Records: Lakers 8-8 (7th in the West), Magic 5-10 (11th in the East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.4 (5th in the NBA), Magic 95.5 (29th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 98.7 (8th in the NBA), Magic 101.2 (15th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Darius Morris, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard
Magic: E’Twaun Moore, Arron Afflalo, Maurice Harkless, Glen Davis, Nikola Vucevic
Injuries: Lakers: Steve Nash (out), Steve Blake (out); Magic: Hedo Turkoglu (out), Jameer Nelson (questionable), Al Harrington (out)
In past seasons, a battle between the Lakers and the Magic meant a battle of the league’s top big men. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum would anchor the paint against Dwight Howard and everyone would get their money’s worth as these guys traded blows from the low block. That, of course, is the past. Dwight Howard is now wearing Laker colors, Bynum is in Philly, and Pau, while still here, is battling tendonitis in his knees and has been a perimeter based big for most of this season.
Howard’s move to Los Angeles from Orlando is surely the main story heading into this game. It’s the first time the former #1 overall pick is facing his former team and, after the messy way he left the organization, their reunion on the court as adversaries makes this the biggest subplot of what would otherwise be an ordinary contest. For what it’s worth, Howard seems to understand how badly things went and his part in that. I’m sure this matters not at all to Magic fans, however. They’re out their franchise center and have to watch a rebuilding team each night.
And it’s that last point that really matters for me. This is a Magic team that’s really struggling right now. They play hard, but have lost their last three games and seven of their last ten. Injuries have hurt them as Jameer Nelson has battled achilles soreness, Al Harrington is dealing with a staph infection, and Hedo Turkoglu is out with a broken hand. Those are three of the Magic’s top eight rotation players and even though first year head coach Jacque Vaughn is proving he’s an able sideline tactician, his team simply lacks talent right now.
What this means for tonight is that the Lakers are facing a team that’s not very good at the moment but will likely be extra motivated not just because of who’s starting at center for the Lakers but to also end their losing streak. The Lakers must be prepared to match their energy early and then use their superior talent to wear them down over the course of the game.
Strategically, there are a few things the Lakers must be aware of. The Magic have had issues shooting the ball lately, especially from distance. Even with marksmen like Reddick and Afflalo on the roster, the Magic lack the inside presence or penetrating guard to open up space on the perimeter to free guys up to get good looks. The Lakers would be wise to make non-shooters hit shots from deep, but also, in general, play tight on the perimeter and not let guys get the types of easy shots that will build their confidence.
As mentioned, the Magic don’t have a lot of classic post playing big men to threaten the paint in one on one matchups. Vucevic, Davis, and Ayon all have good qualities to their games but none of them are the type you can throw the ball to on the block and tell them to get you a basket consistently. This means the Lakers’ bigs must be aware of how these guys want to hurt them and be prepared to have to hedge/recover in pick and rolls while also helping on penetration and then recovering back to their man on drop off passes. These types of actions will also require the rest of the D to be active and quick in their own rotations especially when helping the helper on penetration.
Offensively, the Lakers should be much less concerned about exploiting matchups and instead focus on their system. As they did against the Nuggets, the Lakers can generate good shots if they simply move the ball on to the open man while staying aggressive in looking for their own shot when it’s there. Nearly every Laker has an advantage over the man who will be guarding him and that will make it easy to fall into the trap of playing one on one against an opponent that’s perceived to be weaker. That would be a bad idea. Any defense can gear up to stop isolation ball, but almost all will struggle with quick smart passes to teammates in space.
Emotions will be high in this game but the Lakers must find a way to engage themselves in the game while not getting caught up in the hype. If they simply play their game, they should win this contest. Play smart (avoid turnovers, don’t look to do more than you need to) and disciplined basketball and they should be just fine. Do the opposite and a team that’s likely looking to extract some revenge will be ready to pounce.
Where you can watch: 6:30pm start on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.