LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — It took a few moments for Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma to finalize his picks for an NBA All-Seeding Team. As for the league’s MVP during the resumed season? Easy.
"Dame," Kuzma said, otherwise known as Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard. "I think if they get into the playoffs, probably put him as the MVP."
The NBA will find out soon. They will host a series of seeding games on Thursday that will determine the postseason fortunes of Portland (34-39), Memphis (33-39), Phoenix (33-39) and San Antonio (32-38). The eighth and ninth seeds will compete in a play-in Saturday, with another game Sunday if the ninth seed forces a double-elimination scenario.
Though no one knows how the seeding will play out, those in NBA circles view the Trail Blazers as the favorite to sneak into the playoffs as the eighth seed. And presuming they do, some in NBA circles also believe Portland has what it takes to upset the top-seeded Lakers (52-18). Not around the Lakers, though.
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"It’s not worst-case scenario. I think that anytime you can be tested early in the playoffs, it’s going to help you out in other rounds," Kuzma said. "So obviously them getting the eighth seed would be a very tough matchup for us."
Can the Lakers feel so sure they will advance for the other rounds? They still remain an NBA championship contender for various reasons. They have one of the league’s best duos in LeBron James and Anthony Davis, an experienced head coach in Frank Vogel, as well as a promising supporting cast in Kuzma, Danny Green, Jared Dudley and Alex Caruso.
Yet, the Lakers are also seen as vulnerable. They have gone 3-4 during the restart. They have missed their best perimeter defender in Avery Bradley so he could stay with his family, and their most experienced point guard in Rajon Rondo because of a fractured right thumb. Davis has struggled with consistency. The Lakers have consistently struggled in other areas. Since the season resumed, the Lakers are 21st out of 22 teams in field-goal percentage (42.9%), last in 3-point shooting (28.3%) and last in assists (20.6).
LeBron James and the Lakers have had their struggles so far in the bubble, while Damian Lillard has been red-hot for the Blazers. (Photo: Jaime Valdez, USA TODAY Sports)
Still, other top-seeded teams have labored toward the end of previous seasons because of regular-season apathy, top players resting and rotation experimenting. When the playoffs have started, those teams have managed to switch identities. And in the Lakers’ case, they may feel compelled to shift gears when matching up against the dynamic backcourt of Lillard and C.J. McCollum.
"Anytime you’re pushed to be at your best, it strengthens your group," Vogel said. "And I think that would apply with a strong first-round opponent."
The Lakers cannot fully prepare for the postseason because they do not yet know their opponent. So, they have assigned a coach or a group of coaches to scout the Blazers, Grizzlies, Suns and Spurs. Once two teams are eliminated on Thursday, the Lakers will assign more eyes to the two remaining teams for the play-in.
As for the general public, though, plenty of their eyes are cast on Portland.
"They have been playing well. I think for us that’s good because it’s going to make us play to the level of competition, to the top level," Lakers forward Markieff Morris. "I think having that first-round opponent, that’s going to be be tough preparing us for the playoffs. I think we need that early on."
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