lakers play the Blazers in the playoffs, they could get embarrassed before even reaching the NBA Finals this year. At least this time around they won’t have to fly as far or wait until June to have their hearts broken.