Lakers informal poll reveals their belief Portland and Memphis would give them biggest challenge in first round
The question left some players squirming, politely declining to answer no matter if I quoted them publicly or protected their thoughts in anonymity. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson immediately expressed his disinterest in the topic saying, "We've talked about this before and I've said no. I'm not going to talk about that." And then some players immediately shifted from cliches to honest assessments when I told them their names wouldn't be attached to the answer.
We're not really dealing with state secrets here, but it may as well be in the world of sports. I simply wondered which potential first-round opponent would the Lakers consider most dangerous. Of course, some refused to participate, mentioning how the they're more worried about how the rest of the regular season shapes up than worrying about who they face in the first round of the playoffs. But Laker fans surely do.
Fortunately, some provided answers. Based on the four players who were willing to trade their honesty in exchange for anonymity, three of them equally expressed concern about Portland and Memphis, while one other believed the Grizzlies would be the toughest opponent. Meanwhile, Lakers executive Magic Johnson spoke pretty frankly before the Lakers' 102-84 victory Sunday over New Orleans about which potential first-round opponent would give the Lakers the most trouble: Portland, because of the "hate factor," he said.
"They don't like us and we don't like them," Johnson said Sunday, walking in a corridor underneath Staples Center. "That would be a very physical and tough series, even though we would win and we're better overall. But they really know how to play us; they're well-coached and they're tenacious."
There's plenty that can happen before any of those scenarios come to fruition. The Lakers (53-20) suddenly find themselves with a chance to grab the top spot in the Western Conference with nine games remaining. The Lakers currently sit 3 1/2 games behind San Antonio (57-17), which dropped their fourth consecutive game in a loss to Portland (43-31). The Lakers enter Thursday's matchup with Dallas (52-21) with a one-game edge over the Mavericks for the second spot in the West, surely making the outcome instrumental in seeding even if the Mavericks' possible regular-season edge wouldn't be enough to trump the Lakers' Pacific Division title in tie-breaking scenarios.
Meanwhile, the current pecking order in Denver (44-29), Portland (43-31), New Orleans (42-32) and Memphis (41-23) round out the bottom half of the Western Conference, but the records show very little margin for error in securing the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth seeds.
Still, it's always OK for the media and fans to look ahead. Considering some of the Lakers are most concerned about Memphis and Portland, below the jump I'll break down the challenges each team presents.
Team: Portland Trail Blazers (43-31)
Lakers' record versus Portland this season: 3-0; plays at Portland on April 8.
Why the Lakers should want to play the Trail Blazers in the first round: The Lakers have won seven in a row at home against Portland. More importantly, the Lakers finally ended their nine-game losing streak at the Rose Garden last season, and prevailed again this season there with a 106-101 overtime victory Feb. 23. The Lakers should have renewed confidence in stealing a road game in a playoff series, which would improve their mark to 10-2 in all-time postseason series against Portland. Even though regular-season matchups don't always dictate playoff outcomes, there are a few clues that suggest the Lakers should be OK.
They won in dominating fashion (a 121-86 victory Nov. 7) and prevailed in close games (February's overtime thriller and a 84-80 victory March 20) using various strengths. First, the size advantage: The double-digit victory against Portland featured Pau Gasol scoring his fourth career triple double, a Lamar Odom double-digit effort and both of them outrebounded the Blazers, 26-25, even without Andrew Bynum. Portland may have fared better in the rebounding department (45-35) and second-chance points (21) two weeks ago when Bynum served a two-game suspension for drawing a flagrant foul, but the Lakers' win on March 20 showed they can overcome shortcomings.
The Lakers' size advantage proved enough to absorb Kobe Bryant's 12-point performance on three-of-11 shooting in their double-digit win November against Portland. But Bryant made up for it in the other two games. The Lakers' 106-101 overtime victory featured him overcoming a four-of-15 mark in the first half to finish with a 10-of-16 second-half clip and 11 third-quarter points. The Lakers' 84-80 victory also featured Bryant scoring 10 of his 22 points in the final quarter, a game that also featured Derek Fisher, Gasol and Odom making late-game contributions.
Let's not forget about Ron Artest. Whether it was holding Brandon Roy to eight points on one-of-six shooting in the Lakers' 121-96 victory Nov. 7 or scoring 24 points on eight-of-13 shooting with a late-game three-pointer in the Lakers' 106-101 overtime victory Feb. 23, Artest has proven against Portland he'll be a dependable option. It's hard predicting a pattern with Artest, but here's two that are reliable. He's played more consistently since the All-Star break and the playoffs will bring out the best in him.
Why the Lakers would want to avoid the Trail Blazers in the first round: Even though the Lakers ended their winless drought at the Rose Garden, one player still feels uneasy about that venue. "Portland always make it tough when we play them in the Rose Garden," the player said. By no means did Portland make it easy in that overtime affair. There were many things the Lakers had to overcome. They had to make adjustments on LaMarcus Aldridge, who scored 29 points through three quarters before being held scoreless in the fourth quarter and overtime. The Lakers' 16 turnovers led to Portland cashing in 40 points in transition. And the last two victories entailed Bryant working his way through a shooting slump. The Lakers' ability to overcome those lapses speaks to their experience and composure, but it's a dicey gamble considering Portland's experience with them. Those mistakes only magnify in the playoffs.
Additionally, the Lakers' regular-season performances against Portland are a tad misleading. The first clash featured Roy leaving the game with a knee injury and the second was Roy's first game back to the lineup. There's surely a reason why Artest at one time considered Roy the toughest player he's had to cover.
The Blazers' lineup has also changed. They acquired Gerald Wallace from Charlotte for Joel Przybilla before the trade deadline, a move that Lakers assistant coach Chuck Person said instantly bolstered the Blazers' defensive presence and allowed them to push the tempo. Even if his services came in Bynum's absence, both Wallace and Marcus Camby showed the Lakers had trouble accounting for their presence, as they grabbed 19 of Portland's 45 rebounds.
"They're big enough to play us tough," Johnson said of Portland. "There's other teams that I think would be a good series, but [Portland] would be the toughest series."
Team: Memphis Grizzlies (42-32)
Lakers' record versus Memphis this season: 2-2
Why the Lakers should want to play the Memphis in the first round: Discount the two regular-season losses for a minute. The Lakers' 98-96 loss Nov. 30 and 104-85 loss Jan. 2 came in different contexts of the season. The first marked the team's first three-game losing streak and was the first sign of the team becoming complacent after a strong start. The other loss happened when the Lakers were playing their worst basketball, with Bryant getting upset with teammates, Gasol missing morning shootaround and Artest battling frustrations with his role and Jackson's public criticisms. The Lakers have matured since that point and wouldn't carry that same mind-set into the postseason. Meanwhile, this would make the first time the Grizzlies made the postseason, giving them an immediate disadvantage in both experience and a possible just-happy-to-be-here attitude.
If there ever is a matchup that would prove devastating, it would be against the Lakers, who have appeared in three consecutive NBA Finals. The series would bring out Gasol's competitive spirits the most. He would be facing his brother, Marc, a matchup that would prompt Jackson to needle him a little bit more. Artest has experienced a mixed bag guarding Rudy Gay, but Gay had season-ending surgery on a partially dislocated left shoulder. Even if Zach Randolph leads the team in scoring and rebounding average, Odom's history with him shows it's been fairly competitive and would at least help minimize the damage. And Bryant seems to love lighting it up on O.J. Mayo
Why the Lakers would want to avoid the Memphis in the first round: Despite the Lakers' vast experience over Memphis, one player still remains wary of them. "They know how to beat us." In fact, the Grizzlies know how to play a lot of good teams, including signature wins against Boston and San Antonio as well as a competitive game against Chicago. As valid as it is to point out the Lakers' complacency during those two losses, Memphis at least has confidence it can beat the defending champions or at least make it a competitive series. The Grizzlies are also peaking at the right time, with USC product Mayo properly adjusting to his bench role and guard Mike Conley increasing his aggressiveness in Gay's absence.
"They really give teams trouble because they play a defensive-minded game," one player said of Memphis.
Even though the Grizzlies are 14th in total defense (98.15 points per game) and 17th in opponent field-goal percentage (45.8%), they lead the league with 9.37 steals per game. Memphis' Tony Allen and Shane Battier have a strong track record in minimizing Bryant's dominance. The Grizzlies showed in their two victories against the Lakers a strong ability to make defensive stops. Gay blocked Artest's potential game-winning shot in the Lakers' two-point November loss, a game that featured Memphis baiting Bryant into a nine-of-25 shooting performance. In the Grizzlies' Jan. 2 victory, they forced 20 turnovers and scored 28 points in transition and forced Bryant to justifiably take over the third quarter when little else of the offense was working. So even if the Lakers have grown past these performances, Memphis' track record suggests its efforts against the defending champs isn't a fluke.
-- Mark Medina
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Top photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant works against New Orleans guard Jarrett Jack Sunday at Staples Center. Credit: Mike Nelson / European Pressphoto Agency
Middle photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant drives down the lane against Blazers guard Brandon Roy in the second half of the Lakers' 106-101 overtime victory Feb. 24 in Portland. Credit: Steve Dipaola / Reuters / February 24, 2011
Bottom photo: Lakers forward Luke Walton tries to strip the ball from Grizzlies forward Sam Young, who is being guarded by Lakers guard Shannon Brown, in a game earlier this season. Credit: Mark Weber / Reuters / February 8, 2011