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All the Portland Trail Blazers wanted heading into the NBA‘s Disney World bubble was a real chance to make the playoffs. They got one, and they took full advantage of it, punching their ticket to a seventh consecutive postseason after pulling out a 126-122 win over the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference play-in game Saturday to set up a first-round matchup with the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers.
Even though plenty of buzz surrounds the Blazers as a potential upset candidate in the wake of Damian Lillard‘s otherworldly performance in the eight seeding games (37.6 PPG, 9.6 APG) and the triumphant return of Jusuf Nurkic from a broken leg, continuing this unlikely run against LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Co. will be a tall task. Maybe an insurmountable one, as impressive as Portland has been in Florida.
“They’re the No. 1 seed in the West for a reason,” Lillard said after the game. “They’ve got the best player in the world on their team. But at the same time, we didn’t fight as hard as we thought in the bubble to just say, ‘All right, we’re the eighth seed’ and just go out here and get beat up on.”
The Lakers haven’t been impressive in the Orlando-area bubble, which might not mean much. LeBron’s most recent Cleveland Cavaliers teams spent four seasons looking tired and disjointed in the regular season, only to flip a switch in the playoffs and make a run to the Finals each time. And all due respect to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, but James never had a running mate as good as Davis in Cleveland.
This is a series in which the Blazers will seriously miss Trevor Ariza, who opted out of playing in the restart because of a family situation. Ariza isn’t the lockdown perimeter defender he was five years ago, but he was solid this season for Portland after heading over from Sacramento in a January trade.
He’d at least be better equipped to handle James than anyone on Portland’s roster. The task of matching up with James for a full seven-game series will be left to Carmelo Anthony (a better defender than he’s given credit for, but not close to “defend LeBron in the playoffs” good) and the scrappy but foul-prone Gary Trent Jr.
Davis, too, poses a matchup problem for Portland. Nurkic has been a defensive game-changer in the bubble, but he struggled greatly against Davis in the 2018 playoffs, when the sixth-seeded New Orleans Pelicans swept the Blazers in the first round.
Nurkic will be spelled by Hassan Whiteside, who is athletic enough to match Davis jump for jump but far too inconsistent to be counted on against that level of talent. Whiteside was excellent in the Blazers’ season-saving win Thursday over the Brooklyn Nets but a massive liability in the play-in game against Memphis. That’s been his story in the bubble—and really, all season.
Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press
Also present in that 2018 Blazers-Pelicans series but missing in this matchup: “Playoff Rondo,” the mythical form the otherwise well-past-his-prime Rajon Rondo takes at this time of the year. The Lakers point guard recently arrived in the Orlando area to continue his rehab from a fractured hand but remains out.
Rondo and Avery Bradley, who opted out for family reasons, would likely have spent the most time guarding Lillard in the series. Now, that’s a tall order for Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. A huge series from Lillard against the Lakers’ weakened backcourt is a good possibility, but it may not be enough.
The Blazers went 7-2 after the restart (counting the play-in game) purely by outscoring their opponents. They only gave up fewer than 120 points twice, and fewer than 115 once. On the season, their defense was fourth-worst in the league, giving up 114.3 points per 100 possessions. The prospect of beating a team with James and Davis in a pure scoring contest is a dicey one, especially as the Blazers lack the personnel to defend either player.
If Portland is to have a chance, the team’s role players need to outplay L.A.’s.
Trent has shot the lights out and will have to continue to do so (he’d already started to come back to earth after a scorching first four games). The best version of Whiteside will need to show up for a whole series. They must find a way to survive the Mario Hezonja minutes. Lakers sharpshooter Danny Green has struggled in the bubble, and Caruso and Caldwell-Pope will have their work cut out for them on the defensive end with Lillard and CJ McCollum.
The idea that the Blazers can continue this hot streak and become the first No. 8 seed to knock off a No. 1 seed since the 76ers beat the Bulls in 2012 is a tantalizing storyline. But any talk of their actually having a chance may be rooted in the tendency of LeBron teams to lull opponents and observers into complacency with listless regular-season play.
If you think James, after missing the playoffs last season for the first time since 2005, isn’t saving himself to make a statement in the opening round that the West is the Lakers’ to lose, well, you haven’t watched him.
Still, Lillard packed three months’ worth of clothes. He already faced long odds to drag the Blazers into the playoffs over the last two weeks, and he beat them. He isn’t ready to go home.
“We feel like we have a chance in a series against anybody in this league,” Lillard said. “We feel like we’ve got a chance in this series. That’s how we’re gonna approach it.”
Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and co-hosts the Bulls vs. Blazers podcast. He is currently based in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers’ Association. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and in the B/R App.