Records: Lakers 9-12 (12th in the West), Cavs 4-17 (13th in the East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 106.4 (6th in the NBA), Cavs 97.3 (27th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 101.5 (15th in the NBA), Cavs 106.5 (28th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Chris Duhon, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Antawn Jamison, Dwight Howard
Cavs: Kyrie Irving,
Jeremy Pargo C.J. Miles, Alonzo Gee, Tristan Thompson, Anderson Varejao
Injuries: Lakers: Steve Nash (out), Pau Gasol (out), Steve Blake (out); Cavs: Dion Waiters (doubtful)
While the start times can be difficult for those of us on the west coast, I like it when the Lakers go on the road. The road removes the comforts of home and replaces them with hotels, per diems, and your teammates. The road is where camaraderie can be nurtured and the distractions that come with playing in your own arena can be swept away. The road is where teams can find themselves because that is the only thing they have to rely on. The crowd is not cheering them and the only way you can win is to be more together. So, this trip, while relatively short, is a welcomed one for me in relation to this team even though they’ve not been very good away from Staples.
The Lakers begin this 4 game roadie in Cleveland. Back for the Cavs is 2nd year phenom point guard Kyrie Irving and his devastating offensive repertoire. I say back because Irving has been sitting out with broken finger on his left hand. Now that it’s healed, he’s back in the fray, just in time to play a struggling Lakers’ team. Isn’t that just fitting.
Irving is the Lakers’ chief problem tonight because he’s the engine that makes the Cavs go. This team is 4-17 and that’s indicative of their talent level. But they also hold such a poor record because Irving has missed their last 11 games. I know, I know. That means even with him this team was 2-8, but if you look at their point differential without him, it would be tough to argue that they’d not have won a few more games with him in uniform. And with him playing tonight, the Lakers’ guards are going to have a difficult match up on their hands.
Irving loves to operate in the pick and roll and can be dangerous out of that action regardless of the path he takes. He’s tremendous at finding avenues to the rim once he clears the screen and can hit the jumper when his man cheats underneath the pick to take away the drive. His decision making is tremendous (especially for such a young player) so whoever guards him will have their hands full. I say “whoever” because it’s not yet clear to me that Chris Duhon will be that player. That’s the natural match up, of course, but with Dion Waiters not likely to play, Kobe may get his chance on Irving as well. In fact, this is something I hope to see. Yes, Kobe’s had some issues on D this year but his on the ball work has been much better than his attentiveness off it. Putting him on the PG is the best way to keep him engaged, even though he’ll have to navigate countless ball screens (which is not a strength of his). In any event, we’ll have to see how D’Antoni deploys his defense to contain Irving as he’s the guy that must be stopped.
He’s not the only one, however. Anderson Varejao is having his finest year as a pro, racking up double-doubles with ease and showing off a polished, if limited, offensive game. Andy V. has shown an ability to hit his mid-range jumper and has been excellent at finding the creases in the defense to slip close to the rim and finish shots in the paint. Considering the Lakers have had issues tracking big men who play this style (especially when Dwight is helping on dribble penetration), Varejao and his specific skill set will be a challenge. The team defense will need to be sharp in marking him when Dwight leaves to help, not only to deny him shots, but to also keep him off the boards where he’s been a demon.
Offensively, the Lakers would be wise to attack with ball movement rather than off the dribble. Varejao is great at helping off the bounce and he’s easily in the top 5 of blowing up P&R’s with his lateral quickness and instincts on how and when to move into passing lanes. Rather than looking directly for the roll man, the Lakers should be looking to swing the ball from side to side and then duck the ball into the post as Howard establishes the block after his dive to the cup. Crisp passing and quick post entries can hurt the Cavs severely, but discipline must be shown in this area.
Furthermore, the Lakers mustn’t just fire up three pointers at their whim. Open threes are good shots, but they also let the defense off the hook, especially if they’re early in the shot clock. The Cavs are ranked 28th in defense for a reason. By making them play defense for longer, especially against a moving ball they will surrender good shots. But if the Lakers let them off the hook or let them gear up against countless isolations off the dribble, they’ll have more success. Knowing these things coming in, and executing them in the game are two different things, but the latter needs to happen for the Lakers to win.
And make no mistake, this is a game the Lakers need. The first game of a roadie can set the tone for the entire trip. Winning tonight gets them off on the right foot and sets the table for future games. The Lakers need to bring a defensive mindset and high energy tonight and then carry that over into later contests. Let’s not even discuss the alternatives.
Where you can watch: 4:00pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.