The Lakers finally return to action tonight, having (hopefully) recuperated and overcome the jet-lag after returning from China on Friday night. The team takes the floor against the Jazz for their first of two games — the 2nd is on Thursday — to close out their preseason action. That’s right, the regular season is just around the corner and with that we’re only a few days away from finally getting to see who makes the final roster.
In terms of tonight’s game, however, there are still some things to look for beyond the battle for that final roster spot. Mark Medina reports reports that Chris Kaman is out (stomach virus) and that Steve Nash is a game time decision with what Mike D’Antoni is calling a “neck thing”. I’ve no clue what a “neck thing” is, but it sounds like Nash had trouble breaking in a new pillow or something. In any event, we’ll see if Nash does suit up, but if he doesn’t it just means more Jordan Farmar and Steve Blake manning the PG spot with a domino effect of likely getting more Meeks and Xavier Henry as SG’s (with Blake manning the “1″ a bit more).
We’re now at the point of preseason where things are mostly decided, with us having a fairly clear picture of what this team can be on both sides of the ball — at least as much as possible sans Kobe Bryant. This team looks like one that should be able to score effectively, especially when Kaman and Pau share the floor with any combination of Nash, Nick Young, and Jordan Farmar. Defensively this is a group that looks like they’ll work hard, but will still have issues protecting the paint, especially out of isolations that begin at the mid-range. Their P&R defense looks alright as it seems there’s a clear scheme in place in how they want to handle this action irrespective of where it’s initiated on the floor (up high, above the break, or in a sideline set). This type of organization will be crucial for this group if they hope to sniff a defensive rating that puts them in the top half of the league (which should be their goal — albeit a lofty one — this year).
Before we go too far down that path, however, these games should, at the very least, give the Lakers their last chances to fine tune things on both sides of the ball. And with that said, here’s my list of things to watch for tonight…
*Can this team run an organized offense without Nash, Pau, and Young on the floor? Steve Blake can organize the O, but without tent-pole players flanking him that can serve as the key threats teams pay attention to, the offense typically turns into a game of pass the ball around the perimeter until someone jacks up a three pointer. Blake needs to play with guys who threaten the paint because, more often than not, he’s not going to do so himself. Farmar, meanwhile, can threaten the paint, but when he’s run the offense it’s often just a slew of pick and rolls that don’t inspire much ball or player movement outside of the play that Farmar is trying to make for himself or a teammate. If these last couple of games are about fine tuning things, it would be nice of the guards not named Nash show an ability to access the entire playbook and run a semblance of a complete offense with more than one option utilized.
*Wes Johnson needs to start to show he belongs in the rotation. If you listen to quotes about Johnson coming out of the Lakers’ practice sessions, it’s nothing but good things. He’s athletic. He’s long. He’s having a strong, positive impact defensively. He’s finishing on the break and flashing a good jumper. The issue is that these things aren’t really showing up in the games. Granted Johnson got hurt and that threw things off, leaving him out of the lineup at a time where he could have shown more of what he has behind closed doors. Plus, as I’ve written, I don’t believe playing him at PF is doing him any favors. That said, it’d be nice to see him start to bring his practice game to the actual games so we can start to see how he fits in with the other players who have proven to be rotation ready.
*Will Ryan Kelly see more time? The rookie has only appeared in 2 games, logging about 24 minutes over those contests. In both games he showed glimmers of what he can be offensively, hitting some three pointers, stepping into some mid-range shots after putting the ball on the floor to get by a closing out defender, and even hitting a nice little jump hook when posting up a smaller player. He’s also shown a nice understanding of how to move around the floor by sliding into open pockets and giving his teammates the passing windows needed to get him the ball. With Kaman out, I’d love to see Kelly get more time tonight, next to Pau and Hill so we can get some longer looks to further our evaluations.
*Can the Lakers’ bigs handle the physicality of the Jazz bigs? Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson are gone, but Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter remain in Utah with these latter two being guys who love to try and bully their way down low. Kanter is more of a floor bound worker, but he knows how to use his strength by moving defenders out of his path to get up good shots. Favors is more athletic, but he’s also big and strong, and will bang defenders to try and establish position. Gasol, Shawne Williams, Kelly, and company will have their hands full whenever the Jazz duo are on the floor and I’m interested in seeing how they do in defending the rim and when rebounding their defensive glass.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm on TWC Sportsnet and nationally on NBA TV.