Sizing up the Lakers' possible first-round playoff opponents
Admit it. You're looking ahead to the playoffs. But you're not alone. There are plenty of us wondering why this 82-game NBA regular season seems to be dragging on so long. Believe me, the Lakers have been thinking the same thing.
And even though I've been harping that the Lakers need to treat these games seriously so they're sharp for postseason play, I'll admit I'm also looking ahead. Feel free to call me a hypocrite. But, hey, I cover the Lakers; I don’t play for them. The Lakers have to grind through the last nine games in the regular season, but sports writers and fans can mentally skip forward.
There are certainly a few things that will be clarified once the Lakers reach the end of the regular season, but it's pretty safe to draw a few conclusions now.
Although the Lakers (54-19) technically haven't clinched the top seed in the Western Conference, it appears their six-game lead over Dallas (48-25) as well as their 6 1/2-game leads over Denver (48-26) and Utah (48-26) will be enough to hold the top spot.
Phoenix (47-26), San Antonio (44-28), Oklahoma City (44-28) and Portland (45-29) are slated to take the fifth through eighth seeds, although they haven't officially clinched playoff berths. But with Memphis (38-35) trailing the Trail Blazers by 6 1/2 games, it appears likely those four aforementioned teams will be in the postseason.
The next question entails how the rankings will work out. And as far as the Lakers are concerned, fans surely are curious which team the Lakers will face in the first round, presumably in a matchup pitting Nos. 1 and 8. With the Spurs, Thunder and Portland in a three-way tie for the sixth, seventh and eighth seeds, one of those teams will likely play the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. Below is a breakdown of the pros and cons involving each opponent.
Team: Portland Trail Blazers (45-29)
Lakers' record versus Portland this season: 1-1
Why the Lakers should want to play the Trail Blazers in the first round: The Lakers have won five of their last regular-season home games against Portland. More importantly, the Lakers finally ended their nine-game losing streak at the Rose Garden this season, so they should have confidence that they can take another road game from the Trail Blazers. Portland ranks 15th out of 30 NBA teams in field-goal percentage, averaging 46%, while the Lakers are 14th with a 46.1% clip from the field. If the Lakers suffer a poor shooting night, however, they can depend on their ninth-ranked defense (96.69 points per game) to further limit Portland's offensive chances. Since the Lakers rank first in the NBA in rebounding (44.41 per game), they enter any series with an advantage on the glass. But that will prove to be the greatest asset if the Lakers face Portland, since the Trail Blazers are 27th in the league in rebounding (40.04 per game). Even with Portland's ability to absorb long-term injuries, most notably those of Greg Oden (left knee) and Joel Przybilla (right knee), it's very possible they won't be able to keep that up. The Trail Blazers have had to run on pure adrenaline for most of the season. It'll also be interesting to see whether the drama surrounding the uncertain future of Portland general manager Kevin Pritchard will distract the team. Of course, the Lakers having a 9-2 all-time postseason series record against Portland doesn't hurt either.
Why the Lakers would want to avoid the Trail Blazers in the first round: Even if the Lakers ended their winless drought at the Rose Garden, they still have lost nine of their last 10 games at that venue. Perhaps the Lakers no longer feel the burden to win there, but there's a reason (or more) why Portland's been so successful at home against the Lakers. The Trail Blazers have also won 11 of their last 13 games to strengthen their position in the West playoff race, including a 90-87 win Sunday over Oklahoma City that put Portland in a three-way tie with the Thunder and the Spurs for sixth place in the Western Conference. That victory was largely credited to veteran leadership from Andre Miller, Marcus Camby and Juwan Howard, which is always helpful in close games, particularly in the postseason. With 12 players missing a combined 289 games due to injury, the Trail Blazers have shown there are not many challenges they can't overcome. And Portland's current starting lineup of Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, Camby, Brandon Roy and Miller is 11-2. One of Portland's big keys to success has involved good ball handling, with the Trail Blazers averaging only 12.5 turnovers per contest, which ranks second in the NBA. Portland also plays at a deliberate pace, meaning the Lakers would have to be very careful to limit their mistakes. The Lakers are eighth in the league in turnovers (13.6 per game), but this month they committed 24 turnovers in a nail-biting win against Golden State, 20 in an embarrassing loss to Charlotte and, most recently, 18 last week against Oklahoma City.
Team: Oklahoma City Thunder (44-28)
Lakers' record versus Oklahoma City this season: 3-1
Why the Lakers should want to play the Thunder in the first round: Given the Lakers' track record this season against Oklahoma City, any close games should wind up in the Lakers' favor. Two of their three wins against Oklahoma City weren't decided until the final minute. In the Lakers' 101-98 overtime victory Nov. 3, the Thunder led by five points early in the fourth quarter. But Lakers guard Kobe Bryant quickly erased the deficit. In the Lakers' 111-108 victory Dec. 22, the Lakers didn't hit a field goal in the final six minutes of the game, but Oklahoma City failed to force overtime, thanks to Russell Westbrook's missed three-pointer with 2.9 seconds remaining. Oklahoma City has struggled in close games against other teams, going only 9-12 in contests decided by five points or fewer. The Thunder recently displayed its inconsistency in finishing close games in Sunday's loss to Portland. A win would've given the Thunder a two-game lead over Portland, but Oklahoma City scored only one field goal in the final 3 1/2 minutes, and Thunder guard Kevin Durant missed two three-pointers late in the game. Though Oklahoma City (44-28) has improved greatly from last season's finish (23-59), the team is young (Oklahoma City is the league's second-youngest team, boasting a lineup whose players whose average is 25) and inexperienced (only Etan Thomas and Kevin Ollie have played more than five years in the NBA). The Lakers could easily tap into their experience put Oklahoma City away quickly. Durant may be second in the league in scoring (29.6 points per game), but the Thunder is 23rd overall in assists per game (19.75), meaning Oklahoma City sometimes lacks the necessary ball movement to ensure crisp offensive execution. Nonetheless, the Thunder has balanced options in Westbrook (16.2 points per game), Jeff Green (14.9 ppg) and James Harden (10.1 ppg).
Why the Lakers would want to avoid the Thunder in the first round: Just as the Lakers got a psychological boost from finally beating Portland at the Rose Garden after nine tries, the Thunder likely got a big boost from its overwhelming 91-75 victory over the Lakers last week, after having lost 12 consecutive games to the Lakers. The Thunder also has picked up quality road wins against teams such as Utah, Phoenix, Atlanta and San Antonio, making it plausible that Oklahoma City could steal a home game from the Lakers. After all, Oklahoma City has the Western Conference's third-best road record. I mentioned that the team's youth could be a hindrance, but it also could be a plus if the Thunder pushes the older Lakers into an up-and-down game, something that would surely wear the Lakers out in four to seven games. After all, Oklahoma City credits its energy for the team's huge turnaround this season, especially with the team ranked ninth in the league in team defense (96.63 points per game). And as for that notion that the Thunder's lack of playoff experience could hurt them, several NBA coaches think that theory is overblown.
Team: San Antonio Spurs (44-28)
Lakers' record versus San Antonio this season: 2-1
Why the Lakers should want to play the Spurs in the first round: The Lakers and Spurs have paid particular attention to each other's progress, what with the Lakers winning four NBA championships and San Antonio winning three this last decade. The Lakers have met the Spurs in the postseason this decade five times, and the Lakers have won four of those series.
That should work in the Lakers' favor, making preparation for San Antonio easier since the Lakers are familiar with the team's tendencies. If history tells us anything, it's that the Lakers also have figured out how to neutralize future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan. After Duncan scored a team-leading 25 points on 12-of-19 shooting Jan. 12 in the Lakers' 105-85 loss to San Antonio, the Lakers limited his effectiveness the following two games this season. The Lakers held Duncan to seven-of-17 shooting in the second half of the team's 101-89 victory Feb. 8 against the Spurs. And in the Lakers' 92-83 victory last week against the Spurs, Lakers forward Pau Gasol blocked two shots on Duncan and allowed him to score only six points on a two-of-11 clip. The Lakers' focus on Duncan represented the team's high priority on defense. After San Antonio shot 55% in the first quarter and took a 34-28 lead in the February matchup, the Lakers held the Spurs to 34 more points toward the end of the third quarter. And in the Lakers' most recent meeting, they held San Antonio to 35 points in the second half. The Lakers' victories featured balanced scoring, with five players scoring in double figures in both those games. Additionally, given the Spurs' age, it's likely they wouldn't be able to survive a long series against the Lakers. It also doesn't help that starting point guard Tony Parker is out with a broken right hand, and it's not completely clear when he'll return to the lineup.
Why the Lakers would want to avoid the Spurs in the first round: This isn't your typical first-round matchup, with San Antonio and the Lakers usually facing each other in the playoffs this last decade in the Western Conference semifinals (2002, 2003, 2004) and Western Conference Finals (2001, 2008). Although this could be a challenge for both teams, you have to consider how it could hurt the Lakers. Although the Lakers have won eight of their last nine games, they're not completely sharp for postseason play. Meanwhile, Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich says the team is "playing our best basketball," thanks to an 11-4 March record, including the Spurs' 94-73 victory Sunday over the Boston Celtics. Although San Antonio recently lost to the Lakers, the Spurs gained quality wins on their recent five-game trip against Boston, Cleveland and Oklahoma City. San Antonio guard Manu Ginobili has scored at least 23 points in the last five games. And the Spurs boast improvements from January to March in total offense (97.9 points to 102.3 points per game) and field-goal percentage (45.5% to 48.4%). All season, San Antonio has boasted the league's strongest bench, averaging 40.1 points, 17.4 rebounds and 8.9 assists per game, a strong contrast to the Lakers' inconsistent bench. In the Lakers' loss to San Antonio this season, the bench was outscored, 42-20. Most recently, the Lakers' reserves nearly squandered a double-digit lead in the second quarter against Sacramento and a fourth-quarter lead against Washington.
-- Mark Medina
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Photos, from top: Lakers Coach Phil Jackson. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times. Shannon Brown was one of the Lakers players who stepped up in the absence of Kobe Bryant, who was out with an ankle injury. Brown finished with 19 points off the bench to help L.A. cruise to a 99-82 victory over Portland in February. Credit: Rick Bowmer / Associated Press. Lakers center Pau Gasol, left, and Oklahoma City center Nenad Kristic jump for a rebound during the first half of Friday's game. Credit: Larry W. Smith / EPA. The Lakers' Kobe Bryant takes a shot over San Antonio guard George Hill during last week's game. Credit: Mark J. Rebilas / US Presswire