Lakers-Blazers Series Preview: Key Matchups, X-Factor, and Prediction

The Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trailblazers took two drastically different roads to the playoffs. Los Angeles, who own the second best record in the league, secured the top seed out West rather quickly.

Portland on the other hand made it by the slimmest of margins. They were a Caris LeVert step back away from exiting the Bubble. They then hardly survived the young Memphis Grizzlies in the play in game.

Nonetheless the two franchises find themselves locked into a 7 game series.

It is rare for the 1-8 matchup to be the most exciting, but in the year where nothing is normal, it makes sense.

The Blazers are not your typical 8th seed. A year ago they were in the Conference Finals, and have got better with the additions of Carmelo Anthony and Hassan Whiteside.

With all that said, let’s get into the breakdown of the upcoming series.

Does Anthony Davis Dominate?

There is a long list of things that the Lakers need to go right if they want to advance past the Blazers. But all of them are a mute point if Anthony Davis doesn’t show up.

Lebron James has 239 playoffs games under his belt. He’s passed the trials and tribulations. Damian Lillard has played 51 playoff games. He has proven he can handle the bright lights.

Anthony Davis however pales in comparison to the other two stars in the series when it comes to playoff experience.

Davis has only played in 13 playoff games. He has never sniffed the conference finals. But he made it out of the first round once, and it happened to come at the expense of Lillard’s Blazers.

Go back to 2018, two postseasons ago. The 3rd seed Blazers and 6th seed Pelicans linked up in round one and it wasn’t much of a series. The Pelicans swept the Blazers in a upset, and it was literally the AD show.

Here were his huge numbers against Portland in 2018:

  • Game 1: 35 points, 14 rebounds, four blocks, 14-of-26 shooting
  • Game 2: 22 points, 12 rebounds, two blocks, 9-of-18 shooting
  • Game 3: 28 points, 11 rebounds, two blocks, 11-of-18 shooting
  • Game 4: 47 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks, 15-of-23 shooting

Davis dominated the series, something he will need to do this time around in a Lakers jersey.

Things have changed since that 2018 matchup, like the threads Davis is wearing, but some have remained the same.

The Blazers started Jusuf Nurkić at center and rookie Zach Collins received about 18 minutes per night off the bench. They’re both older and better now, starting together for Portland. But they’re also both fresh off significant injuries. An aggressive Davis against either should only elicit spooky flashbacks.

Davis made 49 shots in four games against the Blazers during that sweep. Twenty-seven of those makes came against Nurkić. Sure Nurkić is a better player now, but defense is his weak point. If the Lakers elect to throw AD at the 5 for most of the minutes, then Nurkic will have to embrace the challenge. I’m not sure he’s capable.

Portland could throw Whiteside and Collins at Davis to offset foul trouble by Nurkic, but the Blazers are at their best with Nurkic on the floor.

One thing the Blazers have going for them is that Davis has been ice cold inside the bubble. Davis missed 22 of 25 shots from midrange during the seeding games. If the Blazers can force him to take jump shots, rather than getting to the rim, they may find some success.

But when Davis is on, there is not much that can be done to stop him. He is too fast for Nurkic and Whiteside, too strong for Collins and anyone else on the Blazers roster.

Lakers X-Factor: Kyle Kuzma

This section is a continuation of the one above. Why? Let’s remain in that 2018 Pelicans-Blazers series for a bit. After New Orleans went up 2-0, Portland attempted to make an adjustment. The Blazers put Al-Farouq Aminu on Davis to open Game 3.

That made Nurkic slide off of Davis, and on to stretch 4 Nikola Mirotić. The move didn’t help Nurkic’s chances of being a good defender. He couldn’t get out to the three ball to close out in time, nor was he adept to running around off ball screens. He was always a step or two late on close outs.

If the Blazers elect to go that route this time to keep Nurkic on the floor, he will likely find himself on Kyle Kuzma.

Kuzma isn’t Mirotić, a career 36-percent 3-point shooter on a high volume who so briefly but perfectly paired with Davis. Kuzma shot 29 percent from 3 before the season paused. But that’s why he’s the X-factor. He is obviously capable of a Mirotić-like hot streak. He has shot 44.4 percent from 3 (16 for 36) in the bubble. The Lakers don’t need him hitting at that high of a clip. But he can’t start bricking 70 percent of his 3s again.

If the productive version of Kuzma does show up, that presents a major issue for Portland. Coach Terry Stotts has thinned his rotation to eight, and Gary Trent Jr. is the only real wing. The Blazers have to play Nurkić, Collins, Carmelo Anthony and even Hassan Whiteside big minutes, leaving them liable to stumbling defensive errors on the perimeter.

If Kuzma is efficient scorer Kuzma, the Kuzma that scores 20 points, the Lakers are sitting pretty.

One Huge Question: Who’s guarding Lillard?

Lillard is currently the hottest offensive player in basketball. The second he crosses half court he is a threat to score. Once the second half hits, and Dame time strikes, there is no stopping him.

His numbers across eight “seeding games”: 37.6 points, 9.6 assists, 4.3 rebounds, 49.7 percent shooting and 43.6 percent 3-point shooting. He won the Bubble MVP for a reason.

But the Lakers can’t just roll over and concede. Someone has to take the challenge.

It would have been Avery Bradley, but he opted out of the season restart.

The Lakers will likely throw multiple defenders Lillard’s way, but Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will likely get the boat load of minutes against Lillard.

This season when KCP guarded Lillard, Lillard scored 15 total points on 18 possessions.

Danny Green will get a shot at stopping Lillard, but he must make enough 3s to stay on the floor.

Alex Caruso, I can’t believe I’m about to say this, might be the player best equipped to irk and slow down Lillard. He never stops moving, and has no other priority other than irritating Lillard and changing the pace of play.

In the Lakers’ idealistic dreams, Caruso would bother Lillard a bit like Matthew Dellavedova did with Steph Curry for a LeBron-led Cavaliers team.

Vogel does have an emergency option, though. Back in LeBron’s younger days, when Derrick Rose was on the rise in Chicago, he had a few key moments when he switched onto Rose down the stretch and had some success by using his guard speed and wing size to swarm for a needed stop.

Do not expect a whole lot of James on Lillard, he’s got enough on his plate running the offense. But in close games, during Dame time, do not be shocked if James takes on the challenge.

We have already seen that out of James inside the bubble, when he clamped both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in the final possessions of the game.

Biggest Blazers question: Who possibly guards LeBron?

James could maybe guard Lillard for a few possessions at a time. Portland doesn’t have the reverse option. Lillard won’t guard LeBron. And it can’t be McCollum or Anthony, who the Blazers actively hide.

So that means it’s probably Collins at the start of games, but heavy doses of Gary Trent Jr. as the game goes on.

Trent has been awesome in the bubble and is an emerging piece of the Blazers core.

Going into Saturday, he had been the primary defender on 444 possessions this season and given up only 399 points. He had been the point-of-attack defender on 193 pick-and-rolls, and that had only translated to 135 points — 0.699 points per possession, which ranked in the 90th percentile league-wide.

Only one of those 193 possessions was against a LeBron pick-and-roll, but just that one clip gives a nice little sneak peek at the matchup. On that single play, LeBron elected to use his grown-man power to attack Trent. He sealed him on his hip then finished with a layup.

Though LeBron was the assists leader this year, he will have to tailor his game more towards scoring in this series. The Blazers are explosive on offense, and outside of Davis, nobody on the Lakers is capable of getting 30 points and matching Lillard and McCollum.

I expect a lot of LeBron driving to the rim with the intent of scoring, not kicking out to the corner three. The Blazers have no answer for him.

Keep an Eye on Danny Green vs Gary Trent Jr.

In the seeding games, Green went 7-of-28 from 3 (25 percent). Trent went 34-of-67 (50.7 percent). That’s the type of massive discrepancy between two pretty comparable shooters. If continued through the next couple weeks, that could help swing a series toward Portland.

Key matchup: Dwight Howard vs. Hassan Whiteside

The Lakers and Blazers are one of the few teams in the league that enjoy playing big. Both teams have 3 big men who play significant minutes. Howard and Whiteside, both news to the bench role, will be an essential matchup for both teams.

Despite putting up bigger stat lines than typical backup centers — and carrying larger-than-normal reputations — their positive impact doesn’t always translate to a winning impact.

The two bigs minutes will likely over lap, thus meaning the better of the two will give an edge to the second units. Howard is more consistent and proven of the two, but Whiteside is more than capable of posting better stat lines.

It’s not the most crucial matchup in the series, but in those important second-unit swing moments, it could decide a game or two.

Blazers X-Factor: Steal Game 1

The Blazers have been playing for their playoff lives since the moment the seeding games tipped. They trimmed their rotation to eight and gave their top guys 40 nightly minutes. The Lakers, meanwhile, jogged through half of their seeding games and selectively rested guys during the final few.

That’s why I think Portland has to win the first game to make this a series.

The Blazers have all the momentum, rhythm and continuity. They must take advantage.

They have been firing on all cylinders offensively and can’t allow the Lakers to disrupt that. Plus Lebron James’ teams typically strengthen as the series goes on. Picking up a 1-0 advantage is paramount to the Blazers possibly winning the series.


I said it earlier and I’ll say it again: this Portland team is not your typical 8th seed. The playoffs are not typically played in an empty room without a home court advantage. Point being this isn’t a typical season. Throw all preconceived ideas out the window.

If the Blazers fail to steal game 1 I think the series has the potential to be rather short. It will take the wind out of their sails, just as the Lakers find their footing. If the series goes long, the Blazers wear and tear physically and emotionally will show signs.

McCollum is laboring through a back issue. Nurkić spent much of the last year rehabbing from a horrific leg injury. Lillard and the Blazers have admitted to exhaustion. Fighting for your life for two weeks just to get into the show isn’t easy and I think it will rear its ugly head in the series.

Lakers win the series 4-2. 

In Case You Missed It

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