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Playoff Preview: The Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers have officially finished their eight NBA bubble restart games, flashing signs of unrivaled dominance followed by moments of gaping vulnerability. So, what have we learned from their performance, or lack thereof, in the bubble, and how much did any of it even mean?

The Lakers take on the Blazers in round one of the playoffs on Tuesday, August 18th

The Lakers’ Deadly Duo

I don’t know who still needs to hear this, but LeBron James and Anthony Davis mean everything to the Lakers. At this point, there’s no argument – the Clippers’ roster is deeper than that of the Lakers. But the reason that experts across the sport are continuing to trust in the Purple and Gold’s ability to win their 17th title this year ultimately comes down to the dynamic duo of LeBrow (yes, I’m sticking to this). These two are the conductors of the Lakers train – where they go, the team follows. 

Throughout the bubble, the Lakers received mixed results from their franchise saviors, hence the team’s unimpressive 3-5 record. Plus/Minus isn’t the most accurate stat we use to judge teams and players, but occasionally, it can be useful to paint a general picture of a player’s impact. Such is the case in the Lakers’ loss to the Raptors, in which AD and LeBron combined for a -44 net rating.

The Raptors stalwart defense held the two to a measly 34 points combined, which in turn translated to the struggles of the rest of the team, struggles that reappeared in an embarrassing game four defeat to the Thunder. Against Seattle’s stolen franchise, LeBron was able to bully his way to the inside, but from there, he struggled to get the ball to actually go through the basket, finishing with just 19 points and 4 assists. AD was even less present offensively, with just 9 total points in 29 minutes. Not great, Bob!

Gold Linings

But enough with the negatives – the duo has also been GREAT in stretches in the return. Anthony Davis put up 42 PTS, 12 REB, and 4 AST against the Jazz to clinch the one seed in the West and looked absolutely unstoppable doing so. And let’s not forget the all-important first game of the return in which the Lakers sent a message to the rest of the league with their win over their cross-town rivals. LeBron’s lockdown defense on both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to close the game rightfully overshadowed his relatively average offensive performance by his standards. 

Ultimately, what the Lakers are able to achieve this season comes down to what LeBron and Anthony Davis are able to produce. While we’ve seen some inconsistency from them thus far, I don’t expect the sloppiness to continue into the playoffs. We all know playoff Bron is a different beast.

The Desert Behind the Arc

The Lakers are not a good three-point shooting team. At all. This year, the team is 21st in the league in 3P% at 34.9%. It doesn’t take a basketball statistician to know that a team with Rajon Rondo, Alex Caruso, Avery Bradley, Quinn Cook, KCP, Danny Green, and now Dion Waiters and JR Smith as guards isn’t going to be able to shoot it well from distance. Danny Green was supposed to come in and help fill that void this year, but his 3P% is down from 45.5% last year (far above his career average of 40.1%) to 36.7% this year. 

The most glaring example of the Lakers’ struggles beyond the arc came in their blowout loss to the Thunder in which they shot an embarrassing 13.5% from three. Obviously, this is an anomaly, but it still points to what can happen if this team isn’t able to get in a rhythm. When the Lake Show starts building a brick house from behind the arc, things can get ugly on the offensive end quickly. 

Know Your Strengths

But at the end of the day, the Lakers are never going to be the 2017 Warriors behind the arc, nor do they need to be. All season long, the Lakers have relied more heavily on their inside game than threes, so as long as their shooting from three is at least serviceable, their dominance inside should be enough to push past most teams. It may be a different story if they play the favorites in the East in the Bucks, who allow their opponents take a high volume of threes, or the Raptors, who demonstrated an uncanny ability to defend the Lakers’ length, in the Finals, but there are plenty of other challenges to address first before the Lakers find themselves in that position.

Kyle Kuzma: The Lakers’ X-Factor

Kyle Kuzma might be one of the most controversial non-superstars in the NBA, not as a result of his confident personality or eccentric style, but rather because of his role on the league’s most storied franchise. As the Lakers’ third-best player, Kuz finds himself in a bit of an unconventional role behind AD and LeBron. When given the freedom to play aggressively, Kuz can be the x-factor that the Lakers need as a solid third scoring option. During the restart, Kuz showed some of that potential, putting up 25 PTS and hitting the clutch game-winning shot on a perfectly executed Frank Vogel masterpiece against the Nuggets.

Filling the Right Role

The conundrum that Kuz finds himself in, however, is a struggle that many young players on LeBron-led teams have had to make peace with: the Lakers don’t need him to be the superstar he wants to be… yet. As the roster is currently constructed, the Lakers need Kuz to fill his role as a scorer who can put the ball in the basket while LeBron and AD rest while showing versatility on the defensive end.

And sometimes, that can be tough for Kuz. Throughout the regular season and the NBA restart, Kuz could be found fading in and out of games depending on his level of involvement on the offensive end. This can’t happen if the Lakers want to have a serious chance at the title. The Lakers need the Kuzma that stays ready throughout all four quarters for his game-winners, not the Kuzma that looks dejected when LeBron doesn’t let him run the offense. 

Ultimately, I trust Kuz to stay locked in and motivated during the playoffs – as long as Jesus isn’t guarding him, that is. 

The Lakers’ Blazing-Hot Opponent

Here’s a sentence I never thought I would say: This year’s race for the 8-seed in the Western Conference was must-watch TV. Between the collapse of Pelicans and the meteoric rise of America’s favorite team in the Suns, the bubble’s seeding games were drastically more entertaining than anyone could have imagined.

But the most dangerous team of any of the bubble contenders came in the form of the resurgent Portland Trailblazers, the Lakers’ first-round opponent. With the return of Jusef Nurkic and Zach Collins, the Blazers find themselves healthy for the first time all season. And, of course, it would be blasphemous to not mention the bubble MVP, Dame Lillard, and his scorching form right now – that man is a PROBLEM, so much so that Charles Barkley made headlines when he picked the Blazers to upset the Lakers in the first round.

Picking Purple

So, should the Lakers be worried about a potential Blazers upset in round one? Not so much. 

Even with Dame producing more heat on the court than he drops on the mic, the Blazers still find themselves in a matchup nightmare against the Lakers. After watching Jarrett Allen dominate the Blazers on the boards in their final seeding game, AD and LeBron must be salivating at the chance to establish their presence inside. And while the Lakers offense was abysmal in the bubble, the Blazers defense was even worse, so expect playoff Bron to target his banana boat buddy Carmelo Anthony and exploit the defensive weaknesses of an exhausted Blazers team. 

The Blazers are certainly not the team the Lakers would have wanted to face in the first round, but the boys in purple and gold should be able to fight through this first series with only a few bumps and bruises. 

Getting Existential: None of this Matters

Are there concerns with how this Lakers roster is currently constructed? Yes. Is the road through the Western Conference going to be difficult? Yes. Did the results of the seeding games change my opinion of the team? Not particularly.

While the Lakers were, to put it mildly, underwhelming in the NBA restart, they still enter the playoffs as the 1 seed in the West and have two of the ten best players in the league. That matters. And let’s not forget, LeBron earned the nickname “Playoff Bron” for a reason. He may be 35 now, but until he shows any signs of slowing in the playoffs, I’m going to trust the King to carry his team to the Finals. 

The last time the Lake Show entered the playoffs as the 1 seed was their title-winning 2010 season. A full decade later, they now find themselves in the same position. Round one can’t come soon enough. 

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