Blazers 106, Lakers 98: Eight is enough. Seriously.
Nope. I think it's fair to say that after eight straight losses in the Rose Garden, the latest coming Friday night as LA fell to the Blazers in Portland 106-98 in a hard fought, physical game, that Lakers fans are officially over the whole "losing in Oregon" thing. On one level, it was fun to watch. A tight first quarter, and a second in which the Blazers went up by seven only to see the Lakers rip off a 22-6 run to take a nine point lead of their own before Portland fought back to within four at the break. Unfortunately, a cavalcade of whistles kept the Lakers in plenty of foul trouble early and, at least from my end, seemed to have players on both teams (particularly the visitors) wondering what constituted a foul.
The second half generally saw the Blazers pushing to break away, at one point building seven and six point leads, and the Lakers refusing to let them do it, tying the game 91 on a long Kobe Bryant shot from the right wing with 5:15 to play.
From there, though, Portland executed better.
The Lakers were very strong in the paint early and had some great moments on the offensive boards throughout, but vacated the painted area down the stretch, relying instead on long and often ill-timed jumpers. Portland tossed in some zone in the fourth, which likely aided the perimeter drift. Overall, though, there wasn't enough balance and movement in the Lakers offense. Bright spots included Shannon Brown, who hit all four of his shots en route to 10 points in 19:37 of playing time, and Sasha Vujacic, who hit a big three before halftime and was an impressive +10 over his 18 minutes of burn.
I'd have liked to see Kurt Rambis, filling in for Phil Jackson, keep either one, preferably Vujacic, on the floor in the late minutes, either for Derek Fisher or Trevor Ariza.
Andrew Bynum wasn't quite as sharp in his second game back, but was also facing a stronger defensive presence in Greg Oden. Bynum finished with 13 points and six boards, but that he played 31 minutes is itself encouraging. Pau Gasol had only nine shots, making six, but only four rebounds. Offensively, he didn't see the ball enough down the stretch as the Lakers became increasingly one-dimensional. Bryant overcame a slow start and made some spectacular plays in the second half, but missed a few shots late (including a terrible contested three pointer early in the shot clock with 50 seconds to go and the Lakers down by three), and had a costly turnover in the final minute as well.
Having watched the Blazers a few times this month, I'm impressed with how they operate, and if they can avoid tightening up once the postseason rolls around Portland will make a formidable opponent for whatever team they face. They've been a tough matchup for LA over the last few years, and are only getting better. With seven straight wins over LA on their home floor coming in, the Blazers certainly came into the night with the confidence to play with LA on their turf.
As I wrote before the game, should the Lakers and Blazers see each other in the postseason, the more experienced Lakers will go in expecting to win. But they could have planted a stronger seed of doubt in Portland's gray matter and made their task a little easier. They did it to Denver 24 hours earlier, but couldn't repeat the feat tonight.
Silver lining? The loss basically assures the Lakers won't catch Cleveland for the league's best record, and renders LA's final two games essentially meaningless. Whoever needs rest can get it, whoever needs minutes can get them, whatever floor combinations need to be seen can be put on the floor. The pressure is gone, the foot can come off the gas.
More to come tomorrow.