Records: Lakers 23-26 (10th in the West), Celtics 25-23 (8th in the East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.3 (8th in the NBA), Celtics 100.2 (T 20th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 102.8 (16th in the NBA), Celtics 99.9 (T 6th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace,
Antawn Jamison, Earl Clark, Dwight Howard
Celtics: Courtney Lee, Avery Bradley, Paul Pierce, Brandon Bass, Kevin Garnett
Injuries: Lakers: Pau Gasol (out), Jordan Hill (out for the season), Dwight Howard (game time decision); Celtics: Rajon Rondo (out for the season), Jared Sullinger (out for the season)
The Lakers Coming in: There can’t be a Lakers’ season without some element of drama, so, in that respect, this season is just like any other. Despite the Lakers winning six of seven and three straight on the road, all the talk coming out of Boston today is whether or not Dwight Howard will play and whether he should play. The media is pitting this question as a battle between Kobe and Dwight and, to a certain extent, there’s some truth in that. I’ve no doubt that Kobe — just like the rest of his teammates and the coaching staff — would prefer Dwight play. There’s an element of “this is what we need, this is what should happen” to this story and, based off the personalities involved, there’s going to be a certain amount of nudging.
However, I also think Dwight’s perspective of *this is his career and only he knows the amount of pain he’s in* has a lot of merit. Ultimately, as I’ve said, it’s Dwight’s call whether or not he plays. This is undeniable and shouldn’t be glossed over as if there’s something wrong with that. There will pressure for him to get on the floor — from his team, from the fans, and probably even from himself — but he must decide what’s best for him. As frustrating as that may be, we’re all better off accepting that.
Of course, one of the reasons the pressure is increasing is the fact that Pau Gasol will be out for an extended period of time with his torn plantar fascia. We’ve gone over this already so we won’t get into how this hurts the Lakers again. But it bears repeating that there’s really no replacing Pau. The best the Lakers can hope for is that Dwight comes back soon and that the other players on the roster (namely Ron, Earl Clark, and Jamison) step up enough to mitigate the loss the best they can.
The Celtics Coming in: Like the Lakers, the Celtics are also dealing with their own injury issues but still finding ways to win games. Five games ago, Rajon Rondo tore his ACL and, with that injury, will miss the rest of the season. It was also recently announced that rookie Jared Sullinger will require back surgery that will also sideline him for the rest of the season. In the face of these injuries, however, the Celtics have won 5 straight games and have climbed back into the playoff race in the East.
For perspective on the Celtics and what they’re doing well recently without Rondo, I turn to Zach Lowe of Grantland:
But while the results of a four-game blip might not matter, the process behind them does, because it tells us how Boston expects to survive offensively without its point guard — and that in turn allows us to make some guesses over whether it will manage to do so.
In a broad sense, Boston is doing two things without Rondo:
• Relying on some tried-and-true sets, mostly involving Pierce and Garnett.
• Constructing an egalitarian, side-to-side offense that involves multiple pick-and-rolls on the same possession, empowers secondary ball-handlers to drive-and-kick, and tries to leverage the elite midrange shooting of Boston’s two healthy core bigs, Garnett and Brandon Bass.
Essentially, the Celtics have been finding ways to be effective on offense even without their all-star point guard while still playing top flight defense. Whether they can continue to play this way as the competition gets stiffer remains to be seen. But the Celtics shouldn’t be counted out yet, just as the Lakers shouldn’t.
Keys to game: Make no mistake, this is a rivalry game. As Kobe told Jackie MacMullan, these games still matter regardless of the struggles each team is currently facing. Plus, as mentioned above, both teams are actually playing well of late, so there’s the sense that even though both teams are short handed, this game will still have a quality and edge to it.
At this point, I have to assume that Howard will not play. If he does, this changes the match ups dramatically, but with nothing clear coming from him after the shootaround (besides his frustration with his injury and all that comes with it) we need to move on and act as if he won’t be available.
This means the Lakers will need to match up with the Celtics’ small lineups on both ends of the floor. With KG playing Center, the odds are that he’ll either be defended by Earl Clark or Ron (my guess would be Ron while Clark chases Pierce around the perimeter if recent trends hold). KG has become almost exclusively a jump shooter at this point in his career, mostly operating out of the P&R by popping out to the wing to get open looks. The Lakers will need to be aware of KG slipping into open space and be ready to rotate to him when he breaks free after the C’s run this action. Rotations will need to be quick and sharp.
The Lakers will also need to be aware of the C’s ball movement from side to side and try to limit their effectiveness by keeping the ball on one side of the floor. As Lowe intimated in the linked to piece above, the C’s love to run P&R’s on one side of the floor and then pressure the middle of the floor so they can swing the ball to other side and attack a recovering defense. If the Lakers can effectively turn back this action to the sideline and not surrender the middle, they’ll be in much better position to defend the C’s offense.
On the other side of the floor, the Lakers must be as precise as they’ve been all season in how they run their offense. The Celtics start a small-ish back court and that should allow Kobe to work out of his favored spot on the right mid-post. With Kobe working against Bradley, he should be able to back down to find good angles where he can either attack for his own shot or threaten the defense in a way that forces help and opens up the rest of the floor.
When Kobe does pass, his teammates must be ready to act quickly upon receiving the ball. One false step or any hesitation in how they attack the defense will allow a sharp Celtic defense to recover back to the ball. This will only extend the possession and put pressure on the Lakers to create a good shot as the shot clock winds down. Each Laker must be prepared to shoot the open shot or act quickly in moving the ball (either via the pass or off the dribble) to create a good shot for themselves or another teammate.
This is where Nash will be very important. He’ll be matched up against a very good defender in Courtney Lee and will not have many advantages offensively. However, against a very help conscious defense, Nash will have opportunities to attack against defenders that are running out to him and he must take advantage of these chances to create makable shots in the mid-range and at the rim. Remember, the C’s don’t have a lot of rim protection besides KG and they can be taken advantage of when the ball is moved quickly into the creases of the defense. Shots in the paint won’t be easy to come by due to the C’s ability to close down the lane, but once the D is penetrated those shots will be high percentage ones. Acting smartly and with purpose should yield such attempts.
Neither team is operating at 100% and that should mean a knock down, drag out affair where a key play here or there will likely determine who makes a run or who wins the game outright. The Lakers need to seize those chances in a hostile environment against a team who, just by the name on the front of their jersey, are the natural enemy. A win tonight would go a long way in keeping the Lakers’ spirits up — especially in the face of the drama that’s circling. And with a game tomorrow night, a win would also give them that extra boost of energy they’ll need for the back to back.
UPDATE: Andrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports has reported that Dwight Howard plans to play tonight. Obviously this affects the game plan, if he does suit up. Having Dwight roaming the middle means the Lakers can play more traditional lineups and adds a great presence in the paint on both ends of the floor. Having Dwight means the Lakers can run more P&R with Nash/Kobe and Dwight. It also means the Lakers may be able to get the Celtics into foul trouble and test their big man depth. Defensively, Dwight can help stifle the C’s P&R attack and, hopefully, aid in the team’s ability to keep the ball on one side of the floor while also helping in the middle should the C’s break containment and get into the paint. Even if Dwight’s not at his best physically, his presence alone would be huge.
Where you can watch: 5:00pm start time on TNT. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.
Extra: Just to get you in the mood…