Preview and Chat: Lakers vs. Hawks

Daniel Rapaport —  December 16, 2013

The Lakers will look to get back to .500 on the season tonight when they take on the Atlanta Hawks in the third game of a tough road trip. It’s the third game in four nights for the purple (blue) and gold, who will wrap up the trip tomorrow night in Memphis.

Kobe Bryant looked like one of the best players on the floor for the first time since his return in Saturday’s 88-85 victory over Charlotte. Kobe made an effort to get Pau the ball early after the Spaniard and Coach D’Antoni traded backhanded quips through the media, and the deep chemistry between the two that was formed by three consecutive Finals appearance was evident, a sight that always warms the heart of Laker faithful everywhere. The two were highly effective in pick-and-roll sets and were able to create good looks for others, with Kobe filling up the stat sheet on his way to 21 points, 7 rebounds, and 8 dimes. While he’s still turning the ball over at way too high a rate (he’s tallied twenty-five in four games, and coughed it up 7 times against the Bobcats), it’s important to remember that he’s both playing for the first time in eight months and playing out of position. But there’s no sign of a return for either of the three injured point guards, so if the Lakers want to remain relevant in the playoff hunt, Kobe will have to continue to be the effective distributor he’s been from the point guard spot while finding a way to limit the turnovers.

The Hawks enter tonight’s matchup coming off one of the more peculiar losses in franchise history. Saturday’s 111-106 lost to the Knicks at Madison Square garden was only the sixth time in the past 10 seasons that a team has shot 60% and lost. But 27 turnovers, the most in a single game yet this season, will do that to you, so look for the Hawks to be extra careful with the basketball tonight.

Despite being only one game better than the Lakers at 12-12, the Hawks are sitting pretty as the East’s third seed because, that’s right, only two teams in the Eastern Conference have winning records. They’re a balanced team, who are led by Al Horford’s efficient post play (he shoots 55% from the field) and the vastly improved Jeff Teague, whose averaging career highs in points, rebounds, and assists. Containing Teague will be a key for tonight for the Lakers, who have been torched by young, quick point guards the past two years. I’d expect Kobe to conserve a bit of energy on the offensive end tonight to allow himself to be able to chase Teague, an elite pick-and-roller, around screens all night. Atlanta’s Kyle Korver is one of (if not the) premier three point shooters in the NBA, and comes into tonight’s game having made a three pointer in an NBA-record 93 (!!!) straight games.

As is often the case with Mike D’Antoni-led teams, the Lakers’ chances tonight will depend on how effective they are on the defensive side of the ball. LAL is giving up 103.5 points per game, good for second worst in the league and is yet to win a game when giving up more that magic number of 103 points. If they can keep Atlanta’s balanced scoring attack  under control, I like our chances tonight.

Pau’s become the center of attention recently after MDA essentially told the media that he wasn’t playing hard enough. It takes a great deal of maturity to avoid falling into a screw-this-guy mentality and use the comments as motivation, and luckily for the Lakers, Pau possessed said maturity. He and Kobe have something to prove, and that’s historically been very bad news for the rest of the NBA. If the game is close down the stretch, look for the Lakers to close with the lineup of Bryant/Young/Johnson/Hill/Gasol that looked comfortable in securing the victory down the stretch in Charlotte.

Where you can watch: 4:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.

Daniel Rapaport