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The Bulls visit the Lakers tonight and they come in flashing some of the determination, grit, and, most of all big victories, that had many installing them as the eastern conference favorites to reach the finals. They are winners in three of their last four games, with all three of the wins coming against strong Western opponents — San Antonio, Dallas, and Golden State. Their most recent win against the Warriors was one where they played with Jimmy Butler (though the Duns were missing Andrew Bogut), but were still able to gut out an overtime victory when Derrick Rose hit a clutch game winning jumper in the closing seconds.

Rose and (especially) Butler are two key reasons why teams are so high on the Bulls, but the reason most see them as a true threat is due to the addition of our old friend Pau Gasol. The Spaniard has thrived in Chicago as an anchor in the pivot, putting up strong numbers and having the type of impact those who still believed he still had something left in the tank thought he was capable of. The Bulls have offered him exactly what he needs to thrive — space in the post, a defensive scheme that limits some of his weaknesses, and teammates who compliment him on both sides of the ball — and he is taking advantage of it all.

Pau’s return to Los Angeles, then, is a bit bitter sweet. For me, personally, I am happy to see him playing so well and contributing on a team that has a chance to contend for a championship. On the other hand, I miss watching him nightly on the team I root for; I miss watching the exquisite passing, great feel for the game, and ability to act as the hub of an offense from the low post. Fact is, though, is that it was time for him to move on. The fact that things are going well for him, but so poorly for the Lakers does sting, but does not erase the good memories he provided during his time with the team.

With that, one has to wonder how fans will respond to Pau in his first game back at Staples Center since leaving in free agency. If Byron Scott has his way, Pau will be welcomed back as a former championship contributor should. Via ESPN’s Baxter Holmes:

And Lakers coach Byron Scott said fans owe Gasol one thing: “A standing ovation,” Scott said. “This is a guy that was here that helped to win two championships. He deserves that. Pau was a great player when he was here and is still a great player. He’s having a lot of success in Chicago. But I think fans should show him the respect that he deserves.”

Byron and I agree wholeheartedly here.

As for the actual game, considering who the Bulls have beaten lately and the fact that the Lakers have lost 9 straight games, I am not expecting anything different than what I wrote in leading up to the Wizards game. This is even more true with Jimmy Butler expected to return tonight to a lineup that already features Rose, Pau, and Noah. The Lakers simply do not have the front line talent to deal with these caliber of players, which is even more true with Nick Young (who hasn’t been playing great, but can explode on any given night to improve the Lakers’ chances) already ruled out with his sprained ankle.

In saying all that, there are a few things I’ll be monitoring tonight, specifically how a few Lakers fare in their individual match ups against their Bulls counterparts.

The first, of course, is Jordan Clarkson facing off against Derrick Rose. There may not be a more “trial by fire” position in the league for a young player than point guard. Clarkson has already had to defend Tony Parker and John Wall and be defended by Patrick Beverly. Tonight he faces Rose who, while not at the level he was when he won the MVP a few years ago, is still a load to deal with. I’ll be interested in seeing how Clarkson deals with the pressure Rose puts on him defensively. I’ll also be interested in seeing how he manages against a Bulls defense that is typically very good at dealing with perimeter players who love to attack off the dribble.

Secondly, I really do want to see if Ed Davis, Jordan Hill, and Tarik Black can hold their own against Pau, Noah, and Taj Gibson on both ends. The three Bulls are the superior players, no doubt. But the Lakers’ trio offer solid games of their own and have an ability to do damage in the paint on the glass and as release valves when slashing/diving/cutting around the rim. I am interested in seeing what, if anything, they do against a very good front court duo like what the Bulls offer.

Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TNT. Also listen live on ESPN Radio 710AM Los Angeles.

 

The Lakers are 1-11 in their last twelve games. They have lost eight games in a row – their longest streak of the season. Their last win was 18 days ago against a Magic team who is also quite bad. The team is currently 21 games under .500 and 13.5 games back of the 8th seed in the Western conference. Oh, yeah, and Kobe Bryant is set to have surgery on his torn rotator cuff on Wednesday, which will almost surely end up sidelining him for the rest of the season.

The details of the win-loss record and streaks will change over the course of the season, but the general feel of despair that comes from the words in that paragraph above will not. The Lakers are a bad team and will continue to be a bad team. They have not shown to be particularly well coached nor play particularly well for longer than half a game on most nights (and that might be generous). The only things still worth truly watching for this season are the following:

  • Jordan Clarkson, Ryan Kelly, and Tarik Black’s development as potential rotation players.
  • What moves, if any, the Lakers make leading up to and at the trade deadline next month.
  • Whether or not the Lakers end up with a record that makes keeping their top-5 protected draft pick in the upcoming draft a strong proposition or a coin-flip.

Some might argue that there are some other things to include in that list, and I’m willing to entertain them. But for me, that’s about it. I’m not looking for any major breakthrough in philosophy from Byron Scott. I’m not looking for Jordan Hill or Ed Davis or Jeremy Lin to suddenly start out-performing their season norms. This is it, you guys. 38 more games of this.

With that, it’s the opponents who become the most interesting part of most nights that the Lakers play. Tonight that is probably more true than most others as the Wizards come to town. In the past, that last second would be followed by some sort of sarcastic snicker, but those days are long gone. These Wizards are currently 30-15 on the year and have the 2nd best record in the East. They are powered by John Wall, but have incredible balance with Bradley Beal, Nene, Marcin Gortat, Paul Pierce, and Andre Miller all offering strong contributions.

But, really, Wall is the main attraction. After all, he does things like this:

And, THIS:

AND THIS:

I mean. Come on, now. Wall is one of the most exciting players in the league and it’s no longer just the league pass junkies who recognize it. Wall will start in the all-star game, beating out more established names like Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade.

And if Wall isn’t enough, there’s always the other guys I mentioned above. Beal isn’t quite at Klay Thompson’s level yet, but he is one of the best up and coming shooting guards in the league. I have always had an affinity for Nene’s combination of bruising physicality and touch/skill all over the floor. And there’s Paul Pierce. Ha. I’m just kidding. I have nothing good to say about Paul Pierce.

In any event. This game will be on tonight. You should watch it to see how Clarkson does against a top flight point guard, to see if Nick Young has a revenge game against his old team, and to watch the other team’s really good players play well.

Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM Los Angeles.

Luckily for me, I’d say, I did not watch the Lakers/Spurs game live. A review of the film, however, pretty much reinforced what the boxscore told me. The biggest item from that boxscore, of course, was that Jeremy Lin did not play a minute. Lin was hurdled in the rotation by rookie Jordan Clarkson (who enjoyed a fine performance in his first start of his NBA career) with Price serving as his backup. After the game, Lin left his media availability after speaking to one reporter and while Byron Scott was still answering questions of most of the beat reporters. There was some controversy around that, but in reality I don’t make much of it. If Lin didn’t want to speak, I’m okay with it considering he’s typically taken any and all questions all year without any issues.

In any event, we’ll see if Lin’s role changes tonight. One thing we do know for sure, is that the Lakers’ starters will not:

I’d get worked up about this, but honestly, I don’t see much point in doing so. Scott seems to be skewing younger and that’s a good thing. My opinion about how to do this is different, but not so much as to get so upset over:

I should clarify, not worth getting so upset over if you’re anyone but Jeremy Lin. In the lineup Scott played on Friday, Lin was the odd man out and as long as Scott’s love of Price remains at its current levels, that will likely continue. The fact that Lin is stuck behind Price is, to me, at least, comical at best. But, maybe that’s just me. It’s not because Lin has been some all world talent this year that has earned playing time without questions about how it should be deployed or adjusted from game to game. But, simply, that Lin is a better player than Price when you total the sums of their contributions and abilities on the court. The fact that Scott either A). doesn’t see this or B). does see it and plays Price anyway doesn’t much matter — both are wrong and that’s that.

Anyways, when it comes to tonight, the Lakers will play a Rockets’ team that will likely be without Dwight Howard. Dwight is a bit banged up – but the bigger takeaway is that the Lakers, especially without Kobe, have become the team you can rest your best players against and still likely win. If this game had more meaning to the Rockets or if the outcome was seriously in doubt, I’d bet Dwight plays. But, you know, those things aren’t true.

And, so, here we are. I could talk about what I’d like to see tonight, but I’ll probably just write about Jordan Clarkson another time. After all, he’s pretty much the only new thing to discuss when it comes to this team right now. And probably the only “fun” thing worth discussing too. Read those last two sentences again and poor out a cup for the Lakers’ season. This is what it has come to.

Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM Los Angeles.

 

The Lakers don’t have an injury bug, they have an injury parasite that eats away at their innards like a ravenous zombie in the Walking Dead.

After completing a basic two-handed dunk after a nice drive baseline in the third quarter of Wednesday’s loss to the Pelicans, Kobe ran up court with a bit of a grimace and held his right shoulder. He’d later return to the game, only to play almost exclusively with his left hand — even attempting some shots southpaw — exiting with a little over a minute left to play in the game. He headed straight to the locker room to receive treatment.

After the game, the Lakers said that Kobe would receive an MRI on the joint while Kobe himself almost blew off the injury entirely. He said he’d fly to San Antonio, get in his regular routine, and go from there. Well, it turns out it’s a bit more serious than that.

Per a report from ESPN, Kobe will fly back to Los Angeles today to see a team physician. After that an update will be given that, hopefully, reveals how severe the tear is and how long he might be out of action. Until then, wish good thoughts for Kobe. After all, the Lakers were bad with him playing and will continue to be bad without him. But I hate to see Kobe on the shelf again, injured, with real questions about recovery times and what this means for his basketball future pushed to the forefront another time.

While the X’s and O’s of this game will matter — they always do — tonight’s Lakers game in New Orleans against the Pelicans will likely be impacted just as much, if not more, but who plays and who does not. Both teams have been dealing with players sitting out lately and while the news is mostly good for both sides, there is some not so good news as well.

Starting with the former, Kobe Bryant will be back in the lineup after missing the last two games. The team lost both games (and the three previous to those as well) and could have used his playmaking severely in both contests. Joining Kobe will be Ronnie Price who returns after missing a couple of games with a sore elbow. Price’s return sends Jeremy Lin back to the bench to steer the fate of the team’s reserves. This is a role Lin has done well in and I’m sure those guys will welcome his return as his aggressiveness with that unit aids in shot creation and makes the group harder to defend in general.

For the Pelicans, their good news is that Anthony Davis will play tonight after some doubts in the last couple days he would be able to. His bad big toe had him questionable as late as early yesterday, but he was then upgraded to probable to, now, playing. Davis’ return is should have the biggest impact of either return for either team — yes, even more than Kobe — as his two way play and ability to impact the game is as much as any player in the league right now. Even if Davis is not 100% (which is like the case) his mere presence will make a huge difference.

On the other end of the injury spectrum, point guard Jrue Holiday will not play tonight for the Pelicans. The former Bruin and 76er is out two to four weeks with a stress reaction in his leg and will be “replaced” by Tyreke Evans at PG with Eric Gordon and Dante Cunningham filling in on the wing for Evans. This little bit of musical chairs will hurt the Pelicans, but their hope is, surely, to get enough from Gordon offensively and have Evans be adept enough at running the offense to still be able to down the Lakers.

From the Lakers standpoint, the key to tonight’s game will be keeping Evans out of the lane and slowing down the big men out of the P&R. Davis is excellent at either diving to the rim or at popping to shoot his jumper so he must be marked at all times unless he proves he’s not ready to play above the rim or hit his jumper. Omer Asik can score as a roll man, though he’s not as fluid or smooth on the catch and is not nearly the finisher that Davis is. He must still be marked, however, and when the Lakers do dig down to slow either when rolling (or stunt on the perimeter to cover Davis or Ryan Anderson who will also pop) the defensive rotations behind that first action must be crisp or the scrambling and breakdowns will be too much to overcome — even against an offense that is not especially creative.

Offensively, the Lakers must hit shots from the outside and get Davis moving away from the ball to create the types of slashing angles and openings around the basket that can allow for higher percentage shots to be converted. If he is around the ball, he will disrupt what you want to do so the Lakers must try to get him on the move and rotating so the ball can be quickly moved on again with him not in the vicinity. Even then, with Asik around to cover, the team will still have their issues getting great looks, but if the team can hit a few threes and get defenders closing out hard, driving lanes will open up which can create the type of space that they can exploit for baskets.

Where you can watch: 5pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM Los Angeles.