Records: Lakers 51-18 (1st in West), Wizards 21-46 (14th in East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 109.1 (10th in NBA), Wizards 104.1 (24th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 102.7 (5th in NBA), Wizards 109.2 (18th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Wizards: Shaun Livingston, Mike Miller, Al Thornton, Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee
The Lakers Coming in: By now, you’ve all heard or read that Andrew Bynum’s achilles injury is not a tear or rupture and that he’s out at least a week and likely two. So the Lakers must now play today’s game and at least a few others without their starting Center. Sadly for Bynum and the Lakers, this is nothing new and is really becoming a yearly occurrence. Just as in season’s past, the Lakers will move Lamar into the starting lineup and make adjustments to the players’ minutes allocation and rotations from there.
The News on the Lakers as a whole, though, is much better than the news that their young Center received. The team has won five games in a row and is starting to play better basketball on offense (something that has been up and down all season) and seem to be narrowing their focus as the post season approaches. To a man, I think every member of the team is excited about this closing stretch of games and are looking to find a rhythm in order to successfully defend their title. We’ve been talking all season how Phil likes to have his teams peak at the right time and how no coach (save maybe Popovich) has a better sense of how to prepare a team for the playoffs over a long regular season. So, as the this first stretch of 82 games is coming to a close, I think we’ll start to see an even more engaged Phil and a responsive set of players who will start to show that they are rounding into form for the second season.
The Wizards Coming in: The Wiz are a mess. They’ve lost 10 games in a row and 12 of their last 13. And while it would be nice to say that this recent stretch of futility is a fluke, it’s not. The Wizards have been bad all season and as the end of the season approaches it’s only getting worse. There’s just been too much to overcome this season for Washington. There was early season injury to Jamson that disrupted the team’s rhythm under new coach Flip Saunders, then there was the death of owner Abe Pollin, then we all know how the Arenas/guns saga (and the resulting suspensions to Agent 0 and former Lakers Javaris Crittenton) affected this team, and most recently the trades that sent Jamison/Butler/Haywood to other cities and ultimately left the Wiz a shell of the team that many thought would compete for a top 5 seed in the Eastern Playoffs this season. Ultimately, from an organizational perspective, this has been a sad, sad season that doesn’t have a lot of progress to show for the suffering that the team, its players, and its fan base has endured.
However, most recently there are two stories that have developed into positives for the Wizards. First is the development of Andray Blatche. Long considered a tremendous talent that couldn’t put it all together, Blatche has really stepped up his game since the trade of Jamison. Maybe all he needed was consistent playing time or long minutes, but now that he’s in the starting line up he’s producing numbers that are eye opening (over 21 points and around 9 rebounds a game) and have me checking boxscores whenever the Wiz play. The other feel good story for Washington is the recent pick up of Shaun Livingston. As LA fans, we all know the history of this once promising young player and the horrific knee injury that seemingly sapped all that potential away. But, after being released by the Thunder earlier this season, Livingston has latched on with the Wiz and is making the most of the chance that he’s been given. His 10 day contract was recently extended to last through the end of the year and he’s now starting for Washington at point guard. Livingston is a player that I’ve always rooted for, so it’s nice to see him playing ball and continuing the dream of playing in the league.
Keys to game: The Lakers are facing another bad team this evening so they should have no issues imposing their will on Washington. Sure, missing Bynum will hurt some, but it’s not like the Lakers don’t have a ton of talent at the other positions to make up for Andrew’s absence – especially against a team like the Wizars.
What I hope to see tonight is more fluid offense from the Lakers. In recent weeks, we’ve all seen a higher comfort level between Bynum and Gasol when they’ve been paired together on offense. However, that chemistry still pales in comparison to what Gasol and Odom have exhibited when they’ve shared the front court. So, I hope to see better spacing on offense in general and specifically more two man game between our bigs. We should be going into Pau early on offense and with that see more cutting and passing with Odom being a dive man after initiating our sets. I also think we’ll see a lot of Kobe breaking down Mike Miller from both the wing and the post. Just because Bynum is out doesn’t mean our post offense suffers it just means it takes on a different face as there will be less power finishes but more passing and activity from the players playing off the ball.
On defense, stopping the Wizards means paying attention to four players – Blatche, Mike Miller, Al Thornton and Foye. As mentioned earlier, Blatche is a tremendous talent and an all court player. He’s got a good enough jumpshot and great turn & face game that he uses to attack the basket off the dribble. Odom is going to have his hands full tonight, but LO is the exact type of player and defender that can give Blatche problems. Shade Blatche to his left hand and if need be collapse on him when he makes his move to make him a passer in traffic in order to force turnovers. Dealing with Miller will mean marking him around the three point line but also being aware that he’s taken on a play making role for the Wizards this season. Miller is an underrated passer and a better creator off the dribble than he’s given credit for. That said, Kobe should be familiar with Miller from their time together on Team USA and should know what Mike is capable of. As for Thornton and Foye, they’re very similar players only playing different positions. Both are attack players that have decent jumpshots but would rather go to the basket. Thornton operates best in isolation while Foye is a good P&R player, so guarding them effectively in those scenarios will be key to limiting their efficiency.
Looking more marco and from a team standpoint, one thing that Washington does do well is crash the offensive glass. They’re 9th in offensive rebounding rate and will generate extra possessions by hitting the offensive glass hard with both Blatche and McGee (two ‘plus’ athletes). So, find those two players and body them up when the shot goes up. If the Lakers can control them on the offensive glass and make this team shoot from the outside (save Miller, who we want to drive into traffic) this should be another (relatively) easy win where the Lakers aren’t pushed too much throughout the course of the game. The Lakers have more talent at every position and should control this game from the outset. That said, don’t be surprised if the game is closer than what you expect just because (like Minnesota) the Lakers don’t always play their most inspired ball when the opponent isn’t a true threat. I know we’d all like that to be different, but this is the team we root for. I’m just saying.
Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time out west on Fox Sports West, also on ESPN Radio 710am.