When the Los Angeles Lakers visit the Rose Garden, it's a big night. When John Hollinger and Dean Oliver are both in the house, things take on added significance. Naturally, I joined them for the Portland Trail Blazers' 107-98 win Friday over the Lakers. Here are five key takeaways from the game.
1. The Rose Garden Curse
Will the Lakers ever win in Portland again? Presumably it eventually must happen, but last night's loss was L.A.'s ninth consecutive at the Rose Garden, a streak that dates back to February 2005. Asked about the rivalry between these two games, Blazers coach Nate McMillan pointed out that virtually every West team considers the Lakers a rival, and certainly these games mean more to Portland and its fans than the other way around. Still, the passion I saw for clashes with the Lakers in Seattle can't quite compare to the Rose Garden, where fans were heckling the Lakers as they were shooting around an hour before the game. That energy can affect the start of the game in several different ways, but it appeared to work in Portland's favor in the opening minutes as the Blazers got off to a 7-2 start and never trailed in the game.
2. Making Kobe Work
On paper, the most effective way to defend Kobe Bryant is to commit a single defender to him and make him a scorer rather than a passer. That's a dangerous way to live, as plenty of teams can attest over the years, and it also relies heavily on the quality of Bryant's opposite number. When the Houston Rockets turn Bryant over to Shane Battier, that defense is certainly a more favorable option. Don't expect a Michael Lewis feature on his effort, but Martell Webster did more than a credible job against Bryant, who put up the exact kind of line you'd want to see as an opposing coach--32 points, but on 14-of-37 shooting with just four free throw attempts.
Webster made sure to keep a hand in Bryant's face most of the night and did so without the luxury of relief in his task. With the Blazers short-handed due to injury, Webster played the first 42 minutes of the game before getting a quick breather with Portland up by 19 points and on cruise control. Despite the high number of shot attempts, Bryant's shot selection wasn't bad. He missed some makeable shots and ended up with a lot of borderline looks--not bad attempts, but not great ones either. While Bryant ended up with seven assists when the Blazers did have to bring help, his large role in the offense made it impossible for the Lakers to generate consistent ball movement. As a team, the Lakers had 17 assists on 41 field goals, a very low percentage of assisted baskets for them.
3. Quiet Bynum
The other presumptive matchup advantage for the Lakers going into the game was at center, where Portland was forced to combat Andrew Bynum by crossmatching with power forward LaMarcus Aldridge. This too failed to materialize; while Bynum's final stat line of 13 points and 12 rebounds looks decent enough, Bynum did the majority of his damage after the game was out of reach. Through three quarters, he had just eight points on 4-of-9 shooting and five boards. Credit Aldridge for battling in the post and using his length, which was the biggest reason McMillan chose him to defend Bynum rather than veteran Juwan Howard. Still, Bynum looked uninterested and struggled at both ends on a night where he could have dominated.
One storyline in L.A. lately has been how much better Bynum has played without Pau Gasol (sitting now with a strained left hamstring) alongside him. This notion is probably a little overblown. While Bynum is averaging 19.5 points and 11.2 rebounds in games Gasol has missed (including Jan. 3 against Dallas, when he left with the hamstring injury early on) as compared to 12.5 points and 6.3 rebounds when Gasol plays, part of the difference is simply attributable to minutes. Because the Lakers are so thin up front without Gasol (more on that in a second), Bynum is averaging 38.6 minutes in those games, a big reason why he's been able to rack up 10 double-doubles in 13 outings (he doesn't have a single double-double when Gasol plays).
Though the difference is not quite as dramatic as per-game stats make it appear, Bynum has played better as the lone L.A. big man. Whether because of simple diminishing returns (supported by the fact that the difference is mostly on the defensive glass) or some other reason, Bynum is a less effective rebounder alongside Gasol, seeing his rebound percentage drop from 15.8 percent to 12.4 percent. His shooting percentage also has dropped from 58.9 percent to 53.1 percent alongside Gasol. When the two big men play together, Bynum is ostensibly willing and able to take more risks defensively, increasing his rate of both blocks and fouls.
4. Blazers Win Battle of Benches
Portland played last night without six of the 10 players expected to be part of the team's rotation entering the season. Though McMillan is using just an eight-man rotation because of the injuries and rookie center Jeff Pendergraph played limited minutes because the Blazers did not like the matchup for him, Portland's bench still dominated the Lakers' reserves. Either Pendergraph or Dante Cunningham, both of them second-round picks, would be L.A.'s top big man off the bench in Gasol's absence. Instead, Phil Jackson went with Josh Powell and DJ Mbenga, who combined for one point, no rebounds and four fouls in their 12 minutes of action. Quick fouls by Mbenga and Shannon Brown were responsible for the Blazers spending nearly the entire second and fourth quarters in the bonus, which helped them outscore the Lakers 32-5 at the line.
As much as the Lakers miss Gasol's presence, they also need him back to keep Powell and Mbenga out of the rotation. The Lakers' poor bench is increasingly looming as a potential obstacle to their postseason success. If any of their frontline players goes down, the Lakers will have a tough time replacing them against quality competition.
5. Efficient Portland Guards
While Bryant was missing shots, his counterpart Brandon Roy was at the opposite end of the efficiency spectrum. Playing a controlled game and refusing to turn his matchup with Bryant (who got in foul trouble trying to defend him) into a one-on-one battle, Roy shot 9-of-11 from the field. He added 13 free throws in 14 attempts for 32 points, not to mention six assists and nary a turnover in 38 minutes. Roy wasn't the only Portland guard making good use of his possessions. Jerryd Bayless sparked the team off the bench, hitting from the perimeter in the first quarter and then attacking to the rim against reserves. Bayless was 5-of-9 from the field, but made 12 trips to the free throw line and knocked down 10 of his attempts.
The Blazers spent much of Thursday dealing with the fallout of a lengthy argument at practice between McMillan and Andre Miller, but the veteran point guard responded with one of his better all-around games for Portland. Miller was 6-of-7 at the line, scored 17 points and handed out seven assists. Miller also helped push the tempo as the Blazers did a better job than usual of getting buckets in the early offense. Add it up and the three Portland guards shot 19-for-30 (63.3 percent), went 29-for-33 at the free throw line and handed out 16 assists with five turnovers. That's hard to beat.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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