The Los Angeles Lakers lost Game 1 to the 8th-seeded Portland Trail Blazers Tuesday, sparking all sorts of hot takes and narratives.
The Blazers were +195 on the moneyline and were considered a dangerous 8-seed after winning their way into that spot and beating Memphis in the play-in.
It also capped a terrible experience for the Lakers in the restart and brought about talk of a potential upset. So is it time to sell on the Lakers?
Here are three reasons I’m not selling on the Lakers in Game 2 or the series … and one that worries me.
I’m not worried because …
Not even the Lakers can go that cold twice in a row.
Shooting variance is the foundation of any upset and the Lakers got the rawest end of that equation imaginable in Game 1. Let’s start here:
Based on league-average measures of effective field-goal percentage from where the Lakers got their shots, the Lakers had an expected eFG% of 54.3%. They actually shot 38.4%.
That difference is incomprehensible. It’s easy to go, “Yeah, but who are you scared of? Danny Green? Kentavious Caldwell-Pope?”
And that’s fair, but we’re not talking “bad shooting from unimpressive shooters.” We’re talking about incomprehensibly terrible shooting from career pretty average shooters.
The odds oof that occurring twice, vs. a Portland defense that was still awful, is low.
So the Lakers offense should play better. What’s just as important is that their defense was actually fine.
Portland’s offense was affected by the Lakers defense.
Portland had just a 97.1 Offensive Rating which would easily be 30th in the NBA this season. This has been spun as “The Blazers won and they didn’t even shoot well!”
Except, the Blazers aren’t supposed to score well vs. a top-three defense. The Lakers had 30 catch-and-shoot opportunities, compared to just 16, nearly half as many, for Portland.
Damian Lillard had 34 and his logo shot was pure Dame brilliance.
But he was just 9-of-21 from the field with five assists and three turnovers. The Lakers also had some various success with different defenders on Lillard.
Gary Trent Jr. came back down to earth, shooting 2-of-8. The Blazers bench only scored 14 points and outside of Hassan Whiteside weren’t a positive.
You can say Portland should hit more shots, but the Lakers forced tough shots and the Blazers hit just enough. That’s not a sustainable model.
LeBron handles business after losses.
Since LeBron James left Cleveland for Miami in 2010, his teams are 36-19 straight up after a playoff loss, and 28-8 SU as a favorite (20-15 against the spread).
James has long said he views Game 1s as an ease-in opportunity to get a feel for the series. He didn’t have that luxury in Game 1 with the rest of the Lakers unable to hit water if they fell out of a boat.
James had some struggles at the rim, but overall played brilliantly. He also tends to have a good sense of how to pull his teammates up when it’s needed. Whether that means drafting J.R. Smith and Dion Waiters into the rotation, or inspiring confidence in the existing rotation, there’s reason to trust James to handle his business and not go down 0-2.
I am worried because…
The locker room intangibles are alarming.
Look, I can model the offense and give you tactical matchups and historical data but at the end of the day, these are human beings with thoughts and feelings and those things get in the way of teams all the time.
Look at this, from all the way back in early August from Joe Vardon at the Athletic:
LeBron gave a weird answer about this. He agreed that he and the Lakers were looking for a rhythm on offense. And then he said: “It’s just some things that you can’t control that’s here, that I really don’t want to talk about, that’s off the floor.” What did he mean? The food? The fishing? Tee times not abundant enough? I wrote down on a piece of paper what I thought he meant and showed it to him, and his answer was “Hell, nah.” So, whatever. It was an interesting thing to hear and there is obviously something on LeBron’s mind beyond Davis and his other teammates bending the rim with the bricks they’re throwing up there.
So … that’s a weird thing. You never like to hear “things you can’t control” that are “off the floor.” That’s just alarming.
We’re basing everything with the Lakers off the regular season, but again, here’s Vardon who’s been covering James for six years.
“It feels like a different season,” LeBron James said, after the Lakers stole one from Denver, 124-121, on Kyle Kuzma’s game-winning 3, with all the Nuggets’ backups on the floor. “Will we be the team that we want to game in Game 1 of the first round that we were when we stopped? I don’t think so, but we’ll get better and better as the games go on.”
Then after the game both James and Davis discussed how the fans not being there changes everything.
This, quite frankly, was at once understandable and somehow absurd. This situation is undeniably difficult for the players. I don’t want to hand-wave that. They’re away from their families. There are limited options of what to do. They’re in these vacant resorts, playing every other day. It’s rough.
On the other hand, the Lakers are there to compete for a title and this is the 8-seed. Fans, no fans, zero gravity, 15-foot-high rims, whatever. The Lakers should win this series easily.
The fact that the Lakers’ narratives seem to be entirely about how hard this is, for a team that prided itself on chemistry and toughness all year is more than a little disconcerting.
Game 2 is obviously a must-win. Lose that one, and the wheels come off and you’re looking at a very real possibility of getting out of the bubble only to face massive disappointment on top of losing two months of your life to the bubble.
The Lakers opened as 4.5-point favorites, that line has moved to 6.5, and while 70% of the tickets are on Portland, 53% of the money is on the Lakers, indicating the Purple and Gold are still getting big-money support.
I’m not worried about the Lakers. Not yet.
But lets’ just say I have a keen awareness of where the panic button is headed into Game 2.
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