First round: Blazers vs. Lakers
So who would have thunk it? The same two teams that played in one of the greatest conference finals a year ago will now square off in the 2000-2001 playoffs.
It’s only fitting for the Blazers, though. “One team, one dream” was the theme at the beginning of the season. “Here we are and nothing comes easy” should be the theme heading into the playoffs.
Just one month ago the Blazers were riding high and leading the Western Conference playoff race. Just one month later, the Blazers find themselves in the seventh spot in the West, with no home court advantage, and not much confidence heading into a best-of-five series with the red-hot defending champion Lakers.
“Here we are and nothing comes easy.” That’s the motto. Or maybe, “One team, one win.” Most people believe the Blazers will be lucky to steal a game from Lakers in this series. Either way, how else could it be?
But think about this series in another way. Tell me you couldn’t make a made-for-TV-movie out of this Blazer team. They go through so much turmoil during the season with such high expectations and then they find themselves in the seventh slot in the West with the Lakers standing in the way.
Then, by some unbelievable change of events, they avenge last year’s playoffs and salvage a lost season by knocking off the Lakers in the first round with a memorable effort in game four in the Rose Garden.
You’d have Arvydas Sabonis and Rasheed Wallace embracing each other at halfcourt with no towels. You’d have Scottie Pippen and Mike Dunleavy shaking hands with one another. You’d have Greg Anthony and Damon Stoudamire congratulating each other.
Can you see it? That’s what I thought. Either way, the Blazers have a chance to salvage a lot in this first round series. Whether or not they can do it remains to be seen. Here’s a look at the head-to-head match ups between the two teams:
Scottie Pippen vs. Rick Fox
You’ll see Scottie play Kobe Bryant a lot in this series but Pippen is most effective when he doesn’t guard Bryant. This way, he’s able to roam around and double-team Shaq while leaving his man open and forcing the Lakers to shoot the ball from the perimeter. Pippen has to score in this series though. With Bonzi Wells out, the Blazers need a third scorer.
Fox hasn’t missed a shot against the Blazers this season. I’m joking of course, but he has been a thorn in the Blazers side this year and could continue that in the playoffs if Pippen leaves him wide open on the perimeter.
Rasheed Wallace vs. Horace Grant
Grant can’t stop Wallace under any circumstance. Nobody on the Lakers can stop Wallace and the Blazers know that. The great thing about Wallace against the Lakers is he tries to score. He’s averaged 28 points against the Lakers this season and will need to at least match that for the Blazers to have a chance. Grant can hurt you if he starts hitting his medium range jumper. Look for Robert Horry to play a lot of minutes against Wallace. He can’t guard Wallace, but on offense, he pulls him out on the perimeter leaving the middle open for Shaq.
Sabonis vs. O’Neal
Nobody can stop Shaq, but Sabonis comes the closest. If the officials let Sabis play, he can be very effective. O’Neal has to come out and guard Sabonis’ outside shot. This opens up the middle for Wallace and the Blazers’ post players.
The truth is, Sabonis won’t be able to stay out of foul trouble in this series and O’Neal will put up big numbers. If Sabonis can stay in the game, the Blazers have a better chance of winning.
Steve Smith vs. Kobe Bryant
The question is, which Steve Smith will show up? The Smith who has torched the Lakers in the past, or the Smith who doesn’t get shots and is a liability on defense? For the Blazers’ sake, let’s hope the aggressive Smith shows up.
Bryant will get his numbers in this series. He always does. The only question with Bryant is, will he try and take over by himself or get his teammates involved?
Damon Stoudamire vs. Derek Fisher
For Damon’s sake, let’s hope he proves me wrong. Fisher owned Stoudamire last Sunday and I see much of the same in this series. Fisher is just as quick as Damon and if the officials him flop all over the floor, Damon won’t be able to play much. Stoudamire has always burned the Lakers in the regular season with his scoring, but the playoffs have been a different story. That was evident last season. Stoudamire must find a way to break down the Lakers defense and create some shots for his teammates. Otherwise, we’ll see the same stand-around Blazer offense we’ve seen all season.
With Shawn Kemp and Bonzi Wells out, the Blazers have a small bench with not a lot of punch. Antonio Harvey was a big surprise in the season finale, but he may not see much action in this series. Anthony and Rod Strickland will have to score some points and Detlef Schrempf will have to put off his second retirement for another week if the Blazers want a chance at the second round. Dale Davis will see a lot of action against Shaq in this series. He could be the x-factor. For the Lakers, it will be interesting to see if JR Rider makes the playoff roster. He loves the playoffs. Brian Shaw, Mark Madsen and Horry will be most of the reserves you see in this series. The starters will play a majority of the minutes. Even.
Overall, it’s just hard to imagine the Blazers turning their play around in the next week. Their confidence has been shot down by everything that has happened the past month.
The one plus for this team is that they are geared to take down the Lakers. They have done it twice already this season and need to do it three more times. As I’ve said before, this could be the perfect cure for a fragile bunch of players. But it will take a special effort to knock off this hot Laker team. We saw the impossible in the fourth period of game seven last year. Maybe we’ll see the impossible in this five-game series. Maybe not.
The call: Lakers in four.