Records: Lakers 22-26 (10th in the West), Nets 28-19 (5th in the East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.5 (7th in the NBA), Nets 104.4 (10th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.1 (17th in the NBA), Nets 103.6 (20th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Antawn Jamison, Earl Clark, Pau Gasol
Nets: Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace, Reggie Evans, Brook Lopez
Injuries: Lakers: Dwight Howard (out), Metta World Peace (suspended one game), Jordan Hill (out for the season); Nets: Tornike Shengelia (out), Jerry Stackhouse (questionable), CJ Watson (questionable)
The Lakers Coming in: As we told you earlier, Dwight Howard and MWP are both out tonight. This, of course, is a major blow to the Lakers who are hoping to continue to build positive momentum on their Grammy Road trip. So far the team is 2-1 on the trip and have won 5 of 6 overall. To say things are looking up would be fair, but today’s news obviously levels things out somewhat.
In other “injury” news, it was also reported that Kobe Bryant has a sprained right elbow. Because Kobe is Kobe, he will play through the discomfort and just continue to receive treatment on the joint until the game. How Kobe adjusts to his sore limb (especially since it’s his shooting arm) will remain to be seen, but I’d expect he’ll be just fine. Maybe we’ll see more drives to the rim and less jumpers. Or, since Kobe always seems to surprise, maybe he’ll shoot all jumpers and make them all. In any event, this is something to watch for and monitor as the game goes on.
The Nets Coming in: The Nets are 2-3 in their last five games but have also won 6 of their last 10. This recent part of their schedule has been a pretty difficult stretch with games against the Heat, Bulls, Knicks, and Grizzlies. So, all things considered, the Nets are doing well even though they’ve had a few recent losses.
One of the reasons the Nets have been playing better is the play of Brook Lopez. The recently named all-star (he’s replacing Rajon Rondo) has reminded people that he’s actually a very good player. He’s the Nets leading scorer and rebounder, shoots over 52% from the floor, and has improved his defense to “respectable”. All in all, with the Nets’ offense flowing through Lopez, they’ve found more balance and are beating teams with an inside-out attack that’s difficult to slow down.
Especially as Deron Williams and Joe Johnson start to find their games. In January, Williams played the best basketball of his Nets’ tenure, putting up 18 points with 8 assists while shooting a reasonable percentage from the floor. Johnson meanwhile, matched Williams 18 points and chipped in 4 assists of his own in that stretch. When your backcourt can provide that type of scoring punch and playmaking for others you’re going to be tough to beat. Especially when that production is added to what Lopez provides each night.
The Nets can only hope that their big three keeps it up and that they continue to get solid production from their bench (who have played well this season). If they do, they will make some noise for the remainder of the regular season and into the playoffs.
Nets Blogs: The Brooklyn Game is a great site that has you covered on all things Nets. Check them out.
Keys to game: If both teams were at full strength, I’d argue the Lakers have the upper hand in this match up regardless of where it’s being played. However, we know that’s not the case and the Lakers must adjust to playing shorthanded against a very good home team.
The good news for the Lakers is that their remaining best players — Nash, Kobe, and Pau — play the exact same positions as the Nets trio of Williams, Johnson, and Lopez. There will be a lot riding on these individual match ups and how the Lakers manage will be a big factor in who wins the game.
The last time these two teams played, Nash wasn’t available and Williams took it upon himself to take Darius Morris to school by attacking him offensively. I’d expect similar from Williams tonight as he’ll likely be matched up against Nash. Nash has little chance of slowing Williams (“little chance” is kind) and will need a lot of help against the bigger PG whenever he’s matched up in isolation. The best the Lakers can hope for is that Nash can steer Deron towards help and hope that shots get forced or bad decisions with passes are made when put in compromised positions. That’s essentially a best case scenario, however. What’s more likely is that Deron gets his 20 points (or more), but then the key becomes limiting his assists chances.
This is where the defense that Kobe and Pau play on Johnson and Lopez matter a great deal. In the first game, Lopez had his way with Pau by exposing the Spaniard’s lack of lateral quickness and inability to recover to the perimeter in the pick and pop to contest his jumper. Pau, however, was dealing with tendonitis in his knees and was near his worst physically. The hope is that tonight, Pau is better defensively and is able to use his length to bother Lopez in the post and make his life more difficult by recovering to him quicker to contest his jumper. If Pau is able, this will go a long way towards limiting the Nets’ offensive attack.
As for Kobe vs. Johnson, this is a match up we’ve seen countless times before and one that Kobe typically does okay in. Johnson has good size and his ability to attack off the dribble to get into the paint can bother Kobe. However, Kobe’s shown good ability to contest Johnson’s jumper and challenge his penetration to the point that Joe rarely has a huge game when they face off. Tonight, Kobe will need that trend to continue for the Lakers.
Where the Lakers do have to worry is in the match up of the role players. With Ron out, Gerald Wallace becomes a much more dangerous player and it will be important for Jamison or Earl Clark to slow him down. Wallace has a fine all court game and can do damage from the three point line all the way to the rim. He needs to be marked all over the floor. The rest of the Nets role players offer varying degrees of effectiveness, but all have specific skills that need to be accounted for. Reggie Evans must be kept off the boards (maybe a Robert Sacre sighting would help in this regard). Andray Blatche must not be allowed to get his offensive game going (make him shoot jumpers). If CJ Watson plays, Steve Blake must keep him out of the lane while also contesting his deep jumper well. The battle of the benches/role players could very well decide this game if both team’s stars play to a relative draw.
Offensively, the Lakers must simply continue to do what they’ve been doing by featuring Kobe in the post and playing through Pau from the foul line and down. With Kobe’s elbow issues, it will be interesting to see if he can carry any sort of scoring load or if he’ll simply be content to play facilitator. Either way, he must appear to be a threat on O and would be best served attacking Johnson early in a possession and not have to deal with his size later in the shot clock.
Even if Kobe is scoring well, the rest of the team will also have to play well on offense, especially Pau. With Howard not playing, Pau will have a lot of space to attack Lopez and should take advantage by playing his all court game. If Pau and Nash can find some rhythm in the P&R, it should allow Pau to pop for jumpers and then dive to the block to get post touches while the defense scrambles to recover. That should also allow him to play in space more and not allow Lopez to lean on him for full possessions at a time.
The other key is for the Lakers to hit some outside shots. With Ron out, another Laker (Meeks? Blake? Jamison?) will get ample opportunities to shoot that weak side three pointer that the Lakers’ offense often produces. Whoever is in that corner will need to hit shots to keep the defense honest and to put some much needed points on the board. With the Lakers missing two of their best defenders, being able to keep pace with the Nets will be key and hitting those three pointers will be a big part of that.
Ultimately, the Lakers’ chances of winning this game took a severe hit with both Dwight and Ron ruled out. However, the team still has enough talent to keep this game competitive, should they play to their potential. It will take a total team effort and a big performance from someone besides the big three (Meeks or Jamison, specifically), though. We’ll see if they have it in them.
Where you can watch: 4:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.