The Lakers coming in: Losers of 4 consecutive games, the Lakers come into tonight’s match up with the 76ers reeling. They’ll once again be without Pau Gasol (not to mention Kobe, Steve Blake, and Nash) and Chris Kaman is a game time decision due to the sprained ankle he suffered in the loss to the Jazz.
Whatever version of the Lakers we all hoped would materialize this season, the version we see right now is not a good team. They’re missing too many players who were supposed to be top end contributors and have too many other players either being asked to play a little outside of their comfort zones or caught in a rotation shuffle that is ever shifting and a bit too fluid for my liking.
Not all is bad, however. Mike D’Antoni may be shuffling around his bigs in a battle of his preferred style versus what the players on the roster are actually good at, but several wings on the team are playing well. Nick Young still isn’t a hyper-efficient scorer, but he’s been much better than I could have hoped for as a point producer off the bench and continues to surprise me as someone who cares about playing defense and seems genuinely interested in doing what his coaches ask of him. Xavier Henry has been a revelation as a contributor, moonlighting as a point guard and showing that his attacking style mixed with some confidence can combine to make a rotation player. Jodie Meeks is having what is his best season as a pro and Jordan Farmar is having a very good year and showed a nice bounce back in his 2nd game back from his hamstring injury.
This is who the Lakers are now, though. The reality has set in. They’re outside the playoff picture looking in, sitting on the fringe where they’re trying to compete each night but their available talent has them at a distinct disadvantage against many of the league’s teams. The fact they play hard and can be fun is enough to entertain most nights, but the losing does start to drain energy and at some point the team will either be so upset they’ll find a higher level to play at or will begin to get discouraged about their lot. My sense is that this team is full of too many proud players to every get too down on themselves, but getting some wins sure would help in that area.
The 76ers coming in: While many question if the Lakers should tank, I don’t think there’s a question about what the Sixers are doing. Before the season started they traded away their lone all-star from last year (Jrue Holiday) for rookie Nerlens Noel and then promptly shut down the rook for the entire season as he recovers from a torn ACL he suffered during his college campaign. And while the team still has Evan Turner, Thadeus Young, and Spencer Hawes, they’re mostly an outfit of young players with some talent (and some with not as much) soaking up minutes and getting experience for the future.
This approach leaves them with the 2nd worst record in the dreadful East and losers of 9 of their last 10 games. And while this bunch can entertain — rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams has a dazzling skill set and is capable of stuffing the stat sheet on any given night — if you want to see what a mostly bad team looks like and how losing too much can affect a team’s effort, this is the team to watch on a nightly basis. At some points in games, you can see their body language start to change as they simply realize that they will not win. The goal, of course, is to not let that become a habit, but that is one of the risks with taking this approach with a team.
Keys to the game: Despite what I wrote about the Sixers above, there are not gimme games for the Lakers at this point. The Lakers are clearly the better team in terms of record, but when you consider injuries and the fact that the team has lost 4 in a row let’s not get ahead of ourselves and just hand this game to the Lakers — even though they are at home.
This game will still be won or lost in the areas of effort, execution, and shot making. The Lakers will need to be better in all three areas and keep the Sixers from playing to their strengths (regardless of how limited they are) if they hope to get back on the winning side of things.
Offensively, the Lakers may be down Pau (and possibly Kaman), but this sets up Hill and Sacre to be solid contributors in the P&R game when paired with Jordan Farmar. Hill and Sacre are the team’s best dive men out of this action as both work hard to screen and then work their way to the front of the rim after almost every screen set. Both would do well to continue using this tactic against the Sixers, working to get into the paint as often as possible to set up their best finishing chances against a Sixers’ front line that isn’t a very good shot blocking group. If Hill and Sacre can convert inside off this action, it will then set up the outside shots and driving angles that Meeks, Henry, Young, Williams, and Johnson can thrive off of.
Defensively, the team must find a way to bottle up Philly’s perimeter oriented attack. Carter-Williams and Turner love to work from the wing and are very capable of breaking their man down off the dribble to get shots for themselves and others. Both must be forced into help and made into passers with the rest of the Lakers’ defenders showing the needed help and recovery skills to get back to their own man. This is especially true for whoever guards Hawes as he’s a good spot up shooter who will get ample shot opportunities out of pick and pop actions or drive and kicks where he slides into open spaces when his man is forced to help. Thad Young must also be marked all over the floor, especially when working off the ball. He’s a fine cutter when his man helps and can slither his way to the offensive glass (averages over 2 per game) for easy put-backs.
The Lakers must also find a way to be better in transition defensively than they have been recently. The Sixers are 9th in steals and that activity allows them to create easy baskets in the open court. This is especially important for Jordan Farmar who will be facing off against Carter-Williams who has sticky fingers on the perimeter defensively. Farmar mustn’t get careless with the ball and needs to be precise in how he sets up the team’s sets or it will lead to the type of live ball turnovers that will lead to the types of transition buckets that can prop up a relatively anemic 76ers’ offense. Execution is always important, but this incarnation of the Lakers has such a thin margin for error that it is especially important tonight.
Overall, the Lakers must bring their best effort against a struggling team to ensure they get this W. In order to start to right the ship, a win is needed and it’s this type of game against this type of team that the Lakers must take advantage of when it’s on the schedule.
Where you can watch: 6:30pm start on TWC Sportnet. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710 AM.