Preview and Chat: The Atlanta Hawks

Kurt —  February 19, 2008

Records: Lakers 35-17 (3 seed); Hawks 21-29 (9th seed, although just percentage points back of the Nets and 76ers, the 7 and 8 seeds)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 113.1 (2nd); Hawks 105 (21st)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 106.4 (8th); Hawks 107 (10th)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Vladimir Radminovic, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Hawks: Mike Bibby, Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, Josh Smith, Al Horford

Lakers Notes: Enough with the two days of navel gazing posts around here, let’s talk hoops.

One bit of bad news in today noted in the Los Angeles Times — Trevor Ariza is healing slowly and likely will not be available until the playoffs at the earliest. The good news (unless your Ric Bucher) is that Andrew Bynum seems to be on track and should be back in about three weeks.

One interesting topic the last couple days — if you played for another team, should you try to hurt Kobe’s finger? Doc Rivers says the old school teams he played on would have. Kobe said if this were the 1980s he’d be worried but not so much today. He may well be right about the regular season, but come game one of the seven-game playoff series….. if I were a coach I can’t say I wouldn’t suggest to my team to take a swipe. Kobe has to know this. It’s part of the game for him right now.

USC/UCLA: I flipped in and out of the All-Star game Sunday, but I watched the cross-town basketball game much more closely, because I found it far more compelling. Not better played — that was one ugly, sloppy game — but there was a lot on the line.

A few quick player thoughts. OJ Mayo — every time I watch him play I like him less as an NBA prospect. He’s got all the skills, but his game needs to mature a lot, and I’m not sure how much it can. Kevin Love — he’ll make a very good role-playing four in the NBA, but he’s got to be on a team with the right system. He’d be great off the bench for a team like the Lakers or Utah, with their structured offenses. He’d be wasted in a place like Golden State, even with his outlet passing skills. Russell Westbrook — I like him a lot. Athletic, smart, good on defense, long for a PG, gets the rim like mad. He’s not someone a lot of people talk about, but he is going to be a solid to very good NBA guy.

Kidd in Dallas: Keith Van Horn has done is Aaron McKie imitation and the trade to send Jason Kidd to the Mavericks is finally done.

Good. I mean, as a Lakers fan I think this is good. First and foremost, I’m dubious about Kidd having enough left in the tank to be a huge boost in Dallas (compared to the now-gone Harris), although as Reed pointed out last time this allows the Mavs to play a Kidd/Jason Terry backcourt that will be quite good. But how will Kidd fit into the isolation-heavy offense of the Mavs, and can he be exposed on defense? We shall see.

But with this move the Mavs have said what the Suns did a few weeks back — we need to win right now. This year, maybe next year, then the window is closed. The Mavs traded a young PG and picks for Kidd, who after this playoff run and a summer with Team USA may not have enough left to be a force next year. Even with Kobe and Gasol playing key roles this summer, the Lakers are still younger and with a much bigger window. Even if the Suns and Mavs are healthy (and the Spurs for that matter too), the Lakers are contenders for the next four years. Man the playoffs look like fun (as long as we don’t get the Jazz in the first round).

The Hawks Coming In: Mike Bibby will play for the Hawks tonight, and if you’re curious what kind of difference that will make check out this story in the Atlanta Journal Constitution from Hawks practice yesterday:

The Hawks’ pick-and-roll sets got sharper instantly. The little inside passes in transition that rarely found the mark before were on the money now. Bibby waited all of 15 seconds to start leading, playfully chiding Josh Smith and Al Horford to “run with me, run with me” on a fast break during part of the full court scrimmage portion of practice.

I love the Bibby trade for the Hawks. That was a team with a fill-it-up shooter like Joe Johnson and likely the best under-25 front court in the NBA with Josh Smith and Al Horford. By far, the position that was killing them on offense was PG (where they were shooting just 45.9% and had a team PER of 12.1, which would be a weak PER for the guy coming off the bench; by comparison the Lakers have a PER of 17.1 at PG, thanks to Fisher and Farmar).

Say what you will about Bibby getting slower, you could chop off one of his legs and he’s still better than Tyron Lue. I asked Tom Ziller of Sactown Royalty about Bibby and how he’d fit in, and he noted that Bibby is pretty much a jump-shooting guard who doesn’t go to the rim, but Atlanta has guys that can get to the rim. He said Bibby’s sort of hit a wall, he is what he is and his game will not improve much, although his stats likely will get better playing in the East with a lot of skill around him. He thinks a pick-and-roll with Bibby and Horford would be hard to stop consistently.

But, Bibby is not very good on defense, and that could be a problem for advancing very far.

By the way, a few people thought the Bibby move might be the first of a couple trades for the Hawks, maybe moving Bibby to Cleveland. Why? This was a young talented team in Atlanta that needs a point guard to lead them — Bibby can be that guy for a few more years, with Law or someone else taking over for him down the line. The Hawks don’t need more picks, they need a vet or two.

Last Time these two met: Back on Feb. 6 was a real game of streaks, but the Lakers had an 8-point lead midway through the fourth quarter, when they completely fell apart. A 14-4 run later and the Hawks had the win. It was the second game of a back-to-back for the Lakers, fifth game in seven days, and it looked like it.

The taller Lakers were outworked inside and out rebounded by the Hawks — Atlanta grabbed 25% of its missed shots, which was one problem. In addition, the Lakers key offensive weapons were not efficient — Kobe was 4 of 16, Gasol 5 of 14. Joe Johnson led the Hawks with 28.

That was the last game the Hawks have won, dropping their next four.

Keys To The Game: Remember how amazing the Lakers looked those first couple games with Pau in the lineup? Expect that same energy from the Hawks tonight, which means the Lakers need to be ready to go from the opening tip.

But this is also the first game with a new PG running the show (Johnson used to do a lot of it, he has to adjust to a new role), so defensive pressure by the Lakers — and jumping some passing lanes — should lead to some turnovers and easy baskets. I’d expect a lot of wing screen-and-rolls from Atlanta as they try to use their athleticism — and Bibby is hitting 39% from three this season so the Lakers can’t just go under the screen. Also, look for back door or running down the middle lobs from Atlanta, they love that play.

Bibby does not solve another key problem for the Hawks — they are not a strong team on the boards. The long Lakers should be able to get offensive rebounds and putbacks. Then again, they should have last time too and the Lakers got outworked on the boards and in the paint. Rebounds are still “want to” things, you’ve got to want to get them.

Where you can watch: The game is at 7:30 (Pacific) on Fox Sports out here. According to the Lakers site it’s not even on league pass, although readers are now saying it is on League Pass. If you know a good place to steam the game post the link.