There will be no sneaking up on anybody now as the hottest team in the NBA bubble figures to be in for a stern test Thursday when the Portland Trail Blazers take on the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 2 of their first-round playoff series.
The Blazers have been in playoff mode for some time, winning five of their last six regular-season games just to get the crack at the play-in game in order to advance to the first round, and then winning that, too, when they knocked off the Memphis Grizzlies 126-122 on Saturday.
Throughout that late run, though, the Blazers never had to face the same team twice, much less face the same team in consecutive games. That changes Thursday.
Now it is time to find out just how hot Portland is with its well-established playoff mentality, along with a red-hot Damian Lillard. Was the defeat a wake-up call for the No. 1 seed Lakers, or evidence that they are in for the long haul against the No. 8 seed?
“We’re not just overly trying to act like we’re not proud of what we did, because we are, but we’re also not gonna rest in it and pat ourselves on the back,” Lillard said after the victory. “We’re gonna try to figure out the things we didn’t do well that we could do better next game and try to give ourselves a chance to win the next game.”
Lillard scored 34 points in the Game 1 victory, slightly under the 37.4 point-per-game average he had in the eight final regular-season games since the NBA’s restart. But it was well under the 51.3 points per game he had as the Trail Blazers closed with three consecutive victories to earn their spot in the play-in game.
The Blazers were balanced on offense Tuesday with CJ McCollum scoring 21 points and Jusuf Nurkic adding 16. On defense, they held the Lakers to 35.1 percent shooting from the field and 15.6 percent from 3-point range.
LeBron James did his part for the Lakers with 23 points, 17 rebounds and 16 assists, while Anthony Davis had 28 points and 11 rebounds. But the rest of the team combined for 42 points on 17 of 53 shooting (32.1 percent).
“We had a couple breakdowns,” James said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “… Can’t make mistakes in the postseason. I believe we made some mistakes defensively. We played hard. There were some mistakes that we made especially going down the stretch.”
The Lakers’ time in the NBA bubble has been nowhere near as intense as the Blazers’. Los Angeles clinched the conference’s No. 1 seed on Aug. 3. Since then the Lakers are 1-4 and needed a Kyle Kuzma shot at the buzzer to win that one.
If added motivation in the form of a high-energy opponent is what the Lakers needed moving forward, it arrived in not-so-subtle fashion.
“It’s one game,” Lakers head coach Frank Vogel said. “We’re very confident in our group still. The time was used the right way but there’s no simulation like what they’ve been in and now we’re in the playoff environment.
“I was pleased with our competitive spirit. We didn’t make shots. … I think we can shoot the ball better than we saw tonight.”
Lakers point guard Rajon Rondo, who has been cleared to play and was in street clothes on the Lakers’ bench for Game 1, is listed as day-to-day after thumb surgery. Blazers forward Zach Collins (ankle) will miss at least a week and Nassir Little (illness) is listed as day-to-day.
–Field Level Media