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April 11, 2009

Five Thoughts: Portland-L.A. Lakers

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 6:00 am

My latest trip down to the Rose Garden gave me the chance to watch another thriller after some recent Portland Trail Blazers blowouts at home. The Blazers led the Los Angeles Lakers by one point inside the final two minutes before finishing the game on a 7-0 run to win by a 106-98 final. To me, the night was all about matchups. Here are the five most interesting ones from my perspective.

– Kobe Bryant vs. Brandon Roy
The marquee pairing occurred down the stretch. While Bryant defended Roy much of the evening, the Blazers used Nicolas Batum and Travis Outlaw to chase Bryant around the court while Roy focused on offense. That changed in the final five minutes, as Nate McMillan needed to keep Rudy Fernandez in the game instead of Outlaw (or Batum) because of his hot shooting. Portland went offense-defense with Outlaw in the final minute and a half, but Roy still got the assignment on the game’s biggest play–a wild three Bryant missed badly with just over 40 seconds left and the Lakers down three.

While Bryant had the stronger overall game, you’d have to give the head-to-head decision to Roy, who held Bryant to 2-for-7 shooting in crunch time. Bryant did not score in the last three minutes, going 0-for-4 with a turnover as Roy forced him into contested shots. The Blazers guard, working against double-teams, did not force the issue. Roy scored four points down the stretch and set up Steve Blake for a key score, one of his eight assists on the evening.

– Andrew Bynum vs. Greg Oden

The Blazers and Lakers have two of the league’s most promising young big men–both, alas, with checkered injury histories. Each player had his moments in this game, Oden able to create good shots by powering into his defender and Bynum looking awfully spry in his second game back from a two-month absence. Watching Bynum was one of my most important goals heading into the game, and I was impressed with the impact he had on the Lakers’ defense. This doesn’t really show up in the numbers, but teams get very little in the paint when Bynum and Pau Gasol are paired together. That was the case for Portland in the first half tonight. Bynum’s most impressive play came in the second quarter, when he beat Joel Pryziblla downcourt, established great position in the post, and was able to just turn into an easy layup. That’s the kind of play that makes Bynum such a special talent. His timing remains slightly off on offense, but Bynum looks like he’ll be ready to go for the playoffs.

– LaMarcus Aldridge vs. the Lakers’ D

The length of the Lakers’ frontcourt rotation and the aggressive way they defend the paint seems almost perfectly designed to neutralize Aldridge, or at least make him a jumpshooter. Aldridge missed all five of his shots in the first quarter. He was much more aggressive taking the ball to the rim after halftime, building on an alley-oop finish in transition. (Part of a game that featured more lobs by both sides than I can remember.) Aldridge scored 10 of his 16 points in the period, though even then Los Angeles limited him to 4-of-9 from the field. Aldridge subsequently went scoreless in the fourth quarter and finished the game shooting 6-for-18.

– Rudy Fernandez vs. Sasha Vujacic
A surprisingly interesting matchup materialized between the teams’ reserve swingmen. Things were a little testy during the first half between Fernandez and Vujacic, who traded some pushing and shoving while running from one end of the court to the other. Fernandez kept Vujacic busy with his movement away from the ball, running him from one end of the court to the other. Fernandez drew a couple of fouls in the process, which culminated in his setting Vujacic up for a backdoor cut finished with a spectacular reverse dunk off a Sergio Rodriguez feed. Fernandez really makes moving without the ball an art form, and his ability to shoot from range was invaluable against a Lakers defense that packs the strong side and dares opponents to reverse the ball and shoot the three. Fernandez finished with 15 points in 25 minutes as the Blazers’ second unit combined for 37 points.

– Lamar Odom vs. Lamar Odom
Consecutive third-quarter plays serve as a microcosm for Odom’s entire career. On the first play, he corralled an offensive rebound near the top of the key and flipped up a left-hand lob for Gasol to finish at the rim. Few power forwards in the NBA, if any, could make that play. The next play saw Odom get the ball in transition, be unable to control it, and dribble it off his leg out of bounds. One step forward, one step back. A couple possessions later, Odom drilled a three-pointer. His game continues to mystify me.

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