Records: Lakers 25-29 (T 9th in the West), Celtics 28-25 (7th in the East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 104.9 (8th in the NBA), Celtics 100.1 (23rd in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.4 (16th in the NBA), Celtics 99.4 (5th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Earl Clark, Dwight Howard
Celtics: Avery Bradley, Courtney Lee, Paul Pierce, Brandon Bass, Kevin Garnett
Injuries: Lakers: Pau Gasol (out), Jordan Hill (out for the season); Celtics: Rajon Rondo, Jared Sullinger, Leandro Barbosa (all out for the season)
The Lakers Coming in: It’s almost weird to talk about the Lakers playing an actual basketball game again. They’ve not played in a week and in that span have had to deal with the questions that come with losing to the Clippers, the constant speculation about Dwight Howard’s feelings about this team and his future with it, and the passing of their legendary owner. What happens tonight, then, will serve as a reprieve from all that’s happened off the court and, at least for two and half hours or so, shift the focus back to what’s happening on it.
For the Lakers that means finding a better brand of consistency for the home stretch. They’ve been winning games lately, but have been doing so in a fashion that doesn’t always inspire confidence. Their defense has been better of late, but their offense has dipped at the same time. Kobe the facilitator is a great way to ensure that ball movement is king, but he and the rest of the team must find a better balance in how they operate on that side of the ball. The team must get back to running more P&R action with Nash and Howard and they must do a better job of executing this action when they do run it. Mix that action in with Kobe in the post and the team may have a higher efficiency formula that can carry them.
Defensively, they must find ways to slow teams on the wing and the bigs must do better in slowing penetration higher on the floor. Like it was when Bynum patrolled the middle, bigs (I’m looking at you Dwight Howard) are sitting well below the pick and inviting the ball handler to attack the paint. That’s been a hit or miss strategy and it needs to be cleaned up with a clear philosophy installed that is stuck to more consistently.
Now is the time for the Lakers to circle the wagons. The team is obviously reeling with the loss of Dr. Buss. Outsiders are ready to pounce with critiques and analysis that is meant to drive a wedge through the locker room. The only thing the team can do now is lean on each other and find a way to persevere and battle through. If they do it together, they can make a run. If they fall back into a mode where roles aren’t accepted, they will not get it done.
The Celtics Coming in: After winning 7 in a row, the C’s have lost two of three including last night’s game to the red hot Nuggets. Eight of their last ten is quite the run though, and they’ve seemed to have found their stride even with their guard rotation hit hard by the injury bug.
While the C’s offense has been getting the headlines in their current streak, it’s really their defense that’s been dominant. Over their last ten games, Boston is posting a defensive efficiency of 94.1 which is over 5 points per 100 possessions better than their already elite D. They are clamping down hard on that end of the floor and smothering teams with their strong side help scheme.
Even with the C’s playing very good ball, trade rumors swirl around them. There are rumors that every key player — KG, Pierce, and Rondo — are all available via trade and while a big move isn’t necessarily likely, it’s indicative of the way that Danny Ainge operates at this time of the year. He’s always looking towards the future — with two of his players in the winter of their careers you can’t blame him — and that means deals will be floated and rumors will fly. And through it all, this team just keeps performing.
Keys to game: In the last match up between these teams, the Celtics blitzed the Lakers will ball movement and hammered them defensively. The Lakers simply weren’t ready for the style of game the C’s played that night and it showed on the floor, on the scoreboard, and in the slumping shoulders of the players. Tonight, the Lakers should be better prepared. At least you’d hope.
Defensively, the biggest adjustment the Lakers can make is how they deal with screens. The Celtics have been running a lot of P&R with Pierce in order to get him free for his mid-range jumper or into the lane where he can collapse the defense and kick the ball out to a shooter. The Lakers bigs must step out higher and take away Pierce’s ability to get off a clean shot while simultaneously taking away access to the paint. Dwight, Earl Clark, or whoever else is the hedge man must be aggressive in stepping out hard and ensuring that Pierce doesn’t find his groove early on.
The Lakers must also be active in the passing lanes and look to make their rotations early in order to disrupt the flow of Boston’s offense. Without Rondo (and to a lesser extent Barbosa), the C’s don’t have a great penetrator that can attack in isolation and get into the lane. So, they’re relying heavily on ball movement to act as penetration with quick passes from side to side and in/out of the post in order to get the defense moving. Rotating quickly to where the ball is going is imperative to defensive success and that will require an awareness and anticipation level that hasn’t been there often this season. But the Lakes should know going in that this is the way that Boston wants to attack on O and will need to act accordingly.
Offensively, the Lakers must understand how to beat the ball pressure the C’s will throw at them. Last game, Avery Bradley hounded Steve Nash all night, knocking him off his spots, disrupting him in the P&R, and funneling him into positions on the floor where there weren’t any obvious escape routes. Tonight, I’d love to see Nash work off the ball early in possessions and then move off picks to make the catch and then use a ball screen to initiate the P&R. The Lakers can accomplish this in a variety of ways, but out of HORNS sets and with Kobe working in the post should be good ways to initiate these actions. If Nash can successfully break free in order get into his favored P&R, the Lakers should see better success than they did the last game.
I’d also like to see more P&R between Kobe and Dwight and/or Earl Clark. Kobe can do work in the post against Courtney Lee on most possessions, but he can be just as big a threat creating off the dribble coming off a screen and surveying the floor up high. Make the C’s defense commit to slowing the strong side attack of the P&R and then slip Nash circling back to the top to create the type of side to side movement that will be needed against this aggressive defense. Kobe can also slither into the lane for finishes at the rim if those opportunities present themselves as the C’s don’t have a shot blocker in the paint to deter shots in close.
Also, don’t discount Dwight’s ability to do damage tonight. In the first game he was able to draw loads of fouls on the C’s front court and that allowed the Lakers to play against an even softer front line and get into the penalty early. If Dwight can roll hard to the rim, run post lane sprints to establish position early, and get some easy baskets by being physical, the Lakers can set the tone for this game from the outset. Dwight can expect to have to operate in a crowd and finish in traffic — and will need to avoid turnovers in the process — but he’s capable of doing that. If he’s active, he’ll get his chances.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet and ESPN. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.