Records: Lakers 54-20 (1st in West), Hawks 47-26 (4th in East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 109.1 (10th in NBA), Hawks 111.7 (3rd in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.1 (5th in NBA), Hawks 106.7 (14th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Hawks: Mike Bibby, Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, Josh Smith, Al Horford
Missing Andrew Bynum: I haven’t brought this up lately, but the recent performances of the Lakers have definitely been impacted by the absence of Bynum. Over at Land O’ Lakers, BK has a nice post up talking about how Andrew’s absence has affected the Lakers. Give it a read. What I’ll add to Brian’s take is that on this specific road trip, the games that we’ve lost were against teams that start undersized PF’s (Jeff Green, David West) that match up much better against Odom’s speed and open court game than against Gasol’s post oriented attack. Whereas the Spurs and Rockets started two older and slower PF’s that LO could take advantage of in space by using his quickness advantage. Obviously the Lakers won and lost the games that they did for reasons beyond just missing Bynum or what Odom brought to the table in those specfic games, but match ups are meaningful and should not be ignored. And against teams that run out smaller four men, the Lakers are best served having that Bynum/Gasol front court that pounds teams down low on the post and gobbles up offensive rebounds.
The Hawks Coming in: The Hawks are a tough team for me to get a read on. They’re obviously one of the better teams in the league some things just don’t add up with them. They’ve won seven of their last ten games but have had some curious losses in March (Knicks, Raptors, 76ers). They’re a very good home team (only 7 losses on the season) but are under .500 on the road. They’ve got a very good record against a tough Western Conference (20-9) but are only 7-7 against their own division (a tough division, but still strange to me). I just have a hard time figuring out if this team is for real or not (i.e. Conference Finals material).
On an individual level, this team is anchored by a very good core of players. Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, and Al Horford are excellent talents that play all-star level basketball. They also have the leading sixth man of the year candidate in Jamal Crawford. As of late all of these players have been playing pretty good ball but Horford is the player that has stood out to me. He rarely gets the flashy numbers, but his scoring and rebounding are the definition of consistency and his defense is severly underrated. He plays strong position D and moves his feet well on the P&R as a hedge and recover man. His match up with Gasol tonight will be one to watch.
Hawks Blogs: There some good spots to catch up on everything Hawks: Hoopinion and Peachtree Hoops are my first stops. And I usually try to see if Lang Whitaker has any recent thoughts on the team from the ATL. (Lang did sit in on the K-Bros Podcast this week over at Land O’ Lakers.)
Keys to game: The Hawks lineup tonight is almost a mirror to the one that the Lakers will throw out. Aging point guard, dynamic shooting guard, an all court lefty PF, and a solid big man. I would give the Lakers the advantage at SG and C (and at SF as well, with Artest), but Johnson and Horford are very good players that, in their own ways, will cause problems for us this evening. These similarities will make for some interesting match ups tonight and we’ll see which group of players can best utilize their similar strengths to pull out the win.
Even though I mentioned that Joe Johnson is the Hawks shooting guard, it’s very likely that he’ll be guarded by Artest tonight. This is the match up that I’m most looking forward to. The Hawks often isolate Johnson on the perimeter and let him attack off the dribble for either a floater in the lane or a pull up jumper from mid range. Johnson is a player that loves to use his body to bump players off him to get to the places on the court that he likes and then shoot over the top of defenders. And since Ron is one of the strongest perimeter defenders in the league and is not easily moved off his spot, it will be interesting to see who wins this battle.
The other match up I’m intrigued by is Horford’s defense against Gasol. As I mentioned earlier, Horford is a player that plays excellent position defense and battles for space on every possession. And while he’s a bit undersized at Center, he makes up for it with his long reach, strong instincts, and excellent timing. Pau will have his hands full tonight, but should be able to use his superior length and counter moves to get good looks at the basket. Knocking down the mid range jumper will also help Pau get Horford off balance so let’s see if the big Spaniard can hit some of those 15 footers.
On offense there are two notes that the Lakers must be aware of. First is that Atlanta loves to switch screens. They have a versatile group of defenders that do well in match ups of all types. I’ve mentioned Horford several times already, but he’s joined by Smith, Marvin Williams, and Johnson as players that possess size and quickness that allows them to guard multiple positions without giving up too much of an advantage. One play that I’d like to see the Lakers use more of tonight to counteract this is the weakside P&R between Odom and Gasol. I don’t necessarily want to use this action so Odom can attack Horford, but rather so Gasol can get favorable matchups in the post against Josh Smith (or whoever else is playing PF for Atlanta). The second key in facing the Hawks’ defense is to take care of the ball. Due to all the switching and the caliber of athletes that the Hawks can throw at a team, passing lanes close up quick and turnovers quickly go in the other direction for highlights on Sports Center’s top 10. The Lakers need to be aware of this and not get lazy with passes, especially those that come off of screen actions.
This is a game that the Lakers need to have in order to salvage their road trip. Before the trip started 5-0 was thrown out their as a goal with 4-1 being a result that would be considered solid. A loss tonight would mean a 2-3 record for the trip. I don’t think the players, coaches, or anyone in the organization would be happy with that. As stated earlier, Atlanta is a very tough arena to win in and their players are already calling out their fans to come out and support the home team rather than the visiting Lakers. It’d be very nice to end this trip on a positive note with a good win against a strong opponent.
Where you can watch: 4:00pm start on the West on KCAL, also on ESPN Radio 710am.