Records: Lakers 15-15 (10th in the West), 76ers 14-17 (9th in the East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 106.7 (6th in the NBA), 76ers 100.4 (19th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 102.7 (T 17th in the NBA), 76ers 102.6 (T 15th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Nash, Darius Morris, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard
76ers: Jrue Holiday, Jason Richardson, Evan Turner, Thadeus Young, Lavoy Allen
Injuries: Lakers: Steve Blake (out), Chris Duhon (questionable); 76ers: Andrew Bynum (out)
The Lakers Coming in: For the first time all season, the Lakers are playing good ball over an extended stretch. With Nash back in the fold, the Lakers’ O is generating good looks in a variety of different sets. Their defense, while still needing work, has been locked in for longer stretches of games and getting enough stops (especially on key possessions) to keep their head above water. It’s not the cleanest formula and over time the defense will need to improve, but as we’ve been saying for weeks this team needs every win they can get no matter how they come. The fact that they’ve won 6 of 7 is a nice way to start to make up some ground in the standings (at least against the bottom tier teams in the playoff chase).
One of the more interesting recent developments is the continued growth of Darius Morris as a defensive presence in the starting lineup. Morris is naturally a PG but has been slotted at SG between Nash and Kobe on the perimeter. Against the Blazers, Morris did a good job chasing Lillard around the court and after the game Mike D’Antoni commented that Morris’ contributions on D are really helpful — especially to Nash who can be moved onto a lesser offensive player while Morris chases point guards all over the floor. If Morris can continue to be a reliable defender of PG’s (one of the deepest positions in the NBA), it could really help the Lakers become stronger on that end of the floor. Only time will tell, but the early results are somewhat promising.
The 76ers Coming in: The Sixers are in the middle of a grueling 8 game road trip and are only 1-3 so far. Since they played they played the Lakers on December 16th, they are only 2-5 and have lost 8 of their last 10. In other words, this team is struggling. But don’t take my word for it, from the latest game recap (a loss to the Blazers on Saturday) at Liberty Ballers:
No one should be surprised why this team is struggling. It’s the same reasons as always: bad shot selection, too many long 2 point shots, complete lack of an interior presence on both ends of the court (aka a lack of Andrew Bynum), a low free throw rate, poor shooting %, etc.
Philly still has a fair amount of talent and even sitting 3 games below .500, they’re still right on the verge of being a top 8 team in the East. That said, they could really use that former Laker big man in the pivot (no, not Kwame Brown, the other one with the great hair) to anchor them in the paint. Their perimeter players are finding it more and more difficult to generate good looks on the wing without a big man to draw the attention of the defense (sorry, Spencer Hawes), putting a lot of pressure on Jrue Holiday, Jason Richardson, Nick Young, and Evan Turner to be really good every night. When those guys aren’t, they lose. And, lately, they’ve not been as good as they need to be.
Keys to game: When these teams met in Philly a couple weeks ago, Jrue Holiday, Pau Gasol, and Steve Nash all missed the game. Tonight all three will be in their team’s respective lineups and that should change the approach of both sides.
For Philly, having Holiday back to orchestrate their offense is major. He’s been their best player this season, leading them in points and assists. His combination of size and quickness give team’s fits and the Lakers will have to be aware of his ability to attack off the dribble and create shots for himself or his teammates. This is where Morris’ aforementioned value will be put to the test. Morris has a similar physical profile as Holiday and his ability to stay with ball handlers in isolation situations is one of his strengths defensively. If Morris can do even an adequate job of keeping up with Holiday on the wing, the rest of the Laker D can focus on slowing down Philly’s other weapons.
Of the remaining Sixer players, the Lakers must really mark Richardson, Turner, and Thad Young. If Morris guards Holiday (as expected), Nash will likely start on Richardson. J.R. is mostly a three point shooter at this stage of his career but still has the ability to work off screens for catch and shoot chances inside the arc, can put the ball on the ground against rushed close outs, and possesses a fine post up game. Nash will have his hands full chasing him around and banging with him on the block, so the Lakers’ help schemes and rotations will need to account for this matchup.
As for Turner and Young, both are active on the glass and are best working 18 feet an in with mid-range shots and aggressive drives to the paint. Turner has shown improved range on his jumper to include three point shots, but that’s still the type of FGA you want him taking, so rushing to him out there and allowing him to get by the D and near the paint would be a mistake. Make him hoist long jumpers and live with the results. It’s much better than letting him create take short jumpers or work in isolation where he can be a bear to stop. Young is springy attack player and Gasol will have his hands full with him. Pau will need to box him out and not let him dribble drive to his left hand to get up short shots. If Pau can keep him a jumpshooter, he’d have won this battle.
Offensively the Lakers have two things really going for them: Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant. In the last game, Kobe went off for 34 points on 24 shots. He worked over every defensive player put in front of him, getting almost any shot he wanted from all over the floor. The Sixers don’t really have a wing “stopper” to throw at Kobe so tonight could end up being a similar showing should Kobe remain patient in his work off the ball and make sound decisions by working for good shots when he has the rock in his hands.
As for Howard, the Sixers have a dilemma in trying to slow him. Two weeks ago, Philly put Kwame Brown on Dwight to good early success. Kwame has always been good at one on one D, and against Dwight he used his strength and wide frame to disrupt DH’s power post play. However, playing Kwame gave Dwight the opportunity to roam defensively and disrupt Philly’s attack. In the 2nd half, Doug Collins adjusted by playing Spencer Hawes (a superior offensive player) but that allowed Dwight to find his offensive game to the tune of 12 points on 5-6 shooting in those final 24 minutes. Tonight, Collins will have a similar issue in how he tries to defend Howard with Lavoy Allen and Hawes, or risk having Dwight be even more of a menace on D if Kwame sees extended run. In any event, the Lakers should look for Howard to dive hard in P&R’s and then seal his man under the rim for deep post ups if he doesn’t get the initial pass on the roll.
If the Lakers come out with energy and defensive discipline, their superior talent should win out. They must play with that urgency, however. If they don’t, the Sixers have enough weapons on O to make life hard on the Lakers and keep this game in the balance for the entire 48 minutes. After a solid win over the Blazers, the Lakers need to carry over that mindset and play this game with the proper attentiveness.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.