The Lakers saw their five game win streak snapped Wednesday night in the second night of a back-to-back on the road against the Denver Nuggets. Although they seemed to be athletically overmatched at times against the Nuggets, it is clear that the Lakers are a far better team with Steve Nash in the lineup. While the Lakers will never be a team that has quickness on the perimeter at the defensive end with the roster as currently constructed, they need to continue to improve on their rotations when their respective teammates give up dribble penetration.
The Portland Trail Blazers are the Lakers’ matchup for tonight. The Blazers come in with a 14-13 record, and they have some very nice building blocks for the future on their roster in point guard Damian Lillard and power forward LaMarcus Aldridge. The Portland front office has done a good job maintaining a competitive roster over the last several years, even with devastating injuries to former number one overall pick Greg Oden as well as former franchise player Brandon Roy. Oden is currently out of the league, and Roy went into retirement last season before re-entering the league this season. In their season opener, Portland defeated the Lakers 116-106.
Frontcourt: Though he started off the year rather slowly, Trail Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge is a bonafide all-star and is one of the best power forwards in the league. He comes in averaging 20.8 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. Aldridge plays a finesse style on the offensive end and has an excellent face up game. He plays a similar game to that of Kevin Garnett, although he doesn’t quite have Garnett’s overall athleticism. Nicolas Batum starts at the small forward position and is another young building block for the franchise. He is a well-rounded player with not only the length to guard positions one through four on the court, but also averages 16 points, 5.7 rebounds, and four assists per game.
J.J. Hickson, once a promising young player on Lebron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers team, has found his niche in Portland. He has been a double-double machine throughout the season and is the team’s leading rebounder. Hickson is a bit undersized for the center position at 6’9, and will have trouble with Dwight Howard. Hickson comes in seventh in the NBA in total offensive rebounds. The Lakers must put a body on him at all times and learn from their mistakes in Denver, where they gave up 20 offensive rebounds to the Nuggets.
Backcourt: Rookie Damian Lillard out of Weber State starts at point guard, and if the votes were to be cast today he would win Rookie of the Year in a landslide vote (Anthony Davis will likely make it a close race as he gets healthy). He is second on the team in scoring (18.6 points per game) and has the poise of a veteran point guard when making decisions out of the pick and roll. Lillard is more of a jump shooter at this point in his career, and the Laker guards must go over the top of all on-ball screens when guarding Lillard. Defensively, Lillard has much to learn and has struggled at times. Look for Steve Nash to exploit him in pick and roll situations. Wesley Matthews, who averages 15 points per game and is a solid perimeter defender, is typically the starter at shooting guard but is a game-time decision due to a hip injury.
Keys to Victory:
Dominate the Portland Bench: The Trail Blazers have perhaps the worst bench in the league. They come in ranked dead last in the league by a wide margin in points per game, averaging only 17 per game as a unit. With Metta World Peace being put in a reserve role by Coach Mike D’Antoni and with Nash’s return to the starting lineup, the Lakers bench has been much improved. In this game, they should be able to take advantage of a young and inexperienced Blazers bench.
Quick Start: The youthful Blazers are a poor road team at 4-9 away from the Rose Garden, and a slow start could hurt their confidence. The Lakers continue to be prone to slow starts and have to find a way to come out with better energy on the defensive end. With the Blazers a game ahead of them in the standings (and currently in the eighth spot in the Western Conference), this is a game that the Lakers need to win.
Portland Trail Blazers (14-13) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (14-15)
7:30 PM PST, December 28, 2012, Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
TV: TWC Sports Network
Trail Blazers Projected Starting Line-up
PG: Damian Lillard
SG: Victor Claver
SF: Nicolas Batum
PF: LaMarcus Aldridge
C: J.J. Hickson
Key Reserves: C Meyers Leonard, F Luke Babbitt, G Sasha Pavlovic