Lakers Vs. Trail Blazers Preview: Luke Walton’s Squad Aims To Make It...

Lakers Vs. Trail Blazers Preview: Luke Walton’s Squad Aims To Make It Two Straight Wins

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D'Angelo Russell Damian Lillard
(Ty Nowell/Lakers.com)

The Los Angeles Lakers geared up for a home showdown against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday, a contest that would not be settled in 48 minutes. The Lakers would go on to outscore the Timberwolves 21-10 in overtime on the path to a 130-119 win, on the day they unveiled Shaquille O’Neal’s statue outside Staples Center.

With 10 games remaining in the regular season, this final stretch is all about development and building chemistry heading into the offseason. Head coach Luke Walton, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka use each game as an opportunity to evaluate the roster, with a Sunday showdown at home against Portland Trail Blazers up next.

The Trail Blazers are coming off of an 112-100 victory over the Timberwolves, with this team still fighting for a chance at the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Los Angeles remains on the other end of the spectrum, heading into a draft scenario with their top-three protected pick.

Backcourt:

The backcourt is the bread and butter for the Trail Blazers, led by none other than Damian Lillard. The franchise player has seen a surge in his play over the last month, averaging 30.2 points, 4.1 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game in the month of March.

Lillard not only has the offensive burden for this team but must also maintain his leadership role. The young team is attempting to grow alongside each other, as coach Terry Stotts has his team invested in the bigger goal at hand.

Shooting guard C.J. McCollum is the other offensive weapon for the Trail Blazers, a shooting guard that doesn’t fear any defender. McCollum has torched the Lakers this season, averaging 25.3 points per game against them this season.

NCAA champion Shabazz Napier is another solid guard off the bench for this team, but the Lakers will consistently see offensive executions and pick-and-rolls via Lillard and McCollum.

Jordan Clarkson led the offensive attack for the Lakers against the Timberwolves, dropping a career high 35 points on route to their victory. Clarkson shot 13-for-20 from the field, including 8-for-10 from the three-point line.

D’Angelo Russell is fresh off of his career high 40-point performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers, while Walton experimented with the two scoring guards in the starting lineup Friday. Both guards have proven they can score at the NBA level, but need to work on setting up their teammates and finding a balance between scoring and playmaking.

Backup guard David Nwaba provides that constant burst of energy the second unit thrives on, providing 10 points, seven rebounds and two assists in 26 minutes off the bench. Walton and the Lakers have moved on from the guards that started the season on the bench, with Nwaba and Tyler Ennis running the bench mob of late.

The midseason trade to acquire Ennis was seen as more of an experiment for the Lakers, giving Ennis an opportunity to distribute and help guide the highest-scoring bench in the NBA.

Frontcourt:

Evan Turner has flourished in his role as the small forward for the Trail Blazers, an offseason signing coming at a hefty price. Turner is an all-around player and likes to play from the post, often backing down his smaller counterparts.

However, Stotts has recently elected to play Turner off the bench, seen as a way to help dictate a bench that does not score at a consistent pace. Allen Crabbe has received some of those lost minutes of late, with the Trail Blazers valuing him highly. The Trail Blazers matched the offer sheet given to Crabbe in the offseason.

However, Moe Harkless has received the starting spot in the lineup, with a defensive tenacity to be aware of. Harkless will likely receive a delegated defensive role, spending time between guarding the explosive Lakers guards and Ingram on the wing.

Al-Farouq Aminu is a physical forward on this team, but can also space the floor and knock down a three-point shot. Aminu tends to guard the highest-scoring opponent, a strong defensive player who has active hands in the passing lane.

Perhaps the most validating trade deadline acquisition has been Jusuf Nurkic, a center who had a restricted role with the Denver Nuggets. Nurkic has flourished in his newfound role, averaging 14.3 points, 9.9 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.9 blocks per game.

Big men Meyers Leonard and Ed Davis provide an athletic presence when on the court, constantly jumping around the rim and looking for easy buckets during pick-and-roll situations. Former ninth overall pick Noah Vonleh has found a new home with the Trail Blazers, seeing an increase in minutes per game over the last month.

Julius Randle had yet another strong game on Friday, posting 23 points, 12 rebounds, three assists and two blocks in 34 minutes played. Randle has been able to capitalize against smaller forwards this season but faces off against a Trail Blazers team that has a surplus of defensive-minded big men.

Brandon Ingram, who leads rookies in minutes played this season, has produced consistent results throughout his rookie campaign. Ingram has shown countless times that he has a knack for the defensive end, as a strong rebound presence and a one-on-one defender. His long frame allows his to flourish with rebounds, while he continues to develop on the offensive end.

Ivica Zubac’s production on the court has shown why the Lakers were so high on the pick when they drafted him. Zubac constantly is working to better his game, while also taking responsibility when the team doesn’t play up to a certain set of standards. The 20-year-old has really demonstrated a maturity for the game, preferring a team win to his personal success.

Forward Larry Nance Jr. had a phenomenal game against the Timberwolves, posting a +17 +/- in 25 minutes played. He totaled 13 points, seven rebounds, five assists and a steal, while his intangibles on the court go without saying.

Corey Brewer has also played an efficient role off of Walton’s bench since he was acquired, filling in a role on the wing that the Lakers desperately need. His attention to defense is also something that Walton wants his team to build off of, featured in a defensive unit that breathes effort.

Three Keys To The Game:

Let Your Defense Fuel Your Offense:

It is no secret this game can quickly turn into a track meet, as both teams take pride in fighting on the offensive end. However, the Lakers may not be able to match the scoring output Lillard and McCollum can provide on the court. The Lakers need to allow some defensive stops to turn into fast break opportunities, with players filling in on the wing.

Take Pride In Stopping The Guards:

Clarkson came into this season with a renewed approach to defense, attempting to mold himself into a defensive stopper (Johnson stated he could become one of best defensive guards in NBA). Russell came in with not many expectations on the defensive end but needs to improve his attention to defense. Often times, the lack of a competitive edge on defense turns into a liability. The Lakers can’t get caught looking on the defense end, and the guards need to consistently fight through picks.

Play For One Another:

This season, the Lakers have flourished on the floor when playing for one another and get caught in bad stretches of production when playing selfishly. The bench unit has done a phenomenal job of fighting together defensively and offensively, but Walton needs to aid that consistent effort towards the starting unit.

Portland Trail Blazers (34-38) Vs. Los Angeles Lakers (21-51)
6:30 P.M. PST, March 26, 2017
Staples Center, Los Angeles, California
TV: Spectrum SportsNet
Radio: 710 AM (ESPN)/1330 KWKW (Spanish)

Projected Trail Blazers Starting Lineup:

PG: Damian Lillard
SG: C.J. McCollum
SF: Maurice Harkless
PF: Noah Vonleh
C: Jusuf Nurkic

Key Reserves: Allen Crabbe, Evan Turner, Ed Davis, Meyers Leonard, Al-Farouq Aminu

Projected Lakers Starting Lineup:

PG: D’Angelo Russell
SG: Jordan Clarkson
SF: Brandon Ingram
PF: Julius Randle
C: Ivica Zubac

Key Reserves: Larry Nance Jr., Corey Brewer, David Nwaba, Tyler Ennis