Records: Lakers 45-19 (3rd in West), Hawks 37-26 (5th in East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.6 (2nd in NBA), Hawks 106.5 (18th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.5 (8th in NBA), Hawks 105.9 (13th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers:Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Hawks: Kirk Hinrich, Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, Josh Smith, Al Horford
Injuries: Lakers: Devin Ebanks and Theo Ratliff (out); Hawks: none
The Lakers Coming in:Even though the Lakers started the season playing great ball winning their first 8 games, the current 7 game streak with no losses tops it as the Lakers best stretch of the year. And the reason is simple: the Lakers are playing top-level defense to get these wins. In the current streak, the Lakers have posted a defensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions) of 98.7, a number that if sustained for the entire year would rank them 1st in the league. Six of the Lakers’ 7 opponents have had at least one half of basketball where they’ve scored 40 points or less, which includes holding the Thunder (5th ranked offense) to a 31 point second half and the Spurs (3rd ranked offense) to a 37 point first half. By putting the clamps on teams, the Lakers have relied less on their (still proficient) 2nd ranked offense and have really put pressure on teams to score the ball. Now, consider the mental effect this has on opponents when teams know they’ll have to score points to beat the Lakers, but find that they can’t do so efficiently. Ultimately this sets up game conditions where teams start to press for baskets rather than playing calmly and in rhythm, which then results in teams not performing well even when they do get open shots. Right now the Lakers are reaping the benefits of a suffocating D in a variety of ways and I couldn’t be happier about it. As we’ve said around these parts for some time, “the Lakers will go as far as their defense takes them” and right now it looks like it can carry them a fair distance.
The Hawks Coming in:Is it just me, or have the Lakers faced a few teams of late that shook up their rosters at the trade deadline? Portland, OKC, and Charlotte all dumped starters before the trade deadline nearly two weeks ago. On that list as well is tonight’s opponent, the Hawks, who traded Mike Bibby to the Wizards in exchange for Kirk Hinrich. In this deal the Hawks swapped PG savvy and shooting acumen for defense and more size at the “One” and it’s been a bit of an up and down experiment so far.
The Hawks are 3-3 since the trade with a good win over the red hot Bulls as a victory that shines through. However, as good as that win over the Bulls was, a 20 point routing at the hands of the Knicks in the Hawks’ last game was equally bad. In that contest ATL got little bench production besides an inefficient 14 points from Jamal Crawford and couldn’t contain Amar’e on the other end of the floor. And sadly for the Hawks, they’ve got little time to find the chemistry that they’ll need before the playoffs start. Barring a collapse by the Magic or a big surge from the Knicks, Atlanta is pretty much locked into the 5th seed in the East and on a collision course with the Magic – the team that swept them out of the playoffs last year. If the Hawks hope to have a better showing this post season, they’ll need to integrate their new PG and find a formula that works down the stretch of games besides going to their “iso-Joe” offense that’s seemed to carry over from Mike Woodson to Larry Drew’s coaching regime. We’ll see if this final stretch proves that the Hawks can actually improve or if they’re stuck as a middle of the pack team that still needs roster changeover to truly compete.
Keys to game:These teams just met two weeks ago on the Tuesday following the all-star game. In that contest, the Lakers cruised to a win by showing up big on D and offering a balanced attack on offense where Kobe led the team with 20 points, but was joined in double figures by 4 other players (and Odom just missing with 9 of his own). Tonight, if the Lakers are to get their 8th straight win, a similar approach will be needed.
On defense, that means containing Joe Johnson on the perimeter, first and foremost. That task will fall squarely on Ron Artest’s shoulders, but Ron has been up to task of late. Johnson is a player who loves to isolate on the left wing where he can attack the middle of the court to his strong hand and either pull up for his jumper or a half floater if he gets inside 8 feet. I’d love to see Ron sit on Joe’s right hand and force Joe baseline into spaces where the help is waiting, but Joe can be crafty and will find ways to get to the middle of the floor. In these instances the Lakers bigs will need to be aware and active in contesting shots and the weak-side wings will need to also be aware of players like Crawford and Hinrich spotting up and Josh Smith cutting behind the defense for drop off passes or offensive rebounding position.
The Hawks other offensive actions rely heavily on P&R’s between Al Horford and a ball handler. Bibby’s savvy used to help a great deal in this set as he was a threat to either shoot behind the pick or string out the defense to set up Horford for an easy 16 foot jumper from up high. It will be interesting to see if Hinrich is as effective running this set or if the Hawks wait for Crawford to come in before they go to more P&R heavy sets. Either way, understand that Horford is a threat anytime he’s facing the basket and inside 20 feet as he’s developed a nice jumper from both the top of the key and the shallow corner. He needs to be respected and chased off his jumper, forcing him to put the ball on the floor to either shoot on the move or make a pass.
Offensively, the Lakers need to attack inside and force an undersized Hawks front line to defend the rim. Don’t get me wrong, Horford is a tank of a player who will fight for position and Smith is a great weak-side shot blocker, but both give up inches to their counterparts. I’d love to see Gasol get going against Smith by earning solid post position and then going to work with his back to the basket, while also still doing his typical strong work from the elbow and wing with his jumper. As for Bynum, I understand that his focus has shifted to providing more on defense but it’d also be nice for him to get a couple of touches outside of his normal great work on the offensive glass. If the Lakers don’t provide this when Bynum is flanked by the starters, please make it so when he’s playing with the 2nd unit.
In terms of the rest of the offense, Kobe should be able to do good work against Joe Johnson but as in other recent contests getting shots by working off the ball should be a primary goal. Johson is an able defender and even in isolations Kobe will find that Johnson’s size and quickness is adequate enough to contest his jumper and stay with him off the dribble. However, if Kobe is using screens and flashing to the elbow area to catch the ball on the move, Johnson’s ability to stay with him diminishes greatly.
In the end, this is a game that may not have the intrigue of the OKC or San Antonio games but it’s just as important in the bigger picture push towards the playoffs. Continuing to build momentum is key, considering Miami waits on Thursday and Dallas does the same on Saturday. The Lakers need to come out focused and ready to play hard using the same formula that’s gotten them their 7 straight wins.
Where you can watch: 4:00pm start time out West on KCAL. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710am.