Lakers vs. Trail Blazers: Three trends to watch unfold in their NBA playoffs series

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — It’s a marathon, not a sprint, the Lakers have often said. But the playoffs are the time when the pace picks up.

The Lakers looked a step behind the Portland Trail Blazers in their 100-93 loss on Tuesday night in Game 1, losing out on a late rally capped by a rush of late 3-pointers. Even though LeBron James posted 23 points, 17 rebounds and 16 assists — the only man in NBA history to have at least a 20-15-15 stat line in the postseason — it was frustratingly short.

What needs watching beyond Game 1? Here’s a look at the trends that could define the series, which is looking a lot more competitive than a typical 1-8 match-up:

Will shooting even out?

Surprise. Shooting is up first.

The Lakers shot poorly. They were 35 percent from the field, and under 16 percent from three. No one was really above blame on this front: The only players to hit over half their attempts were JaVale McGee (3 for 5) and Markieff Morris (2 for 2) who struggled in other areas. The 3-point shooting was particularly bad: Only Danny Green (2 for 8) hit more than one. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was 0 for 9.

Outwardly, the Lakers said those numbers will float back up eventually.

“Remain patient,” Frank Vogel said. “Trust the percentages, law of averages and continue to work with our guys on identifying the right shots and remaining calm.”

But here’s the average that should concern the Lakers: In their eight seeding games, they shot under 44 percent from the field and just 30.3 percent from three, the worst in the bubble. Their offensive rating was just 104.5 points per 100 possessions, which ranked only above the Thunder and Wizards among bubble teams. Game 1 was their worst percentage from the field in the bubble, but they’ve shot under 40 percent from the field — a woeful underperformance — in four of their nine games now.

The thought that should trouble the Lakers: Maybe their averages simply aren’t as high as Disney World.

A few Lakers including Kyle Kuzma and Green mentioned “jitters” or general adrenaline as the reason the Lakers allowed Portland to take a 16-point first quarter lead. They didn’t look as ready to play as the Trail Blazers, who have been staving off elimination since they arrived at the restart. Kuzma added that the backdrop of the gym — which is digital ways and curtains on three sides and a dark, empty gym on the fourth side — should benefit shooters. It certainly benefits the Trail Blazers, who saw their season average of 37.7 percent on 3-pointers rise to 41.4 in the seeding games.

Green acknowledged how frustrating it was that the 3-point shooting hasn’t picked up.

“For sure, because you know we have so many threats that are capable, you just figure if one guys off the other three would pick us up,” he said. “But it seems as if that’s a trend for us right now, and we’ve got to figure it out.”

Anthony Davis charging inside

There’s the 28 points the Lakers’ big man scored to lead his team in Game 1, but there’s also this: 8 for 24. Against the weak interior defense of the Portland Trail Blazers, that’s not good enough.

The other part of the Lakers’ shoddy shooting was that they were just 44.6 percent inside the arc, which is not normal for a team that led the entire league in shooting percentage. Davis was at the forefront here, making only one shot outside of eight feet. It’s struggles Davis has had off and on since arriving in the bubble, and his midrange game (much less any 3-point game) simply is not reliable.

We’ve written about the need for Davis to be assertive for the Lakers to win the series: He helped power a much less loaded Pelicans team to a sweep of Portland in 2018. But in the bubble, Davis hasn’t always found his most assertive self.

There was a notable exception to this in the end of the second quarter, as James started warming him up with passes out of pick-and-roll, or finding him on long passes in transition. Davis made half of his field goals in this period.

“We’re just setting a lot of screens for him to get down hill and I’m rolling to the basket,” he said. “But when we start playing with pace, he’s really good when we’re running.”

A back-to-the-basics approach for Davis might be necessary: He’s a better scorer when the ball finds him in motion than when he’s simply fed to win a match-up on the block. As good as Davis is as a scorer, one of two things is going to need to happen: He needs to either find that midrange touch again, or the Lakers need to create more opportunities for him as a roller to the rim.

While Hassan Whiteside fared well especially in the fourth quarter last night, the Trail Blazers don’t have a lot of players truly capable of guarding Davis at his best. It’s simply a matter of getting him to his best.

Portland’s self-belief

The most dangerous thing an underdog can believe is that the wind is at its back. Portland is living that dream right now. 

The Trail Blazers are 8-2 in the bubble, they have a team that went to the Western Conference Finals last year, and although they’re missing Rodney Hood and Trevor Ariza, they’re as healthy as they’ve been. Winning Game 1 only enhances their idea that they’re a team of destiny. While Damian Lillard said that the series is likely to get harder from here, he also acknowledged that they aren’t intimidated. At all.

“I think our confidence has grown each game,” he said. “Because it hasn’t always been just a crazy scoring run. We’ve had to come up with stops. We’ve had to make the extra pass. Different guys have had to make big shots. … We’ve seen so many different guys come in and make game-changing plays, that it makes us more comfortable with each other when the game gets tight.”

That came in to play late as Carmelo Anthony and Gary Trent Jr., who were not having good shooting nights, made late threes after Lillard, sealing the result. At the moment, the Lakers lack that same confidence in one another, in part because they’ve shot so poorly since the restart.

The David-vs.-Goliath storyline isn’t quite accurate here because Portland has both established stars and really good supporting players. But narratives sometimes are fires that only need a little oxygen to burn hotter and brighter — and once a team believes in itself, that can be pretty hard to quash.

As much as any game in the series is must-win, the Lakers need to win Game 2 if only to push back on Portland’s own trust and confidence, which has run almost unopposed in the bubble. If they can do that, maybe they can find some for themselves.