The basketball gods, finally, are smiling on Portland.
The Trail Blazers on Friday aren't only welcoming fans back to Moda Center for the first time in over a year, but their fiercest franchise rivals enter the most important game of the season – perhaps across the entire NBA landscape – sorely depleted. The Los Angeles Lakers are on the second leg of a back-to-back, too, as Anthony Davis deals with back spasms that caused him to sit early in his team's loss to the LA Clippers on Thursday.
Davis insisted after the game that he's likely to play against Portland barring a setback. But his presence wouldn't make up for the absence of LeBron James, even if Dennis Schroder and Talen Horton-Tucker were available to help sop up playmaking duties normally shouldered by the reigning Finals MVP.
The Blazers, by contrast, will be full-strength, entering Friday's action as eight-and-a-half-point favorites with a head-to-head tie-breaker and major play-in tournament stakes on the line. No pressure.
Here's how Portland can beat LA.
Throw Extra Defenders at A.D.
Davis hasn't been anywhere close to himself since returning on April 22 from over two months on the sideline with a right calf strain. He's shooting a hair below 40 percent from the field over that timeframe, struggling mightily to produce efficient offense unless being set up by a teammate. The hot jump-shooting from the mid-post and three-point line that propelled Davis to new heights during the NBA bubble is nowhere to be found, and he's been unable to make up for it by imposing his will physically, still clearly a step slow.
With James, Schroder and Horton-Tucker all out, though, Los Angeles won't have much choice in the halfcourt but to force-feed Davis touches. Robert Covington will get the start on Davis, but he's hardly a stopper despite being by far Portland's best option against him one-on-one.
A huge game from Davis would be a major departure from anything he's shown over the last two weeks. Given the Blazers' lack of quality matchups and the Lakers' dearth of supporting shooting and ball-handling, though, double-teaming and sending extra help toward Davis is still Portland's best approach defensively. Terry Stotts' team has been far better rotating on a string behind the point of attack during its recent surge, and Davis has never had the passing chops to pick apart extra attention sent his way regardless.
There's an extremely limited number of avenues for Los Angeles to sustain good offense with its available roster for Friday's game. Making sure Davis doesn't break out of his slump and dominate is the Blazers' optimal means of preventing the most obvious one.
Win the Andre Drummond Minutes
Drummond's square-peg fit with the Lakers, at least on paper, was supposed to be solved by overwhelming talent. Los Angeles doesn't have it without James, of course, a problem compounded by the absence of another ball-handler who can threaten defenses with the shot, drive and pass in pick-and-roll.
There just isn't a good place for Drummond offensively without a table-setter running the show. Davis' bygone jumper only further cramps the floor, and Drummond's waning engagement and lacking basketball IQ sometimes waste small creases in the defense on the rare occasions they open.
The Lakers haven't even been buoyed by Drummond's presence defensively, either. Their defensive rating with he and Davis on the floor this is season is a below-average 114.1, per Cleaning the Glass, extra damning given Los Angeles' elite overall mark.
Drummond has fantastic hands and moves his feet quickly when he wants. But considering Frank Vogel's available personnel on Friday, Marc Gasol is an even better option than Drummond next to Davis on both sides of the ball than he would be under more fortunate health circumstances. Not only is Gasol an outstanding high-post passer who stretches the floor to the arc, but he's far more adept managing a defense's backline than Drummond, too – especially important as the Lakers sell out to stop Damian Lillard ball screens.
Anytime Drummond is on the floor with Davis, basically, should be a win for Portland.
Keep the Lakers Out of Transition
The Blazers have somewhat cleaned up their leaky transition defense of late, but are still prone to bouts of lethargy and miscommunication when the ball changes sides. That would be something close to a death-knell if James was healthy enough to play. He's a one-man engine of fast-break opportunities – via stampeding dribbles, pinpoint full-court outlets and soaring give-it-up-to-get-it-back finishes – but is hardly the only player on his team who thrives in the open floor.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a blur with the ball in his hands, an underrated finisher and dangerous spot-up shooter. Alex Caruso loves pushing the pace with the dribble, picking out trailers for easy dunks and threes. Kyle Kuzma's loping gait and long arms make him tough to stop at the rim with a head of steam. Davis' athletic traits, even slightly diminished, make him close to unstoppable in transition.
But it's not just keeping Los Angeles out of the open floor that's most important for Portland. It's making sure the Lakers play in the halfcourt as much as possible. Why? Lineups without James and Schroder score a hideous 86.3 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass, in the fifth-percentile league-wide.
Most salient to ensuring Los Angeles doesn't get out and run is protecting the basketball. James can manufacture transition chances pretty much out of nothing, and Schroder has rare burst in the open court. As constructed for Friday's game, though, the only consistent way the Lakers will be able to run is off live-ball steals.
Los Angeles is a turnover-forcing machine even with LeBron off the floor. Good thing Portland, then, owns the lowest turnover rate in basketball, per NBA.com/stats.
Reign Supreme From Deep
The Lakers aren't a team that bombs from three even when James is around to conjure open looks on a whim. Their roster, much more often for worse than better, just isn't built for that style of play. But without LeBron, Los Angeles' rate of attempts and accuracy on three-pointers both dip from the middle of the pack to the league's bottom quarter.
There just isn't any shooter on the Lakers' roster who strikes fear in the heart of opponents without James available to set him up. Affording Gasol more playing time would help change that, further spreading the floor and adding another smart, decisive ball-mover to the mix. But Gasol is no panacea in that regard, while Davis' wayward jumper chips away at the added offensive value of playing him at center – game-changing lineups that Vogel may not even have the personnel to roll out on Friday.
Portland's reliance on the long ball needs no explanation here. Like much of late March and April showed, as the Blazers' threes go, so does their chance at victory. The math will undoubtedly in their favor on Friday. If Portland musters just a ho-hum shooting night from beyond the arc, that alone may be enough to win its biggest game of the season.