Records: Lakers 54-19 (1st in West), Hornets 34-40 (11th in West, 20.5 games behind Lakers)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 109.0 (10th in NBA), Hornets 107.1 (16th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 102.8 (4th in NBA), Hornets 109.8 (23rd in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Hornets: Chris Paul, Marcus Thornton, Morris Peterson, David West, Emeka Okafor
The Lakers Coming in: After getting back on track against Houston, the Lakers are looking start a new winning streak. As I mentioned yesterday, the Lakers brought back some offensive wrinkles that they have not used consistently this season and it led to better offensive execution. As the Lakers get closer to the playoffs, fine tuning their offensive and defensive sets are imperative for playing strong basketball when the games take on an even greater importance.
On the injury front, it looks like Walton and Bynum are on track to return to game action a little after this road trip is over. If they’re both able to return to the line up by the Spurs game on April 4th, that would give them six games in the regular season to prepare and get their sea legs back for a playoff push. That sort of timeline is not ideal (I would have liked for both players to get about 10 games in) but I’ll take what I can get and just hope for good health for the entire team heading into the post season.
The Hornest Coming in: The Hornets finally have Chris Paul back from injury after he missed 25 games with a knee injury. However, even now that he’s back, the Hornets are still struggling to get wins. Yes, they beat Dallas in CP3′s return to the court, but they’ve since lost two straight games. And those losses fit right into the pattern from before Paul’s return where they had only won two of their previous eleven contests. The Hornets just aren’t a great team right now and are missing the adequate depth to give them a chance to win over the course of an entire game.
Despite the losses though, the Hornets do have some positives surrounding their organization and they came to the forefront because of Paul’s injury. Rookies Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton have shown that they are very good NBA players that deserve time on the court and can help this team down the road. While young, they have talent and have games that translate to this level. Collison’s ability to run the P&R and be an all court threat with his shot and Thornton’s scoring ability may not have ever been put on display to the extent that they were had Paul been healthy, so if there was ever an injury to a top 5 player in the NBA that actually helped a team learn more about itself (other than the fact that they’re bad) it was this one.
Keys to game: Offensively, the slowing down the Hornets starts with containing their guards and dealing with still underrated David West. The Hornets guards are excellent P&R players and now that Collison has shown how good he is, there is little drop off when Paul comes out of the game. The Lakers will need their “A” game tonight when defending the P&R and will need to make up their minds early about what they want to give up. Both Paul and Collison are capable shooters and are dangerous in the paint as well. So, will the Lakers chase over the top and give up the driving lanes or will they go under screens and make their guards hit jumpers? Either way, they must commit and stick to the plan and trust the scheme. Because miscommunication or errors will lead to buckets.
Slowing West will be on Odom (and I think Ron will get some minutes on him as well) and we should take comfort in the fact that LO is the type of rangy defender that can give West problems. West loves to shoot the mid range jumper and is a capable driver when you close out too hard on him. He’s often the screen man in P&R situations and will usually “pop” to an open space where he can get him jumper off. The Lakers will need to do a good job of helping the helper tonight to avoid letting West get comfortable when shooting his J. West also shows a good post game, though, so LO will also need to be strong on the block and shade West in a manner where he can’t easily get off his righty jump hook.
One other note defensively: Kobe will need to be more than just a free safety tonight. Both Peterson and Thornton are capable shooters that will make the wide open jumper. Kobe can’t find himself watching the ball too often when Paul/Collison are working the P&R. Because those guys will take advantage of over helping and hit the open players for good shot attempts. We don’t need the Kobe that was guarding Quentin Richardson in the Miami game. We need the dialed in version of Bean tonight. Let’s hope we get him.
On offense, while the Horntes possess solid post defense with Okafor, he is undersized so the Lakers need to go into Pau early and often. Similar to the way that the Lakers attacked Houston, I hope to see Pau get some post isolations in space on the weakside so he can have room to operate without those pesky Hornets guards digging down and reaching in for steals. And while Okafor is a good shot blocker, he’s much better getting blocks when you attack the rim and expose the ball. Emeka has excellent timing, but if you feint and diversify your attack, it is easier to get shots up. Luckily, this is trademark of Pau’s post game so he should be able to establish some sort of success.
As for our other main threat, this is another game where Kobe should be able to play efficiently. He’ll either be guarded by Mo Peterson or the rookie Thornton so Kobe should be able to both go to the block and use the motions of the offense to find creases in the defense to get his mid-range game going. The same is true for Artest as whichever player isn’t on Kobe will be on Ron and #37 will have a big strength advantage over both players. We may actually see some effective post ups from Ron tonight especially off of his scissor cut into the lane after feeding the post where he acts like he’s clearing out the side only to stop short and get a post up.
From a team wide perspective, this is a contest where controlling the defensive glass will be key. Okafor and West combine for over 5 offensive rebounds a game and earn their team many extra possessions by either grabbing rebounds or drawing loose ball fouls. Considering our front court depth is shallow right now, we don’t need LO or Pau picking up early fouls just contesting rebounds. Our bigs need to box out, secure the ball, and push the tempo back the other way. I do think this is a team we can take advantage of in transistion so I’d like to see us exploit them by racing the ball upcourt more. Especially on the second unit when Aaron Gray replaces Okafor. Neither of those players will win many footraces, but Gray will come in last almost every time.
Where you can watch: 5:00pm start time in the West on KCAL, also on ESPN Radio 710am.