Records: Lakers 38-16 (2nd in West), Magic 34-21 (5th in East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 112.4 (2nd in NBA), Magic 108.0 (11th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.8 (10th in NBA), Magic 102.3 (3rd in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Magic: Jameer Nelson, Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu, Brandon Bass, Dwight Howard
Injuries: Lakers: Matt Barnes & Theo Ratliff (out); Magic: Brandon Bass (questionable – UPDATE: Bass expected to make surprise return today)
The Lakers Coming in: Every year when the NBA releases the schedule for the upcoming season, one of the first things I look to is the annual Grammy trip — so often a tipping point over the past decade. The hope is that the extended time away from STAPLES will unify the team and redirect their focus for the stretch run, which is exactly what has happened through the first four games of the seven-game trip. Kobe looks as spry as ever as evidenced by back-to-back strong performances against Boston and New York on Friday. Add a resurgent effort on the defensive end and the Lakers are finally starting to resemble the team that has won back-to-back titles.
The Magic Coming in: Orlando entered the season with high hopes of not only retaining, but topping its status as one of the league’s elite teams. At 34-21, it’s safe to say that they aren’t there yet and may never be even after changing the dynamic of their roster with a December blockbuster that essentially shipped out an unproductive Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis for Gilbert Arenas, Hedo Turoglu and Jason Richardson. Aside from an early 9-0 winning streak with the new pieces, the Magic have been mired in an extended 9-9 (0-8 against teams with winning records) funk that’s left them 18-11 overall since the trade and potentially looking forward to starting the postseason on the road. Still, they remain a threat, if not somewhat of an enigma simply because of the sheer talent (see: Dwight Howard) and versatility they can throw on the floor at any given time.
Keys to game: If the past four games are any indication, the Lakers are in full attack mode right now. Orlando is always a tough place to play and that was before they moved into their shiny new arena this season. I fully expect the Magic to come out aggressive, looking for a signature victory — their third in a row at home against L.A. — in an otherwise disappointing season.
Although the Magic have shuffled some pieces around, the basic ebb and flow of their offense remains the same — Superman down low, surrounded by a surplus of shooters on the perimeter. It’s a recipe that’s worked for the Magic for most of the past three seasons, but also one that the Lakers have pretty much solved by now. The reason why is simple: against most teams, Howard is used to having free rein around the hoop, but that’s not so when playing against L.A.’s vaunted front line. With Bynum, Gasol and Odom, the Lakers have the personnel to make Dwight work on both ends of the court. If you remove him from the equation — whether systematically or via foul trouble — the Magic are woefully small inside and still lack a reliable, go-to second scoring option. If the Lakers stick to their game plan and run an inside-out offense through their bigs, Orlando simply won’t be able to catch up. As they’ve seen in past losses to them, though, they’ll try their best to turn today’s game into a shooting match for which L.A. is ill-equipped.
Speaking of big men, my eyes will be on Bynum today, who always seems to get up for games against his young center counterpart in Orlando. Andrew didn’t play particularly well against the Magic last season, though, as L.A. and Orlando each defended their home court. Howard didn’t exactly go off either, averaging 20 points and 14 rebounds in two games against the Lakers. Even if Dwight is able to mitigate Bynum’s contributions, they have absolutely no answer for Pau, so the Lakers would be wise to hit up the Spaniard early and often. The same goes for Kobe against the Magic’s more offensive minded guards in Richardson, Redick and whomever else Orlando tries to throw at him. The key for #24 is to resist the urge to chuck up volume shots against the Magic, which is something he’s fallen prey to in past matchups against Orlando.
Jameer Nelson has been a thorn in the Lakers’ sides for several years now thanks to his ability to beat Derek Fisher and the like off the dribble and penetrate deep into the lane for one of his signature floaters or dishes to Dwight. The Magic offense undoubtedly got more athletic with the additions of J-Rich and Arenas, but their core philosophy is still predicated on their ability to feed their shooters. As the key cog in that cycle, I expect limiting Nelson to be at or near the top of the Lakers’ priority list in today’s game. Turkoglu’s name should also make that list as his passing ability has caused all kinds of matchup problems for the Lakers over the years even as the name on the front of his jersey has changed. J.J. Redick’s emergence this season as a consistent bona fide threat from beyond the arc has also added to the Magic’s dangerous shooting arsenal.
I’m no doubt guilty of looking ahead here, but if the Lakers can top the Magic today, they appear well-positioned for an improbable 7-0 road trip so long as they can knock off an always troublesome Bobcats squad and a reeling Cavs team who just celebrated the end of their 26-game losing streak. First thing’s first, though — continuing to play with improved offensive execution and continuity on defense.
Where you can watch: 12:30 p.m. PST start time on ABC. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710 AM.