The Lakers, after a somewhat surprising win over the Clippers last night, are back in action this evening. Starting the season with a back to back is never easy, but traveling to Golden State to play a very good Warriors team in t heir home opener adds variables that make this match up even more difficult. The Warriors are sure to have an energy to them and their crowd will be frothing to beat the visiting Lakers who, to be fair, have had and will continue to have a fair amount of support from the crowd in the Bay Area).
The Warriors are a familiar opponent from the preseason so we will see if that changes the dynamics of this contest at all. This will be the fourth time these teams have faced off in a month, so there’s likely to be some familiarity between the players and the coaches, not to mention some bad blood starting to form. After all, you play the same guys this much in a relatively short period of time and there’s a contempt that starts to develop. Add in the fact that these teams share a division and that, like the other teams in California, the Warriors have had to live in the shadow of the more successful Lakers for a long time, and there’s a rivalry that starts to build up naturally.
This is even more true now that the Warriors are considered to be the better team. Like the Clippers last night, Golden State is picked to finish ahead of the Lakers in the standings are a big favorite to win this game tonight. Also like the Clippers, the Warriors now carry that burden of expectations to not only win this game, but to build on the success of last season and compete for something more than just a playoff entry – they want to win a championship. That doesn’t happen, though, if you can’t beat teams like this version of the Lakers consistently.
Considering all of this, the Lakers have a unique opportunity in front of them this evening. They’re not expected to win. The Warriors are fresher, are excited about playing their first game of the season, and will be playing in front of one of the best crowds in the league. But as the Lakers showed last night, they have a roster of capable players who, when their games are on, can impact both sides of the floor and create an environment through tempo and an attack mentality that is uncomfortable for their opponent.
This will be especially important tonight, considering what the Warriors bring to the table in terms of overall talent and scheme. As we saw in the preseason, the Dubs start a big lineup that will surely give the smaller unit the Lakers went with last night some issues. Two key match ups to watch out of the gate are Shawne Williams guarding David Lee and Steve Blake defending Klay Thompson. Both Lakers are at distinct size disadvantages and are facing very skilled offensive players.
Lee has the ability to face up Williams out to 20 feet and will use his jumper to set up his quick first step, then using his strength advantage to move Williams out of position to get off his shot in the paint. Williams must remain strong in the post, but must also use his quickness to defend Lee closely enough that he doesn’t cede open jumpers (Lee, unlike Blake Griffin last night, will knock those shots down) while still being able to slide with him when he puts the ball on the ground. As for Blake, he must simply play his typical scrappy style, get into the Thompson’s body as much as possible, and challenge shots the best way he can. Hopefully Thompson is bothered enough that he misses shots he’ll normally make.
The other key defensively will be closing out possessions with rebounds. Last night the team did well in keeping Griffin off the glass and was okay in containing DeAndre Jordan – at least when his man wasn’t forced to help on penetration. Tonight, with Andrew Bogut and Lee attacking the glass, Williams, Pau, Hill, and Kaman will need to be just as good (if not better), by corralling rebounds in their area while the guards and wings help down from the arc to snare the long caroms. Controlling the glass is especially important tonight since the Warriors have such great shooters spacing the floor; you don’t want to give this team open threes off kick-out passes stemming from OREB chances because they’ll make them at an amazing rate.
Offensively the Lakers must continue to find their identity by using their different units to their advantage. In the first group, the Lakers must go through Pau Gasol and utilize his ability to score from all over the floor to anchor their offense. They can run P&R’s with him and let him pop into open space, but they must also get him to the mid and low post on the left side and let him go to work. Bogut will offer good D, but Pau should be able to create good looks for himself and for teammates when isolated. This first group can also work to get the ball into the hands of Nick Young and Shawne Williams off quick ball reversals initiated out of the P&R. If Steve Nash plays (and I think he will considering he didn’t play a heavy workload last night), hopefully he can find ways to free himself a bit more off screens and create some better shots for himself and his ‘mates.
The second unit, meanwhile, must push the tempo and try to create a frantic feel on both sides of the floor. If they can pressure the ball and create steals or force long misses, they can turn those plays into open court chances that allow them to get easy baskets. In the half court, they need to continue their effort from last night to attack in isolation when given space and to move the ball onto the open man when they’re tightly covered. I know that this group will also fire up some shots too quickly – frustrating us in the process – but if they also move the ball enough, they should be able to establish the rhythm and flow that they’ll need to in order to compete.
Tonight’s game, like the one against the Clippers, is one where the individual match ups definitely tilt in the opponent’s favor. Curry, Lee, and Iguodala are all-star caliber players. Thompson and Harrison Barnes are up and coming prospects who are both very skilled. Add in Bogut and a nice bench and the Lakers will have their hands full. That said, last night showed that this group of Lakers has the ability to play above their individual heads and provide an output that’s greater than the sum of their parts. They’ll need more of that tonight if they hope to win.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start on TWC Sportsnet locally and NBA TV nationally. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710 AM.