Portland Trail Blazers vs. Los Angeles Lakers Preview

The 12th-place Portland Trail Blazers and 13th-place Los Angeles Lakers are separated by just 0.5 games in the Western Conference standings as they head into Sunday night’s March.

Both teams have two things in common. First of all, they are not happy with their low level, even with the injury streaks of top players. Second, both teams can wake up a week from today and theoretically find themselves at the door of number 6, if the basketball gods work in their favor.

The Blazers continue a six-game homestand where they are 11-9 at the Moda Center, while the Lakers are 9-14 away from Los Angeles. All eyes will be on LeBron James as he has 261 career points to go before tying the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the all-time regular season scoring record. Based on his current average of 29.6 points per game, he would reach the mark in nine games, barring a Kobe-esque offensive tirade to speed up the day.

Trail Blazers vs. Lakers — Sunday, January 22 — 6:00 p.m. PT

How to watch: Root Sports Plus, NBA League Pass

Blazers injuries. Justise Winslow (out), Gary Payton II (probable)

Lakers injuries. Anthony Davis (out), Lonnie Walker IV (out), Austin Reaves (out), LeBron James (doubtful)

SBN branch. Silver screen and reel

The Matchup:

  • Play LeBron the way you played Luca. James is the focal point of the Lakers offense, much like Luka Doncic is for the Dallas Mavericks. He also dominates the ball like the Slovenian star. Unlike Dallas, the Lakers don’t have the hitting skills to give Portland a real scare. The Blazers should use the same tactics they used against Doncic. Bring in a second guard, Josh Hart or whatever, to trap James on every offensive possession. Don’t even give the 20-year veteran the luxury of making uncontested three-pointers, as he can burn teams if he gets hot. Make Dennis Schroder, Kendrick Nunn, Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverley shoot. All four players are shooting 35 percent or worse from long range, in contrast to Mavericks heroes Spencer Dinwiddie, Reggie Bullock, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Davis Bertans, who are all shooting 36 percent or better.
  • Do not try to belt. The 2-3 and 2-1-2 zones have worked well for Rip City all season. However, with a seasoned champion like James, that won’t work well against his ball club. He and Westbrook are extremely good at getting the ball to the weak side corner and the rim and will pick the lane. The Lakers are an isolated mixed bag. James and Westbrook have the most offensive freedom to create their own shot. Both future Hall of Famers are shooting less than 40 percent in isolation this season. The belt would nullify any chance for these two to isolate themselves and be the source of their own demise. Play man will work for Portland against Los Angeles
  • Protect the paint. The Lakers are behind only the Memphis Grizzlies in scoring this season, where they are averaging 56.7 points per contest. Meanwhile, Portland is 23rd in the association in allowing 51.4 points per game. Thomas Bryant is back and active as always. Schroder has long had a reputation as the best slasher in the NBA, especially when it comes to skating. Then, of course, there’s James and Westbrook. Notice, none of the keys outlined have anything to do with the Blazers’ offense. Why? Because Los Angeles’ defense is shoddy. While they defend the long ball exceptionally well (missing 34.6 percent), they are a bottom-10 team in key areas like second-chance points, fast break points and points in the paint allowed. Defense will drive offense for the Blazers, and fast break opportunities mixed with stellar paint will naturally open up the floor. So Portland should own the paint on both ends, but especially on defense.

What are others saying?

The Lakers’ win against the Memphis Grizzlies was marred by an altercation between NFL Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe and several Grizzlies players, but Ron Guterman had to stress to Lakers Nation;

Despite a season-long struggle in the final minutes of close games, the Lakers stayed within striking distance when a goal and a goal by Dennis Schroder gave LA a surprise late lead and victory. It was perhaps one of their best wins of the season and keeps them alive in the always competitive postseason picture.

James credited the Lakers with their mindset in a game when the team could have easily conceded. “The whole game stayed resilient,” James said. “Once we got down or killed off the glass, we stayed with the game plan until the DS steal and three-pointer, which also turned out to be the game-winner. We have planned the game. When we do that, we give ourselves a chance to win.”

Darius Soriano of Silver Screen and Roll discusses how the pairing of James and Westbrook has improved significantly this season.

In this season, however, everything has noticeably changed. Still have some junk? Yes, and especially during breakouts. Does the way defenders protect Russ still have a negative effect on LeBron? Of course it does. But the duo found their stride in the minutes they shared the court, not just in transition (as expected), but through better-defined roles in the midfield, and each player is better positioned to succeed.

For Russ, that means he’s much better on the ball when he’s on the court with LeBron, and being the point guard and lead playmaker in those lineups. That means allowing him to isolate more, drive more and (generally) serve as a primary weapon, rather than putting him in the corner as a floor spacer (with no pull) and asking screens to set the ball or work as a weakside cutter when it’s clearly not what he wants to do, nor how he instinctively plays the game at this point in his career.

Instead, it’s LeBron who does these things more often, and it creates more useful possessions when the two share the floor.

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