Lillard on a big tear but Lakers are No. 1

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    DAMIAN Lillard has heard the chatter. He, too, believes the Portland Trail Blazers are more than up to the task of defeating the Los Angeles Lakers when the two teams collide in Game 1 of their opening-round Western Conference series Tuesday (Wednesday in Manila) in the NBA bubble near Orlando.

    The Lakers enter the series as the top seed in the Western Conference, but some believe the eighth-seeded Blazers, one of the hottest teams in the bubble, are a dangerous squad and a tough matchup, particularly with Lillard’s recent tear.

    “I’ve been seeing everybody saying what we’re going to do to the Lakers,” said Lillard, according to the Los Angeles Times. “The Lakers, they’re the No. 1 seed in the West for a reason. They got the best player in the world on their team. But at the same time, we didn’t fight as hard as we fought in the bubble to just say, all right, we’re the eighth seed to go out there and just get beat up on.

    “We feel like we have a chance in a series against anybody in this league. We feel like we got a chance in this series.”

    Also opening their respective playoff battles are the Milwaukee Bucks against the Orlando Magic, Houston Rockets vs Oklahoma Thunder, and Indiana Pacers vs Miami Heat.

    For Portland to prevail, it would help if Lillard’s outstanding play continues. His 31 points and 10 assists allowed the Blazers to advance to the playoffs Saturday with a 126-122 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies in the play-in game. Lillard averaged 51.3 points in the three previous games before Saturday, including a career-high tying 61 points in a win over the Dallas Mavericks on Aug. 11.

    CJ McCollum contributed 29 points against Memphis despite playing with a non-displaced fracture in his back. Jusuf Nurkic played through the grief of his grandmother dying from COVID-19 and finished with 22 points, 21 rebounds and six assists, while Carmelo Anthony added 21 points for Portland.

    And with hot-shooting Gary Trent Jr. off the bench the Blazers could be a handful.

    “Definitely not your typical eighth seed,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “They’ve played at an elite level during this stretch in the bubble, at least offensive. We’ve got a ton of respect for obviously Dame and CJ and Nurkic but really for their whole team and their whole culture.”

    However, the Blazers will be without starting forward Zach Collins, who has been ruled out of Game 1 with left ankle inflammation. Wenyen Gabriel will start in his place.