After winning two of three on their road trip this past week, the Lakers return back to Los Angeles with some added confidence but a depleted roster. Eric Pincus reports that as many as six Lakers may be out through the all-star break. We all knew that Kobe, Pau, Xavier Henry and Nick Young were out through the next week, but it’s a bit of a surprise that Jordan Farmar and Jodie Meeks are also on that list of guys who we may not see for at least another 8 days.
That leaves the Lakers with only nine available players and while that’s worked out well the last couple of games, let’s not act as if this is a good strategy long term. Especially with Steve Blake and Steve Nash not 100% and the rest of the roster, in general, not especially balanced from a position stand point. Of the nine guys who are able to suit up, three are point guards (Nash, Blake, Kendall Marshall), three are centers (Sacre, Kaman, Hill — yes, in this offense Hill is essentially a center), two are power forwards (Kelly and Williams), and one is a small forward (Johnson). If you’re counting at home, that’s a roster without a real shooting guard and only one traditional wing.
This will create some interesting lineups, starting with Blake playing shooting guard almost full time while Kelly and (even) Williams find time on the wing as pseudo small forwards. These aren’t ideal solutions, but this is what happens when injuries wipe out your roster and you have to scramble to put together enough players to even complete a game.
Don’t look for today’s opponent to have any sympathy for the Lakers, however. The Bulls are going through their own injury woes, starting with Derrick Rose’s knee but including Carlos Boozer’s calf. Plus, after trading Luol Deng for, basically, nothing, this team doesn’t have the same top talent at its disposal and has had to move its depth up a rung into heavier minutes. Guys like Taj Gibson and Mike Dunleavy are capable — and DJ Augustin has had one of his best year’s as a pro replacing Rose — but, just as the Lakers, I can imagine they’d love to be able to go into battle with their full roster and see how they fare.
What all these injuries mean is that we’re likely to see a couple of tired basketball teams take the floor in this one. The Bulls haven’t played since Thursday, but this is the final game of a six game road trip for them — a trip that started way back on January 29th. Teams can get weary when being away from home for that long and the Bulls are starting to show some of that mental and physical fatigue. In their game on Thursday, a 15 point lead turned into a 15 point loss after the Warriors simply dominated the second half. The Dubs are a good team and were playing at home, but the Bulls’ vaunted D let them down as the Warriors got hot and were able to coast to a victory.
The Lakers will hope they too can get hot from the outside and turn this game into a shootout, because they certainly can’t expect to grind out a win against this defense. With Boozer doubtful, the superior defending Taj Gibson will get the start and he only makes this team more of a nightmare to score against — especially in the paint. With Noah and Gibson patrolling the back-line and making early rotations in Thibs’ strong side zone scheme, the Lakers will have to be smart with their ball movement and accurate from deep to get their points. Straight line drives from the wing will almost surely be thwarted, so moving the ball from side to side and getting the defense to chase will be a big key.
If the Lakers can generate some penetration out of the P&R, they should be able to kick the ball out to the wing and then swing the ball from the wing to the top of the key and then to the other wing to create the types of open looks this offense needs to be at its best. Having Kelly and Williams as the PF’s can help in this as both understand how to move the ball on as well as catch and shoot on the weak side, but both will also have to show that they are up to the task of being able to finish possessions with the right play. Nash, Blake, and Marshall will also have to be at the top of their games as this defense is designed to blitz them up high and turn them into passers before they really want to be. All three will need to keep the ball on a string and maintain their dribble in order to keep their options open as both shooters and passers.
Defensively, the Lakers must ensure that they don’t yield the types of easy shots in the paint that they have been prone to giving up most of the year. The Bulls aren’t a particularly good offensive team, but any offense looks great when all their shots are inside of five feet. The Lakers must keep Gibson and Noah from getting too many easy baskets inside while pressuring on the wing enough so that Hinrich, Butler, and Augustin aren’t able to establish a rhythm. In the last game these two played, Augustin was able to do just that and while it was Gibson’s layup that won the game at the buzzer, that game isn’t even close if the former Longhorn PG doesn’t score as well and as efficiently as he did.
After two straight wins, this Lakers’ group has a pretty good feel for how they will need to play if they hope to make it three in a row. They’ll not only need to play hard, but will also need to keep their offense humming through their guards. A lot will depend on the three point guards to run the show and make smart choices, but the Bulls’ second ranked defense will make that incredibly difficult. Will see which side’s strength is most up to the task.
Where you can watch: 12:30pm start time on ABC. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.