Records: Lakers 36-33 (8th in the West), Wizards 24-43 (11th in the East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.4 (8th in the NBA), Wizards 97.3 (Last in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.4 (18th in the NBA), Wizards 99.9 (7th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard
Wizards: John Wall, Garrett Temple, Martell Webster, Nene, Emeka Okafor
Injuries: Lakers: Jordan Hill (out for the season); Wizards: Bradley Beal (doubtful), Emeka Okafor (questionable), Ronnie Price (out)
The Lakers Coming in: We covered a fair amount of ground earlier today, but let’s rehash the key points. Kobe and Pau are both going to play tonight, with both returning to the lineup as starters. Reports from practice are that both guys looked good and while Kobe tweeted that his ankle was a bit sore today he says he’ll be good to go tonight. Pau will likely have a minutes restriction tonight, but should still get good work in this evening. Not playing in 6 weeks should translate to some rust in his game, but if he’s able to move around the floor well and show good feel as a passer he’ll be a net positive on both ends of the floor.
Every Laker seems to understand the importance of this stretch run and that should lead to inspired play regardless of their physical state. While the odds favor the Lakers making the post-season, they’ve not clinched anything to this point and that requires they continue to rack up wins. This team adopted a playoff mentality long ago and will need to carry that forward for another 13 games to clinch and then for as long as their ride lasts should they make the 2nd season. After all this team has been through, it’s exciting to think they could finally be coming together to approximate the team they were formed to be. But they must still show it on the floor. With pieces to integrate back in, here’s hoping they don’t get off their stride.
The Wizards Coming in: The Wizards may be 19 games under .500, but they’ve been much better since John Wall returned to the lineup 34 games ago. In that stretch they’ve gone 19-15 including winning 4 of their last 5 games. If looking for a statistical representation of this better play, over their last 20 games they’ve posted an offensive efficiency of 103.7 and a defensive efficiency of 99.6, marks that rank them 17th and 5th in the league, respectively, over that stretch. In other words. since Wall has returned they’ve been playing like a playoff team. A lower seeded one, but one all the same.
Wall has been a key to their turnaround with his quickness and shot creation on offense combined with the ability to cover a lot of ground and pressure the ball on defense making a big difference. One can only imagine what their record would be if Wall had been healthy all year. But giving Wall all the credit would be unwise. This team plays hard on defense even without Wall and have had several players find solid footing on offense to bolster their attack. Martell Webster has regained his shooting stroke this year, making 45% of his three pointers while Nene and Okafor have anchored their front court with good work in the paint and from the mid-range. Put it all together and this team is one that can beat any team on any night through a combination of effort and underrated talent.
Keys to game: As mentioned above, the Wizards aren’t the doormat their record implies they are. Their positive efficiency differentials over their last 20 games is actually better than what the Lakers have posted and is an indicator of what they’re capable of. That said, they’re likely to be without rookie Bradley Beal (sprained ankle) and may be without starting Center Emeka Okafor (flu) and if neither play that will affect their depth. It should also be noted that the Lakers represent the Wizards 3rd road game of a 4 game trip and their 5th game in 7 nights. Now is around the time fatigue starts to set in for a team, even one that plays as many young players as the Wizards.
The Lakers, though, must ignore the prospect of missing players and/or fatigue slowing the Wizards down and instead focus on the fact that this team is much improved and a dangerous opponent. They offer the type of formula on offense that can hurt the Lakers and that should give them pause. With Wall’s ability to push the pace in the open court and break down his man in isolation in the half court, he’ll likely attack the weakest parts of the Lakers’ D all night. They also have a good shooting swing man in Webster and a big man in Nene who can work the post as well as the mid-range. This trio will put Nash, Kobe, and Dwight in defensive situations that can lead to breakdowns where the entire scheme can be compromised. If all three are allowed to play to their strengths, the Lakers’ D will be in trouble.
The key then is slowing down Wall and ensuring he can’t run roughshod over Nash. The Lakers must get back on D to deny penetration in the open court and buckle down in the half court and not give up the paint off the dribble. If Wall is forced into taking outside jumpers, the defense has done its job in stage one. Stage two is ensuring that Nene doesn’t find his groove in the post nor allowed to take uncontested mid-range jumpers. Stage three is sticking to Webster on the perimeter and not allowing him to get hot where he can keep the game close through made 3′s. Slow down guys like Ariza, Booker, and Seraphin in their aggressive moves off cuts and in going to the offensive glass and that’s a formula for turning what’s been an average Wizards’ offense of late into the cellar dweller they were before Wall returned.
Offensively the Lakers will have to find a way to integrate Pau while also adjusting back to having Kobe in the fold. Both are guys who have been decision makers with the ball in their hands this season and finding a way to allow them back into those roles without disrupting the flow Nash, Dwight, Jamison, and Blake have been in is a major key. Finding the balance between pick and rolls, post ups for Kobe, Pau, and Dwight, and HORNS sets with Pau as a passer from the high post is paramount. There will be some hiccups along the way, but getting everyone going should be part of tonight’s plan.
My suggestion would be to play pick and roll early with all 4 on the floor and then going to more post oriented options with Nash and Dwight sit out. If Kobe and Pau can rekindle their chemistry quickly, exploring P&R options with them is also something worth exploring. A lot of this will depend on Pau and how explosive Kobe can be when turning the corner, so we’ll just have to see how those variables play out as the game advances.
It goes without saying that, at this point, all games are important simply from a win/loss standpoint. However, this game is also important as a building block towards the stretch run in terms of finally having every player (save Hill) back in the lineup and ready to go. We can’t expect them to be firing on all cylinders tonight, but the hope is that they’ll show enough flashes.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.