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#pounditSaturday, September 19, 2020

Why Lakers vs. Trail Blazers would make for a surprisingly intriguing playoff series

Damian Lillard

This season the Los Angeles Lakers hold a 17-2 record against the six teams competing in Orlando for the right to inevitably lose to them in the first round of the playoffs. It remains no secret that the basketball world yearns to see LeBron James and Zion Williamson square off in a ceremonious battle of the present versus the future this coming postseason. Guidelines weren’t explicitly put in place to ensure a Williamson versus James matchup, but it seems highly coincidental that the ninth seed must finish within four games of the eighth seed to force a play-in game for the final playoff spot, as the Pelicans currently sit 3.5 games back of the eighth-seeded Memphis. Also sitting 3.5 games back of the Grizzlies are both the Sacramento Kings and the Portland Trail Blazers.

While the Kings have continued to improve since their underwhelming 15-29 start to the season, the Trail Blazers remain the most intriguing matchup for the Lakers on account of one player alone: Damian Lillard.

None of the six potential opponents for the Lakers in round one boast a scorer as accomplished as Lillard. Like most good scorers, Lillard can get hot and single-handedly steal a playoff game for his team. But what separates Lillard from the other scorers of his generation is the ability to get hot and single-handedly win an entire playoff series. Throughout his career, Lillard has perfected his timing on when to set the clock to “Dame Time” and is always ready to deliver when the Trail Blazers call on him. His dismantling of Russell Westbrook and the rest of the Thunder in last year’s playoffs serves as a reminder for anyone who dares to challenge Lillard.

Despite producing at a career-high rate of 28.9 points per game this season, Lillard has elevated his game to an even higher level against the Western Conference’s elite. In three games against the Lakers, Lillard is averaging an absurd 36 points and 9 assists per game on close to 50-40-90 shooting slashes. Portland was able to top Los Angeles in their final meeting of the season behind one of Lillard’s most memorable career efforts in which he fell just two points and one rebound short of a 50 point triple-double. Shots like the one depicted below begin to tell the story of why Lillard is so unstoppable. As Lillard glides around a Hassan Whiteside screen, his defender, Avery Bradley, is in full-on chase mode. Whiteside’s defender, JaVale McGee, has no time to close out before Lillard stops on a dime and elevates from three. Even with the foul and limited space, Lillard calmly sinks the long-range bucket.

As their roster currently sits, the Trail Blazers simply don’t have the talent to steal more than a game or two from the Lakers. However, the return of Jusuf Nurkic provides Portland with a glimmer of optimism. No one will welcome Nurkic’s return to the lineup more than Lillard. Of all the two-man combinations who shared the court for at least 1,000 minutes last season for the Trail Blazers, Lillard and Nurkic’s net rating of 11.3 was the highest. One of the primary reasons for the duo’s dominance was Nurkic’s ability as a screener. Nurkic finished third in the NBA last season in screen assists, but it’s his ability to quickly transition from setting bone-crushing screens to throwing pinpoint passes to open shooters in the corner that renders him so valuable as a roll man. When Nurkic rolls to the rim, it appears as if he’s almost moving at half-speed as he lumbers down the paint until the moment presents itself, and he instantaneously flips the switch and accelerates with the grace of a 7-foot, 290-pound ballerina.

The tweet below shows how quickly Nurkic can dive to the hoop when he slips the screen. Nurkic hardly makes contact with Ricky Rubio before he’s bursting to the rim, but it’s already too late for the two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert, who is effectively caught in no-man’s-land. Gobert is forced to play further away from the basket than he usually would to account for Lillard’s ability to hit threes from the parking lot, allowing Nurkic to sneak past for the uncontested dunk.

Even with Nurkic’s return to the lineup, the Lakers would remain the betting favorites in a potential first-round series. This series, however, remains one of the most intriguing possible first-round matchups given its potential ramifications on Lillard’s future.

Throughout his time in the NBA, Lillard has maintained a renegade status by refusing to conform to the norm of “superteams” and vowing his loyalty to Portland. Despite it being only two seasons since Lillard made First Team All-NBA, he joins James Harden as the only other 2018 selection who has not subsequently changed teams.

While loyalty has become a seemingly obsolete virtue in the NBA, Lillard’s commitment to the Trail Blazers has never wavered. A brief playoff appearance ending in defeat at the hands of the Lakers, or missing the postseason altogether, could begin to alter Lillard’s outlook entirely. Lillard did sign an extension with Portland last summer that has him under contract until the 2025 season. But in the modern NBA, no player is committed to a team forever. And if Lillard even starts to reconsider what he’s willing to endure to remain with the Trail Blazers, the potential playoff series no one is talking about could become one of the offseason’s most impactful stories.

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