Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Devin Ebanks, Josh McRoberts, Pau Gasol
Bulls: Derrick Rose, Richard Hamilton, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah
Injuries: Lakers: Kobe Bryant (probable); Bulls: none
The Lakers Coming in: The new season is here, change is upon the Lakers and with that, an interesting vibe has surrounded the Lakers. Suddenly, they’re the team many are counting out as a viable contender to win the title. This is strange ground for a team that employs Kobe, Pau, and Bynum but here we are anyway.
However, where the outsiders looking in see weakness, those inside must see opportunity to once again exceed expectations. Remember, this is a prideful team that is coming off an embarrassing end to their last season and still possess championship aspirations. The off-season hasn’t been the smoothest but what would Laker basketball be without a little drama?
The Bulls Coming in: The Bulls continue to operate under the radar and I’m sure that suits them just fine. Derrick Rose signs a monster extension, it gets some national press for a day or two, and then everyone is back to talking about Lob City or Kobe’s wrist. They pick up Rip Hamilton to compliment the reigning MVP in the backcourt and it gets a head nod, a few “that’s a good move” tweets, and everyone moves on. Maybe it’s the understated nature of Rose or the fact that the glamour teams are still in Miami and Los Angeles, but in any event, this team just seems to go about its business with few heads turning.
However, now is the time for the Bulls to take the next step as a franchise and try to reclaim the heights that Michael Jordan left as a legacy for this team and that city. As mentioned, Rose is the game’s MVP, recognized as one of the elite players at any position. Deng has grown into one of the best two way players in the league, a title Jo Noah also possesses. When you add in the offensive virtues of Boozer and Hamilton, the coaching prowess of Tom T., and a solid bench this is clearly one of the teams to beat not only in the East, but in the entire league. Whether they can make the push in this shortened season, when their coach likes to play his starters heavy minutes, remains to be seen. But, make no mistake, they’re primed to make a run. And last year’s experience of falling short to the Heat will only make them stronger in the pursuit of their goals.
Keys to game: The Bulls will give the Lakers everything they can handle as their strengths directly attack the areas where the Lakers can be vulnerable.
Derrick Rose is the game’s premier penetrating guard and he’s surely licking his chops at the thought of being matched up against Fisher or Steve Blake in isolation on the weak side. With Andrew Bynum serving game one of his four game suspension, the issue is only exacerbated as Rose will have one less shot blocking big body to deal with when he put his head down to attack the tin.
The Lakers will need to play Rose smartly by backing off, encouraging him to take his jumper, while also showing him a second defender early and often in possessions when he’s working at the top of the key. In pick and roll situations the Lakers will hedge hard but the key is to try and make Rose pick up his dribble or pass the ball in order to deny him from getting the ball back so he can go back to work. Any possession that ends with a player not named Rose trying to create a shot for himself or a teammate is a step in the right direction.
That said, Rose isn’t the only Bulls weapon. Deng is a fantastic mid-range player that is very effective 18 feet and in both with his jumper and in going to the hoop. He’s not the most athletic player, but he’s smart with his movement and will find creases in the D if they’re made available to him. Ebanks will have his hands full chasing Deng around the court but the Lakers’ 2nd year pro has the length and foot speed to make Deng’s life a bit harder.
Of course, Boozer and Noah also pose problems for most teams. Boozer’s post game is still mostly left handed as he loves to drive to his off hand to try and finish at the rim or pull up after one or two dribbles to shoot his mid-range jumper. When he works the post, he’ll often settle for a fadeaway, but that too is a shot that must be respected and challenged as he can quickly find a rhythm. Noah meanwhile is one of the most active bigs in the league in going to the offensive glass and has great feel when operating in the middle of the floor as a playmaker. He’ll often serve as an outlet for Rose when he’s trapped in the P&R, so the Lakers must be aware of Noah making a catch at the FT line and then either driving hard for a shot at the rim or kicking the ball quickly to a shooter camped out behind the arc. Both Rip Hamilton and Kyle Korver will need to be marked in these instances.
For the Lakers to slow all these threats, they’ll need to have their heads on swivels and move as one on defense. Players off the ball must be aware of where Rose is at all times but also mustn’t get too caught up ball watching as every other starter on the floor can hurt the team should he shake free. The key will be bottling Rose early in the clock, turn him into a passer, and then hope that either Boozer or Deng have to create for themselves against the shot clock. One match up I’d like to see is for Brown to use Gasol on Boozer as he’s had problems with Pau’s length since his days with the Jazz. This would put McRoberts on Noah (edge Chicago), but Josh too is an active player that goes hard every minute he’s on the floor so he may be the best person to throw at the hyperactive Joakim from the opening whistle.
Offensively the Lakers will need to sort out their system and find the creases in one of the stingiest defenses this league has. Thibodeau thrives on containing elite wing scorers like Kobe, so moving #24 around to different parts of the floor and off screens to free him up should be a big part of the plan. Kobe will likely see a lot of Deng, so working the post against a bigger player may not be ideal but I trust Kobe to find what works – especially with his bum wrist – and go from there.
However, the Lakers also need to go inside early and often. Bynum may be out, but Gasol is still one of the premier big men in the league and whether he’s jousting with Noah (likely) or Boozer, he still needs his touches in order to both get his own shot and to facilitate offense from the low post.
Make no mistake, though, the Lakers are a bit shorthanded and will need one of their role players to have a good game if they’re to pull this one out. Blake will need to get hot from the outside or Ebanks will need to hit a few jumpers to loosen up the defense so he can drive (while also creating space for his teammates). MWP will need to hit some shots off the bench and a couple of threes from Murphy wouldn’t hurt either. Basically, it will take a team effort (something I’ll be saying a lot this season).
In any event, enjoy the game. It’s Christmas day, it’s our first real basketball in too many months, and the Lakers are due to win one of these holiday fests, right?
Where you can watch: 2:00pm start time on ABC. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.