The regular season is finally upon us. There’s no more waiting to see what this team can do when the games start to matter. No more waiting for how the players perform when the action turns more serious. No more waiting to see what, if anything, the coaches have held back. This is what we’ve been waiting for.
We’ve talked about the outlook for the team this year. If nothing else, they promise to entertain. The roster has been reconstructed on the fly with players looking to remake their images and reclaim their past glory. It’s a team that has holes and flaws, but one that has shown a penchant to compete and to scrap in the preseason. How far that identity can get them remains to be seen, but each and every night it seems we will get a good effort from them.
Tonight, against the Clippers, that effort will be needed. For the first time in a decade, there’s a role reversal between these two Los Angeles teams. It’s the Clips who have championship expectations and the Lakers who are hoping to avoid the lottery. It’s the Clippers who have the glamor roster and the Lakers who have cast-offs with something to prove. It’s a contrast we’re not really used to, but one that, at least for me, intrigues and is sort of welcome.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d prefer these organizations took to their normal roles and that it was the Lakers who were nearly universally hailed as one of the best teams in the league with their Staples Center counterparts the team grasping for a foothold amongst the league’s better outfits. But since that’s not the case, I’ll happily embrace the lowered expectations and root for a team who looks to overachieve rather than simply meet predictions and plan a parade come June. It’s not ideal this way, but when the ground beneath you shifts, you best shift with it or risk losing your balance and toppling over.
This game isn’t as much a litmus test for where these teams are, but a contest that should have both teams excited to venture on their respective journeys. The Lakers are being counted out by nearly everyone and are seen as the lambs being led to slaughter on the season’s opening night. They face a powerhouse Clippers team (has that phrase ever been uttered?) who are expected to not just win, but win big. They have the tools to follow through on this prediction, but they’ll also be facing a team who has a hunger to prove all the doubters wrong.
It will take more than a hunger to win this game, however. From an X’s and O’s and strategic standpoint, the Lakers must do several things well to be leading when the clock hits all zeroes. The first is to defend at a level they’re not expected to be able to this year. The Clippers will pick and roll the Lakers’ bigs as often as possible, looking to pick on Pau Gasol frequently, force help and then kick the ball out to their shooters. Look for Chris Paul to string out his dribble in an attempt to draw multiple defenders and then either pick out his rolling big man or force the D to collapse so he can pick out his wings camping behind the arc. The Lakers, then, must be sharp in how they cut off the lane from the dive man and then quick in getting back out to the wing to contest shots or to make those wings put the ball on the floor and drive into the teeth of the D.
Another key will be controlling their defensive glass. Rebounding was a problem all preseason and with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan using their athleticism to crash the glass, Pau, Williams, Jordan Hill, and Chris Kaman must be quick to put a body on their man while the rest of the team gang rebounds from the free throw line and down. Once the ball is secured, they can push the ball in the other direction, but attempting to change ends too quickly will only lead to extended Clipper possessions that they’re sure to capitalize on.
Offensively the Lakers must find their balance between working the ball into the paint and shooting their outside jumpers. Whether running the P&R or their HORNS sets, the team must move the ball quickly and decisively in and out of the post to create the types of open shots they’ll need to generate if they hope to produce enough points to keep this game close. Key to this is, obviously, Pau being able to capably establish some sort of post position and/or working the mid-range out of the P&R to keep the defense moving in and out of their rotations. If Nash, Blake, and Farmar can also keep their dribbles live and occupy defenders, the ball can be swung onto the open man. Then, of course, the guys spacing the floor need to knock down the shots afforded to them. Nick Young, Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks, Wes Johnson, and Shawne Williams all need to keep defenses honest by making them pay for leaving them open.
All of this is easier said than done, though. There’s a reason the Clippers are heavy favorites not just in this game, but over the course of the entire season. There’s a talent gap that is noticeable and it will take individual Lakers playing to a level above their reputations, on both sides of the floor, to elevate their team. Whether they can actually do so isn’t yet known, but if there’s one night where they’ll give it their all, I imagine it will be this one where they face off against their cross-town “rival” in the season’s first contest.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TNT. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.