Lakers-Trailblazers: An intriguing match-up

Most regular years, a first-round playoff series in the National Basketball Association between the first and last seeds in a conference would be a foregone conclusion. Indeed, the last top seed to fall in the first round was the Chicago Bulls in 2012.

We're in 2020 now - and this “bubble” season is far from regular. Which is why the series between the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trailblazers has emerged as the most intriguing first-round match-up of this year's playoffs - even before the Blazers bested LA in their series opener on Tuesday night.

It's a story of contrasting fortunes. The Lakers, Western Conference champions and early title favourites, have struggled since the season restarted in the confines of Disney World, while Portland has thrived, managing to secure the conference's eighth seed from Memphis last weekend.

Lakers talisman Lebron James has talked openly about how different it is to not be playing in front of fans and how his team has struggled to get to playoff readiness. LA entered Disney World without starter Avery Bradley (who stayed away due to Covid concerns) and injured key reserve Rajon Rondo.

Their offence sputtered in the bubble as coach Frank Vogel experimented with various line-ups to support James and Anthony Davis, giving the Lakers just three wins from their eight pre-playoff seeding games.

Meanwhile Portland, Western Conference finalists last year, struggled earlier this season with injuries to three starters, and were in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time in seven years. The four-month Covid hiatus gave center Jusuf Nurkic and forward Zach Collins a chance to recover, and the Blazers exploded into the restart with a line-up hungry to extend their season.

Portland finished the seeding games with a 6-2 record, thanks in part to Nurkic and Collins - and Damian Lillard’s superhuman scoring efforts. Arguably, if not for those injuries, Portland would have finished higher up the ladder, rather than have to scrap their way through the seeding games to seal the final playoff spot in the West.

"From an overall talent and experience standpoint, they are probably a 4- or 5-seed masquerading as an 8," one scout told ESPN’s Brian Windhorst earlier this week.

Portland, therefore, presents a tricky first-round opponent to any team, not least a Lakers unit that has been in indifferent form since the restart. That threat became real in Tuesday’s series opener when Portland beat LA by 7 points, despite Lebron James posting his 24th career post-season triple double. Lillard, the most valuable player of the bubble’s seeding games, logged 34 points. LA leveled the series two days later, handing Portland its first loss in six games.

Just days earlier, Lillard made some prophetic comments in a courtside interview after his team's victory over Memphis: "The reason that we competed so hard, the reason why we fought so hard to get into the playoffs is because we feel like we're capable of doing anything. Our work is just beginning."

Blazer odds to win the series improved dramatically to 2.62 (+162) after their Tuesday victory from 4.7 (+370) the previous night, according to prices compiled by Cloudbet. The Lakers are still favoured at 1.43 (-233), but that’s drifted from 1.18 (-556). Prices are current as of 4 am GMT on Friday 21 August.

With at least three games to go, this series is far from over. Here are some key factors that will influence how things unfold over the coming week, and key markets to watch:

1. The Lakers need to kickstart their offence

The title favourites as the season resumed, the Lakers have struggled to get into a groove, with few solid play-making options outside of Lebron James. That was clearly evident in Game 1, when they missed their season scoring average by 20 points, even as James dished out 16 assists, a career playoff high.

The Laker’s average score during the seeding games was 8 points lower than pre-bubble levels, and was the second-lowest total out of any unit at Disney World. During that period, King James failed to maintain his regular season scoring and assist averages, while Anthony Davis’ scoring was inconsistent.

They looked a little bit more like the pre-bubble Lakers in their victorious 111-point Game 2 effort, fuelled by (of course) James' playmaking and Davis' 31 points. They must build on that, if they are to contend seriously for their first championship in a decade. The probability of a Lakers title this year has slumped to 20% - a whopping 10 percentage points down from when the season restarted.

The stats: Lakers' average score in the bubble: 105.5 points; average score from their 52 regular-season wins: 117.1

The line: Take a view on the over/under for the Lakers' total score.

2. King James to step up when it matters

Following Portland's series-opening win, Portland coach Terry Stotts was asked what he expected to see in the next game. His reply: "A determined Lebron James."

It's unwise to discount the ability of one of the greatest players of all time to lift his game when it matters: The 35-year-old has played more playoff minutes than any other NBA player, and has lifted his scoring rate in each of his last five post-season runs. He was the highest scorer of the 2017-2018 playoffs - and is hungry for a fourth NBA title.

James certainly did his best to deliver in Game 1 of this Blazer series, with 23 points, 17 rebounds and 16 assists: He's the first player to have as many points, rebounds and assists in the playoffs. He led his team in assists in a more muted Game 2 performance - but he had a lot more help from his supporting cast.

And that support is key if the Lakers are going to make a deep playoff run this year, let alone contest for the championship. One thing is certain though: If they fall short, it won't be due to lack of effort from the King. His point production and assists will always make for interesting markets, even if his team loses.

The stats: James’ average points this season: 25.3; average points from last five playoff runs: 30.1. Average assists this season: 10.2; average assists from his last playoff run (2017-18): 9

The line: Take a view on the over/under for James' points and assists.

3. Dame Dollar to keep scoring by the bucketload

The Blazers have their own superstar in point guard Damian Lillard, whose scoring theatrics fuelled the team’s spectacular run during the seeding games. Lillard averaged a league-high 37.6 points through that period, including two 50-plus point efforts that featured some ridiculous long-range bombing.

In one of his post-game interviews, Lillard revealed that he’s been spending his off seasons working on his range - and that practice is clearly paying off: He's shooting a career-high 40% from 3-point land this season and his bubble heroics included makes from close to the NBA logo at half court.

The Blazers clearly benefit when Dame is on form - his long-range accuracy spreads out opposing defences, giving his teammates more room to exercise their own scoring chops. They suffer when he doesn't get going, as in Game 2 of this series, as he scored just 18 points. He also dislocated his left index finger, and sat out the rest of the game on the bench. Will that be a factor going forward?

The stats: Lillard’s average points per game for this entire season: 30; average score since the season restarted in the bubble: 35

The line: Take a view on the Dame’s scoring. Portland relies on their floor general to spark their vaunted offence.

4. Portland keeps the taps on

“Defence wins games” - so goes the folksy adage trotted out by old-school basketball coaches all round the world. Or at least they used to, until NBA regulators and players conspired to turn league games into the fan-friendly scorefests that they currently are.

Which is why even defensively suspect teams like the Blazers (third-worst in the bubble in terms of points per 100 possessions) can thrive - so long as they keep the scoring taps turned on. And turn it on, they have, to lead all teams in points scored during the seeding games. We’ve noted the Dollar’s scoring prowess above, but - unlike Lebron - the Blazers have a strong supporting cast in C.J. McCollum, Nurkic and the evergreen Carmelo Anthony (15th on the NBA’s all-time scorers list).

This series, their output hasn’t quite been the same, including in their Game 1 win, when they scored 100 points. Even in their 39 regular-season losses, the Blazers averaged 109.3 points per game. The message here is clear: This team must pour it on - if they want to keep their season going.

The stats: Portland’s average score this season: 115. Average score in the bubble prior to the playoffs: 120. Portland’s average score in this series: 94

The line: Take a view on the over/under for Portland’s total game score. Can they resume their free-scoring ways against the Lakers?

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Aug 25, 2020

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