ORLANDO, Fla. -- First, the easy part for four specific teams, starting Thursday: Engage in an intense death match for the final playoff spot in the West in which the three losers must pack their bags and leave the protected campus.
Then, the hard part for the survivor: The Los Angeles Lakers are next.
The San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns and Memphis Grizzlies are angling to emerge victorious in the NBA’s first-ever Play-In game, which will determine the eighth seed for the playoffs that begin Aug. 17. All four have positioned themselves for the chance to extend their season and their stay in Orlando and all the benefits that come with being in the postseason.
But which team would give the top-seeded Lakers the toughest time?
By virtue of having the low seed, any of the four will enter the first round at a disadvantage against LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The Lakers have flexed all season and while they haven’t been at their best during the seeding games, they had nothing to lose -- unlike the four teams fighting for the chance to play L.A.
Here’s a look at each of the eighth-seed candidates, their experience at the Disney campus and how they’d compare to the Lakers if given the chance:
Portland Trail Blazers
Portland is clearly the favorite among the four teams and in a best-case scenario would not only give the Lakers a run, but could beat the Lakers in a best-of-seven should they get a few breaks. The Blazers have talent at every position and a decent supply of bench players. If you placed their hand on a Bible, the Lakers would confess that Portland is the team they’d rather not see.
The Blazers are bringing the hottest player in basketball right now. Damian Lillard appears to be on a mission. Dame went next-level in his last two games, combining for 111 points and carrying the club through a pair of intense and suspenseful outcomes that fell in Portland’s favor. Dame has reached the Western Conference finals once in his career, and facing a title contender in the first round wouldn’t exactly be the easiest of paths to return to the conference finals. But, he appears up to the task.
He’s one of two players on the Blazers’ roster who feel extra motivated to make a serious run. The other is Carmelo Anthony, another ring-less star whose career is on the clock. 'Melo also was ignored by the Lakers during the season when he was unemployed and the Lakers could’ve made room for a player who would’ve taken the minimum.
Also, the Blazers have size to compete with the Lakers big men (LeBron and Davis included in this mix). Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins have healed from their injuries and should give Portland a rim presence that it missed all season.
Here’s the biggest problem with Portland: The Blazers’ defense has been spotty -- same with the Lakers -- and CJ McCollum is reportedly dealing with a lower back issue. The McCollum issue is concerning because the Blazers normally would have a backcourt advantage, especially with Avery Bradley sitting out the Orlando trip for the Lakers.
San Antonio Spurs
No LaMarcus Aldridge, no major problem so far for the Spurs (6-2 in restart), who’ve used a collective effort to minimize the absence of their primary scorer and rebounder to position themselves for a takeover of the No. 8 seed.
You can never easily dismiss a team coached by Gregg Popovich, so here are the Spurs, underachieving their way in Orlando and desperate to keep a 22-year playoff streak alive.
DeMar DeRozan is sparkling in the reboot, averaging 21.7 points per game in the restart and relishing the role as San Antonio's go-to guy. Yet the Spurs are also receiving solid results from his backcourt mate, Dejounte Murray, on both ends of the floor. The two guards are frisky, active and have the size and skill to make them tough to contain.
Also, the Spurs come at you in droves. Derrick White and Lonnie Walker IV are playing their finest ball of the season, and then there’s Keldon Johnson, the rookie who spent much of the earlier season in the NBA G League. He's averaging 12.7 ppg while shooting 63% and 71.4% on 3-pointers.
From a scrappy standpoint, the Lakers would have their hands full with San Antonio, a team playing stress-free and with nothing to lose. The Spurs might also be the biggest threat defensively against the Lakers because their roster is athletic and deep. Also, there’s Popovich and The Streak. But the Lakers are leading the Spurs in the superstar department 2-0, and that’s nearly impossible to overcome.
Even the most biased of Suns observers would give Phoenix almost no chance of shocking the Lakers, and the Suns might need to confine their shock to the seeding games. Who knew they’d win their first seven games and be positioned to run the table in the restart? This is beyond their wildest dreams and also their ceiling as a team.
Obviously it all begins with Devin Booker, a leading contender for Kia NBA Player of the Seeding Games honors. His frustration over never making the playoffs so far career is clearly fueling him now. Booker is a feared scorer who’s averaging over 31 ppg on 49.7% shooting in Orlando and would be a handful no matter who the Lakers threw at him.
It’s just that the rest of the Suns’ talent is so unproven and untested in the postseason. Other than Ricky Rubio, who tasted the playoffs during his time in Utah, what other rotational player in Phoenix brings anything similar to the table?
Deandre Ayton has had moments in Orlando, same for a handful of others, including Cameron Johnson, Mikal Bridges and Jevon Carter. Monty Williams has squeezed plenty from this crew here in his first year as coach, and with every win the Suns’ confidence is expanding.
Asking them to go undefeated in Orlando is one thing. Asking them to make the Lakers break a sweat is quite another.
Woe and behold the Grizzlies, also known as the accidental Disney World tourists. Very little has gone right for Memphis since the former No. 8 seed landed in Orlando. The Grizzlies lost their very first game, to the Blazers no less, and that set the tone for much of their experience in the restart.
When Jaren Jackson Jr. was lost for the duration with a knee injury, the ensuing slide was expected, and Memphis relinquished its hold on the final playoff spot without much of a fuss or fight.
Because of this, the Lakers aren’t dealing with sleepless nights while pondering a matchup with Memphis. No doubt, they’d be troubled by the sight of slippery rookie Ja Morant, who badly wants a postseason berth, who’d accept that challenge and demonstrate why he’ll soon be named Kia Rookie of the Year.
The Grizzlies offer other intriguing players but the majority are young and playoff untested. Even if Jackson was healthy, playing the Lakers would qualify as a learning experience and nothing more for Memphis. The Grizzlies are on pace to be special, yet are still a few years away from realizing their full potential.
So that’s what the Lakers are staring at -- one potential threat and three potentially mild ones. The Suns, Blazers and Spurs are all ambitious ... yet there’s a reason why teams are ranked eighth.
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