The Los Angeles Lakers’ path to a 17th championship looks awfully perilous from the outset, and not just because the Western Conference's top seeds have struggled in the bubble.
Damian Lillard by himself is enough to make any team worry about its postseason prospects, yet the bubble MVP is just one challenge looming before the Lakers.
The Lakers' dubious reward for perseverance in an extraordinarily challenging and particularly tragic season is no prize at all: They must begin their quest against the streaking Trail Blazers and Lillard, who has lit up the Lakers and just about everybody else for years.
“Definitely not your typical eighth seed,” first-year Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “They played at an elite level during this stretch in the bubble, at least offensively."
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What's more, the Lakers have only a nominal home-court advantage when the first-round series begins Tuesday. They'll play in the near-silent bubble instead of a sold-out Staples Center cheering this beloved franchise's first playoff appearance since 2013.
After going 3-5 in the bubble with unusually poor play by their normally sturdy defense, not much looks certain for the Lakers — except the leadership of LeBron James, who has already done just about everything possible in the NBA postseason.
"They have a two-headed monster with Dame [Lillard] and CJ [McCollum]," said James on Monday. " It starts and ends with those guys. They control everything."
Even if their fans must watch from afar, the Lakers still ended their streak of six straight non-playoff seasons — an unprecedented embarrassment for the NBA’s glamour franchise.
Everything changed when Anthony Davis agreed to join LA from New Orleans last summer, and the Lakers spent the year quickly building a cohesive team that could handle the rigors of a postseason run.
Lillard presented an entirely different set of challenges, particularly in the confines of a seven-game series.
“He’s balling right now,” Davis said. “He’s hot. He’s doing whatever he can do to make his team win. He’s carrying the load, playing a ton of minutes. He’s the head of the snake for their team, and you’ve got to do your best to contain him, take away some of his tendencies, but they also have other guys to make plays as well. They’re a tough opponent, but everybody knows that level he’s on and his mindset.”
Portland had to win the first play-in postseason NBA game since 1956 to reach this spot, beating Memphis 126-122 on Saturday. The Blazers finished with the West's eighth-best record by surging past the Grizzlies and going 7-2 after the league restarted in the bubble to make the playoffs for the seventh consecutive season.
Lillard has been a particular problem for the Lakers ever since 2012, when he put up 23 points and 11 assists in his NBA debut. More recently, Lillard had 48 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds at Staples Center on Feb. 1 while steamrolling the current Lakers in their first game after Kobe Bryant’s death.
Lillard realizes plenty of observers believe the Blazers have a good shot to knock off the Lakers.
“But the Lakers, they’re the No. 1 seed in the West for a reason," Lillard said. "They’ve 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 hang on with the eighth seed and go out here and get beat up on. We feel like we have a chance in a series against anybody in his league. We’re going to approach it with a healthy level of respect for them.”
CATCHING A BREAK
Blazers coach Terry Stotts said there was relief in taking care of the Grizzlies in one game for that extra day of rest. Had Portland lost, they’d have to face Memphis again on Sunday.
“It was on everybody’s mind, particularly Dame and CJ (McCollum)," Stotts said. “We knew that Memphis was going to be desperate team. But I think we had the same desperation because of how important having Sunday off was. Playing a back-to-back with one day of rest and getting ready for the Lakers, (that) would’ve been a tough task."
CJ THE SHARK
McCollum has struggled in the bubble with a back injury that was revealed to be a fracture on Saturday, but he was key for the Blazers on Saturday, scoring 14 of his 29 points in the fourth quarter.
He said it was his shark mentality.
“I always said that I was a shark,” McCollum said. “You've got to be a killer no matter what the circumstances are. Always told people ‘Don’t worry about me, I’m gonna figure out how to eat,’ and that’s what I’ve always done. I figured how to eat and I figured out how to provide. That’s the type of mentality you've got to have, because if you don’t kill, you will be killed out here. You will be destroyed — figuratively, obviously — and you will be going home to pack your bags.”
PLAYING THROUGH PAIN
Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic announced shortly before Saturday’s game that his beloved grandmother had passed away after a lengthy battle with COVID-19.
“She made me play, I guess," Nurkic said. "Personally, I thought I wasn’t going to play tonight. I didn’t want to shoot any balls during warmups. I already came and made the decision to stay here to be with the team. I think she wanted me to play. I’m glad we won and are in the playoffs. That’s what we came for.”
THINGS TO KNOW
If Kawhi Leonard or LeBron James win the NBA Finals MVP Award, it would be the first time in NBA history a player has won three finals MVPs with three different teams.
Leonard was finals MVP for San Antonio in 2014 and for Toronto last year. Besides Leonard, only LeBron James (with Miami in 2012 and 2013, then Cleveland in 2016) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (with Milwaukee in 1971 and the Los Angeles Lakers in 1985) have won finals MVPs with two different franchises.
If the Lakers or Clippers win the title, it’ll be another rarity. If the Lakers win, James and Danny Green (San Antonio, Toronto) would have championships with three different teams; if the Clippers win, Leonard would be on that list.
The only players in NBA history to win titles with three different teams, to this point, are John Salley and Robert Horry.
A few numbers to watch during the playoffs:
LeBron James is 89 points away from 7,000 career postseason points. Nobody else has even reached 6,000; Michael Jordan had 5,987. James nearly has more playoff points than any other three players entering these playoffs do in their postseason careers combined. James Harden (2,654), Russell Westbrook (2,489) and Kawhi Leonard (2,164) have 7,307 between them.
If the Lakers make a deep run, James could also take over the No. 1 spot on the postseason games played list. He’s been in 239, behind Derek Fisher (259), Tim Duncan (251) and Robert Horry (244). James is already the NBA career playoff leader in minutes, field goals made and attempted, free throws made and steals.
For the first time since 2015, teams with a losing record made the playoffs.
And for the first time since 1997, three teams below the .500 mark found their way into the postseason. Portland, Brooklyn and Orlando all finished the regular season with losing records — yet are still alive in the race for the NBA title.
Boston and Brooklyn were the last teams to get to the playoffs with losing marks, both getting there in 2015. Minnesota, Phoenix and the Los Angeles Clippers were the three teams that did it in 1987.
The last time there were more than three sub-.500 teams in the playoffs was 1986, when six made the field.
No team with a losing record has won a playoff series since 1987, when the Seattle SuperSonics won two rounds to reach the West finals. Since that season, sub-.500 teams are 0-26 in first-round matchups.
GAME 1 SUCCESS
Inevitably, some version of the stat that says Game 1 winners almost always go on to win a best-of-seven series will come up after the opening game of every matchup. And it is true: Since the 16-team playoff format was adopted, teams with a 1-0 series lead ultimately win 78.3% of the time.
But last year showed that 1-0 deficits don’t doom a club, either.
There were six teams last season that lost Game 1 but went on to win a series — matching the most of any year in the 16-team format.
The six teams that rallied were Toronto (East finals vs. Milwaukee and first round vs. Orlando), Milwaukee (East semifinals vs. Boston), Portland (West semifinals vs. Denver), Philadelphia (East first round vs. Brooklyn) and Denver (West first round vs. San Antonio).
AP Sports Writer Anne M. Peterson in Portland and national writer Tim Reynolds contributed to this report.