The Lakers lost a winnable game on Friday, falling to the Spurs in the closing minutes as the gap between execution and which team’s best players were able to make the key plays bore out. The Spurs had Tony Parker orchestrating the team’s offense and either scoring or creating good looks for his teammates. The Lakers, meanwhile, had Steve Nash laying on the floor on his back on the sideline while the offense was orchestrated by Steve Blake with the ball attempting to go through Pau Gasol. The contrast between present and past was stark down the stretch and it’s no wonder the Spurs came out on top. They had the best player on the floor making things happen with the ball in his hands. Sometimes, most times, that’s all that’s needed.
What we learned in that game, though, is part of what we already knew to be true. Steve Nash is old and, at least now, is not 100% physically. (Whether he gets there this season is another question for another time.) This means that others will need to carry the load as both an on court contributor and a staple of key lineups for longer stretches. Which brings us to the question of lineups and who should play, when they should play, and how much they should play. After the loss to the Spurs, Mike D’Antoni commented that one of his top priorities right now is sorting out his rotation and starting to figure those things out. He noted that nearly all 11 guys currently in the rotation are playing well in their roles — this isn’t necessarily true, but don’t blame the coach for not throwing guys under the bus — but that he may need to shorten his rotation or make changes to it in order to produce different results.
Tonight against the Hawks, then, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that Nick Young has been moved to the bench in favor of Xavier Henry. Henry’s had his ups and downs as a shot maker through three games, but what he’s continued to do is play pretty good defense and use an attack mentality on offense to draw fouls and find other ways to contribute offensively. Nick Young, on the other hand, has not. Young hasn’t been making his jumper, hasn’t been driving to the rim for better shots, hasn’t been creating shots for others, and hasn’t been drawing fouls. Hopefully, by moving to the bench, Young can find his stride next to Farmar and Meeks and start to provide that offensive punch he was signed to deliver.
Another change we’re likely to see is more minutes for Jordan Hill. Against the Spurs Hill didn’t see any court time until the 4th quarter. When he finally did come in, he promptly started doing Jordan Hill things — grabbing offensive rebounds, challenging shots in the paint defensively, and generally hustling all over the court. His presence helped the Lakers remain close down the stretch and, while it can’t be said with true certainty, it’s not a stretch to imagine he would have done the same earlier in game had he gotten a chance. Moving forward, he likely will get that chance. How that comes about is another question.
If Shawne Williams remains a starter (and for not it looks like he will), there’s only so many front court minutes to go around. Pau is a starter and a fixture for this team. Kaman has played well in limited minutes and does the things he was brought into do — hitting jumpers, working well around the basket when given a chance, and doing a good job on the defensive glass. This leaves Hill as the “4th” big man and the one who seems to be hunting for minutes. Just as D’Antoni did with Young, he may need to move Williams to the bench in favor of a different player to open up more minutes for Hill. We’ll see if that’s tonight or not, but it should come sooner than later, especially if Williams continues to be a non-factor on offense (at least in terms of his own production) and only a semi-factor on defense (he has been active on that end and we can’t discount that).
Tonight may offer a chance to make this shift, though. Atlanta is a made over team, sort of in the same way the Lakers were. Josh Smith was their prized free agent and he walked for nothing. And while he was “replaced” with former Jazz (and Lakers’ nemesis) Paul Milsap, the team also lost Zaza Pachulia and have less depth up front than they once did. Tonight could prove to be one of those nights where the Lakers size makes a difference over the course of a long game, even though the more than capable Al Horford and aforementioned Milsap will do well in their minutes. Those two can’t play the full 48 and will only have Elton Brand as a viable back up there, so there should be opportunities for Gasol, Kaman, and Hill to work their respective games inside.
Which should be where the Lakers try to do most of their best work. Because, in the backcourt, the Hawks still do have some talent. Jeff Teague is an up and coming player with good athleticism, quickness, and playmaking ability as a passer and scorer. Kyle Korver remains one of the game’s best shooters and will be used coming off picks and as a spot up option when the team penetrates or tries to post up their big men. Rookie Dennis Schroeder is a very good athlete who is disruptive on defense and can get to the rim in both the half and open court. DeMarre Carroll is a big, active body on the wing and will work hard on both sides of the ball. This isn’t a group of world beaters, but they do have nice complementary games and can do damage with in the constructs of their individual roles.
This means that the Lakers back court and wing players will need to be sharp and understand their responsibilities. I doubt Nash will guard Teague, that mans he’ll either have to guard Korver or Carroll. Both have a lot more size than him and when he’s defending off the ball he must not get sucked into the paint (if guarding Korver) or bullied under the rim for offensive rebounding chances (if guarding Carroll). The same will be true of Henry.
The Lakers’ bigs will also need to be very sharp. Both Horford and Milsap are capable mid-range players who can also bang down low. Horford is especially dangerous in the pick and pop, so the defense will need to be sharp when he’s involved in the P&R with Teague and make the appropriate rotations. Teague will try to turn the corner and if the hedging big man needs to play below the pick to cut off the drive, the weak side wing will need to slide to Horford to ensure the wide open jumper isn’t surrendered. The Gasol, Kaman, Hill, Williams, and Johnson frontcourt will also need to be good on the glass. Both Horford and Milsap can attack the offensive glass and Elton Brand is no slouch in that area either. If there’s a way for the Hawks to win this game, it’s to gobble up their own misses and either put them back up for easy scores or to kick the ball out to Korver and Teague on the perimeter and watch them hit open jumpers against a scrambling Laker D.
Ultimately, though, the big thing to focus on before this contest is that it is a totally winnable game that the Lakers should, considering their goals for the year, see as one they need to win. I’m not a fan of the term “must win” when we’re looking at the 4th game of the year, but certain games should be won and a home game against a borderline playoff team in the East is one such game. The Lakers have plenty of excuses with their injuries and shifting of lineups, but in the end, none of those will be remembered two months from now. So, the team needs to execute on both ends and get this W.
Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.