The Lakers return home tonight after a road trip that pretty much exemplifies the team they’ve been this year. After a dreadful loss to the Mavs, the Lakers surprised with a great win over the Rockets and then played a hard fought game that went against them late against the Pelicans. Sitting at 3-4 on the year, this is who the Lakers are. When their role players hit shots and the entire roster plays with the requisite energy, they can beat nearly anyone. When those things are the opposite, the Lakers are likely to lose ugly. On most other nights, the Lakers have enough scrap and talent to hang tight against most other middle of the pack teams, but those games are likely to be toss ups that come down to execution and mental toughness at the end.
So far this year, the Lakers haven’t shown they are precise enough down the stretch and that likely cost them games against the Spurs and the Pellies. Maybe that’s also a talent issue. Maybe it’s one of mental and physical toughness. Or maybe it’s just reflective of a team that’s still learning each other while missing Kobe Bryant, who also happens to be their leader and best player. That last point is one that we really can’t forget about and need to come back to whenever evaluating this team. The team we see now isn’t the one we’ll see when Kobe returns. He’ll put his stamp on this team and that will have its affect on a group that, while showing an ability to hit shots and a perseverance and want that wasn’t always present last year, is still looking for an identity that can carry them from night to night.
The good news is, the fight the team shows on most nights is a nice pillar to hang their hat on from game to game. That spirit will keep them in most contests and it will, when combined with other positive elements showing up, allow them to win. Against the ‘Wolves tonight, all of the above will be needed to beat a team that looks very much improved from the injury depleted team many had high hopes for last year.
Key to the improvement is that Kevin Love is not only healthy this year, but looks to have picked up right where he left off from the season before last. The former UCLA product is putting up monster numbers, averaging 27 points, nearly 15 rebounds, and 5 assists a night. Add to Love the 23 points that free agent add Kevin Martin is bringing each night and the Wolves have, at least initially in this young season, one of the best one-two punches in the league.
Minnesota is more than just these two guys, though. Ricky Rubio is also healthy and he’s still one of the game’s best set up man and a pest defensively. Nikola Pekovic also returns and while his scoring numbers are down (which is to be expected with Love and Martin combining for 50 a night), he’s still a presence on the glass and a big, strong body in the paint on both ends. They’re joined by quality depth in the form of Corey Brewer, JJ Barea, Derrick Williams, Dante Cunningham, and Alexey Shved. That’s a rotation that can go 9 deep with positional versatility that allows head coach Rick Adelman to mix and match his lineups to dictate what the opponent does or match up should the other team force his hand.
All of this spells some trouble for the Lakers as they face a team with specific match ups that have been problematic this year. If there are two positions the Lakers haven’t been able to handle well this season it’s been skilled power forwards and shooting guards with size who can really score. The Warriors’ game immediately comes to mind, but also the Pelicans’ game where Anthony Davis had his way on both ends. With Love and Martin, the question isn’t necessarily how to slow them down — there are game plans that can be put in place to limit one or both — but whether the Lakers even have the personnel to do so.
Love has evolved into the premier stretch big man in the league. He can not only hit the three ball, but has the ability to put the ball on the floor against a close out against bigger players or post up and dominate the offensive glass against smaller ones. The Lakers don’t have a player with the combination of size, quickness, and rebounding prowess to limit Love and that can lead to Love having his way in this game. As for Martin, his style of running off screens and cutting actively against aggressive defenders is one that Steve Blake is used to defending, but with his size and craftiness off the dribble, Blake will still have his problems containing Martin in all that he does.
What the Lakers need, then, is to be as sharp as they can be in their half court defense and understand where to be in help situations at all times. Love and Martin have the ability to play 25 feet away from the rim and still be effective and it’s in combatting that spacing where the Lakers need to be sharp. Can Gasol, Kaman, Hill, and Wes Johnson rotate from the paint to the perimeter and then back to the paint to contest shots and rebound? Can the wings shade their man and limit penetration while making the correct back side rotation to either contest shots on the wing or body up a big man crashing the offensive glass? And, most importantly, can these groups of players work in unison to accomplish these tasks on any given play and not suffer miscommunications that can lead to wide open shots or easy put-backs? If they can, the Lakers will be in this game throughout. If they can’t, this could get out of hand early.
On the other end of the ball, it’s really as simple as the Lakers needing to make the jumpers their offense generates. Through 7 games, if one thing is clear it’s that the Lakers can find ways to create jumpers in the half court. Whether that’s through their HORNS actions, P&R’s, or simple drive and kicks, the team has enough balance between ball handlers and big men who know how to make the right play to find open shooters around the wing. The key, of course, is for the wings to actually hit those shots. When Blake, Nash, Johnson, Meeks, and Young hit from behind the arc the offense hums. When they don’t, it stalls. The occasional mid-range jumper or drive to the rim can help stop the bleeding or extend a run, but it’s the long ball that will sustain the Lakers’ offense.
For all the other games the Lakers have played this season, this one might be the most realistic “test” they’ve had. Though the Wolves are 4-2 through 6 games, they’re basically one of the teams that will be competing for a spot 6-8 come playoff time. This is the exact place the Lakers would like to be come year’s end. In other words, if the Lakers see themselves as a playoff team, the Wolves are the exact type of team they’ll be competing against to earn that seed. Considering this is a home game, the Lakers need to put out a good effort and see where they compare, even if it is early in the season and they don’t have Kobe.
Where you can watch: 6:30pm start on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.