There’s a West challenger out there looking for the Lakers, all right.
This team is just as big as they are, just as talented and just as deep as it gathers itself for the duel of titans everyone knows is coming.
Of course, it’s not likely to be this season.
No matter how bright the Portland Trail Blazers’ future may be, they have to get to it. Sunday night, the Lakers, a grown-up powerhouse, showed them how far they have to go, rolling over them, 100-86.
The Trail Blazers didn’t have their star, Brandon Roy, out with a hamstring pull, but he missed last week’s celebrated victory over the Boston Celtics too.
As far as Coach Nate McMillan was concerned, he had more players than Roy missing Sunday.
“We’ve got to play, it’s as simple as that,,” said McMillan. “We need guys to play and we’re not getting production. There’s an opportunity for guys out there . . .
“We don’t have Brandon. Brandon is not with us. We know that he’s not with us. It’s an opportunity for other guys to play and we have other guys and we’ve got to get it done.”
Two Trail Blazers played well, LaMarcus Aldridge, who scored 22 points with 11 rebounds, and rookie Nicolas Batum, who scored 17, making all six of his shots.
All the rest can assume McMillan was talking about them, starting with Rudy Fernandez, who shot five for 15 in his third NBA start, and reserves Channing Frye, Travis Outlaw, Sergio Rodriguez, Jerryd Bayless and Ike Diogu, who shot a combined two for 21.
Of course, it’s still early for the Trail Blazers, who are like preschoolers among West contenders.
The Lakers, who think they’re a young team, started a lineup that averaged 27 years of age, but had a total of 38 years experience.
The Trail Blazers started a lineup that averaged 22 years of age, with seven years experience (five for point guard Steve Blake, two for Aldridge.)
So even if the kids are all right some nights, like last Friday when they beat the Celtics, they still grow up one day at a time.
“It’s young players and for us, we’ve got a team full of them,” McMillan said before the game of sending them out against a powerhouse like the Lakers.
“A lot of times you’re afraid to touch them. You end up coming out and just playing, not battling and scrapping against players like this and you tend to make it easy. . . .
“You’ve got to beat ‘em. They’re talented, they’re experienced and the only way that you have a chance is to go out and put aside who they are and what they’ve done in the past to you and go out and play them.
“We did that this year against Boston. We’ve done that against some of the elite teams, out-scrapped them. . . .
“This is a young team going through this for the first time. This combination of Brandon, LaMarcus, Greg [Oden,] you’re talking about players with little experience, playing at a high level and expected to play at a high level.
“So for us, we understand who we are and where we are. We’re doing some good things and we’ve got to improve.”
There will be an easy way to tell when the Trail Blazers are great. It’ll be when Oden is great, or at least closing in on it.
Now he’s a work in progress and the progress is intermittent, as when he went from his 16-point, 10-rebound game against the Celtics, to 4-4 in a home loss to the New Orleans Hornets, to 10-4 Sunday night.
“It’s a big step,” said Oden of the game against the Celtics, “but you know, we hear about Boston so much. That’s two games ago and we lost both of them. . . .
“That game’s behind us. We won’t play Boston again this year unless we make it to the championship. So right now, I just want to come out and scrap every game and not worry about what happened in the past.”
On the other hand, compared to Oden’s belated NBA debut here against the Lakers after losing a year to knee surgery, when he played 13 minutes before spraining his ankle and going out for two weeks, he put on a fireworks show Sunday.
Oden and his young teammates have a lot to work on, but they also have a lot to work with. There’s a time for them, it’s just not now.