Lakers don’t have favored status against Blazers

Bryant and Co. still present challenge for first-place Portland




If the playoffs started today …

Never mind. The Trail Blazers are five games into this 66-game season, and alluding to any postseason scenario would be the ultimate ode to prematurity.

For example, if the playoffs started today, the world champion Dallas Mavericks wouldn’t even be playing while the Utah Jazz — who plummeted after trading away Deron Williams to the Nets last season — would be in as the seventh seed.

So while this start may be nothing more than a fleeting memory, and while sports history has repeatedly proven that one shouldn’t overreact to early results, this much is indisputable: Portland has the best record in the West.

Normally, maintaining their position in the standings would be the Blazers’ (and their fans’) primary motivation heading into the next game. But Thursday night offers a much more satisfying opportunity — beating the Los Angeles Lakers.

No scientific data can support the following claim, but based on feel and the emotional response the 16-time NBA champions generate when mentioned in Northwest, the purple-and-gold team from Los Angeles is likely the most despised of Portland’s opponents.

Just take a glance at a message board for proof, where they are generally referred to as the “L*kers.”

But in this case, an asterisk shouldn’t detract from the Lakers or their accomplishments: They might be more than one season removed from a title, and they may possess a humble 4-3 record, but they are still replete with talent.

Kobe Bryant is the obvious name here. The five-time NBA champion enters the game averaging 25.9 points, and dropped 37 in his last outing against Houston.

Bryant was ranked the seventh-best player in the NBA by ESPN over the summer — a pretty low number given his résumé and reputation.

But if the question asked who the most frightening player in the NBA was, it’s doubtful Bryant would be left out of the top three, even if he is shooting just 41.7 percent from the field this year.

The surprise contributor for L.A., however, has been Andrew Bynum. The oft-injured big man is averaging a whopping 22.7 points and 17 rebounds in his three games this season, making up for his four-game suspension to start the season in impressive fashion.

Remember, the Lakers traded away Lamar Odom to Dallas or virtually nothing this offseason after Odom expressed discontent for going on the trade block in the nixed Chris Paul deal.

Many thought this would stymie the Lakers — whose recent success was founded upon size as much as it was Bryant’s brilliance — and it still might.

But if Bynum can continue to produce with this kind of efficiency, the Lakers lost a lot less than most thought.

Then, of course, there is four-time All-Star Pau Gasol, who is putting up modest numbers of 16.9 points and 8.6 rebounds per game.

The Spaniard’s match-up with Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge may be the most intriguing and significant one Thursday night.

Aldridge is coming off of a 30-point, eight-rebound performance in Tuesday’s win over the Thunder, and put on even more bulk this offseason, which should give him the advantage over the leaner Gasol.

Aldridge scored 24 points and pulled down 11 rebounds in Portland’s last game against the Lakers — which resulted in a 93-86 win for Portland that helped secure the No. 6 seed in the West.

Two months earlier, however, Aldridge was held scoreless in the fourth quarter and overtime, as the Lakers beat the Blazers at the Rose Garden thanks to four points from Kobe Bryant in the final 30 seconds of regulation to tie it.

Other notes

• The Blazers have six players on the All-Star Ballot, the most in the NBA. Aldridge, Gerald Wallace, Wesley Matthews, Raymond Felton, Marcus Camby and Nicolas Batum are each on the ballot.

• Second-year players Luke Babbit and Armon Johnson were each sent down to the Idaho Stampede — Portland’s NBA Development League affiliate. Babbit has played just two minutes this season and has yet to score. Johnson, meanwhile, spent all five games on the inactive list.