The good news for the Los Angeles Lakers is they are the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference playoffs, the first time they’ve earned pole position in a decade and an honorable accomplishment after a traumatic season.
The bad news is they appear to have won the least valuable No. 1 seed in NBA history.
This entire escapade in Florida is a giant one-off, resulting in many unusual and unique circumstances. The vaporizing of home-court advantage is an unintended consequence that might slap the Lakers hardest.
Then there is their draw, which has landed the Lakers a matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round after the NBA’s first play-in game to determine a playoff spot since 1956.
Winning three playoff series in the West is a tough challenge for any team, considering the depth in the conference at the moment, no matter how the bracket landed. But playing the Blazers with a hot Damian Lillard is by most accounts the least favorable outcome of all the Lakers’ potential scenarios coming into the restart.
“[The Blazers] have defensive issues, which is a reason they are the 8-[seed] at the end of the day,” one league scout said. “From an overall talent and experience standpoint, they are probably a 4- or 5-seed masquerading as an 8.”
Said one Eastern Conference coach: “They’re just a team that scares you because of Lillard. When you’re the top seed, you don’t like the idea of being scared in the first round.”
The Blazers are a veteran team with lots of playoff experience — they were in the Western Conference finals last year — and they are mostly healthy, if not well-rested. The Blazers were in ninth place when the season halted in March largely because two starters, Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic, had missed the entire season and they’d gone 2-6 in games without Lillard.
Given the extra time to get their big men healthy and Lillard some rest has unquestionably benefited Portland, which has gone 7-2 in Florida with Lillard averaging 36.9 points and being named Most Valuable Player of the seeding games portion of the schedule.
It’s possible, had the coronavirus pandemic never happened, that the Blazers would have gotten into the playoffs naturally with their play in March and April. Nurkic, who had 22 points and 21 rebounds in winning the play-in game Saturday, was nearing a return when the league was halted.
But in that case, Tuesday’s Game 1 would have taken place at a high-energy Staples Center hosting its first Lakers playoff game in seven years. A potential Game 7 would have been there, too. Now, of course, every game is at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.
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The loss of home court might truly be the most penal to the Lakers in a possible conference finals showdown with the LA Clippers. In what would have been the NBA’s first hallway series, the Lakers looked to be headed to a valuable advantage because the heavily pro-Lakers crowds at Clippers games might have made it feel as if every game were a home game.
Even not getting to play on the road might be a disadvantage. The Lakers were the best road team in the NBA this season at 27-9, including a 14-game winning streak at one point. One of the reasons is that they often enjoy major support on the road because of their large fanbase.
LeBron James is one of the greatest road playoff performers in league history. From 2010 to 2018, James won at least one road game in 25 consecutive playoff series, the longest such streak. He won two road Game 7s in that span, the rarest of away victories, and often talked about how playing on the road in the postseason would bring out the best in him.
“I just like the adversity of the road,” James said during the 2017 playoffs. “I love playing out on the road more than I love playing at home. It’s just a weird thing. I love the adversity, I love the ‘Tonight is not the night’ LeBron slogans. I love the ‘You’re overrated’ and all those things. I like all that. I don’t know, man. It’s the bunker mentality of knowing it’s 15 guys plus the coaching staff and whoever there that’s traveled with us against the whole state and the whole city.”
The loss of this type of edge is what James has described several times while going through the restart. He has admitted to struggling to get into the needed mentality and how unusual the environment has been in Florida. Playing without fans, friendly or rival, is something he has fed off for nearly two decades.
Winning a championship typically means having to overcome significant adversity, even for the best teams. But for this particular scenario, the Lakers are going to have to manage extra hurdles.
“It’s a totally different situation than any other situation I’ve been in in my career,” James said earlier this month. “I have zero experience with having the No. 1 seed inside of a bubble … so this is all a learning experience for all of us.”