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Column: Lakers can’t flip switch in Game 1 as bubble woes continue

Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard goes to the basket over Lakers' Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Portland Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard goes to the basket over Lakers’ Kentavious Caldwell-Pope during the first half in Game 1 of the first round of the NBA playoffs on Tuesday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

The Lakers are not locks. The Lakers are not unbeatable. The Lakers are not the Lakers.

The Lakers don’t have the championship presence they possessed before the fourth-month pandemic shutdown. The Lakers don’t have the championship consistency they carried into the NBA’s bubble season last month.

The Lakers showed up Tuesday night for the opening of the playoffs against the Portland Trail Blazers near Orlando, Fla., looking frighteningly like the team that slogged its way through the eight previous meaningless seeding games.

It turns out, those sullen moments were no mirage. It’s quite possible, a town’s worst fears could eventually be realized.

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If there really is a switch that great teams access for the postseason, the West’s top-seeded Lakers couldn’t find it. If there really is a sense of urgency that great teams summon in these situations, the West’s best team lost it under a pile of bricks.

Pure and simple, down the stretch Tuesday, when it counted, the eighth-seeded and exhausted Trail Blazers kicked their butts.

Down six points midway through the fourth quarter, the Trail Blazers outscored the Lakers by 13 down the stretch for a stunning 100-93 victory in the opener of the seven-game first round series.

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“It’s one game,’’ said Portland star Damian Lillard, but he’s was vastly understating it.

It’s a game that showed how much the Lakers miss the opted-out guard Avery Bradley, their defense collapsing in the final minutes in allowing a trio of three-pointers by Lillard, Carmelo Anthony and Gary Trent Jr.

It’s a game that showed how much the Lakers miss a third scoring option, with James and Anthony Davis combining for 51 points while the rest of the team mostly stumbled into the shadows. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope missed all nine of his shots. Alex Caruso missed five of six shots. Kyle Kuzma missed four of five three-pointers. As a team, the Lakers missed 27 of 32 three-point attempts. It didn’t help that James and Davis each missed a pair of free throws late as part of a team effort that missed 11 of 31 free throw attempts.

More than anything, it’s a game that showed how this Lakers team that hasn’t seemed right, still isn’t right.

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Afterward, when The Times’ Tania Ganguli asked James when that urgency would return, he said he had no idea.

“I can’t answer that question,” he said.

It’s clear, and James has hinted about this for a couple of weeks, but the Lakers miss the momentum generated by the great Staples Center fans. On the first day of the postseason, there’s no place like the corner of 11th and Figueroa. The crowds show up early. They puff out their chests and claim their turf and spend the next two months making life miserable for all who dare visit.

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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Lakers highlights.

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The Lakers earned the best home-court advantage in the league but can’t benefit from it. A veteran team that is energized by the crowd has lost that source of energy. Most teams here are obviously facing the same issues. The Lakers just seemingly haven’t figured out how to deal with it yet.

Remember before the pandemic when James said he couldn’t imagine playing with no fans? He is no longer just imagining it, and throughout the team, the failure to instantly ignite is showing.

“This is different,” James said. “This is different, in the bubble with no fans …”

Of course, with 23 points, 17 rebounds and 16 assists — the first player in NBA playoff history with that sort of line –—he was still focused, saying, “As far as me being locked into the game plan, that doesn’t change one bit.”

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But he was not thrilled with his team.

“We have some great opportunities, we had some great looks, we just didn’t knock them down’’ said James.

And about that defense, he added, ‘’We had a couple of breakdowns, which you can’t have.”

There’s another momentum problem with this series. While Portland has had to play its way into the postseason with a series of must-win bubble games, the Lakers have treated it like summer camp. Their 3-5 record in the bubble equaled the worst mark of the 16 playoff teams there. Portland, who entered the bubble 3 1/2 games out of a playoff spot, has now gone 8-2 since coming to Orlando.

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Can the Lakers get into the spirit quick enough in this bad matchup against a team that is desperate enough?

“Our confidence has grown each game,” said the 34-point Lillard, later adding, “We don’t lose trust when the game is more on the line. We just continue to trust each other because we’ve been in these games since we’ve been here.”

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Don’t the Lakers know it.

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“That’s what we’re up against … that team has been basically playing Game 7s for the last two weeks,” said Lakers coach Frank Vogel. “We have to execute and make shots down the stretch.”

Vogel is now 0-1 in his playoff career as a Lakers coach. James lost his playoff opener for only the second time in 14 postseasons.

And, sigh, the stage had been set Tuesday for a franchise-cleansing night. Playing under the motto, “Leave a legacy,” the Lakers are using this postseason to honor the late Kobe Bryant while trying to erase playoff memories in his final seasons.

The last time the Lakers competed in a playoff game, more than seven years ago, they were being swept out of the first round by the San Antonio Spurs.

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Their leading scorer in that series, Dwight Howard, was ejected in the third quarter of the final game. Their third- and fourth-leading scorers were two dudes named Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock. And, oh yeah, their best player was Bryant, but he couldn’t walk.

The Lakers were hoping to walk out Tuesday night with their first playoff win in eight years. But at least for one night, the beginning of the revival will have to wait.

“It’s one game, we’re very confident in our group still,” said Vogel. “I was pleased with our competitive spirit. We didn’t make shots. We’ll continue to work on our shot quality.”

There is help coming. While Bradley is gone, fellow veteran guard Rajon Rondo could be back soon after breaking his thumb during the second day of practice for the restart. They miss his court smarts. They miss his offensive leadership when James is catching his breath. They miss him so much, Vogel said, he was thrilled just to see Rondo sitting with the team on the bench.

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“I’m excited about it, I really am,” said Vogel. “He’s a big part of our team identity, our intelligence, our DNA, he’s a big part of all of that. To have him back I think is really going to enhance our whole energy and juice as a group.”

Indeed, after a shocking fall to reality Tuesday, the Lakers need energy, and they need juice.

And they need it now.

Plaschke reported from Los Angeles.


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