Records: Lakers 38-19 (3rd in West), Hawks 34-21 (5th in East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.7 (2nd in NBA), Hawks 107.2 (15th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 105.3 (10th in NBA), Hawks 105.8 (13th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Hawks: Mike Bibby, Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, Josh Smith, Al Horford
Injuries: Lakers: Matt Barnes & Theo Ratliff (out); Hawks: none
The Lakers Coming in: We all know that the Lakers were not playing very good ball right before the All-Star break. They’ve lost three games in a row, including a defeat to the Cavs that must be the low point of the season. However, Sunday’s big game showed me (and I think the rest of the league too) that Kobe and Gasol aren’t just going to allow this team to fall off as the push for the post-season begins. Can that energy that Kobe brought to his MVP performance be carried over to these last 25 games? Will the return of Barnes (who says that he needs a handful of practices to really get back) help give the team that extra wing they’ve been missing? Will the Lakers bigs be able to keep up their strong play (or even improve on what they’ve shown) down the stretch? These are all legitimate questions and one’s that I’d lean towards yes on, but we’ll just have to see. I think it’s fair to say, though, that All-Star weekend has served as a reminder that the Lakers have two of the better players in the game on their roster and that when they’re on their games defeating the team they play for will be difficult. Mind you, the rest of the Lakers will have to follow their lead but I do think the Lakers’ best two players will be ready to forge that path for their mates.
The Hawks Coming in: Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. That’s pretty much how I’ve viewed the Hawks for several years now. They’ve done a very good job drafting and getting capable players to form a perennial playoff team but never been able to break through. And this year is no different. They currently sit in the 5th seed in the East and the four teams ahead of them are clearly better teams. And with Horford still relegated to playing Center (when he’s clearly a PF) and Bibby being relied upon as a vital contributor, I don’t know if that’s going to change. Their problem though, is that they don’t have the assets to acquire help and because they paid Joe Johnson what they did while simultaneously committing healthy dollars to Horford and Smith, they also don’t have the cap flexibility to add an impact free agent in the upcoming seasons.
Coming into tonight’s game, the Hawks have lost 3 of 4 games with their lone win coming against the Pistons. They’ve not been playing their best ball and a lot of that can be attributed to the fact that Horford still hasn’t come all the way back from a back injury that occurred when taking a hard foul from Blake Griffin earlier this month (an injury that had him play sparingly in the ASG) and the fact that new Coach Larry Drew is still trying to find the right combination of players to go to each night. One player that is playing very good ball though, is Josh Smith. His February numbers have been outstanding as he’s been averaging 20 points and 9 rebounds on nearly 54% shooting. But even with that production the Hawks are only 4-3 this month. Again, this team just can’t seem to get over the hump.
Keys to game: If the Lakers are to get back on track tonight and start their post All-Star push, they’ll need to refocus on both sides of the ball. The Hawks offer up a solid team that matches up well in several areas, but if the Lakers play smart and disciplined they’ll be able to come away with a win.
As we say pretty much every game, going inside early and often is a key on offense. Even if the Hawks go to a big line up (sliding Horford and Smith down to PF and SF respectively) and start Jason Collins or Pachulia, the Lakers must work inside out and try to get the bigs going. Gasol is coming off a solid if unspectacular ASG and getting him some touches against Horford or Smith should be a priority. Against either defender Pau should be able to get quality looks as Smith lacks the size and Horford may still be a bit banged up. If it is in fact Horford that gets the call to defend Gasol, I’d love to see Pau get some isolations at the elbow and short wing where he can test Horford’s foot speed off the dribble and shoot his mid-range jumper that has been a major weapon all season.
On the wing, Joe Johnson offers a solid defender against Kobe but one that #24 should still be able to create quality looks against. By getting Kobe moving off the ball and working in the post, I think the Lakers should be able to exploit Joe on D while also wearing him down some so his offense isn’t as effective when the sides change.
Speaking of defense, the Hawks have tried to go away from their isolation heavy sets of prior seasons but haven’t fully been able to break the habits that have set in. Johnson still works best from the wing where he can use the threat of his jumper to drive into the teeth of the D and put up his little floater. He’s also a post threat and will shoot the J when open so Artest (who will likely draw the assignment) will have his hands full chasing Joe off baseline screens and then playing on an island after the catch is made. I’d love to see Ron force Joe baseline as often as possible and make him shoot step back jumpers or drive all the way to the rim where Bynum and Gasol can offer assistance.
Obviously this means that the Lakers help schemes will be tested tonight and not just on isolations from Joe and Crawford. The Hawks also run a lot of pick and pop with Horford with Josh Smith slashing off the ball. The Lakers help schemes will need to compensate and account for Horford moving into open space at the top of the key as he’s one of the more unheralded jumpshooting bigs from that spot. A lack of rotation to him will result in two points more often than not. As for Smith, his movement off the ball is an issue that needs to be accounted for as he’s very good finding creases in the D and going after the ball on the offensive glass. If the Hawks go big to start the game, slowing him down will fall on Artest (or Kobe) so boxing out and tempting him to shoot his jumper are the biggest priorities there.
The other key tonight will be the battle of the benches. Jamal Crawford is a yearly candidate for 6th man of the year and can be an explosive scorer behind the arc and shooting his mid-range jumper when he gets it going. Jeff Teague is a great change of pace guard for the Hawks as well, often pushing the ball and looking to get buckets in the open court against defenses that aren’t used to his quickness after dealing with methodical guards like Johnson and Bibby. The Lakers bench will need to mark these two players and understand that they’re in the game to get up shots and put points on the board. That means ball pressure and transition defense will take a greater importance whenever these two players enter the game.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time out West on Fox Sports West and on NBA TV. Also listen live at ESPN Radio 710am.