Records: Lakers 35-32 (8th in the West), Kings 23-43 (13th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.6 (8th in the NBA), Kings 102.4 (16th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.4 (18th in the NBA), Kings 108.5 (29th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Nash, Jodie Meeks, Metta World Peace, Earl Clark, Dwight Howard
Kings: Isaiah Thomas, Tyreke Evans, John Salmons, Jason Thompson, Patrick Patterson
Injuries: Lakers: Kobe Bryant (doubtful), Pau Gasol (out), Jordan Hill (out for the season); Kings: DeMarcus Cousins (questionable), James Johnson (out)
The Lakers Coming in: First, two significant injury updates to digest. Kobe Bryant is doubtful for this game as he recovers from his severely sprained ankle. The fact that he played at all against the Pacers defied expectations and by the 2nd quarter he pulled himself from the game due to the fact he could not put any weight on his foot. When he’s back remains an open question but I imagine him sitting out today and tomorrow and returning on Friday is most likely right now. The other not so good injury news, Pau Gasol experienced pain in his foot after a 2-on-2 workout yesterday and is seeing a foot specialist to determine the issue. There were hopes he’d return today or (more likely) tomorrow, but that looks less likely now. As with Kobe, resting until Friday could be in the cards and that’s if everything checks out okay when he sees the doctor. Here’s hoping for the best.
The Lakers are coming off one of their best wins of the season against the Pacers. Not only should that win inspire confidence in the players who had to step up with Kobe and Pau out, but it also kept the Lakers in the 8th spot for another day (the Jazz beat Memphis last night which leaves them a half game behind the Lakers coming into tonight). In other words, that was a huge win and continues the Lakers down the path of redemption from their early season woes. They’re still a flawed team and on any given night they’ll struggle, but they’re also improving in ways that really matter — with better execution and adherence to the plan evident nightly. Dwight Howard is looking fully healthy and is doing so many little things better on defense that he’s literally one and a half times the player he was early in the year. With Nash finding his comfort zone and the bench players tuned into what they need to do each night, this group is becoming more reliable not just in terms of production, but in terms of approach.
The Kings Coming in: Since losing 6 games in a row from the middle to late February, the Kings have won half of their last 8 games. Their effort and focus has been better and with those improvements the results have improved as well. Who’d have thunk it?
The Kings have also made some personnel moves to help solidify their rotation and ensure that players’ roles were well defined. Aaron Brooks was waived and that allowed head coach Keith Smart to clean up his point guard rotation with Isaiah Thomas now the full time starter. The Kings also traded their most recent lottery pick Thomas Robinson to the Rockets in exchange for Patrick Patterson. Robinson was Houston’s starter but has become the Kings third big man behind Cousins and Jason Thompson.
As for the “old” Kings, this team is still hoping to build around the talents of Tyreke Evans and Cousins. Evans has been quite solid this season, recapturing some of his rookie season form. He’s scoring well on efficient shooting and, though his assists are down, has found a nice role playing off the ball more as a shooting guard. Cousins, meanwhile, continues to have a career trajectory that is in no way a straight line. He flashes his enormous talent often, but has also built up a reputation with the referees that impacts his game almost nightly. This has led to too many suspensions and ejections, which, in turn keep him from ascending to the franchise player the Kings hope he can be. Of course, there are still holes in his game as he still has trouble finishing inside and will too often settle for the long jumper.
All in all, the Kings remain a work in progress and the hope — as it’s always been — is that one or more of their young players makes the leap to be a franchise changer. If that’s neither Cousins or Evans, the Kings will get another shot in the lottery this season. Oh, and of course, all of this happens while there’s a fight to try and keep the team in Sacramento as prospective buyers try to move the team to Seattle. Not an easy time to be a Kings fan, that’s for sure.
Keys to game: Both these teams are banged up, but both are also coming off very good wins (the Kings thrashed the Bulls on Wednesday) and are playing some of their best basketball of the season. So while it’s easy to say the Lakers should win this game, that will still be dependent on their ability to come out and play with purpose while executing at a high level.
With or (likely) without Kobe, the Lakers’ offense will need to rely heavily on Nash creating in the P&R and Howard’s ability to dominate the paint against a good Kings front line. Whether Cousins plays will affect how deep the Kings go in their front court, but his absence won’t tip the scales as they’ll still go at least three deep with Patterson, Thompson, and Chuck Hayes. It’s the latter player who is an interesting variable here as he is a very good defensive big man who loves to use his strong lower half and quick hands to disrupt big men who love to play in the paint. If Howard does see a lot of Hayes, he’ll need to a better job of not exposing the ball or he will get it stripped away when going up for his hook or when rising up to dunk.
Getting back to Nash, however, he’ll have a smaller defender on him in Thomas and will need to attack him all night to keep the Kings’ defense off balance. Sacramento is one of the poorer defensive teams in the league and penetration with good ball movement will break them down consistently, which should feed into what Nash wants to do on any given possession. If he can get into the paint off the P&R and create good looks for himself while also picking out shooters around the arc, the defense will loosen up and that should only create more opportunities for Howard inside.
Defensively, the Lakers are going to have their hands full tonight simply based off the types of players the Kings have on the perimeter. In Thomas, Evans, and Thornton, the Kings possess multiple attack players who thrive in isolation but can also work out of the pick and roll as scorers. With the Lakers being a poor isolation defensive team, the big men will need to help early and often to ensure that none of those players have free reign to get into the paint and score easily. Once the bigs commit to help, the other wings must drop down to the paint to help on the glass and then recover back out to their own men in order to get back to shooters.
As for the Kings big men, both Thompson and Patterson can shoot out to 18 feet and must be respected out there. Howard will need to balance his desire to play in the paint defensively with the fact that his man will try to draw him away from the hoop to open up the middle for penetration. Look for Dwight to guard Thompson early as he’s the more paint oriented player of the two and that will leave Ron guarding Patterson. Both can be difficult covers when they get their offense going, so Ron and Dwight must be at the top of their defensive games tonight.
The other battle that will be worth watching is that of the reserves. I’ve already mentioned Thornton, but Jimmer Fredette and Tony Douglass also come off the Kings bench and both are capable of hitting shots at a high clip if left open. Those three will need to be guarded closely and not allowed to find their shots, turning the game into a shootout in the process. The Lakers reserves will need to do strong work on the defensive end while also finding ways to create enough offense for themselves. If Kobe doesn’t play, that removes a key shot creator and that will make Blake and Jamison carry a heavier load as shot makers (and Blake as a creator) in this game.
Tonight is the first game of a back to back and is a game the Lakers desperately need to keep pace in the playoff chase. And, as stated earlier, while they’re playing a team that’s had a poor year, lately they’ve been much better. The effort the team showed against the Pacers on Friday is very much needed in this game.
Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.