Records: Lakers 4-4 (6th in West), Warriors 2-4 (10th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 104.2 (12th in NBA), Warriors 98.9 (26th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 100.9 (12th in NBA), Warriors 106.5 (22nd in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Matt Barnes, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Warriors: Monta Ellis, Ishmael Smith (Klay Thompson and Brandon Rush are also possible replacements for the injured Stephen Curry), Dorell Wright, David Lee, Andris Biedrins
Injuries: Lakers: Derrick Caracter (out), Josh McRoberts (questionable); Warriors: Stephen Curry (out)
The Lakers Coming In: To observe these Lakers through the prism of conventional wisdom is an exercise in futility. That they’ve lost half of their first eight games, with one true howler in the bunch, is somewhat disappointing, but the stylistic inconsistency they’ve exhibited in arriving at this point is nothing short of infuriating.
The Lakers return home following- stop me if you’ve heard this before- a come-from-ahead loss in the Rose Garden. In and of itself, the 107-96 defeat is hardly a shock- the Lakers have dropped an incredible 24 of 30 regular season games in Portland during the Kobe Bryant era. What is maddening, however, is this team’s ongoing refusal to play to its greatest strength.
It stands to reason that on the heels of a red-hot first half, with Andrew Bynum a perfect 7-for-7 from the field, against a front line that features a defensively average (at best) LaMarcus Aldridge and the two-headed fossil that is Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas, a team would exhaust every avenue to ensure that its star big man saw as much of the ball as possible going forward. The Lakers (namely Kobe Bryant) however, rather than continuing to pound the paint at all costs and allow Bynum to continue his evisceration of the Blazers’ bigs, were content to allow the game’s final 23 minutes to elapse with a mere eight field goal attempts from their MVP candidate* – with catastrophic results.
To lay the entirely (or even the majority) of the blame for Thursday’s defeat at Kobe’s doorstep would be totally irresponsible. The Lakers’ supporting cast- those players not named Bynum, Bryant or Gasol- combined to connect on just eight of 29 shots (27.6%) and missed all seven of their 3-point attempts. Gasol, meanwhile, turned in a performance that is becoming frustratingly commonplace. While he made seven of his 10 shots from the field for 19 points, Pau was essentially a non-factor down the stretch, both offensively (he made three of four in the second half, but c’mon! FOUR attempts??) and on the glass, where he did not manage his sixth rebound until the final two minutes of the fourth quarter, when the game had already been decided.
No, Kobe Bryant, who made 13 of 24 shots (he missed four 3-pointers of his own, however) en route to 30 points and grabbed eight rebounds, is not the primary culprit of this defeat. However, with each passing game (actually just the losses), it becomes increasingly evident that Kobe Bean’s career has come full circle, but in a bizarre manner in which he finds himself once again diverting his attention from the game’s best offensive big man (to the tune of a whopping 38.85 Usage Rate), only this time someone else is the superstar on the ascent.
This is neither a call for Kobe Bryant to surrender his superstar status, nor to resign himself to spending his twilight as a role player. This is, however, an appeal to Kobe to recognize that in order for this team, his team, to legitimately compete for a championship, he must do what Shaq never could- give an inch.
* Yeah, I went there.
The Warriors Coming In: These are not your daddy’s Warriors. These aren’t even your Warriors.
Gone are the fun-and-gun days of Nellyball, when the defensively challenged Dubs would roll into town, pedal to the floor and fight tooth and nail to outscore you, succeeding roughly a third of the time. Oh, they still struggle on defense (22nd in the NBA) and after winning two of three to start the season, they still only win about a third of the time. They just do it more slowly now.
For the second time in six years, the Warriors are not among the NBA’s two most uptempo teams. Thing is, unlike last season, when they played the same style of ball and merely rounded out the top five, this season’s 91.4 possessions per game represent a paradigm shift. A high-IQ floor general in his playing days, rookie head coach Mark Jackson’s first order of business upon sweeping into town this offseason was to seek out the brake pedal. While this new philosophy is likely to pay dividends in the long run, it will take time for Jackson to change the mindset (or the composition) of the roster he inherited. In the meantime, there will be growing pains on D, with fewer opportunities to put points on the board.
Entering the season- as tends to be the case with this team- the Warriors’ biggest strength was expected to be in the backcourt. One half of that unit, Monta Ellis- a man I’ve likened to Allen Iverson– not only ranks (once again) among the league’s hardest working (40 minutes per game), most productive backcourt scorers (23.8 points per game; 22.5 APER, per Hoopdata) and prolific penetrators (making 62.2% of 7.4 attempts per game inside of 9 feet, including 5.4 at the rim), but is enjoying his best season as a facilitator (8.2 assists per game and a career-high 23.78 Assist Rate) and is coming off of a spectacular 38-point performance against the Spurs Wednesday night.
His running mate, however, is another story. The Warriors will be without Stephen Curry for at least two games, after their second-year maestro rolled his left ankle in San Antonio for the second time in the young season, in a rather frightening scene, as he walked the ball upcourt, with no one in his general vicinity. These Warriors aren’t exactly world-beaters with Steph in the lineup. In his absence, with the likes of Ishmael Smith, Klay Thompson or Nate Robinson trying to fill the void, the Dubs’ outlook is bleak.
Warriors Blogs: For the Warriors’ perspective on tonight’s tilt at Staples, check out the excellent Golden State of Mind, as well as Warriors World, one of the web’s best team sites and the domain of FB&G’s own J.M. Poulard.
Key to the game: No brain surgery here. This is a game the Lakers should win with minimal fuss. Which not to say that a strong effort will not be necessary, but with sustained focus in one vital area:
Dominate the interior. Plain and simple. At the moment there is not a defender outside of Central Florida that can stop Andrew Bynum, who’s averaging 22.3 on just 15.3 field goal attempts per game and crashing the boards (15.8 per game; 37% Defensive Rebound Rate, 26% Total) at a higher rate than anyone in the league. The Lakers must feed their beast early and often, as the Warriors have little beyond former Laker Kwame Brown (a big body and decent defender) and Andris Biedrins (big body, not a decent defender) to throw at Bynum on the block.
Additionally, the rest of the Lakers’ Big Three will do well to follow the big man’s lead and head inside, as Pau Gasol will spend much of the evening dueling with David Lee – as bad an interior defender as there is in the NBA – who, should foul trouble or extreme abuse on the defensive end become an issue is back up Ekpe Udoh, potentially a good defender but a total non-factor on offense. Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant is likely to be checked by some combination of Monta/Ish Smith/Klay/Nate Rob/Dorell Wright. ‘Nuff said there.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm local start time on Fox Sports West. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.