March 5, 2018, 7:52 pm
The blazing hot Lakers (28-34) host Portland (37-26) on Monday night.
Los Angeles has won five games in a row, nine consecutive at home and 17-of-24 overall. The Trail Blazers are streaking as well, having won six games in a row and eight of their last nine contests. Their scorching play has elevated them to the third seed in the Western Conference.
Even with their tremendous recent success, the Lakers still have an almost insurmountable deficit in the standings as far as the playoffs are concerned, lingering 6.5 games behind the eighth seeded Nuggets in the standings.
The Lakers are coming off a four-game road sweep for the first time since the 2009 season, punctuated by a come-from-behind victory in San Antonio in which they overcame a 17-point second half deficit and ended the game on a 25-9 run. More impressive was that they were able to earn the win without leading scorer Brandon Ingram, who missed the game with a hip injury suffered in the previous game against the Miami Heat. Los Angeles was also without rookie wing Josh Hart, who had been providing them with solid defense and 3-point shooting before suffering a fractured finger in practice.
Ingram’s injury required an MRI Sunday and the results determined that he suffered a strained groin — he will be re-evaluated in one week.
With him sidelined, the Lakers will rely on Julius Randle as well as their point guard tandem of Isaiah Thomas and Lonzo Ball.
Randle is having a break-out season; over the last month his is averaging 20.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists while shooting 58.8 percent from the field and 71.0 percent from the free throw line. Year-to-year he has improved his effective field goal percentage from 49.9 percent to 56.8 percent and his true shooting percentage from 54.3 percent to 60.5 percent. His Laker teammates have begun to refer to him as “The Punisher” due to his penchants for physically abusing his opponents down low — his performance and corresponding statistics have proved the nickname to be quite apt.
Thomas, an MVP candidate in 2017, was sent to the Lakers as part of a purge for the Cleveland Cavaliers. He appears to have found his form averaging 20.0 points and 5.5 assists per game over his last four games. He has provided the Lakers with a huge spark off the bench, as well as an important skill — the ability to knock down free throws at the end of close games. In their last game, the Lakers were forced to play Thomas together with Ball in the backcourt due to injury and it was extremely effective. The team’s offensive rating with the two on the court is 122.4 but surprisingly their defensive rating is also an impressive 100.0. If the trend continues, the Lakers’ front office will be faced with an intriguing decision during the impeding offseason.
Speaking of Ball, he carried the Lakers to their comeback win against the Spurs with three late 3-pointers en route to 18 points, seven rebounds, 11 assists, one steal and two blocks while hitting 6-of-10 3-pointers. He is shooting 63.6 percent from 3-point range since returning from injury and for the season his long-distance accuracy has improved to 33.6 percent. His innate ability to push pace and play unselfish basketball has been a catalyst for Los Angeles this season, portending to an exciting future for the young Laker team.
The Lakers primary focus tonight will be stopping Portland’s talented backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Lillard averages 26.4 points, 4.5 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game as a ball-dominant scoring point guard. Earlier this season he hit a game-winning 3-pointer over Ball at the buzzer to defeat the Lakers. Perhaps the young baller will be able to best his positional and musical rival this time around.
-The Lakers play a more unselfish brand of basketball, averaging 23.9 assists per game (sixth) in contrast to the Trail Blazers, who rely on individual isolation basketball and are consequently last in the league with only 19.1 assists per game.
-During their five-game winning streak, the Lakers are leading the league in 3-point shooting, converting 45.5 percent of their shots from long-range. For the season, they shoot 34.5 percent from 3-points range compared to the Trail Blazers who knock down 37.5 percent of their 3-pointers (fourth).
-Portland has leads the league in defensive rating during their six-game win streak with a 98.1 defensive rating. The Lakers are no slouches either, with a defensive rating of 102.6 (6th) during their five-game win streak.
-One key battle of strengths will be the Lakers’ inside scoring vs. Portland’s interior defense. The Trailblazers allow only 42.1 points per game in the paint (4th) while Los Angeles leads the league with 53.1 points in the paint per game.
-There is a huge disparity in free throw shooting between the two teams with Portland converting 80.1 percent of their freebies (third) while the Lakers remain last in the league, shooting only 70.1 percent from the line.
Projected Starting Lineups
Lonzo Ball (PG)
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (SG)
Kyle Kuzma (SF)
Julius Randle (PF)
Brook Lopez (C)
Damian Lillard (PG)
C.J. McCollum (SG)
Evan Turner (SF)
Al-Farouq Aminu (PF)
Jusuf Nurkic (C)
Brandon Ingram (groin) – OUT
Josh Hart (finger) – OUT
Channing Frye (appendectomy) – OUT
Maurice Harkless (knee) – OUT
Time: 7:30 PM PST, 10:30 PM EST
Television: NBA TV, SPECSN/SPECD, NBCSNW/BLAZERS PASS, TSN2
Radio: 710 AM ESPN, 1330 AM ESPN DEPORTES, RIP CITY RADIO 620