Notes, observations, analysis and film clips from the Trail Blazers' 102-93 loss to LeBron James and the Lakers on Friday at Staples Center.
- James was downright dominant defensively, clearly flipping his personal switch after Portland got out to an early 10-2 lead. His most impactful work on that side of the floor didn't come on the ball, but behind the point-of-attack as the Lakers – just like the first round of the playoffs – sent two defenders at Damian Lillard ball screens. We mentioned in our preview that Lillard wouldn't be able to pick apart Los Angeles with the pass when he's doubled, but its team-wide help defense proved even more impactful than anticipated. It wasn't just James, especially in the game-deciding third quarter, who wreaked havoc on the backline; Talen Horton-Tucker, Alex Caruso, Kyle Kuzma and Dennis Schroder all flashed as help defenders, too. It was a ringing reminder of not just the Lakers' next-level defensive peak – even without Anthony Davis, remember – but also the Blazers' lack of high-quality finishers.
- Lillard is difficult enough to defend when gameplans are perfectly executed. But the Lakers consistently made his life easier early in Friday's game by committing the same mistake again and again in ball-screen action. Lillard's first self-created three of the game came when Carmelo Anthony flipped his pick last-minute, leaving Markieff Morris on the wrong side of the ball for a contest. It was a canny play by Anthony, but Marc Gasol – one of the smartest defenders in the league – made a similar mistake later in the first half, yielding Lillard all of the little space he needed for another pull-up three. Footwork and angles always matter defensively, but even more so when presented with the razor-thin margin by the game's best players. Unfortunately for Portland, Los Angeles cleaned this up after halftime.
- James officially outweighs Derrick Jones Jr. by 40 pounds, and the eye test suggests that gap is even bigger. But you wouldn't have known it by how successful Jones was defensively against James in the post, where the Lakers went early and often. Jones, yielding ground as James backed down but staying low and keeping his hands active, forced a pair of turnovers on James' first two post touches. His next two low-block possessions ended with missed short jumpers, as James chose to settle instead of dealing with Jones' harassing individual defense. James fared far better in the halfcourt facing up, and he dominated as a transition playmaker – an area where Jones doesn't bear much culpability. The Blazers fell apart defensively against the Lakers after a strong start, but Jones still deserves plaudits for his work against James one-on-one.
- Carmelo Anthony never got it going offensively against the Lakers, and was indeed occasionally exploited on the other end. But he's taken frequent criticism here for shooting through double-teams and playing a major factor in the Blazers' defensive struggles. It's only fair that 'Melo gets just as much attention for making a perfect passing read out of a post double-team and stymying Schroder multiple times in one-one-one defense. Seriously, these are two of Anthony's best plays of the season. Asking him to stick with quick ball handlers off the bounce will be a losing proposition going forward, but encouraging Anthony to quickly move the ball when he draws extra defensive attention could pay dividends for Portland down the line.
- Anfernee Simons' slump continued on Friday, but in a more damaging manner than recent games. He turned it over while trying to split defenders in the pick-and-roll on his first possession, and had his dribble ripped by Alex Caruso while trying to get Portland into its offense a few minutes later. The shot-making prowess Simons displayed during the Blazers' six-game winning streak got the most attention, but his subtly increased comfort and awareness running the show offensively – as brief as those times remain – loomed just as large for his long-term development. Here's hoping Simons finds that sense of confidence again before C.J. McCollum returns and his role is further diminished.
- Gary Trent Jr. was instrumental to Portland's early lead, hitting multiple jumpers, racing the floor for a finger roll plus the foul in semi-transition and twice stealing the ball from Schroder. He did well staying attached to Schroder off the dribble, rarely yielding space, and even drew a foul on Kule Kuzma while aggressively boxing out on the defensive glass. Trent, as he seems to against the Lakers, came to play. But his three-ball stopped falling quickly, and Los Angeles' increasing commitment to getting the rock out of Lillard's hands further revealed his offensive limitations as the game wore on. Trent's handle is strong already, and improving; his footwork in mid-range is awesome. His lack of burst and overall explosive athleticism, though, clearly lowers Trent's ceiling offensively.