Records: Lakers 46-17 (1st in West, 2nd in NBA), Magic 43-20 (2nd in East, 3rd in NBA)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 108.7 (10th in NBA), Magic 109.5 (9th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 102.1 (2nd in NBA), Magic 102.8 (3rd in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Magic: Jameer Nelson, Vince Carter, Matt Barnes, Rashard Lewis, Dwight Howard
The Lakers Coming in: As we’ve covered over the past few days, the Lakers are not playing good basketball. They’ve lost two straight games and in the last game against the Bobcats they brought little offense and even less defense. That said, the Lakers have not lost three straight games with an active Pau Gasol in the lineup (that’s two and a half seasons) so today’s match up represents the proverbial fork in the road as they have the opportunity to keep that streak alive and do so against a strong opponent on their home court – a challenge that this team takes seriously and should be excited for. At practice yesterday Kobe Bryant spoke to his mates and we hope that the message of determination delivered by the team leader inspires a focus and a follow through on the defensive principles that were gone over by the players in their “somber” Saturday walkthrough. We’ll see if any of it sticks in this rematch of last year’s Finals.
The Magic Coming in: After yesterday’s insights, we know that this a strong Magic team that has found it’s groove after some early season unevenness. They’ve won eleven of their last fifteen games (including wins against Cleveland, Boston, Houston, New Orleans, and Miami) and have done so with a diverse attack that mirrors the one that got this team to the Finals last season. Vince Carter is coming off his best month as a member of the Magic. Jameer Nelson is now, finally, healthy after his early season knee injury and putting up the numbers that Magic fans have craved all season. Rashard Lewis is shooting the ball well and is looking more and more like the all-star player he was last season. And on and on it goes. When you look at this roster, it’s deep and it’s dangerous with contributors from numbers 1-10 on the depth chart. They are a challenge to any team that faces them. Essentially, this team is winning games, doing it with a healthy point differential, and accomplishing it as a team. They will be tough to defeat in this or any other game they play.
Keys to game: The game plan needed to beat the Magic should be a familiar one. Though it’s been many months we faced this team in the Finals and there have been some changes in personnel, the Stan Van Gundy is running the same sets and pulling the strings in the same way that he was last June.
On offense, the Lakers need to try and exploit their match up advantages at power forward and shooting guard. Gasol will be checked by Rashard Lewis and will need to be aggressive in the post by establishing deep position and going to his jump hook with both his right and his left hand. We all know that Pau has not had his strongest games recently, but this is a player that he is familiar with and should have confidence facing. Kobe, meanwhile will either be guarded by Matt Barnes or by Vince Carter. Whichever player draws the assignment should see the same plan, though. Kobe needs to work a lot off the ball and set up in the mid range at the pinch post in order to get to the places on the floor that he can score most effectively. In the first match up between these teams, Kobe was not effective on offense (4-19, 11 points) but did most of his work from the right side of the court. However, in recent games, we’ve seen Kobe operate mostly from the right side of the floor and play 15 feet and in. I expect this trend to continue with Kobe working his mid-post game against both Carter and Barnes and making those players work on defense as he either backs them down to go into his turn around jumper (or that beautiful inside pivot to the middle that he’s been flashing more lately) or he turns and faces so he can attack off the dribble.
However, to be successful against the Magic’s defense some other Lakers will need to get involved in the action. In recent games, we’ve seen guards/wings helping down on the Lakers bigs more and more. Against the Magic I expect this trend to continue as our shooters have not been making teams pay when they go to this strategy. So today, in order to be successful, the Lakers outside shooters are going to need to make shots and do so in a consistent manner. This will open up the court for our post players and also widen the driving lanes for Kobe, Farmar, and Odom when they’re handling on the perimeter. This means Ron (and his new hairdo!), Shannon, and Fisher will need to make shots. This may prove even more difficult than usual as both Artest (left) and Shannon (right) struggle with wrist/hand injuries, but they’ll just need to battle through that and sink some shots. If they don’t the Lakers bigs are going to have perimeter defenders in their laps when they go into their moves and that will disrupt their ability to finish.
On defense, the Lakers are going to have to show real discipline when facing a team that tries to exploit some of our bigger defensive weaknesses – P&R D and a post player that can bully you on the block. On the P&R, understand that Orlando has three options on every P&R. First, the ball handler (either Carter or Nelson, with some Jason Williams sprinkled in) will want to hit the roll man (Howard) for an easy finish on his dive to the hoop. Second, is the ball handler getting a shot for himself by either shooting a jumper (if his man goes under the screen) or penetrating to the rim (if his man chases over the top). Third is the action of the PF on the ball side that slides towards the top of the key as the ball handler tries to turn the corner. In order to effectively defend all of these sequences, the Lakers will need to show strong help and recovery skills while also communicating with each other so there are not any breakdowns.
As for guarding Howard, this will not be an easy task. For all the flack that Dwight takes for not being a polished offensive player, he is very effective with his still expanding arsenal of post moves. Dwight loves to set up shop on the right block. From this position he has two primary moves. First is his power back down move where he loves to bull you with his left shoulder and either shoot his jump hook to the middle or drop step to the baseline to explode with a power finish. Second is to turn and face and drive hard to his right hand to shoot his running hook. All of these moves are effective for Dwight and he is dangerous executing any one of them. In the past, the Lakers have doubled Dwight and I expect to see more of that today. I do think the Lakers will vary their tactics with the double team – sometimes coming right away and other times waiting until Dwight uses his dribble – but I do think the double will come. When the Lakers do double team, the rest of the defenders will need to rotate to find shooters. However, on plays where the Lakers don’t double team, they need to contest shots and foul if they need to. Dwight continues to be a below average foul shooter and putting him at the line is still a solid strategy. The other key to containing Howard is to keep him off the offensive glass. He is a tenacious rebounder on the offensive boards and will generate offense for himself off his teammates misses. Find him before shots go up and keep constant contact with him in order to box him out.
Today should be a great game with both teams having a lot to prove and play for as they prepare for long post-season runs. There’s no better way to get a head of steam going into the final quarter of the season than beating one of the best teams in the league. Enjoy this one, I know I will.
Where you can watch: 11:30 am start in the West on ABC. Also on ESPN Radio 710am.