Records: Lakers 8-4 (3rd in West), Cavaliers 5-5 (8th in East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 103.1 (13th in NBA), Cavaliers 103.2 (12th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 97.8 (5th in NBA), Cavaliers 102.1 (14th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Matt Barnes, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Cavaliers: Kyrie Irving, Anthony Parker, Omri Casspi, Antawn Jamison, Anderson Varejao
Injuries: Lakers: Steve Blake (out), Derrick Caracter (out), Josh McRoberts (questionable), Troy Murphy (probable); Cavaliers: none
The Lakers Coming in: Let’s start with the good news first. The Lakers have won 4 in a row, Kobe is rolling, and the team expects to get McRoberts, Murphy, and Kapono back tonight. Frontcourt depth has been lacking of late and the return of these guys couldn’t come sooner. This is especially true for McRoberts, whose energy, athleticism, and ability to run the floor has been a great boost to a 2nd unit that’s had difficulty generating easy baskets. Not to mention his hustle and hard-nosed play was missed on the glass and on defense, where he was always around the ball trying to make a positive play. Hopefully his toe allows him to play to his full ability, but even if that’s not the case right away, just having him back at all means a better frontcourt rotation for Mike Brown and less strain on Pau and Bynum.
Now for the bad news: Steve Blake is out with a fracture of the cartilage that connects the ribs to the sternum. Early reports have him listed as “day to day” but also that he’s unlikely to play tomorrow vs. the Clippers. Losing Blake is blow to this team as he’s been the Lakers best three point shooter and their best point guard by a fair amount. He’s really found his shot this season and to miss him for any amount of time hurts. In his place, rookie Darius Morris will back up Fisher, so we’ll finally get the long look at him that we’ve wanted. Morris is an intriguing prospect and has shown flashes of an NBA-ready game whenever he’s gotten minutes, but has also shown a tendency to over-dribble and a penchant for rookie mistakes. Now, though, he’ll get steady burn for at least the next two nights and a chance to show that maybe he should stick in the rotation.
The Cavaliers Coming in: After “The Decision,” many thought it would be a long time before the Cavs would compete for anything of substance – even a playoff berth. After all, you don’t have the core of your franchise and one of the best players in the league walk away for nothing and recover easily. Well, I’m not saying all the pundits were wrong, but this team is on the right track towards rebuilding, currently possessing the 8th best record in the East, one-half game up on the Boston Celtics.
And while it’s early and this isn’t likely to hold for the entire season, the Cavs are a much tougher out right now than anyone anticipated, and it’s because they’ve found two strong rookies from this past draft and have their veterans playing strong ball. In his must read rookie watch column, David Thorpe had this to say about #1 overall pick Kyrie Irving:
The Cavs knew they were getting a player who would one day be their floor general, as it was always clear Irving knew how to run a team. But they also hoped he would be able to score. Contrary to popular belief, there is nothing wrong with a point guard who can score (as opposed to a point guard who can only score). Irving is proving he’s not just an assertive shooter but someone who can break his man down and get into the teeth of the defense for buckets, fouls or dishes.
In his last game, Irving put up 26 points and 6 assists (as well as 6 turnovers) in a win over Phoenix. There’s still some growth needed, but he’s showing a polish and pedigree that a lot of young PGs do not. However, Irving’s not their only prized rook, as Thorpe added this about #4 overall pick Tristian Thompson’s performance against the Jazz:
Crashing the rim for a monster tip dunk? Check. Racing the floor and making a spectacular catch on the run, then being able to stop and set up for dunk? Check again. How about a hard drive from the perimeter twice, resulting in one and-1 finish and one sweet off-hand half hook? Yep, check and check. “Raw” was a term used to define him in June, but there was nothing raw about those plays. If Thompson can prove to be tough to defend one-on-one in the paint or the perimeter, he would rapidly join a small list of bigs with that skill set.
When you add those two youngsters to a solid (if unspectacular) list of vets that includes Jamison, Varejao, Parker, Daniel Gibson, and Ramon Sessions, and have other young players showing improvement (Alonzo Gee and Semih Erden have given them useful minutes), you have a formula for success. Again, whether or not this lasts is up for debate, but right now they’re playing solid basketball and must be taken seriously lest you want to take an L after 48 minutes.
Keys to game: The Lakers’ formula for getting wins has been pretty simple of late. Let Kobe carry the load on offense, have a couple of players (normally the bigs, but Matt Barnes or Steve Blake are good candidates as well) make some plays down the stretch, and play strong enough defense while rebounding well to be ahead when the final buzzer sounds. And if they go this route tonight, I would not be surprised, as I think (for the most part) that teams ride what works for a while, make adjustments when things go awry for a game or two, and then find their stride again once those issues get sorted out. At least this is what the good teams do and the Lakers are a good team.
That said, the Cavs offer some specific challenges that the Lakers will need to be on top of or risk having their formula not work out. First and foremost is slowing down the Cavs’ PG combo. As mentioned above, Irving is playing very well and were it not for the fantastic play of Ricky Rubio, he’d be the runaway choice for rookie of the year. Then, you have Ramon Sessions who has been in the running for the NBA’s “best backup point guard” for several years. These two combine for about 27 points and 10 assists a night and while that may not sound that impressive, take a look at what the Laker PGs put up combined and tell me this may not be an issue tonight. The Lakers must slow their penetration, make them shoot the ball from the outside (especially Sessions) and force them to give the ball up to their teammates, who aren’t as comfortable making plays for themselves. If the Lakers can effectively force guys like Parker, Jamison, or Casspi to create a shot against the shot clock, they’ll have done their job.
On offense, the Lakers must also be aware that the Kobe show cannot last forever and that they’ll need to diversify their attack. Tonight offers a great chance as Antawn Jamison will start the game guarding either Pau Gasol (likely) or Andrew Bynum (*starts laughing*). Jamison can guard neither of these players effectively and should be picked on as much as possible to make this clear to everyone in the building. Jamison wasn’t a good defender in his prime, but age has now taken away most of his foot speed and a fair amount of his desire, and what’s left is a guy that gives up buckets routinely. So, essentially I’d like to see the ball go into the post against whomever ‘Tawn is guarding and let that player go to work. If that’s Gasol, then all the better, as Varejao’s natural instincts to help will only open passing lanes and offensive rebounding angles for Andrew Bynum (who’s looking for a bounce back game too, by the way).
If the Lakers simply do these things well, hit a couple of three-pointers to keep the defense honest, and get a normal night (not the otherworldly outputs he’s been giving lately) from Kobe, the Lakers should be fine. However, should they think this Cavs team can’t beat them or isn’t talented enough to hang around, they’ll learn rather quickly that’s not the case and they’ll find themselves in a dog fight. Luckily, this Lakers team hasn’t had much complacency in them this season but old habits do die hard. Hopefully, tonight’s not a night they make an appearance.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on Fox Sports West. Also listen live on ESPN Radio 710AM.