Records: Lakers 47-20 (3rd in the West), Magic 42-25 (4th in East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.6 (3rd in NBA), Magic 108.2 (11th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.6 (8th in NBA), Magic 102.1 (4th 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: Devin Ebanks & Theo Ratliff (out), Matt Barnes (probable), Kobe Bryant (game time decision); Magic: Daniel Orton (out), J.J. Redick (questionable)
The Injury Bug:We all know the Lakers are rolling, winning 9 of their last 10 games. However, Kobe’s ankle was also rolling on Saturday and that leaves his status for tonight’s game up in the air. Personally, I think that Kobe will play but don’t think it’s necessary or even prudent for him to do so. The Lakers play two games (tonight and Friday) before reaching the 7-day mark of Kobe’s injury and we all know that with his obsessive commitment to getting treatment and rehabbing, the extra time off would do him good. And while the Lakers are in full fledged finishing mode to end the season with the best possible seed, an injured Kobe (especially a player more dependent on his jumper than ever) that doesn’t have the same lift or threat of going by an opponent isn’t the best option to be on the floor. When you add to that how he’ll likely suffer on D, I say rest him. All this probably means he’ll play and put up an efficient night scoring while playing lock down D, but that’s my 2 cents.
Kobe’s not the only Laker banged up, however. Matt Barnes continues to struggle with his right knee and Phil Jackson has said that the Lakers “are still not out of the woods” when it comes to their backup SF’s ailment. Barnes being touch and go really is an issue for LA. It’s one thing to have Kobe out a game or two, as that’s something you can work around for that limited time and then welcome him back on that pre-determined timeline. But it’s another altogether to have a key reserve like Barnes consistently questionable in this manner. I trust that Matt will tough it out and play, but the Lakers are reliant on him to play strong D, rebound, and be active in their halfcourt offense. If he’s compromised in performing these tasks, the Lakers then become more reliant on Luke Walton or Kobe (who, as noted, isn’t 100% himself right now). Hopefully Barnes can work his way through this and not be hampered for too much longer, but his situation bears watching.
The Magic Coming in: Since the all-star break, the Magic are 6-4 and have had a couple of good wins (Miami, OKC) and some bad losses (Sacto, Golden State). When this team is playing well, they live up to their top 5 defensive ranking, holding teams like OKC, Chicago, and Phoenix to sub-90 point games, but that caliber of D isn’t always available to them as evidenced by the 81(!) points they gave up to the Warriors in the 29 second half + overtime minutes in their 123-120 defeat this past Friday. This makes complete sense when you consider that outside of the tremendous work that Dwight Howard does in controlling the paint and in hedging/recovering in P&R actions, the Magic have surrounded the reigning DPOY with average to below average wing defenders. When teams that rely on outside shooting get hot, there’s little Howard can do to help out his perimeter mates.
That shouldn’t be mistaken as criticism for Howard, however, as he’s simply been a dominant player this year. He’s in the top 10 in scoring and is 2nd in the league in rebounding, blocked shots, and FG%, putting together a resumé that is truly MVP-worthy. Dwight has improved his offensive game by adding a solid 12-foot wing bank shot and continues to be a force in early offense, running post lane sprints and in the P&R where he’s always a threat to catch and finish on lobs. The only areas where Dwight can be knocked down a peg is in his FT shooting (still hovering right below 60% on the year) and in the fact that he’s already earned 16 technical fouls and served a 1-game suspension for reaching that threshold. All that said, though, he deserves recognition for the year he’s having and it’s likely only due to the perceived under-performance of his team relative to expectations that he hasn’t garnered more of a push for MVP. I’m trying not to make that same mistake.
Magic Blogs: Eddy Rivera does a great job running his site Magic Basketball and you should check it out for smart takes. Also check out the equally fine work Evan Dunlap does at Orlando Pinstriped Post.
Keys to game: Not knowing whether or not Kobe Bryant will play impact the keys to this game some, but not as much as you may think. Because while Kobe Bryant is a key every night, tonight’s game is one that I think should be a Pau Gasol game whether Kobe is wearing his home gold #24 or in the locker room getting more treatment on that bum wheel.
You see, even though Brandon Bass is a rugged player and one who will scrap on the defensive end, Pau has at least 5 inches on the man and should be fed the ball relentlessly to take advantage of that difference in height and length. Pau should get low post touches in the hub of the triangle, high post touches at the elbow, and wing touches on the weak side where he can either shoot his jumper or attack off the dribble. The key, though, is that he must get touches. Even if Kobe does play in this one, the Lakers must run their sets and should let Gasol be an initiator of offense, both looking for his own shot and for teammates breaking open.
Pau can’t be the only big doing solid work, however. The match up that most are surely looking forward to is Andrew Bynum doing battle with Dwight Howard on both ends. After beasting the Mavs combo of Chandler and Haywood, Bynum gets a much stiffer test tonight in Howard. And in order to be successful against Dwight, Bynum must continue the underrated part of his growth this season – his patience. Since the all-star break, Big Drew has shown a great ability to correctly decide how to operate in any given possession. Rarely has he forced shots and more often than not he’s used an array of pivots and drop steps to maneuver his large frame into position to get off a good look. He’ll need to show that patience tonight against Howard if he expects to have good success. He’ll also need to show good instincts on the offensive glass, stepping in to gain good position when Howard steps away to challenge shots and bodying Dwight to root him out of position.
Odom must also show up tonight with an aggressive mindset and want to attack the paint to force help. LO will likely see a lot of Ryan Anderson tonight and that’s a match up that LO can win by using his superior quickness and length to get to the paint off the dribble and in attacking the offensive glass. This is also a game where Odom can effectively push the ball after securing defensive rebounds against any defender that he matches up with. If LO steps up with a game typical of his excellent year, the Lakers will be in good shape.
Defensively, the Lakers must execute well in slowing the Magic’s simple offensive formula. The Magic rely on three offesive keys to beat teams: Dwight Howard post ups, the P&R, and the three point shot. Luckily for the Lakers, these offensive actions are the ones that their defensive scheme hope to limit, but to actually achieve it will require discipline and strong play in both one on one and team situations.
Slowing Howard will mostly depend on Bynum’s ability to play on an island without fouling. Howard loves to post on the left block where he can drive middle for his running hook shot and then drop step off that that same action for a lay-in/dunk, turning over his right shoulder. I’d like to see Drew give Howard a half a step to his right hand to encourage the hook and then challenge the shot with his length. The key then, of course, is boxing out and keeping Howard off the glass has he possesses the best “2nd jump” in the league.
As for slowing the P&R and the three ball, this mostly comes down to limiting penetration by the ball handler. Orlando loves to get Jameer, Hedo, and Arenas going by having them run off Howard screens and then turn the corner to get into the paint, where they can either shoot a short shot, lob the ball to a diving Howard, or kick the ball out to open shooters when the D collapses. Bynum will need to stick to his guns by executing his soft show where he can both contest the shot effectively and/or rotate to a diving Howard. Meanwhile, the Lakers wings will need to stick to their men behind the arc as Orlando will never lack for shooters on the floor (especially Richardson who’s having a hot March shooting the ball).
In the end, this game is an important one for the Lakers as they’d love to continue playing strong ball and keep their momentum going in the right direction. But with a limited (at best) Kobe or even without him at all, the burden will fall on the Laker bigs who will hopefully get some help from Ron, Fish, and Blake. If the Lakers can control their glass, limit Howard’s explosive finishes, and run the Magic’s shooters off the three point line, they should be in good shape.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on Fox Sports and ESPN. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710am. And for those only near a computer, stream the game live at ESPN 3 right here.