In what promises to be an unprecedented NBA playoffs, one team currently sits 3.5 games out of the 8th seed in the West. With the play-in tournament within reach, Portland now has a viable path to postseason play. Awaiting as the #1 seed are the formidable Los Angeles Lakers. But as we are about to find out, this is a match-up that could turn the postseason on its head.

SETTING THE TABLE IN RIP CITY

It is easy to look at Portland’s season and quickly dismiss the Blazers as anything but another easy prey. The Blazers simmered in mediocrity for most of the season. Their 29-37 record tells part of the story of a team ranked 10th in offense and 27th in defense. For most of the year, head coach Terry Stotts juggled an array of injuries and new personnel.

The Blazers were dealt heavy roster blows that extended into last season’s 53 win team. Jusuf Nurkic’s horrific leg injury in March of 2019 was the start of a domino effect that led into 2020. Among other significant losses included rising young forward Zach Collins, veteran bench scorer Rodney Hood and the recently acquired Trevor Ariza.

With massive roster upheaval comes opportunity

With minutes available, the Blazers dipped heavily into the fountain of youth. For that, coach Stotts went straight to his trio of young pups. In Anfernee Simons, Gary Trent Jr and Nassir Little, Portland stumbled upon some interesting depth in the form of versatile wing defenders and shot creators. Let’s take a look at what they uncovered: 

Blazers trio - Little, Trent Jr, Simons
Blazers trio – Little, Trent Jr, Simons

This depth is significant. Why? Portland now has bench alternatives to pair with the return of Nurkic and Collins. But most importantly, in a year that saw Damian Lillard average a career high 28.9 points per game, the Blazers are set-up to surround their All-Star point guard with an abundance of options. Choices that could provide some interesting match-up solutions against the Lakers.

WHAT ABOUT THOSE HOLLYWOOD GIANTS?

In Los Angeles things have gone quite to script for most of the season. As expected, the Anthony Davis-Lebron James partnership has been an instant success. The 49-win Lakers hold the league’s second best record. Prior to the postponement of the season, Frank Vogel’s squad ranked in the top 5 for both offensive and defensive ratings. Los Angeles likes to play big and not many teams are able to match the Lakers size.

The team’s core starting lineup during the regular season also included JaVale McGee, Avery Bradley and Danny Green. This group was devastating. In 389 minutes, the starting five compiled an impressive 12.6 net rating (4th among all lineups with over 250 minutes). 

But the return to Orlando has not been as kind to Los Angeles. By opting out of the re-start, Avery Bradley threw a critical curve to Vogel’s plan.

The Lakers lineup with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope as the replacement is significantly less efficient. Particularly on the defensive end. In 264 minutes, the group has a net rating of 2.2 and an abysmal 113.0 defensive rating. One key reason is defending the pick and roll. Avery Bradley exits the season as one of the team’s top high volume pick and roll defender. In 184 possessions, Bradley has allowed only 0.78 points per possession (77th percentile). KCP? 1.04 (16th percentile).

The blow has a trickle down impact on the rest of the roster. Vogel now has to juggle those minutes and look at the bench for answers. The Lakers wing depth is a collection of questions. Alex Caruso likely gets first crack alongside Kyle Kuzma. But beyond that there is a combustible combination of guys fresh off the street. Including newly acquired Dion Waiters and JR Smith. 

SO HOW CAN THE BLAZERS INFLICT THE FIRST BLOW?

A big part of Stott’s game plan requires roster flexibility to expose Los Angeles’ shortcomings. Portland possess two elite pick and roll ball handlers. The back-court duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum has combined for over 1,300 pick and roll possessions to extreme success. This year, Lillard averaged an explosive 36 points per game in three match-ups against Los Angeles. While CJ has not been as effective, it is clear the Lakers have a difficult time harnessing Portland’s main star out of the pick and roll.

Does Vogel want to over-extend Lebron’s defense and energy against Lillard? That is a very interesting question to ponder. A decision that could greatly influence James’ two-way production over a seven game series.

Adding even more complexity is Portland’s ability to create space for Lillard (and CJ) by maintaining size on the court. As mentioned, Los Angeles punishes you with two bigs. In Collins and Nurkic, the Blazers can now somewhat mirror the Lakers front court approach. This by adding a floor spacer and rim runner to play off the pick and roll.

The key element here is how consistent is Collins from deep. The Blazers stretch 4 is a career 32% three point shooter. This will hardly grab the attention of Anthony Davis, who can easily play off Collins and blow up any pick and roll action. However, a new world opens up if Collins can uncover that range. Stotts deployed a similar concept last season with sharp-shooting Jake Layman in the stretch 4 role. The results? Take a look!

Blazers 2018-2019 most frequently used lineups
Blazers 2018-2019 most frequently used lineups

The offensive potential this year could be even greater. Portland can now substitute Aminu’s minutes with Gary Trent Jr and the semi-rejuvenated Carmelo Anthony. Adding more shooting to this lethal combination.

OK, BUT DOES PORTLAND HAVE ANSWERS FOR LEBRON JAMES AND ANTHONY DAVIS?

The short and simple answer is no. This is arguably the most unstoppable duo in the NBA today. Anthony Davis is a lethal roll man. A guy who can burn you in the face up game and knock down outside shots with relative consistency. The fit with James is ideal. Lebron’s game feel and passing vision is unmatched. The Lakers leverage his strength off the drive to pinpoint Davis all over the court. For most teams this is a conversation stopper from the get go.

But the name of the game is not shutting down Anthony Davis nor Lebron James. Portland has to do just enough to slow each player and let its lethal offense dictate the match-up. This is where things get very interesting. Much of Davis’ damage comes near the rim. Against Portland this season we see that life has been harder to come by inside the restricted area.

Anthony Davis' inside the restricted area
Anthony Davis’ inside the restricted area

A big reason for Anthony Davis’ drop in efficiency is Hassan Whiteside’s presence

The much maligned center is holding Davis to 4-12 from the field when the two face up. This however, was a mere speed up on Davis’ road to averaging 32 points per game against the Blazers this season. But this time, Portland is better equipped to surround Whiteside with help. Stotts can now throw more size at Davis in the form of Nurkic. A stark contrast from the Skal Labissiere days of the regular season. 

On the flip side lies ‘The King’ Lebron James. No rational basketball argument can be made to stop Lebron. But Portland can engage #23 defensively thru Lillard and McCollum. Softening James’ unworldly fitness base could be the path to dictating the series as it progresses past the first few games. Particularly after a long period of inactivity due to the pandemic. 

AND THOSE ‘NON STAR’ MINUTES?

This is an area where Portland can take control of the series. To do so, it will require trust on the young guys. Two things immediately stand out. One, Portland’s ability to maintain their pick and roll structure with Anfernee Simons on the floor. The other is Nassir Little’s potential to nullify Kyle Kuzma’s offense.

The numbers sure bear that out. Simons ranks in the 59th percentile on 196 pick and roll possessions this season. This is hardly at Lillard’s level, but enough production to give him a breather during a long series. On the other hand, Little has defended Kuzma on 24 possessions this season. Holding the Lakers main bench weapon to 1-6 from the field. The pieces for an interesting bench battle are most certainly there. A battle that could go a long way to swinging the series Portland’s favor.

Heading into the postseason, few give Portland much of a thought. But style sometimes make the best fights. For the Lakers, this just may be a clash they want to avoid altogether. For NBA fans however, this is a bout destined for a fun playoff series. 

*All stats taken from NBA.com