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Lakers finally gain clarity on first-round opponent: It’s the Trail Blazers

The Lakers' LeBron James battles the Trail Blazers' Hassan Whiteside on Dec. 28, 2019.
The Lakers’ LeBron James battles the Trail Blazers’ Hassan Whiteside on Dec. 28 in Portland. The Lakers won that game 128-120 and went 2-1 against the Trail Blazers this season.
(Kelvin Kuo / Associated Press)

Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum walked off the court together Saturday, down the hallway to their locker room. As they approached the entrance, the Portland Trail Blazers’ coaching staff burst into applause.

Through the sound of their clapping, McCollum grinned.

“Never not been to the playoffs,” he said.

They were greeted by cheers in their locker room that erupted periodically after nine grueling games in the NBA bubble that won them the chance to play the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. Their series will begin Tuesday.

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“I’ve been seeing everybody saying what we’re going to do to the Lakers,” Lillard said. “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.”

The Lakers were the last team in the bubble to learn their playoff opponent. Every other matchup was set by Thursday. It was a missing piece that kept them from focusing on the next step. LeBron James said he doesn’t typically lock into playoff mode until he knows who the opponent will be.

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The possible teams were reduced from four to two Thursday when the Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs were eliminated.

The Lakers held practice before Saturday’s play-in game between Portland and the Memphis Grizzlies.

“We just prepared for both teams and just getting our minds right for this playoff push,” Lakers center JaVale McGee said.

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After practice they unwound, some played golf, as they awaited the afternoon’s results. Lakers assistant Jason Kidd watched the game in person.

There was a chance they would have to wait until Sunday. Portland entered as the eighth seed, while Memphis entered as the ninth to offer a fair shot for bubble teams fighting for that last playoff spot. That meant adding a play-in round in which the eighth seed could advance with one win, while the ninth seed would need two.

The Trail Blazers won 126-122 in a hard-fought game close until the final minute. It was a hard-fought month for the Trail Blazers, actually.

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McCollum thought about it all as he and Lillard walked together.

“We’ve been through a lot,” McCollum said. “We’ve battled. We’ve lost some tough games. We’ve had some injuries. We’ve had to climb the mountain. … Playing eight games and all of them been close, highly contested, just an emotional roller coaster. This is my seventh year in the league and my seventh year in the playoffs. So I’m thankful for it and I’ll never take it for granted.”

McCollum was playing with a fractured back that requires constant treatment. He scored 29 points, 14 in the fourth quarter, as the Grizzlies scrapped to keep their lead.

Lillard, their hero in the bubble over and over again, scored 31 points with 10 assists.

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As of Saturday afternoon, Portland coach Terry Stotts had not spent any time preparing for the Lakers. The Trail Blazers’ scouting and video staff has created presentations they’ll have to devour quickly. They felt a sense of desperation, he said, because one extra day to prepare for the Lakers, to rest their weary bodies, was precious.

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They’ll have the benefit of momentum on their side. The Lakers, though, will have the benefit of rest and the confidence that comes with having the best record in the conference. In all those six previous seasons that Portland made the playoffs, the Lakers missed them through no fault of their current group. This group is filled with playoff-tested veterans.

“We know what time it is,” Lakers forward Danny Green said. “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. From Game 1, from the jump.”

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Three observations

1. In the bubble, the Lakers had the fourth worst field-goal percentage and the worst three-point percentage. Their players and coaches have said they believe in the law of averages correcting this problem.

2. Lillard was voted MVP of the NBA bubble based on the eight seeding games and Portland has relied heavily on him. He scored 154 points in Portland’s last three seeding games, of which Stotts noted “we needed every one.”

3. The Lakers have been able to exploit Portland’s interior defense in the past: Anthony Davis averaged 32 points per game against them this season. Those games, though, were without Nurkic, who was injured.


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