While the Portland Trail Blazers got off to an outstanding start to the season, the team had been struggling of late, particularly against the NBA’s elite. Much of this had to do with ongoing injuries to franchise player LaMarcus Aldridge. Since Aldridge returned from injury last week, the Blazers have gone 3-0, with two of those victories coming against the Memphis Grizzlies and Chicago Bulls. The Blazers are an offensive juggernaut, with knockdown shooters at positions one through four in their starting lineup. In the most recent meeting between the Lakers and Blazers, the Lakers pulled out a 107-106 victory on the road in Portland. Pau Gasol was instrumental in that Laker victory, and he is listed as probable for tonight’s game after missing the team’s previous two games with vertigo. The Lakers look to continue the momentum from their impressive 115-99 victory over the Suns on Sunday night.
Frontcourt: Through the first half of the season, no power forward in the league played better than LaMarcus Aldridge. The 6’11 Aldridge possesses a nearly unstoppable turnaround jumper on the low block, and is the definition of a knockdown shooter from 17-18 feet. The pick-and-pop between point guard Damian Lillard and Aldridge is one of the tougher plays opposing defenses see on a nightly basis. Aldridge averages 23.2 points and 11.1 rebounds per game, and much of the Blazers’ hopes in the postseason rests on his shoulders. Don’t be surprised to see Jordan Hill start alongside Pau Gasol in order to match up with Aldridge.
Small forward Nicolas Batum is one of the most underrated players the league has to offer. Batum stands at 6’8 and is extremely versatile. He’s able to guard all guard positions effectively, hits from deep (36% from three on five attempts per game), and can play a point-forward role to perfection (averages 5.1 assists a night). With averages of 13 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, his numbers on the year are impressive. The Lakers have to force him into being a jump-shooter, as he is most effective when he is getting in the paint and distributing to teammates.
Backcourt: Damian Lillard, in his second season out of Weber State, has made “the leap” in his sophomore campaign. Lillard not only made his first all-star game, but even managed to participate in each and every event during all-star weekend. Lillard is the team’s second leading scorer at 20.9 points per game, and along with Aldridge forms a potent duo for the future in Rip City. While he is a capable distributor (leads team with 5.5 assists per game), Lillard is most dangerous in getting his own shot off the dribble. He attempts nearly seven threes a night, and hits on 38.8% of them. If he gets it going from beyond the arc and on other shots off the dribble, look out. The Lakers can ill afford to go under any on-ball screens when he has the ball in his hands.
Wesley Matthews is the starting shooting guard for Portland. Now in his fifth season in the league, Matthews has continued to improve his overall game. The once undrafted player out of Marquette is a solid wing defender who has turned himself into an elite three-point shooter. He attempts a high-volume of threes, and essentially has the same three-point numbers as Lillard (39.7% on 6.8 attempts per game). Matthews is more than just a shooter, and has grown very confident in putting the ball on the ground to create a shot for himself by either getting all the way to the basket or with the midrange game.
Keys to Lakers Victory:
Rebounding: The Blazers are tops in the league in rebounding on a nightly basis, as they average 46 rebounds per game as a unit. A big part of the Blazers’ improvement this season is related to this dominance on the backboards and the off-season pickup of center Robin Lopez. Lopez and Aldridge form a potent frontcourt that has the ability to dominate the glass and play physical. The Lakers have to be sure to clean up the defensive backboards, or they’ll have little chance of victory.
Bench Production: If the Lakers have a single advantage over Portland, it is their bench play. The Lakers’ bench unit, led by Nick Young, has the capability to put up points in a hurry. While Xavier Henry’s status has been up in the air, he would give the Lakers even more firepower off the bench. While Portland has improved their bench from a season ago, it is still one of the team’s weaknesses.
Guard the Three: Portland ranks third in the NBA in three-point makes per game (9.4), and they have the ability to go on game-altering runs when they get it going from beyond the arc. They also rank seventh in the league in three-point percentage. The Lakers must have a consistent effort throughout the game in working to rotate out of screen-roll situations and get out to shooters .
Portland Trail Blazers (48-27) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (25-48)
7:30 PM PST, April 1, 2014
Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
TV: TWC SportsNet, TNT
Radio: ESPN Radio 710 ESPNLA
Trail Blazers Projected Starting Line-up
PG: Damian Lillard
SG: Wesley Matthews
SF: Nicolas Batum
PF: LaMarcus Aldridge
C: Robin Lopez
Key Reserves: G Mo Williams, PF Thomas Robinson, SF Dorrell Wright
Lakers Projected Starting Line-up
PG: Kendall Marshall
SG: Jodie Meeks
SF: Kent Bazemore
PF: Jordan Hill
C: Pau Gasol
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