Records: Lakers 52-20 (2nd in West), Hornets 42-31 (7th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.7 (2nd in NBA), Hornets 106.2 (20th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.7 (7th in NBA), Hornets 104.2 (6th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Hornets: Chris Paul, Marco Belinelli, Trevor Ariza, Carl Landry, Emeka Okafor
Injuries: Lakers: Devin Ebanks & Theo Ratliff (out); Hornets: David West (out)
The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers are the hottest team in the league (or at least right there with the Bulls). That said, there are still things to improve on. Phil Jackson has called out his bench, looking for better play from his reserves. He specifically asks for better D and less turnovers on O and I can’t blame him. What I’m seeing is a tendency to try and make the big play on both sides of the ball rather than playing with a more methodical approach that’s worked so well for his starting group. Shannon Brown consistently gambles for steals by shooting the gap in passing lanes and nearly every bench player makes at least one homerun pass a game looking for the play that gets the crowd off their feet rather than making the pass that will simply progress the offensive set in motion. For what it’s worth, the bench players themselves recognize this. As cited in the article linked above, when Lamar Odom was asked about the bench’s performance of late, he pulled no punches:
If I had to grade it, the last 10 games would be a ‘C,’ and close to an ‘F’
Well then. While I wouldn’t go that far (LO is known to strive for perfection) the reserves do need to get back to playing within themselves more and running the sets on both sides of the ball. I’d like to see less reliance on perimeter shots and for the ball to stick less on the wing by players that want to dribble and probe the D looking for their own shot (that means you, Shannon Brown). Defensively, I’d like to see the big men better help when wings penetrate the lane. I understand that Pau and LO aren’t going to provide the same presence that Bynum does, but seeing players get all the way to the rim in both the half court and in transition is frustrating.
The Hornets Coming in: We often talk about the up and down nature of a season when discussing the Lakers. Well, our guys have nothing on the Hornets when it comes to roller coaster campaigns. From Chris Paul trade rumors, to ownership changes (the NBA ended up buying the team), to dealing with lease issues surrounding their long term future in New Orleans, this team has seen it’s fair share of drama both on and off the court all while holding on to a playoff spot in the tough as ever western conference. You would think this would be enough with the regular season winding down. However, they’ve recently been dealt another blow when David West landed awkwardly on his left knee, tearing his ACL and being ruled out for the rest of the season. Luckily, the Hornets had completed a trade at the deadline that netted them Carl Landry who for all extents and purposes is a poor man’s David West (they possess similar skill sets, West just does them all better) but that still leaves the Hornets woefully thin in their front court with few options to turn to.
With so many challenges to work through, it’s lucky that this team still has Chris Paul. CP3 is having another banner year and showing his leadership by putting this team on his back and carrying them home. Even after sitting out two games with a concussion, he’s come back stronger than ever, putting up nearly 23 points and over 11 assists (to only 3 turnovers) a game while also adding nearly 3 steals and over 5 rebounds in the six contests since his return. For all the talk of Rose as the MVP, Paul has also been fantastic and consistently reminds us that he should still be in the conversation as best PG in the league.
Hornets Blogs: Hornets 24/7 and At The Hive are two great team sites dedicated to covering this team. You should check them both out.
Keys to game: With our without David West, the keys to beating the Hornets are the same. The Lakers need to get the ball inside to Gasol and Bynum and let them go to work against undersized defenders. In Bynum’s first start of the year he faced off against the Hornets and poured in 18 points on efficient post ups and offensive rebounds (really, we tracked it). Tonight, he’s more than capable of doing the same thing should the Lakers get him the ball in the pivot against Okafor.
Gasol should also get ample touches against Landry. In the Lakers’ recent run, Gasol has been doing stellar work at the mid-post and elbow working his jumper and then countering with quick drives off ball fakes and tonight should be no different against Landry. Run sets through Pau and let him get going early, and the results should mean easier shots for everyone.
And that includes Kobe. Even though #24 has a distinct match up advantage over Belinelli, I’d still like to see him do more work off the ball to get his looks. I’d love it if he deferred early and let the ball come back to him later in the clock as he’s a guy that can get a shot off in isolation whenever he wants against the defenders that he’ll see this evening. If the ball goes into the post, Kobe can work off cross screens and flash into the paint coming off curls for easier most of the night. If he really does end up isolating, I’d prefer that those touches come at the mid post at the elbow when Odom is in the game rather than on the wing when both Pau and Drew are in there with him. Tonight’s game offers a chance for Kobe to score efficiently with minimal work if he’d get the ball out of his hands early. We’ll see if he takes this approach or not, but I’m hopeful he does.
Defensively the Lakers will need to focus all their energy on limiting Paul. He’ll obviously look to exploit the Lakers P&R defense but he’s more able to exploit the Lakers’ scheme than other players with his ability to knock down the mid-range jumper coming off that pick. Considering that’s the shot the Lakers are comfortable surrendering, Paul should get ample looks from 18 feet and a lot of the Lakers success on D will depend on if A). Paul is knocking that shot down and B). if Bynum/Gasol are able to lay back to deny penetration while still jumping out to contest that shot when Fisher/Blake get picked off in these sets. LA’s bigs will need to show discipline but can’t get over anxious in stepping out on Paul considering he’s more than willing to dish to rolling big men or jump into them and draw contact to earn free throws.
The other player to worry about on O is Carl Landry. I mentioned earlier that he’s a poor mans version of David West, but he’s also a notorious Laker killer. Landry’s mid-range game often gives the Lakers fits as he’s very much capable of hitting that 15 foot jumper but also has a very good ball fake that allows him to use his good first step to get to the basket. Gasol and Odom will need to honor that shot but not fall for his fakes so as to give up easier shots at the basket. They’ll also need to understand that his pet move off the dribble is spin off defenders and draw contact, so I’d love to see both Laker bigs keep him to one side and make him finish over length rather than allowing him an escape route to easier looks by allowing him to pivot away from the defense.
If the Lakers need to show any extra help on defense, this is one game where I wouldn’t mind seeing it come from the wings rather than the bigs. Outside of Belinelli, the Hornets don’t possess capable shooters (Ariza has been woeful this season from behind the arc and the separate trades of Peja and Thornton have left them without other wing shooters) so Ron and Barnes should have ample opportunities to dig down on Landry and Okafor and bother their handle and hopefully pick up some steals. Forcing turnovers against a team that’s led by Chris Paul isn’t easy (the Hornets are a top 10 team in protecting the ball) but the Lakers can earn some extra possessions by actively attacking the post when those guys commit to their offensive move.
Where you can watch: 6:30pm start on Fox Sports West. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710am.