After coming off arguably the most intense games of the season, which saw Portland (48-31) drop one they couldn't afford to against Dallas, they must quickly compose themselves with the defending champion and potential first-round opponent Los Angeles Lakers (56-23). The two teams split two early games in the Rose City this year, Portland winning the first, 107-98, behind Roy's 32 points on only 11 shots, while Los Angeles finally got the monkey off their backs, defeating the Blazers in the RG, 99-82, without the services of Kobe Bryant. Speaking of Mr. Bryant, head coach Phil Jackson has rested his star the past two games in hopes of getting his legs back for the playoffs. With their win last night against the Wolves, L.A. clinched home court throughout the Western Conference and really is only jockeying with Orlando right now. The $1 million question now remains, will Kobe get another day off? *Edit* Kobe Expected To Play Against Portland
If there was one positive which came out of Friday's debacle, it was the fire and composure LaMarcus Aldridge showed. Normally when someone is fired up, they let their emotion get the better of them but LA was able to rise above it all and simply focus on hoops. I can guarantee you each game the rest of the way is going to feel like a playoff-type game, so the team has a couple practice games to get accustomed to playing under control, regardless of how they feel the game is being called. With teams begging anyone other than Roy to beat them, seen by help-side defenders sagging into the paint and always having two players locked onto Roy, someone else is going to have to step up outside of Aldridge. In the month of April, Aldridge is putting up 22.8 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 3.3 assists, all above his season averages. With defenses keyed on them, who will step up and become that third scorer Portland is going to need to beat L.A.? I think a key stat will be if the Trail Blazers can get 60 combined points from three players.
Regardless of whether Bryant plays or doesn't, the key to beating the Lakers is to neutralize Lamar Odom. When he is playing the point forward, setting up teammates, grabbing rebounds, and hitting open jumpers, their squad is nearly unbeatable. In their last contest against Portland, Odom completely dominated the glass, gobbling up 22 boards like they were gummy bears. Now, I doubt Odom is able to do that much damage again on the glass, as the Camby-Man now mans the paint for the red and black, but none the less, Marcus can't do it all by himself. Juwan, Batum, and LaMarcus all need to make rebounding a priority. Los Angeles was able to manufacture 13 extra shot attempts, which was the difference in a fairly even game otherwise statistically. With Bynum out, Odom has been the starting power forward, meaning he'll be matched up on Aldridge. L-Train is going to have to make Odom work on defense, hopefully taking away some of his energy in other facets of the game.
What will swing this game in either team's favor will be the play of the second units. As mentioned, Bynum is still out with an injury, moving the Lakers best reserve, Odom, to the starting lineup. Most fans and media correlate the Lakers recent struggles, three wins in their last eight games, directly to the lackluster play of their bench. Howard has been solid for the Trail Blazers, Bayless looked a little bit better against Dallas, and Rudy hit three pretty huge three-pointers, but can they build upon that success and take the momentum gained against Dallas with them on the road in a hostile environment? On paper, I'll take our bench over the likes of Luke Walton, Sasha Vujacic, Josh Powell, Jordan Farmar, and Shannon Brown, but games aren't played on paper. Most likely we'll see the two, inconsistent benches play to a standstill, but if one outshines the other, it will be the deciding factor in the outcome of the game.
Even though the Lakers got embarrassed at home on national television against the Spurs, they hold the NBA's 2nd best home record at 33-6, and I don't think Portland will be giving L.A. their 7th home loss on Sunday. L.A. knows this is one of the tougher Western Conference's in recent memory and with the last week of the NBA schedule starting tomorrow, the time in which to turn the proverbial switch on is quickly vanishing so look for them to come out with a purpose tomorrow. Although we dislike them more than they us, L.A. hasn't been living under a rock over these past couple of weeks. Portland could very well be their first round opponent, especially after the Spurs stunned the Nuggets tonight, and they'll want to thwart any Trail Blazer confidence early and often. With the West being so tough, the Lakers will want as quick of a first round as possible and if they do match up with us, the series starts Sunday. I hope I'm wrong, but the Lakers message will be loud and clear to the Trail Blazers about how tough its going to be to get the one win they'll need to to advance in the playoffs. As much as it makes me want to puke...
Game 80 Prediction: Trail Blazers 88 Lakers 97Post-Game Thoughts
Words can't describe how satisfying this win was or the way in which is came about. Early on it looked as if the Lakers were ready to show why they were defending champs, running off to a nine point lead, but the Trail Blazers weathered the storm and only trailed by three after one period. In the 2nd quarter, Roy's knee went one way while his body went the other. He would not return to the game, scaring the living hell out of Trail Blazers fans everywhere. Luckily an MRI just revealed only a bone contusion, with a time table for a return uncertain but easily the best possible scenario. With Roy out, Portand's bench came to the rescue in a big way, outscoring their L.A. counterparts 35-8.
After momentum swings saw both teams take six-eight point leads, the game settled into a classic photo finish. Andre Miller was clutch all game and his driving lay-up put Portland up 86-81 with 54 ticks to go. A Kobe 30 ft. three and an And-1 within 20 seconds put L.A. up 1 when the madness began. An Aldridge low post miss opened the window for Marcus to tip it in; Portland up one. Webster, apparently not knowing time and score, bear-hugs Bryant, putting him on the line with a chance to take the lead. With M-V-P chants reigning down from Staples Center, Kobe ironically front rims two, yet L.A. gets the offensive rebound and Fisher is fouled seconds later by Miller. Fish only made one of two, setting up the game winning shot for Portland with 5 seconds to play. Somehow a running jumper off of one foot was the play we got out of Webster, yet Fisher and Bryant both fouled him in the act of shooting, resulting in three made free throws from Webster. Up 3, Batum denied Kobe the ball, meaning Gasol out top was their only viable option which he unsurprisingly clanked, giving the Trail Blazers their biggest win of the season and in a dead-heat for the 6th spot out West.
"It's big for us," said LaMarcus Aldridge of the victory. "It's giving us more confidence if we do face them. This will be big for us on the road. We always feel like if they come to our house it'll be a really good game, but now (with this win), it makes our confidence grow even more."
I felt the reserves would decide the game if either bunch showed up. Luckily for Portland, everyone was above par today. Bayless chipped in 8 points and 5 rebounds, including a three to give the Blazers back the lead and broke the two minute long dry spell from either side to begin the 4th. But it wasn't Bayless, nor the reliable Howard who starred for the bench. It was the much maligned duo of Fernandez and Webster. Rudy stepped in right away as soon as Roy went down and looked comfortable out there for the first time in months. Finally he was hitting the pull-up three pointers, had his patented lob pass to Aldridge for the flush in the waning moments, and even picked up a charge. All in all, Rudy recorded 9 points and an impressive six assists. I don't think I've seen a player go from hero to goat back to hero in such a short span of time than what happened with Webster. While he started off missing badly on his first two attempts from outside, he received an alley-oop from Rudy that seemed to ignite him. His defense on Bryant was phenomenal and had to hit two pairs of three free throws in this game, showing signs of extreme clutchness. His 16 points (4-7) all seemed to come at a desperate time for the Trail Blazers, stalling any hopes of a Laker run. Not only did the Blazer bench outscore L.A.'s (35-8), but they out assisted them 9-1, got to the line five more times, and grabbed 11 boards compared to their 5. In a game that needed them (bench) more than ever, they delivered. A tremendous sign heading into the postseason.
"He was great today," said Camby of Webster. "We're definitely going to need him as the season ends."
As much length and overall talent the Lakers attribute, the key to stopping them starts and ends with Kobe Bryant. Coach Nate had Batum and Webster dialed in on Kobe all game long, forcing him into 8-23 shooting and maybe more importantly limiting him to only 3 trips to the foul stripe. Throughout the game, Batum used his quickness and length to deny Bryant the rock and when he did get a shot off, made sure a hand was right between the eyes of Kobe as he let it go. Only was it through a few questionable calls that allowed Kobe those six points in 20 seconds, but regardless, when it mattered most, L.A. wasn't able to get their go-to-guy and supposed "best closer in the game" the rock down by three with 3.1 to go. Here is a video breakdown from BasketallBreakdowns of how great a job both Marty and Nico did on Kobe.
It just wouldn't be right to not give our starting big men their due. Each player played off the other just how KP imagined when he pulled the trigger to bring Marcus to Portland. Camby was suffocating on the glass, grabbing a game-high 17 rebounds and sending messages of 'DO NOT ENTER' inside with 4 confidence crushing blocks. While Camby was doing his thing on defense, Aldridge became the de-facto leader as soon as Roy went down, scoring a game-high 24 points on 10-21 shooting from the floor and showing signs of All-Star caliber play with 11 boards of his own. Normally known to roam the perimeter during games, Aldridge was a beast inside, always trying to overpower the soft Gasol. Although he missed the would be go-ahead shot with Portland trailing by one, it was his desire and determination to get off a good shot inside that drew Camby's defender over to him, leaving Marcus wide open for the tip-in. A criticism of Aldridge has been his tendency to shy away from the ball in the 4th, but lately that doesn't appear to be the case. The feistier Aldridge has resulted in nearly 23 points and 8 rebounds during the month of April. For the Trail Blazers to advance in Round 1, the team will nee the April Aldridge and not his early season counterpart.
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