LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — 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.”
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.
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.”
AP Sports Writer Anne M. Peterson in Portland contributed to this report.
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