Records: Lakers 21-10 (Tied for 3rd in West), Hornets 18-13 (6th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.5 (2nd in NBA), Hornets 104.5 (21st in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 105.0 (11th in NBA), Hornets 102.3 (6th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Hornets: Chris Paul, Marco Belinelli, Trevor Ariza, David West, Emeka Okafor
Injuries: Lakers: Theo Ratliff (out); Hornets: Willie Green (questionable)
The Lakers Coming in: The bad basketball has continued and there seems to be no end in sight. After last night’s loss, Kobe mentioned that the game snowballed once his shots stopped falling. The rest of the team is angry at the way they’re playing but not worried that this will last indefinitely. This type of perspective is what I’d hope the team has since they, better than most, understand what needs to be done to improve. They know that they’ll play better but that the work to get there must get done. They surely see it as a process.
Fans, on the other hand, are calling for blood. The frustration from lackluster play (for what seems like a month) and a string of double digit defeats is the spoiled cherry on a rancid sundae.
Meanwhile, I’m in the middle. I’m quite frustrated that the team is playing the way that it is. The team isn’t utilizing it’s advantage in the post enough but when the ball does go inside the results aren’t always what we’d want or expect. The lack of individual playmaking has bled into the overall execution of the team and the results are dry spells on offense that we’re just not accustomed to seeing. However, through it all I have belief. I’ve always said that judging a team while at its worst is foolish. A team as talented and as well coached as the Lakers won’t slump this severely for an entire campaign so to say that what we see now is what we’ll see later in the year doesn’t compute to me. The frustration lies in seeing it continue, but that’s why patience is the hardest type of perspective to maintain. With every poorly played game or blowout loss, the memory of strong performance fades and it’s then much easier to remember the bad and harder to recall what this team actually does well. But, I haven’t forgotten. This team is still very good, but right now it’s playing terrible ball.
But last night I saw a fire to compete. I saw an anger. Now that just needs to be directed correctly. That energy needs to be put into executing on both sides of the ball; it needs to be channelled into closing out hard, rotating to shut down the paint, to moving with and without the ball in a purposeful manner. Once that happens, the wins will come. Believe me, I’m waiting on it just like the rest of you.
The Hornets Coming in: The Lakers must see the Hornets and think they’re looking in the mirror. After starting the season on a tear and winning 11 of its first 12 games, the team has now only won 7 of 19. They’re below .500 in December (6 wins, 8 losses) and what started out looking like a promising year is now more realistically one that will end with a low playoff seeding. A nice season in a strong Western Conference, but not what many hoped for after such an amazing start.
As usual, this team is carried by their transcendent point guard, Chris Paul. His numbers are down a bit from two years ago (where he was rightly considered one of the best 3-4 players in the league) but he’s still amazingly efficient for a smallish guard. His shooting percentages are still 49/46/91 (field/thee point/FT line) and in an era of stellar PG play you’d be hard pressed to find a better floor general in the league.
Where the Hornets are really struggling is in their supporting cast. David West is still putting up good numbers (19 and 7) and Okafor is good for a near double-double a night (10 and 9) but the rest of the team is a collection of role players that are either right at or below league average. Trevor Ariza has not been able to duplicate the numbers from his stellar run with the Lakers in 2009 and Marco Belinelli – while playing good ball – shouldn’t be a starting guard in this league. You throw in the fact that this team traded Darren Collison and that promising 2nd year player Marcus Thornton has seen his minutes slashed and you’re now hard pressed to find the young talent that could develop into a key cog on a contender. Hence the persistent rumors that CP3 could be on the move.
The team will compete each night because they defend the ball very well (credit new coach Monty Williams for emphasizing D as their calling card), but with an offense in the bottom third of the association and teams able to stack their D to slow down Paul, this team doesn’t get enough from other players to truly compete at a level that makes them contenders. And I haven’t even talked about how the league had to step in and purchase the team due to the financial troubles it’s been experiencing in New Orleans.
Keys to game: The desperate fan side of me wants to say “just do enough to actually win” and leave it at that. I mean, with the way the Lakers have been playing and the fact that this is the 2nd night of a back to back, I’ll take a win any way that it can come. Also, the fact is that there are so many non opponent specific things the Lakers need to do better to actually get a W, that focusing too much on the opponent isn’t even useful.
But, a couple of Hornets notes are necessary. Obviously slowing down the P&R attack of the Hornets will be the biggest defensive key. Paul loves to run the high P&R with West and Okafor and probe the defense coming off the pick to find the best shot for his team. When his defender goes under the screen he’ll happily take the uncontested jumper and when defenders trail him he’ll get into the paint to either shoot a floater or draw the defense in so he can hit an open teammate. Tonight, I’d like for the Lakers to get the ball out of Paul’s hands by hedging hard and force him to give up the ball early. At that point the Lakers can rotate to the next Hornet and then hopefully deny Paul the ball so he can’t reset the offense. This will be easier said than done as Paul’s ability to keep his dribble rivals Steve Nash’s, but I think it’s necessary to try and limit the Hornets’ offensive success.
David West is the other key to the Hornets offense so slowing him is priority number 2. West loves to do his work at the elbow and mid post where he can turn and face to shoot his solid mid range jumper. The Lakers need to crowd him when he’s in his sweet spots and then make him a driver where he has to finish over the top of a rotating big man. Odom has had mixed results against West in the past but in this game he’ll need to use his quickness and length to bother his jumper and slide him towards the help.
Offensively the Lakers need to go inside. I understand that Gasol has been struggling but the Hornets don’t have a lot of height inside and Pau should be able to get off his hooks and turnaround jumpers without too much trouble. Okafor is a very good shot blocker, but most of his success is as a weak side rotator and not on the ball. If Pau can establish the post at 12 feet and in, he should be able to maneuver into position where he can shoot his lefty hook or drive middle where he can get off his jumper.
I’d also like to see a bit more of Bynum tonight and allow him to get more touches. Last night he went 4-4 from the field and had his touch back around the hoop. His footwork looked solid and he worked with a strong, wide base on most of his hook shots. Big ‘Drew is a guy that can simply over power any big man that the Hornets throw up against him, so more post up chances for him would be a good thing tonight.
All that said, as I mentioned earlier, tonight is just about playing better. If the Lakers clean up their own house, they’ll be in position to win. In recent games we’ve seen lazy passes and players making predetermined reads with the ball rather than reacting to what the defense is doing. I’d love to see controlled aggression rather than the frenzied activity we saw last night. If the Lakers can play with urgency while not pressing I think we’ll see the result we all want tonight. Now, lets get that win.
Where you can watch: 5pm start tonight on KCAL. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710am.