The Lakers coming in: The Lakers are coming off one of their better weeks of the season, getting some much needed rest and winning their only two games (their first back to back wins of the year) during that stretch. The team also saw Kobe return to practice, though that was only a temporary return as Kobe practiced in full on Tuesday but then either sat out entirely or did limited work in other sessions the rest of the week. And while Kobe not doing full work on other days isn’t being billed as a “set back” it is indicative of what this process will be like. Kobe will be sore and as he ramps up his activity and the team will (rightfully) be cautious in how they handle his return.
With Kobe working his way back but not yet seeing any game action, it’s difficult to be upset in the slightest with where the team is at this point. While they’re one of only three teams to be below .500 in the West coming into this game, they have a chance to even up their record at 7-7 with a win tonight. And, if you’d told me before the season started that the Lakers would be playing close to .500 ball while Kobe was out with wins over the Clippers, Rockets, and Warriors (while playing tight games against the Spurs and Grizzlies) I’d have taken it. So while there have been some disappointments in the micro sense, the macro has me feeling alright about where this team is without Kobe and with Nash going through what I’d consider the worst case scenario health-wise.
The Kings coming in: I mentioned there are three teams out West who are under .500 and along with the Lakers, the Kings are one of them. Losers of 3 of their last 5 (including a one point loss to the Clippers last night), the Kings sit at 4-8 on the year and are struggling to find ways to play up to their potential on both sides of the ball. Though new head coach Michael Malone has brought more organization and a defined philosophy to this team, the Kings still have too many players who either don’t fully commit to their roles or don’t always play with the requisite effort defensively to produce wins.
This isn’t to say there aren’t some positives with this team, even in the face of a poor record. Demarcus Cousins, though still not playing the level of defense his team needs, is having a very good offensive season. Big DC is averaging over 21 points a night with nearly 3 of his 10.7 rebounds a game coming on the offensive end. Cousins could still cut down on his long jumper to focus more on working closer to the rim, but besides his pedestrian FG% for a big man, it’s tough to find too many flaws in what he’s doing on that end of the floor. Also having a good year is Isaiah Thomas, who averages almost 19 points a game as a reserve. Thomas abuses second units with his quickness and ability to hit shots from all over the floor, and is one of the early candidates for 6th man of the year considering the level of production he’s giving the Kings.
Overall, however, I think some of the issues we’re seeing with the Kings come down to the fact that they still need to sort out who they want to play and how much, to better define roles and get this group playing more up to their potential. We’ve started to see some of these decisions already being made as John Salmons has been moved to the bench in favor of rookie Ben McLemore. More decisions like this will need to be made by the head coach, especially in reference to players like Travis Outlaw, who, for all intents and purposes really don’t have a long term future with the organization.
Keys to the game: At this point, what the Kobe-less Lakers need to do to win games is pretty clear. They need to hit their outside shots, have to play aggressive perimeter defense, and they need to get enough offensive inside (or at least near) the paint to keep the D honest. Combine these things with several of the team’s role players having good nights and the Lakers will either win the game or be close enough down the stretch to do so. If they can’t, the game will likely go against them, regardless of how well they perform in other aspects of the game.
Tonight, then, the key is being able to accomplish these goals against this specific team. The Kings will try to punish the Lakers inside with Cousins in the half court while using their speed and quickness in the open court to try and generate easy baskets. This puts an added emphasis on the Lakers’ big men to defend well tonight, not just when marking Cousins when the game slows down but when transitioning from offense to defense to ensure that the Kings don’t get a lot of easy baskets in transition. Defending the P&R will also be key for the Lakers’ bigs as both Vasquez and Thomas will teas this action multiple times a possession in order to try and generate a good look for themselves or a teammate.
It will be interesting to see if the Lakers employ any of the strong side zone looks they showed off against the Warriors the other night. The Kings aren’t a strong penetration team, but they are a team has some isolation threats and a strong post up player and those are also the types of actions that can be taken away by flooding the strong side with an extra defender. Besides Vasquez, the Kings also aren’t the best passing team, so pressuring them into making the correct reads against an aggressive defense could net the Lakers the turnovers they need to get easy baskets in transition.
Offensively, the Lakers would do well in continuing to attack through Pau Gasol at the low and high post while also mixing in P&R’s between Steve Blake and Jordan Hill. Both sets get the Lakers bigs involved, but also puts the ball in the hands of either Blake or Pau to start possessions and allows them to make the shot/pass decisions. With those two setting the table, the team should be able to get up makable shots.
Also key, of course, is someone (or someones) from the next tier of players to have a good night offensively to help generate enough offense. It doesn’t matter who from the group of Farmar, Meeks, Young, Johnson, and Henry steps up to provide double digit points on efficient shooting, only that it happens. Recently it’s been the Farmar/Young duo who have really set the tone for the second unit and getting them to continue down that path tonight would be welcomed. But if Wes and Xavier can find a way to hit some shots and remain aggressive over the course of the night, that would also be fantastic. Both are capable of providing some scoring punch, but neither have done so consistently this year.
Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.