Records: Lakers 17-23 (12th in the West), Bulls 23-16 (5th in the East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 106.0 (6th in the NBA), Bulls 100.1 (21st in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.6 (T 18th in the NBA), Bulls 98.0 (4th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard
Bulls: Kirk Hinrich, Richard Hamilton, Jimmy Butler, Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah
Injuries: Lakers: Steve Blake (out); Bulls: Derrick Rose (out), Luol Deng (questionable)
The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers continue to show that they’re not a real contender yet and, with losses like the one to the Raptors, that they may not be one all season. The positives that were on display in wins against the Cavs and Bucks (as well as the loss against the Heat) were non-existent against the Raptors yesterday. The defense failed, the offense failed, and the team — though willing to fight back at the end — failed again. They’ve dipped to 12th in the conference in the midst of their recent skid (the Mavs have passed them for 11th) and there seems to be few reasons to believe this team will turn it around beyond the star studded top of the roster and the cache that the Laker brand brings historically.
This assessment may sound harsh but it is today’s reality. Be it coaching or roster construction, the pieces simply do not fit together very well often enough to sustain good play on offense. Defensively, they lack the talent to guard well and that has brought on a cross-matching and switching style of D that rarely works over the long haul. It’s one thing to break out a defensive switch for several possessions or even a playoff series, it’s another to build an entire defensive attack around hiding a player over the course of an entire season. This is, after all, the NBA and there are capable players in every starting lineup that can hurt you if given enough time to gameplan for how to maximize them.
Where this team goes from here remains to be seen. Tonight’s game is the literal halfway point of the season and the best the Lakers can close the night is 5 games under the .500 mark. There’s still time to make up ground and start to find their stride, but it’s hard to believe — based off recent play — that this team will find that elusive positive momentum. Said another way, in season’s past, when the Lakers have been a good team, I’ve preached not judging them by their worst days as every team has those lows. Well, now that the Lakers seem to be a bad team, I think it’s only fair to say don’t judge them on by their best days. Just because they’ve shown they’re capable of playing well doesn’t mean that will last. This season’s record, regardless of reasons, is proof of that.
The Bulls Coming in: If you’re looking for a model of how a team needs to perform when they have a bunch of excuses to play poorly, simply look at the Bulls. Their best player and former league MVP hasn’t played a game this year while recovering from a torn ACL. Their front office, in what can only be described as a short sighted strategy to cut payroll, gutted one of the best benches in the league by letting key free agents walk and trading their best shooter. They’ve had other nicks and bruises as well that could have (and probably have) cost them some games.
Guess, what? None of that has derailed their season. They still have the 5th best record in their conference and sit 7 games over .500. Carried by Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, and coach Tom Thibodeau, this team simply continues to play hard and push through to get wins. They play lock down defense and try their best to play to their strengths on offense. Thibs has been able to turn guys like Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli into every day contributors, has gotten second year pro Jimmy Butler to play to his potential, and has ridden his veteran leaders to be the examples of how they need to play. The coach is not without his flaws (his heavy minute approach to some of his key performers may catch up to this team), but he’s been effective. More than effective, in fact.
Keys to game: The Lakers are on the 2nd night of a back to back, but at least one Laker should be well rested. After getting ejected in the 2nd quarter yesterday, Dwight Howard should have plenty of energy to play with tonight.
Dwight is always important to the Lakers’ chances but tonight that’s even more true. Tonight he matches up against Joakim Noah, who will give Dwight everything he can handle through his unrelenting energy and smarts. Noah’s activity on defense, the glass, and in the Bulls half court offense will keep Dwight occupied all over the floor and he will need to respond with the same intensity his opponent brings in order to not be outworked.
Furthermore, Dwight will need to put his mark on this game offensively through getting some much needed points. In the last two contests, Kobe Bryant has pretty much stunk offensively. Maybe it’s the energy he’s expending on D, but his jumper has been off and his willingness to attack the paint hasn’t been there consistently. And while Kobe has vowed to start to hit the shots he’s missing, the fact is that he’ll need help from his big man partner; from the supposed next face of the franchise. Dwight will need to work to establish the deep post and his teammates will need to look for him when he’s open. Too often the Lakers’ failures have been related to miscues where passes are either forced when no one is open or deferred to launch long jumpers when someone is open. They can’t make that mistake tonight against an active Bulls defense.
Defensively, the Lakers must find a way to hunker down and be attentive. With Rose out and Deng questionable, there aren’t a lot of name players left to inspire this team. Instead the Bulls will rely on ball movement and teamwork (and some streakiness from Nate Robinson and Belinelli) to get them going. The Lakers must lockdown on those guys while also moving together, as a team on D to slow the Bull attack. They’re not the most reliable offense (even with Deng in the lineup) but any team can score points against an unreliable defense (like the Lakers have been this year). L.A. must clean it up or they will suffer.
There’s really nothing else to be said about this Laker team that we haven’t said multiple times this year. At some point they have do more than just talk about what they can be and, instead, must go out on the floor and be that team. Losing can cause the type of fraying that we’ve seen, with barbs tossed into the media scrums that be spun into the wire that can divide a team. At some point they’ll need to find the positive chemistry they need to mend their issues in order to move forward together. If they look across the floor tonight, they’ll see a team they can emulate. Here’s hoping they find some of that spark and use it get a win tonight.
Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time TWC Sportsnet and TNT. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.