Records: Lakers 37-36 (9th in the West), Kings 27-46 (12th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.3 (8th in the NBA), Kings 103.0 (14th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.7 (18th in the NBA), Kings 108.3 (29th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Nash, Jodie Meeks, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard
Kings: Isaiah Thomas, Tyreke Evans, John Salmons, Jason Thompson, DeMarcus Cousins
Injuries: Lakers: Metta World Peace (out), Jordan Hill (out for the season); Kings: James Johnson (out)
Keys to game: We’ve been saying it for weeks but this is a must win game. The Lakers’ final 8 games are a gauntlet and with the Jazz pulling even in the win loss column (and thus ahead in the standings due to their holding the tie-breaker), wins aren’t about creating a cushion, they’re about getting back into the playoffs. This game against a team who’s actually below them in the standings is one of the last “winnable” games on the schedule.
But even with all that said, the Kings are playing some of their best basketball of the season coming off two good road wins over the Warriors and the Suns. Plus, in their last 10 games they are 6-4 with an offense that is explosive, efficient, and balanced. In this stretch they have 5 players averaging double figures and are getting excellent play from Isaiah Thomas, Tyreke Evans, and DeMarcus Cousins. Combined, that trio is averaging nearly 58 points a night, grabbing 18 rebounds, and dishing out over 13 assists. Add in the scoring punch that Marcus Thornton and Patrick Patterson are providing with solid contributions from Jimmer and Toney Douglas, and this team has potent weapons who can all do damage.
That may spell trouble for a Laker team that’s struggling on defense right now. For those who thought the Lakers would be better without Ron in the lineup, they only need to look at the 230 combined points the Lakers have given up in the two games he’s been out of the lineup. Ron had his issues on both sides of the ball, but his competitiveness and versatility on defense has been missed severely by a team that struggled to get stops even when he was in the lineup. Without him, teams have more defenders to pick on and have been doing so, attacking Meeks, Jamison, and even Clark whenever they enter the game. Add those guys to Nash, Blake, and Kobe (who all have had their woes) and that’s a lot of perimeter holes to plug and not enough backline support to pull it off on most nights.
Look for the Kings to exploit this perimeter defense through isolations and pick and rolls for Thomas, Evans, and Thornton whenever they’re in the game. Nash is questionable with a hip and hamstring issue and while the hope is that he’ll play, he’ll be severely tested when guarding Thomas all night. The ultra quick former Washington Husky can be a dynamic attack player as his recent numbers show. Nash will need to do his best to contain him, but will need adequate help behind him. As will Blake/Meeks when they’re on Thornton. As will Kobe when he’s on Evans (though hopefully not as much since guarding a dribble attack player usually engages Kobe). I think you get my point.
Dribble penetration usually opens up other parts of the offense too so the Lakers will also need to be aware of kick out passes to spot up shooters and the Kings attacking the offensive glass when shots are taken inside. The last time these teams met, Patterson had a field day spotting up for long two pointers. Avoiding a repeat performance will mean paying extra attention to him when he floats around the wing and recovering to him when kick-outs occur. And, as mentioned, the Lakers will also need to be extra attentive on the offensive glass. Cousins is one of the best offensive rebounding players in the league and when his totals are combined with Thompson and Patterson’s they average seven a game. Dwight, Pau, Jamison, and Clark will need to show help but recover the glass to avoid giving this team a lot of extra possessions. The guards will also need to balance covering spot up shooters with digging down to help on the backboards.
Offensively, with Nash and Kobe both banged up, I’m hoping to see a more controlled attack that features the Lakers’ big men more. Pau and Dwight have both been playing fairly well on offense lately and getting them the ball in the post against a Kings group who is not very good on defense should be a priority. I don’t care so much how these actions begin — they can be straight post ups or P&R’s that lead to delayed dump ins — but the bigs must get their touches and given the chance to control the tempo of the game. The Kings will want to push the tempo so controlling the pace of the game through a more power-centric game plan would be nice to see.
Dumping the ball inside would also, hopefully, help control the Lakers’ turnover issues. Kobe and Nash have had a propensity to turn the ball over when looking to make plays out of the P&R, so playing a more inside out game that’s based off the easy entry should help there. This isn’t to say that Nash and Kobe can’t be aggressive (or, if Nash doesn’t play, Blake) but they must make better choices and look to move the ball with purpose and to the clearly open man rather than forcing the issue. And Kobe, in particular, must also better balance his shot taking with moving the ball in general in order to keep the defense guessing. Late in games he’s been too predictable and while that comes down to other players being more assertive (Nash and Pau can’t just give up the ball to Kobe every possession), he must also fight the instinct to go into full on scorer mode and instead look to involves his teammates more late in the game. Especially if the contest is close.
This game may just come down to who can outscore who, but that simply means a key stop here and there will make a world of difference. The Lakers need this game sorely and the Kings would surely like nothing better than to blast one more hole in the hull of what looks to be a sinking ship. The Lakers will need to respond in kind or their night will end with them in an even worse position than when they started.
Where you can watch: 7:00pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.