Records: Lakers 55-25 (3rd in West), Spurs 61-19 (1st in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.0 (7th in NBA), Spurs 111.9 (2nd in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.4 (6th in NBA), Spurs 105.4 (11th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Spurs: Only Greg Popovich knows…
Injuries: Lakers: Devin Ebanks (out), Steve Blake (out); Spurs: none (as of now)
The Lakers Coming in: Lots of news in Laker land today. As we all know the team has lost 5 consecutive games, putting a real sense of urgency into these last 2 games of the year. The Lakers still control their own destiny in that if they win out they’ll still clinch the #2 seed in the playoffs. However, there are a variety of scenarios that could play out and there’s still a possibility the Lakers drop to the #4 seed. For a summary of it all, check out Mike Trudell’s post on this very subject at Lakers.com.
In other news, Steve Blake has the Chicken Pox and is out indefinitely. Obviously, this is concerning for a variety of reasons. Blake is the only back up PG on the roster and has been playing steady ball of late, especially on the defensive side. Phil’s shown good confidence in Blake as an offensive initiator and coming off a good shooting game versus the Thunder, I had hopes that he was finding his stroke right as the playoffs approach. Currently there’s no timetable for his return but this isn’t the flu or some cold. I had the Chicken Pox when I was a kid and it was one of the worst times of my life. Here’s hoping to a speedy recovery – suffering through this now is not only a downer for him but, again, it does put the team in dire straits at back up guard.
Lastly, and likely related to Blake’s news, the Lakers have called up Trey Johnson from the D-League’s Bakersfield Jam. Johnson spent training camp and played pre-season with the Lakers, earning a long look before being one of the last cuts before the season started. From the linked post, Scott Schroeder of Ridicuous Upside has a brief scouting report on Johnson:
Johnson can play both guard spots, but has been more of an off-guard with the Jam this year due to their already having two point guards on the roster — and the team’s need for a go-to scorer. The generously listed at 6-foot-5 guard led the NCAA in scoring as senior at Jackson State in 2007 and has slowly upped his scoring average over his four (abbreviated) seasons in the D-League from 11.8 points per game in 2007-08 to 20.7 the following year, 21.3 last season and his league-leading 25.5 scoring average this season.
When I first read about this signing I thought this was a shot across the bow at Shannon Brown due to his struggling play of late. And while that still may be the case, this call up makes much more sense after reading about Blake. Johnson could end up playing spot minutes at both Guard spots as the playoffs approach and this is something we’re going to have to monitor closely as we get a better timeline on Blakes possible return and see how Shannon responds to another guard being added to the roster.
As mentioned earlier, this has been some day in Laker land.
UPDATE: Forgot to mention that Matt Barnes missed practice yesterday with a sore knee. In the same report detailing Blake’s case of the Chicken Pox, Mike Trudell reports that he’s listed as questionable for tonight’s game. I do think Barnes plays, but that’s just a hunch.
The Spurs Coming in: What can be said about the Spurs that you don’t already know? They’re the West’s top team and haven’t yet lost 20 games on the season. They’re still fighting the Bulls for the #1 overall seed but look to be in good shape of at least earning a tie with them for the top spot where tie breakers would determine who has home court should they meet each other in the Finals.
Recently, the Spurs have bounced back from their 6 game skid to win 4 consecutive games and look to be primed for the playoffs. They’re a veteran team with no real injuries on their roster and have experience in navigating a tough playoff field. At this point in the season, they’re where everyone else wants to be. They’ve earned it, so kudos to them.
Spurs Blogs: 48 Minutes of Hell is a great site that you should visit for Spurs news and analysis. Also check out Pounding the Rock for notes on this team (go there just for the picture in their game preview).
Keys to game: If you look at the top of this post, you’ll notice that I’ve not filled in a starting lineup for the Spurs. Apparently Coach Pop has been tight lipped about who will play tonight and who will not, so it’s all a mystery to me. Normally, I’d expect a team to play their best guys as they’ve still got something to play for (winning out would secure them the #1 seed through the playoffs) but with the Spurs you never know. Popovich isn’t the most convential coach when it comes to resting his players and based off his success as a coach, you have to trust his judgement. So, from the standpoint of breaking down this game using personnel and match ups, I’m out of luck.
All that said, this is an important game to the Lakers and they need to win. A loss further puts their seeding at risk and considering they’re not going into the playoffs at full strength, every edge matters at this point. So, to win this game we go back to the same things we’ve been saying for months – the Lakers need to attack inside, slow the pace, and ensure that they control their defensive glass.
Regardless of who the Spurs throw out there tonight, the Lakers will have a size advantage and they should work to exploit it. Be it Duncan, McDyess, Bonner, Blair, or Splitter the Lakers must go inside to Bynum and Gasol to let them get their touches and work the offense inside out. Post ups on the strong side in the hub of the Triangle and weak side duck ins when the ball reverses to the top should be staples of the Lakers’ attack tonight and if Bynum/Gasol both don’t end up with 10+ shots I’d say the Lakers didn’t do their job on that side of the ball.
Defensively, the Lakers must do two things effectively: control the pace and protect the three point line. Whether it’s Parker, Hill, Ginobili, or even Neal the Spurs will try to run against the Lakers and score on them in transition before the bigs can get back and contest shots at the rim. The Lakers must show good floor balance on O to properly transition back on D to slow the Spurs’ attack. As for defending the three point shot, Every Spur wing player (plus Bonner) is a threat from deep. The Lakers mustn’t get sucked into the paint and leave Neal, Jefferson, Bonner, Ginobili, or Novak behind the arc uncontested. Rotations must be crisp and on time to run these guys off the three point line and turn them into drivers where they’re forced to finish in the paint over size. This is how the Lakers beat the Spurs the last game and it’s just as vital tonight.
I could go on and on, but there’s really not a need for more. This game is vital to the Lakers and for the first time in a long stretch of games their backs are nearing the wall. The coaches and the players both know that they’ve let games slip that could have aided their cause and it’s now games like this that need to be won in order to stay in the spot where they currently are. There were signs of life against the Thunder, let’s hope we see a fully awakened team tonight.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start on Fox Sports West and TNT. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710am.