By: Matthew Pelosi
Last year’s NBA Finals marked the first time since 2010 that we saw the series not include a team that featured Lebron James. It just so happened to also be the season in which Lebron featured in just 55 games as James dealt with injury woes that ultimately led to the Lakers to not even make the playoffs. Over the past decade, we have not seen another player dominate his sport to the point that he is more or less a lock to play in the championship year in and year out. As Lebron has managed to stay healthy and if the trend of him matching up against the powerhouse from the other conference continues, then we can expect The King to take on The Greek Freak (Giannis Antetokounmpo) in the finals later this year. However, sports are full of surprises and I believe the Lakers might be in for a rude awakening in their first round matchup.
Los Angeles Lakers
As underwhelming as their recent performances might have been, there is no denying that this year's Los Angeles Lakers team is something special. Led by Lebron James and Anthony Davis the Lakers have been the best team in the NBA this season with an outstanding 51-15 record. In fact, due to the shortened season, the Lakers win over the Utah Jazz earlier this week locked them in as the top seed in the Western Conference with the playoffs right around the corner. Lebron James is a serious contender for regular season MVP, nearly averaging a triple double (25.4 pts/ 10.4 ast/ 8.0 reb). While those numbers are certainly impressive, you may be surprised to find out that this is the first season Lebron is not the leading scorer on his team. The Lakers’ superstar center, Anthony Davis, who was recruited by LBJ this past offseason, narrowly edges James with 26.8 ppg. Davis also averages an impressive 9.4 rpg along with 2.4 blocks and 1.5 steals to make him a legit defensive player of the year candidate.
The last time we saw a Lakers team this good was in the 2009-10 season when they also finished 1st in the conference and went on to win the championship. The scary thing is that this year’s Lakers team is even better. The 2010 Lakers finished with a 57-25 regular season giving them a 69.5% winning percentage. This year’s team has an astonishing 77.3% winning percentage, however it may fall a bit assuming they rest some players due to the fact that they already clinched the one seed. The Clippers and Rockets are probably considered the biggest threats to the Lakers in the West but there is one other team I believe the Lakers could struggle against, and this team hasn’t even qualified for the playoffs yet…
Some NBA fans may be surprised to hear the Trailblazers still haven’t clinched a playoff spot this late into the season. Personally, I would have expected Portland to be comfortable cruising with a respectable 5 or 6 seed heading into the postseason by now even with their injury woes. Currently however, they are sitting just behind the Memphis Grizzlies as the 9th seed in the Western Conference. Although the Grizzlies have a very talented young core, which already surpassed expectations this season, I don’t believe they will hold on to the 8th seed. In fact, after the loss of Jaren Jackson earlier this week, I think the Grizzlies would be lucky to hang on to the 9th seed play-in position (I actually think the Suns have a good shot to take over that position, but we’ll save that for another day). The Trailblazers are playing some of the best ball in the NBA since the restart. Impressive wins against the Rockets and Grizzlies along with a hard fought game against the Celtics prove that they can compete with the best in the NBA.
The”Bosnian Beast”, Josuf Nurkić did not play a single game this season prior to the restart which is the main reason they haven’t already secured a playoff berth. In his three games thus far, Nurkić has looked great. Although the sample size is small, his presence on defense is certainly apparent, averaging 3.3 blocks and 1.7 steals since the start of the bubble. His contribution on the offensive side of the court has been felt as well. His 22 ppg and 3.7 apg has landed him an outstanding 31.5 PER rating (Player Efficiency-Rating: A measure of per minute production standardized such that the league average is 15 Basketball-Reference.com). One can only assume that he will improve on these numbers as he continues to get into the groove of the season. Just imagine what the Trailblazers could have accomplished last season in the playoffs with a healthy Nurkić.
Led by THE BEST POINT GUARD IN THE NBA, Damion Lillard, the Trailblazers made a deeprun last year in the playoffs. Defeating a talented Thunder team led by Paul George and Russel Westbrook in only 5 games was extremely impressive. The most prolific backcourt in the game right now (McCollum and Lillard), combined for just under 60 points and 10 assists per game in that series and seemed to always hit the big shots when the team needed it. They followed up this impressive series by defeating the Denver Nuggets and advanced to the Conference finals, all without the help of Josuf.
I can all but guarantee that we will see Portland playing playoff basketball this season. In fact, I think this big three, along with the help of some key role players could give the Lakers a true run for their money in the first round. Zach Collins and Gary Trent Jr. have both looked extremely impressive since the restart and “Slim Melo” is proving that he is still more than capable of starting on a competitive NBA roster. There is no shot this potential series will accurately represents the typical 8 v 1 seed first round matchup. This series will for sure be a bar fight and I can't imagine a scenario in which the Lakers walk away without giving up at least two games. If everything clicks for Portland I can see them upsetting Los Angeles and if they do that, then there is for sure no limit to what they can accomplish.
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