Records: Lakers 34-31 (8th in the West), Hawks 34-29 (7th in the East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.8 (8th in the NBA), Hawks 102.1 (16th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.6 (18th in the NBA), Hawks 101.4 (10th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Earl Clark, Dwight Howard
Hawks: Jeff Teague, DeShawn Stevenson, Josh Smith, Anthony Tolliver, Al Horford
Injuries: Lakers: Pau Gasol (out), Jordan Hill (out for the season); Hawks: Jeff Teague (questionable), Lou Williams (out for the season), Zaza Pachulia (out)
Keys to game: Since these two teams played 5 games ago, the Lakers have gone 4-1 (including 4 wins in a row) while the Hawks have gone 1-4 (including 3 losses in a row; 6 losses in their last 7 games). In that stretch, the Lakers have played mostly lottery bound teams, had some close scares, but then played quite professionally the past two wins over the Bulls and Magic. The Hawks, meanwhile, have played mostly highly regarded playoff teams and had a few close games but have mostly suffered double digit defeats.
Based solely off recent events, the Lakers should be slightly favored even though the game is in Atlanta. And while both teams played last night, the Hawks sat their starters for most of the 4th quarter against the streaking Heat and the Lakers’ starters — who did play heavy minutes — got plenty of in game stoppages due to Dwight Howard’s parade to the free throw line. Basically, fatigue shouldn’t be a problem though Atlanta may be without Jeff Teague who rolled his ankle against the Heat and is questionable (updates to come once we know for sure).
Because these two teams just played, there’s really not much new to add about what the Lakers need to do to win this game. The last contest saw Dwight Howard control the paint, Kobe work in isolation against Josh Smith to good success, and Steve Nash play a very good second half. On the Hawks side, they rode good shooting nights from Smith and Horford to keep the game within striking distance while exploiting the threat of Kyle Korver coming off screens to create good looks in the half court. With a hot shooting Devin Harris sprinkled into the 2nd half, the last game was pretty close with a Kobe dunk, another finish in the lane, and a defensive stop being the difference.
Tonight, then, the Lakers focus should be going back to the things that worked in the last game while paying extra attention to the things that Atlanta did to hurt them. Looking for Dwight against their big man rotation would be a good place to start with Dwight having physical advantages over the various defenders he’s likely to see. Looking for Kobe against Smith is also an option to explore, though after dealing with Deng and Afflalo to mixed results, another long and active defender may again slow him down. In any event, the Lakers have advantages on offense, especially when using the P&R, and should look to exploit those until the Hawks prove they can stop that play and the derivative options off it.
Defensively, the Lakers must do a better job guarding all the screen actions the Hawks like to run. I’ve mentioned the Korver pin down action already, but the Hawks also love a big to big screen between Smith and Horford where big Al sets a screen at the elbow, slips to the rim hard with Smith delivering a lob for an easy finish. The Lakers must recognize this play as it develops and sit back in the paint to not allow Horford to release cleanly. Make Smith a shooter and not a passer and take your chances with a below average jumpshooter firing away from 16 feet.
Another thing to watch for will be substitution patterns, especially on the Hawks’ side. In the last game, head coach Larry Drew played long stretches with ineffective offensive players like Pachulia and Johan Petro at Center with DeShawn Stevenson starting at SG. Lineups with any combination of those three were awful offensively (surprise!) and allowed the Lakers to create the separation the Hawks battled back against all game. Tonight Pachulia isn’t expected to play and in his place Anthony Tolliver — a floor spacing PF — could start instead. This should help the Hawks offensively, but puts stress on their defense with Horford defending Dwight on an island. If Horford can’t defend without fouling, we’re likely to see Petro again and that should allow Dwight more defensive freedom as a roamer and helper on all those screen sets the Hawks like to run.
A win tonight would not only equal the Lakers longest streak of the year (5 games), it would ensure a winning road trip before the team visits the Pacers on Friday. It would also prove to be another quality win under less than ideal circumstances (2nd night of a back to back) against a team who will surely be seeking revenge for the close loss 10 days ago. Things are finally clicking for this team, let’s see if they can keep it going.
UPDATE: Mike Trudell of Lakers.com is reporting that Jeff Teague has been ruled out tonight. And, if that wasn’t enough, Mike Bresnahan of the LA Times is reporting that Josh Smith has also been ruled out due to a knee issue. Both players being out will severely test the Hawks’ depth and greatly improves the Lakers chances at getting a win tonight.
I’d guess that Devin Harris will start in Teague’s place and that Kyle Korver will start in place of Smith. Both are quality replacements and as mentioned above, were key fixtures in the last game these two teams faced off. Both are very good offensive options with Harris being a solid defender who offers a bit more size than Teague. That said, two bench players moving up to the starting group with Pachulia also out will mean heavy minutes for the starters and some key minutes going to lesser talented players when the Hawks are forced to play their reserves.
Where you can watch: 4:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.