9:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Lakers -12.5 , Over/Under: 225.5
On the verge of elimination, one team attempts to prolong their fate while the other looks towards advancing forward for the first time in a decade, as the Eighth-Seeded Portland Trail Blazers face the Top-Seeded Los Angeles Lakers in Game Five of their First Round Series from ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. On many occasions we’ve touched upon the importance of momentum in the Playoffs, and you’d have been hard-pressed to have found another team with more of that precious commodity than the Trail Blazers (35-39, 8th in Western Conference), who have essentially been in do-or-die mode since entering the Association’s Bubble a month ago. Portland was one of five other teams out West to be invited to participate in the NBA’s Eight Seeding Games, which granted them an opportunity to salvage what up until that point had been a very disappointing campaign ravaged by injury. A year removed from competing in the Western Conference Finals, their quality remained, and the four months that the league-wide shutdown due to the Covid-19 Pandemic ironically afforded them the luxury of returning to near full strength; towering Center, Jusuf Nurkic (17.6 PTS, 49.5% FG, 0.3 REB, 4.0 AST, 1.4 STL, 2.0 BLK, 22.6 PER), had missed the entirety of the campaign before the Restart rehabbing from a broken leg suffered in the Spring of 2019, while Zach Collins (7.0 PTS, 47.1% FG, 36.8% 3FG, 6.3 REB, 1.5 AST, 9.9 PER) and Rodney Hood missed extensive time with maladies of their own. The club added the likes of veterans, Hassan Whiteside (15.5 PTS, 62.1% FG, 13.5 REB, 1.2 AST, 2.9 BLK, 25.0 PER) and Carmelo Anthony (15.4 PTS, 43.0% FG, 38.5% 3FG, 6.3 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.8 STL, 12.4 PER), to help fill the void, but with Nurkic back in the Lineup, it’s afforded Terry Stotts the luxury of some more depth, experience, and above all else SIZE.
So armed with loads of momentum, a bolstered arsenal, and renewed vigor, the Blazers attacked the Restart like few others, for after all, their margin for error was razor thin. Through the Eight Seeding Games they went 6-2, which allowed them to move into the Eighth Seed, forcing a Play-In with the Memphis Grizzlies, whom they defeated in a spirited 126-122 affair. During this period, Damian Lillard (30.0 PTS, 46.3% FG, 40.1% 3FG, 4.3 REB, 8.0 AST, 1.1 STL, 26.9 PER) was otherworldly, carrying the team on his shoulders with a string of ridiculous performances littered with 30-footers and game-winners; the four-time All-NBA Selection had been in the midst of a career campaign in 2019-2020 prior to the lockdown, but in the Bubble earned well-deserved MVP recognition in averaging 37.6 Points on 49.7% shooting from the field, including 43.6% from beyond the arc, along with 4.3 Rebounds, 9.6 Assists, and 1.4 Steals, a period that was highlighted by Forty-Five, Fifty-One, and Sixty-One Point outbursts. To put what this guy has done into proper context, Lillard become the only player in NBA History apart from Wilt Chamberlain to post three separate games of Sixty Points, Four Rebounds, and Four Assists in the same season. As a result, Portland became a rather trendy pick by many around the league and in the media to pull a massive upset in the First Round, knocking off the One-Seed Lakers, which would make them only the fifth side ever to accomplish such a feat. Game One’s 100-93 victory over Los Angeles only poured further fuel on the fire, as Stotts’ charges looked like the more prepared unit in a contest that saw both teams struggle shooting from the field, netting 39.2% and 35.1% respectively. In an affair in which Lillard led the way with Thirty-Four Points, including a pair of daggers late in the Fourth Quarter, the biggest differences in this particular matchup was the alarming disparity in three-point shooting, in which the Blazers were Plus-Twenty-Four Points, and in rim protection, where they racked up Eight Blocks. With Nurkic back in the fold, there was a newfound size and length in the Paint that scarcely existed beyond Whiteside, and the tandem’s presence (particularly when on the floor together), really seemed to take their opponent off guard. While this definitely added a new wrinkle to an already intriguing matchup, the real question moving forward in the Series is whether or not they could in fact maintain that high level of play.
Unfortunately, the answer to that query has been no, for while Portland has certainly given Los Angeles issues and exploited their weaknesses, the same can be said about their opponent, who have now bested them in three consecutive outings, putting them on the brink of a Gentleman’s Sweep. So what’s changed in this Series, you ask? Well, for one, the Blazers haven’t really improved on the offensive end, and the Lakers absolutely have. Make no mistake, folks, this has been FAR from a defensive juggernaut in 2019-2020, and it was always a bit far-fetched to think that they would be able to relegate LeBron James & Co to sub-40.0% shooting throughout the Series. Over the last three chapters, they’ve allowed 120.7 Points per Game on 51.4% shooting from the field, including an improved 38.3% from downtown, while getting manhandled on the glass (Minus-8.4 REB), and failing to replicate that aforementioned rim protection (3.0 BLK). Furthermore, Lillard suffered a dislocated finger in Game Two, and departed early from Game Four with a sore right knee, which has since been revealed to be a sprain that will reportedly keep him out of Game Five altogether. Even his prolific exploits have begun to trend downward, scoring just Eighteen Points in Game Two and a scant Eleven in Monday Night’s 115-135 drubbing. At this point, the Blazers look like a team that is very much fatigued from having to treat every game since the Restart like a Playoff, and now that the task of crawling back into this Series is more than arduous than ever, while a loss would finally send them back to their homes and loved ones, it’s difficult to ascertain just how they’ll perform tonight. Coming into this contest, teams facing elimination during these Playoffs are 0-3 in such games, having lost by an average margin of 14.3 Points. We would’ve loved to have seen this incarnation of the Blazers over the course of a full season, but unfortunately time runs out for everyone, even Dame Time…
Meanwhile, after meandering through the Seeding Games and looking about as ill-prepared as imaginable in Game One, the Lakers (52-19, 1st in Western Conference) have suddenly found themselves in a position that while far from unique for the franchise, is absolutely noteworthy of late. Ladies and gentlemen, Los Angeles is on the verge of advancing to the Western Semifinals for the first time in EIGHT years. That’s right, folks, it’s been close to a decade since this club that has been so synonymous with success throughout the history of the Association got out of the First Round of the Playoffs. And quite frankly, this is what they were built for. After acquiring LeBron James (25.3 PTS, 49.3% FG, 34.8% 3FG, 7.8 REB, 10.2 AST, 1.2 STL, 25.5 PER) in Free Agency a year ago, the Front Office performed a rather poor job of surrounding him with the necessary Supporting Cast, and as a result, the four-time MVP saw his own personal streak of thirteen consecutive Postseason Appearances, including eight straight trips to the NBA Finals (netting three Larry O’Brien Trophies) come to a bitter end in a campaign littered with injuries, poor chemistry (on and off the court), and vicious trade rumors. However, after an Offseason of streamlining Management, hiring a new (and more experienced) Coaching Staff, and overhauling much of the roster with veterans who were far better suited to the skillset of their superstar, the Lakers returned to the ranks of the NBA’s elite, capturing the No. One Seed in the always-competitive Western Conference for the first time since 2010, which coincidentally was when they won their most recent (and sixteenth) Championship.
With that said, this is a team that DID NOT look good at all entering the Playoffs, losing five of their eight contests in the Bubble, often looking lethargic, sloppy, disinterested, or all of the above. Granted, the four-month hiatus effected every team differently, and given that Los Angeles had really hit their stride entering the lockdown (8-2 after the All-Star Break), the loss of momentum proved to be jarring one. Of course, the absence of Point Guards, Rajon Rondo (7.1 PTS, 41.8% FG, 32.8% 3FG, 3.0 REB, 5.0 AST, 0.8 STL, 12.4 PER) and Avery Bradley (8.6 PTS, 44.4% FG, 36.4% 3FG, 2.3 REB, 1.3 AST, 1.3 STL, 0.9 BLK, 8.9 PER), the former to surgery and the latter opting out of the a return due to concern over Covid-19, also threw a wrench into the plans of Frank Vogel, who in his first season with the team relied heavily upon James to facilitate the offense, particularly in the Halfcourt where he was oftentimes the only creative force on the hardwood for the Lakers. Now without secondary and tertiary ballhandlers, he had to resort to getting creative with his Rotations, which is a major reason as to why this unit had struggled so much offensively within the Bubble. Entering this Series with Portland, they had shot 43.8% from the field, including a dismal 30.3% from beyond the arc, which were both well below their shooting percentages prior to shutdown (48.5% FG, 35.5% 3FG). And that’s what made this confrontation with the Blazers so appealing, for while the Lakers were the higher-seeded side, they hadn’t played like it since early March, and given the torrid form of the aforementioned Lillard and without the favorable confines of STAPLES Center to fall back on, the recipe for an upset was absolutely there for everyone to see. As we covered earlier, Game One only furthered this narrative, with Vogel’s charges reaching what appears to be their nadir since the Restart; Los Angeles mustered just Ninety-Three Points on a miserable 35.1% shooting from the field, including 5-of-32 from downtown (15.6%), which set a franchise-low in the Playoffs. They also missed Eleven Free-Throws, which has been a persistent issue moving forward. James ended with a Triple-Double consisting of Twenty-Three Points, Seventeen Rebounds, and Sixteen of his team’s Twenty-Two Assists, which despite equaling a personal Postseason Record was really odd given that his teammates shot so poorly. Typically when you have an Assist/Turnover Ratio of 22/9, you’ve received a number of easy looks, and while that was certainly the case, the Lakers just didn’t make many of them, with the likes of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (0-of-9 FG), Danny Green (4-of-12 FG), Kyle Kuzma (5-of-14 FG), and Alex Caruso (1-of-6 FG) combining for a nightmarish 10-of-41 shooting overall (24.1%), including 3-of-21 from the perimeter (14.2%). In what has commonly been referred to as a Make or Miss League, these guys simply didn’t make many shots…
While we’d love to hear what kind of riot act was read within the confines of the locker room following such a performance, the message has certainly hit home, for the Lakers have looked like a vastly different unit from the one that met defeat in the Series Opener. While Game Three was a grind (116-108), the other chapters weren’t close at all, with Monday’s watershed 135-115 triumph, on Kobe Bryant Day no less, likely granting them passage to the Western Semifinals. This one was never in question, folks, as Los Angeles raced out to an early 15-0 lead in the First Quarter before ending the period with a commanding 43-25 lead, which would only inflate to 80-51 at Halftime. You’d be hard-pressed to recognize them as the same group that built a proverbial house of bricks less than a week ago, for they shot a blistering 56.3% from the field, including 17-of-39 from the perimeter (43.6%), handing out Twenty-Nine Assists in the process. In less than thirty minutes of action, James totaled Thirty Points on an efficient 10-of-12 shooting (83.3%), including 4-of-5 from three (80.0%), along with Six Rebounds and Ten Assists, while Anthony Davis (26.1 PTS, 50.3% FG, 33.0% 3FG, 9.3 REB, 3.2 AST, 1.5 STL, 2.3 BLK, 27.4 PER), who had previously experienced his ups and downs since the Restart, added Eighteen Points on 5-of-8 shooting (62.5%) in just under twenty minutes. Those same players that we mentioned earlier that couldn’t throw the basketball into an ocean showed their quality, with Kuzma, Green, Caldwell-Pope, and Caruso combining for Fifty-One Points on 18-of-35 shooting overall (51.4%), including 11-of-21 from long range (52.3%).