The defending champion LA Lakers currently hold the third seed in the Western Conference, and are set to be matched up with the Portland Trail Blazers, the current holders of the sixth seed. Although these positions may change, it’s most likely that Portland will be LA’s first round matchup.
The Lakers are undergoing a season of struggles. Usually a staple for the first seed in the West, Los Angeles has fought this season with internal issues, limiting their production. These problems (typical of two-time champions), mostly effort-based, have led to rumors of players such as Ron Artest getting moved before the deadline.
However, LA’s front office put their trust in their current lineup, and didn’t make any big moves before the deadline. Since then, LA has gone 8-1 (blowing out the Spurs in San Antonio, nonetheless), and has suffered a loss only to the Miami Heat.
Portland on the other hand, has dealt with injury issues all season, losing time from critical players Brandon Roy, Greg Oden and Marcus Camby. Roy, earlier this season, underwent two knee surgeries that will almost assuredly limit his production for the rest of his career. Consequently, he is coming off the bench behind Wesley Matthews.
The remaining Blazers, however, have lived up to their high-ceiling potential. LaMarcus Aldridge, the worst All-Star snub in NBA history according to LeBron James, has powered this team to the sixth seed in the West, and has earned Western Conference Player of the Month honors in February, as well as Western Conference Player of the Week twice.
Aldridge, although he has been a dominant force, hasn’t been without help. Wesley Matthews, the undrafted sophomore who came in from free agency, has been one of the top three-point shooters in the league, and has led Portland’s three-goggle assassins (Rudy Fernandez, Patty Mills, Nicolas Batum and Gerald Wallace).
Gerald Wallace, the recently acquired forward from Charlotte, has come off the bench to spark Portland’s lineup with his unique brand of energy and hustle. Proving vital in Tuesday’s matchup against Miami, Wallace should be one of the key pieces in Portland’s success in the playoffs.
When these two teams play, sparks usually tend to fly. It should be noted that Portland has won nine of the last 11 contests played in the Rose Garden against Los Angeles. This should prove vital when these two teams match up in Portland. The Blazers must win their home games if they hope to have a chance against LA’s hotshot squad.
It’s hard to talk about matchups when considering Portland, especially since Brandon Roy and Gerald Wallace haven’t truly cemented their place in the rotation yet. LA, on the other hand, has fielded the same lineup (ignoring injury replacements, of course) since acquiring Ron Artest in the summer of 2009. It’s very likely that they will field the same starting lineup when the playoffs come around. Although they might change, it still makes sense to compare the positional matchups from these two teams.
PG: Derek Fisher vs. Andre Miller
Derek Fisher has often been considered the weak leg of the Lakers’ starting lineup. Although he’s a good point guard for the triangle system, he’s been known to disappear in important games and has proved to be a defensive liability against stronger point guards. In clutch situations, look for Fisher to punish opponents with his jump shot, but a good defensive point guard should be able to neutralize him. He’s most effective when opposing guards double Kobe Bryant (all the time) and shouldn’t be left open too often when he’s having a good shooting night.
Andre Miller, on the other hand, has been one of the driving forces behind Portland’s tenacious run this season. Possessing a “wily vet” reputation like Fisher, Miller lives for clutch situations, and although his jump shot (especially from the perimeter) has faltered since he entered the league, he’s one of the best point guards in the post, and against a player like Derek Fisher, could do some serious damage.
Advantage: Andre Miller
SG: Kobe Bryant vs. Wesley Matthews
Kobe Bryant, although age has clearly affected his formerly MVP-level game, still shows flashes of brilliance as LA’s clear franchise player. Bryant, who has built a reputation over his time in the league as a voluminous shooter, has taken less shots this season and has still remained effective, and is posting an above-average field goal percentage. Although he seemingly no longer possesses the ability to take over a game and score 80-something, he can surely lead his Lakers to a championship. An excellent perimeter defender, he should have no issues keeping Matthews’s three-threat to a minimum.
Wesley Matthews, although he has slowed down from his hot start in Portland, is still a crucial player to the Blazers. He abuses opponents from any point on the floor, and should be a handful for Bryant, although he should be manageable. A defensive specialist, his length and speed should make him a nuisance for Bryant, who shouldn’t be able to take over the game with quite as much ease with Matthews on him. Although Matthews is a rising star in this league, and maybe even a future All-Star, Bryant is just too powerful for his skill set.
Advantage: Kobe Bryant
SF: Ron Artest vs. Nicolas Batum
Ron Artest, the 2009 acquisition brought in to replace Trevor Ariza, after a successful 2009-10, has faltered this year and has been the subject of trade rumors. Reportedly, he has feuded with coach Phil Jackson and consequently, has had issues on the court. His shooting and overall production have dropped off significantly, making him a liability in LA’s complex system. Artest has always been a player known to “flip the switch”, however, and can’t be counted out in the playoffs. After all, after a couple of lackluster series in the 2010 playoffs, he became a dominant force in the 2011 Finals, and was one of the main reasons for Boston’s defeat.
Nicolas Batum, the third-year man out of France, was penned in for big things this year after a great second half-season in 2010. Although he has been hugely effective at times, he has had issues gelling with Wesley Matthews and Gerald Wallace on the floor. Nonetheless, Batum is a player that can damage opponents from the perimeter, and his long arms should be enough to shut Artest down at any point of the court. A defensive specialist, he’ll also be used alongside Matthews (and especially Roy when he comes off the bench) to double-team Kobe in critical moments.
Advantage: Hard to say, but Batum seems like the right choice.
PF: Pau Gasol vs. LaMarcus Aldridge
The true critical matchup of this series, the two most consistently dominant players on these teams will happen to play each other for the majority of their time on the floor. Gasol came into this season looking like an MVP candidate, but has dropped off slightly as LA has dropped important games. Nonetheless, he’s still considered one of the most dominant power forwards in the game, and should’ve been given Finals MVP honors in the 2010 playoffs. Although he can hit from the perimeter, he prefers to do his work 15-18 feet from the basket, and can take over a game in pick and pop situations with Fisher or Bryant. Often regarded as “soft” in the post, Gasol is not to be underestimated, and can’t be left without a double team deep in the post, as his hook shot is nearly unstoppable.
LaMarcus Aldridge, a frontrunner for Most Improved Player honors, has defied rumblings in the league about his limited arsenal in the low post by bringing to the table an improved post game this season. Consequently, opposing defenses haven’t yet been able to figure out how to stop him. If Gasol is unable to stop his assault, which is efficient from any point inside the perimeter, Aldridge will be able to take over the series. This matchup could go either way a month from now, but if Gasol and Aldridge continue to play as they have for the last few months, Aldridge may be able to surprise a few Lakers fans.
Advantage: LaMarcus Aldridge, but only slightly
C: Andrew Bynum vs. Marcus Camby
For years, Andrew Bynum has been limited by injuries, and although he’s missed time this year, we’re beginning to see where his numbers could be as a healthy player. In LA’s seven-game win streak, Bynum has gobbled up rebounds and has looked like one of the most dominant rebounders in the league. Although he has some legitimate offensive potential, this is his place in Coach Jackson’s system, and he is happy with his role.
Marcus Camby is perhaps the prototype for Andrew Bynum’s play style. Along with being one of the more gifted rebounders in the league at 35, Camby is expert at cleaning up broken plays, and is a perfect sidekick to LaMarcus Aldridge. Portland definitely realized his absence, and lacked inside presence when Camby missed time. Camby, despite his age, has made Portland the number four offensive rebounding team in the league, and is on pace to attain one of the best offensive rebound percentages of his career. Camby, however, should have issues boxing out the young Bynum, and surely will surrender some critical rebounds to LA’s center.
Advantage: Andrew Bynum
LA: Steve Blake, Shannon Brown, Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom
Portland: Patty Mills, Rudy Fernandez, Brandon Roy, Gerald Wallace, Jarron Collins
LA’s bench production this year has been one of the major reasons they have faltered. Steve Blake, a point guard who is seemingly perfect for the triangle system, has struggled in learning the system, and has been subject to some streaky shooting in the process. Shannon Brown, although he has improved slightly this year, looks to have a ceiling as a pretty good bench player on a contender. Matt Barnes, coming into this season expected to be a huge benefit to the Lakers’ bench, has missed time with injuries and still hasn’t gelled with the team as much as Coach Jackson would like. Lamar Odom, however, has been incredible off the bench for Los Angeles (and in the starting lineup with Bynum out) and received heavy consideration for an All-Star bid. Off the bench, he’s the most legitimate threat to Portland.
Portland’s Bench, after a slow start, has been imbued with legitimate star power and is now possibly the most dominant piece of the Blazers’ system. Portland takes two 2010 All-Stars off the bench in Brandon Roy and Gerald Wallace, two dominant players who have a reputation of taking over critical moments with grit and physicality. (These tendencies were the downfall of Miami on Tuesday.) Apart from these players, great shooting from Patty Mills (who has also surprisingly developed an intense defensive game) and Rudy Fernandez will ignite the Portland bench to do great things in the Playoffs. Concerning Jarron Collins, in the five or so minutes he will play, he’ll be an absolute liability. Hopefully Marcus Camby will be well enough to clean up most of the minutes at the five on the floor.
Advantage: Portland Bench
Much of this first-round matchup will rely on Portland’s ability to remain healthy, something they have had trouble with this season. If Portland can accomplish this, they’ll have a legitimate chance at taking the defending champions down. If the series moves to seven games, expect the Lakers to be a tired team moving into the second round, realizing they can’t leave their bench on the floor for too long against Portland’s arsenal of reserve gunners. Expect Bryant to take the game over in critical moments and move the Lakers to barely squeak past Portland.
Verdict: Los Angeles Wins, 4-3