The Los Angeles Lakers clinched the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference for the first time in a decade. Many analysts and casuals alike predict the Lakers to make the NBA Finals, while some strongly believe they will lift the Larry O’Brien trophy as well by season’s end.
However, as dominant as they have been all season, it may not be a smooth sailing journey for LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and company to the NBA championship. With the top seven playoffs berths in the West secured, the race for the eighth and final spot is heating up to extreme levels. Just 3.5 games separate the 8th seed and 13th seed and all teams mathematically still have a shot of making the playoffs.
So who is going to emerge from the bunch and earn the right to face the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round? Among the crop of teams fighting for the final West playoff spot, perhaps the Portland Trail Blazers pose the biggest threat to the No. 1 seeded Lakers. Charles Barkley certainly believes so.
It’s possible that another team could still emerge from the bunch. The undefeated Phoenix Suns may never lose again. Likewise, it’s always tough to count out the San Antonio Spurs. The New Orleans Pelicans have arguably the easiest schedule the rest of the way and the Memphis Grizzlies may find new life after picking up its first win in the bubble on Friday.
Nonetheless, looking at the remaining teams, what separates Portland is their playoff experience. This playoff experience will at least give them a chance to hang around with the Lakers in the series.
Remember, this is a team that made the Western Conference Finals just a year ago. They certainly know what they are capable of doing and are aware of what they need to do to make a deep postseason push. The remaining, aside probably from San Antonio, will be playoff newbies and will likely get smoked by Playoff LeBron and Anthony Davis in case they make the final eight.
Much like the Suns, the Blazers are also playing well through their first four games in Disney World so far, going 3-1 to inch within just a game behind the No. 8 Grizzlies. Portland’s first two games, which they split, were close and decided by just 5 points or less. The Blazers’ last two wins over two dark horse contenders in the Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets were telling of what they can do.
It comes as no surprise that Damian Lillard has aggressively led the Blazers for their pursuit of the No. 8 seed. The 5-time All-Star is averaging 31.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 11.3 rebounds while shooting nearly 44 percent from downtown so far. Lillard has certainly looked determined to punch his ticket back into the playoffs and take on the challenge of facing the juggernaut Lakers in the first round.
What makes the Blazers more of viable threat now is that they’re a little more healthier now than they were before the season abruptly stopped in March. Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins have both returned from their respective injuries, while Carmelo Anthony looks lean and spry to play the three-spot.
Though their rotation is still thin, it’s a working formula that head coach Terry Stotts has successfully deployed through the bubble games so far. Only nine players have seen the floor for Portland in the season return. Stotts has slotted eight in each of the four games, with either Anfernee Simons or Mario Hezonja as the final man.
The talent discrepancy between the two squads is certainly there. And you don’t need to dig deep into Los Angeles’ roster to figure that out. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are enough to convince you that they have the edge in that department.
Portland fans are convinced that Lillard’s presence alone gives them a puncher’s chance of knocking out the No. 1 team in the West at the very least. But with Los Angeles’ depth, the 4-time All-NBA guard will certainly need help.
C.J. McCollum has been Lillard’s partner-in-crime for over five years now. Those two should give the Lakers perimeter defenders a lot of problems in the possible showdown. And it’s possible that they, along with the emergence of Gary Trent Jr., could ultimately be the telling factor for the Blazers and their only real chance of pulling off an upset for the ages.
These two will likely get theirs on the offensive end. However, the Lakers still have a steady cast of perimeter defenders that could, at the very least, contain Lillard and McCollum.
Portland’s problems, however, will lie on the defensive end of the floor. The Blazers may not find an answer for LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the frontcourt. Sure, the returns of Collins and Nurkic has further fortified their frontcourt. But will they be able to even handle Anthony Davis on the block and down in the paint? It doesn’t seem likely.
Also, who’s going to guard LeBron? As good as he’s looked, there’s no way 36-year-old Melo can handle his good buddy.
So for those dreaming of a Blazers upset over the Lakers in the playoffs (granted that they even get there), it’s not going to be as promising as it looks. The talent discrepancy is real and the match-ups don’t favor Portland as well. Thus, it will probably take perhaps two all-time great series performances and Herculean efforts from Lillard, and most likely even McCollum, for the Blazers to shock the world.
Nonetheless, despite the glaring problems a match-up with the Lakers may pose, Portland is still the favorite to emerge as the most worrisome opening dance partner for Los Angeles in the playoffs.
The Blazers have the playoff experience and a legitimate and proven superstar, along with a steady cast of veterans, to at least keep in step with the Lakers.