The Lakers are back stateside and in action tonight, though not yet playing at “home”. They’re still the traveling team as they face off against the Sacramento Kings in Las Vegas tonight. So while Ron Artest receives the key to the city of sin, and Kobe rehabs his way to playing reduced minutes for the rest of the preseason, the Lakers are looking to get their first win since game 7 of last year’s Finals.
There are several keys to the Lakers winning this game, but to focus on those things would mean that I actually care if they win or not. I don’t. Actually, that’s taking it a bit far. While I care what the result is, I care more about how the Lakers play and if there is any marked improvement from the the things we saw in the losses the team suffered while in Europe.
First and foremost, I’m talking about defense. In the losses against the T’Wolves and against FC Barcelona (but especially against the Wolves), the Lakers gave up too many open shots. They looked relaxed on their rotations and gave up penetration too easily which led to helping defenders that could not recover back to their men when the ball was moved on via easy passes. Tonight against the Kings, this will have to be cleaned up. Even though the Kings don’t possess the quality of shooters that the Lakers have faced thus far this preseason, they do have quality athletes that can hit the open shot and that can make defenses pay by driving against lazy close outs that then lead to easy shots at the rim. The Lakersmust be sharper in both their on ball defense in order to deny initial penetration and execute crisper rotations to the perimeter when the ball is kicked out so they are in position to contest jump shots or break down into their defensive stance and deny a second attempt to drive into the lane off the pass.
Sticking on the defensive theme, the Kings have two up and coming players that we should surely keep our eyes on. Reigning ROY Tyreke Evans and the #5 overall pick from this past draft DeMarcus Cousins will be active tonight and both are legitimate pros to be reckoned with even at this early stage of their respective careers. We already know plenty about Evans – a dynamic guard who is fantastic off the dribble and showing flashes of an improved jumper. Evans is a guard in the Dwyane Wade mold in that he’s physical, is a relentless attacker, and is better in the mid-range than he is from deep (though, again, he has been working on that jumper). As for Cousins, he fell to #5 in the draft due to questions about his head and his work ethic. And that seems to have been a mistake. While he surely is a boom or bust prospect and there are still concerns about whether or not he’ll always be completely focussed, his physical talent is as enormous as his physcal presence (listed at 6’11”, 270lbs) and he has all the tools to be a double-double machine right out of the gate this season. I’m interested in seeing if the Kings use him more as a PF or as a Center and who from the Lakers matches up with him when the game starts, but I can see him being a load for both Odom and Gasol due to his girth. During Summer League, Derrick Caracter got a first hand look at Cousins and held his own but since that time Cousins has been playing better and better to the point that those teams that drafted big men in spots 2-4 of the draft will have some explaining to do in a year or two as to why this player got passed on.
From an offensive standpoint, I just want to see the Lakers continue to progress and establish the rhythm that’s been missing so far this exhibition season. With a still recovering Kobe and a searching for his timing Gasol, the key to scoring efficiently will depend on sharper execution. This isn’t the easiest goal to accomplish though as new players still experiencing a learning curve are thrown out on the court under live fire. And without much practice time under their belts, it’s not like Blake, Barnes, et al have had the chance to really immerse themselves into the Lakers’ offensive scheme and pick up all the nuance that comes in any read and react system.
But this does not mean the Lakers are really that far off. Blake looks comfortable with the cuts, reads, and movement of the Triangle already, if not the terminology. Barnes is getting there too as he’s been comfortable moving off the ball and has been fairly decisive when the ball is in his hands. The rookies are probably the furthest away from really grasping the sets (Caracter especially looks to be thinking a lot when not just rooted in the post), but that’s to be expected. So while there’s still work to be done, the team is making strides and it shows in the chemistry that the guys are developing in actions like making the extra pass and in properly executing some of the backside screen actions that are staples of the offense.
And while statistics can have varying degrees of relevancy (especially in the preseason), some numbers I will be watching are total assists for the team, total rebounds, and turnovers (both forced and committed). These are stats that are strongly related to both offensive and defensive efficiency and if the Lakers are moving the ball well and forcing misses, these are stats that the team should do well in which should then correlate to success on the scoreboard.
Where you can watch: 7:00pm local time on KCAL and on ESPN Radio 710am.