Hot Trail Blazers ready for top-seed Lakers

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Damian Lillard has heard the chatter. He, too, believes the Portland Trail Blazers are more than up for the task of defeating the Los Angeles Lakers when the two teams collide in Game 1 of their opening-round Western Conference series Tuesday in the NBA bubble near Orlando.

The Lakers enter the series as the top seed in the Western Conference, but some believe the eighth-seeded Blazers, one of the hottest teams in the bubble, are a dangerous squad and a tough matchup, particularly with Lillard’s recent tear.

“I’ve been seeing everybody saying what we’re going to do to the Lakers,” said Lillard, according to the Los Angeles Times. “The Lakers, they’re the No. 1 seed in the West for a reason. They got the best player in the world on their team. But at the same time, we didn’t fight as hard as we fought in the bubble to just say, all right, we’re the eighth seed to go out there and just get beat up on.

“We feel like we have a chance in a series against anybody in this league. We feel like we got a chance in this series.”

For Portland to prevail, it would help if Lillard’s outstanding play continues. His 31 points and 10 assists allowed the Blazers to advance to the playoffs Saturday with a 126-122 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies in the play-in game. Lillard averaged 51.3 points in the three previous games before Saturday, including a career-high tying 61 points in a win over the Dallas Mavericks on Aug. 11.

CJ McCollum contributed 29 points against Memphis despite playing with a non-displaced fracture in his back. Jusuf Nurkic played through the grief of his grandmother dying from COVID-19 and finished with 22 points, 21 rebounds and six assists, while Carmelo Anthony added 21 points for Portland.

And with hot-shooting Gary Trent Jr. off the bench the Blazers could be a handful.

“Definitely not your typical eighth seed,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “They’ve played at an elite level during this stretch in the bubble, at least offensive. We’ve got a ton of respect for obviously Dame and CJ and Nurkic but really for their whole team and their whole culture.”

However, the Blazers will be without starting forward Zach Collins, who has been ruled out of Game 1 with left ankle inflammation. Wenyen Gabriel will start in his place.

The Blazers were 1-2 against the Lakers during the regular season but Lillard was at his best in their last meeting, scoring 48 points by hitting seven 3-pointers with 10 assists and nine rebounds in a 127-119 victory during an emotional evening in Los Angeles on Jan. 31. It was the Lakers first game after the death of Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26.

But that was more than six months ago.

“We know what time it is,” said Lakers forward Danny Green, according to the Times. “We have a lot of vets on this team. You know, it’s time to lock in and focus regardless of what’s happened before the bubble, in the bubble up to this point. None of it matters. We have to be ready from the tip.”

Vogel said point guard Rajon Rondo has been medically cleared to play after having surgery on his fractured thumb on July 15 but that he’s unlikely to play in Game 1. Rondo practiced Monday for the first time since breaking the thumb in practice on July 12.

The Lakers, set for their first playoff appearance in seven years, are 9-2 in playoff series all-time against the Blazers.

Portland advanced to the Western Conference finals last season before they were swept by the Golden State Warriors.

–Field Level Media

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