The Los Angeles Lakers took to Staples Center Sunday night, attempting to make it two consecutive victories with a win over the Portland Trail Blazers. Strong performances from Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. fueled the way, with some improved play during the final stretch of the regular season.
Head coach Luke Walton has experimented with many different lineups since the NBA Trade Deadline, so that he and the front office can get a proper evaluation of the talent on the roster. Sunday’s showdown at Staples Center wouldn’t be any different, as Walton started the game off with Clarkson, Randle, D’Angelo Russell, Corey Brewer and Ivica Zubac.
The Trail Blazers, like the Lakers, are also coming off of a victory against the Minnesota Timberwolves, as they face Los Angeles in the second night of a back-to-back. Head coach Terry Stotts elected to start the game with Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Moe Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Jusuf Nurkic.
Small forward Brandon Ingram, who played in every game this season, missed his first career game on Sunday night, as the team doctors decided to play it precautionary towards a knee injury.
With two young offensive-minded teams on the floor, Sunday’s contest was surely going to feature track meet type moments. Both teams started the game up and down the court, but had struggle converting buckets. Both Randle and Nurkic missed a few easy buckets in the paint, courtesy of him crafty footwork and strength in the post.
Clarkson, coming off of the best offensive game of his career, seemed to be in rhythm as the game got underway. He knocked down a mid-range jumper off a nice pick from Zubac, while also hitting a three on the left wing to make it a 13-11 game. The Lakers were showing strong execution on ball movement early, an encouraging sign towards team chemistry.
However, the coaching staff wanted more of a focused attention from Clarkson on the defensive guards. Both he and Russell faced off against one of the best backcourts in the NBA. McCollum and Lillard have torched the Lakers during their careers, especially after the scuffle Lillard and Russell had in their previous meeting.
Randle made a strong drive to his left in the paint, using his hang time to find Nance Jr. backdoor for the easy slam. That cut the Trail Blazers lead to 20-17, with a little less than three minutes left in the first quarter.
Although there were two offensive teams, the first quarter would be a relatively low scoring one, as the Trail Blazers took a 22-17 lead into the second quarter.
While the Lakers were hustling and active on the court early on, they weren’t able to executive offensively and convert baskets. The Lakers missed four of their first five shots, as Nance Jr.’s basket was the only bucket four minutes into the quarter for the Lakers.
The Trail Blazers opened the second quarter on a 9-2 run, extending their lead to 31-19. Walton inserted a bench unit of Tyler Ennis, Tarik Black, David Nwaba, Nance Jr. and Clarkson.
Ennis was engaging the Lakers offense early, as he hit a 17-foot jump shot to cut it to a 10-point lead. The Lakers then used a McCollum turnover to score on the fast break, as Ennis fed Nance Jr. for a crafty lay up.
The defensive effort by this bench unit has been consistent, as they are always active in the passing lanes and do a great job of helping each other out. Recently signed Nwaba used his strength to score another bucket in the paint, cutting the lead to 31-25 and forcing Stotts to call a timeout.
Ennis turned into an offensive catalyst for the bench unit, as his floater in the paint gave the Lakers a 9-0 run. Nurkic and Zubac exchanged a pair of post buckets, with the score at 35-30 with four minutes remaining in the half.
Both teams were ice cold in the first half this game, as the Trail Blazers were shooting 3-for-12 and the Lakers were shooting 1-for-8 from three-point range with two minutes remaining in the half. The sloppy offensive play wasn’t the most entertaining first half, but it did show that the Lakers were making the effort necessary to grind and hustle on both ends of the court.
The Lakers managed to score under 20 points in both quarters, as the Trail Blazers took a 40-32 lead into halftime. This was the lowest scoring half this season for the Lakers, as Russell led the way with eight points. Nance Jr. contributed six points and three rebounds, while Ennis also tacked on five points, two rebounds, two assists and two steals off the bench.
Just before the end of the first half, Clarkson suffered a contusion of his fifth metacarpal finger and was sent to the locker room. He received X-rays, but was given the green light and returned to start the second half.
Both teams opened the second half with a series of buckets, moving the score to 46-37, in an attempt to get some scoring on the board. Zubac received an easy floater on the pass from Clarkson, while also hitting a mid-range pull up the following play.
Zubac then picked up a loose rebound, feeding a long pass to Russell who went behind his back for a lay up. Russell then used a Zubac pick the following play and hit a mid-range pull-up for the three-point play.
The offensive execution at the start of the second half led to many opportunities, as the guards were excelling in pick-and-roll situations. Clarkson drive hard on down the right baseline and fed Randle for a two-handed slam, cutting the deficit to 51-46.
Lillard was able to convert a three-point play on a drive to his left, using his body to draw contact on Zubac. Although Lillard started to get things going, Allen Crabbe was leading the Trail Blazers.
His mid-range shot on the left baseline gave them a 63-53 lead, while also giving him 15 points and five rebounds on the night. Lillard drained a three the following possession, forcing Walton to call a timeout.
The third quarter turned into Lillard’s calling, as he scorched the Lakers for nine more points, as a part of a Trail Blazers 14-3 run. The Trail Blazers took a 77-56 lead into the fourth quarter, as the Lakers were outscored 37-24 that quarter.
Although the Lakers finally broke the 20-point mark for a quarter, their defensive struggles allowed the Trail Blazers to extend their lead to well over 20 points. Walton’s squad went scoreless the first two minutes of the quarter, until Nwaba hit his first career three on the wing.
A stop the following possession created another opportunity in transition, with a feed to Nance Jr. inside the paint for an easy bucket. While the starters allowed the lead to escalate in the third, Walton chose to start the fourth with the defensive intensity of the bench unit.
The bench had three consecutive defensive stops, with the last one turning into a three-point play for Nwaba. The former Los Angeles D-Fender backed down McCollum, drew the contact and hit the shot.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, that defensive run wouldn’t matter, as the Trail Blazers once again extended their lead beyond 20 points at 89-68.
The final minutes would turn into back and forth play from both bench units, as the Trail Blazers came out with a 97-81 victory. Lillard finished with 22 points, seven rebounds and five assists, while Russell led the Lakers with 22 points, one rebound and two assists.