Archives For Game Preview

I hate to keep beating the same drum, but when it’s the only instrument in the room what really can I say? The Lakers are back in action tonight, facing the 76ers in another standings game which could matter come lottery night. Philly may not be “tanking”, but they’re certainly starved for talent now that Joel Embiid has been shut down for the season (joining top pick Ben Simmons) and Nerlens Noel has been traded. The team still has Dario Saric (who’s good!) and Jahlil Okafor (who’s…I don’t know what he is at this point), but the rest of this roster is holdovers from previously terrible teams and some veterans who were brought in to soak up minutes and mentor the young guys.

This makes Philly a bad team and they have incentive — maybe even more than the Lakers — to continue to be that way through the end of the season to maximize their lottery chances. Philly will get the Lakers’ pick should it fall outside the top 3 and they also have the right to swap picks with the Kings should that pick end up higher than their own. So, Philly realistically could end up with two top 5 picks in what is thought to be a loaded draft and all they have to do is continue to lose to make that happen.

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Oh. “Better Lottery Odds” actually isn’t an NBA team, you say? My mistake. The Lakers play the Suns tonight. But the title of this post is actually more accurate. You see, even though the Suns have won 3 of their last 4 games and are play well lately, that matters less than the fact that it’s the Suns who are two games up in the standings (and loss column) on the Lakers. This game has real lottery implications.

A Lakers win puts that difference at only a single game with only 17 games left on the schedule. That small a margin could easily equate to the Lakers finishing with a better record than the Suns which flip the odds of the Lakers keeping their top 3 protected pick from 55.8% to 46.9%. That margin may not be huge, but it is statistically significant and would mean only one team would need to jump from outside the top 3 to inside it to move the Lakers’ pick into the 76ers’ hands.

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Is it weird that I have little to say about a Lakers game? That the strategy doesn’t intrigue me, the match ups don’t matter all that much, and that I don’t really care about the outcome? This usually isn’t the case, but we are at that time of the year where, in reality, those things which typically make up the more enjoyable parts of my viewing experience are losing their luster.

Be it the lottery standings, the roster and front office changes, or simply that we’re now in the 2nd week of March for a season which started, with training camp, way back in September — which was a long time ago. As we say at the beginning of the year, it’s a marathon and not a sprint…well, we’re coming down the home stretch and there’s just little intrigue left.

This doesn’t mean nothing that happens has value. We know that’s not the case.

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After an uninspiring defeat against the Celtics which saw the opposition execute showboat lobs and control the action pretty much all night, the Lakers are back in action against the Pelicans tonight at Staples. The Lakers will get an up close look at the remade NOLA team, who swapped Buddy Hield, additional backcourt depth, and a 1st round pick for DeMarcus Cousins on All-Star Sunday night.

Despite the addition of the All-NBA big man, however, the Pelicans — like the Lakers — have struggled since the trade deadline only posting a single win in that period. Of course the Lakers are winless in that same period so both teams are looking for answers, though in different ways…

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The Lakers have lost 3 straight games since returning from the All-Star break and trading Lou Williams. The games themselves have been a mixed bag from a team perspective, competing for stretches, having a couple of double-digit defeats, and then battling throughout against the Hornets only to fall short at the end.

The main takeaway, from a team perspective, is that this group still lacks the defensive ability — through gained experience and chemistry — to be impactful on that side of the ball. The needed stops do not come and the breakdowns are ones which leave you frustrated an questioning whether they will truly ever get it. I wish I had an answer to that question or that I had a more positive outlook on what the future may hold on that side of the ball, but my opinions, for now at least, are that without an infusion of defensive talent and a greater commitment from the players currently on the team to become better at it, this team will continue to flounder.

Offensively, and from an individual perspective, it’s easier to see the seeds and roots of something more dynamic. D’Angelo Russell has offered some especially strong play, mixing scoring and playmaking that inspires hope of him starting to get “it”. There are still fits and starts and some aspects to his game which need more sharpening (like penetration both in isolation and out of P&R’s), but the passing, shooting, and overall decision making is coming around. Maybe it’s a renewed focus because Magic Johnson has taken over the front office, maybe it’s Lou Williams being gone and a sense of added responsibility shifting, or maybe it’s just him finding his stride again after a season which has featured too many injuries and missed games. But it’s coming along. Hopefully it lasts.

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Since the Lakers have returned from the All-Star break, they are 0-2 with both losses double-digit defeats. The team has played poorly on defense while having only fleeting success offensively on the whole. Individual players have had their moments (Russell, Ingram, and Clarkson have all had some very positive stretches), but overall the team’s lack of competitiveness on defense has dug them holes too deep to climb out of.

This really shouldn’t be a surprise. The team’s defense has been bad pretty much all season and just because the team traded Lou Williams, that’s not going to change. The Lakers still have too many defenders who either haven’t shown enough ability, commitment, experience (or all of the above) on that end to form the foundation of a good defense. The hope is that this comes with time, but I think we’d be lying to ourselves if we just assume it will eventually. It may not — but that’s another topic for another day.

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In their first game after the All-Star break, the Lakers lost by a double digit margin to the Thunder in OKC. While the final score wasn’t pleasant, there were a few things I did like about the game. The team competed until the end and showed some defensive spirit in the 4th quarter. D’Angelo Russell was aggressive all game, posting an 11 point 5 assist 1st half and then pouring in 18 more points in the second half.

Russell’s game was a reminder of how much of a natural scorer he can be, hitting shots from all three levels (even though he shot especially poorly from behind the arc). It was encouraging to see Russell get into the paint and finish, something I’d like to see become a more permanent part of his game rather than the once-every-five-game affair it’s been this year. I’d also like to see him continue to find that balance between scorer and playmaker – after a 1st half with 5 assists, he only had 1 helper in the 2nd half. Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather Russell skew aggressive than not and if that means his assist numbers suffer, but he scores well, I’m okay. But this speaks to why I want him in the game and getting reps in every and all types of game situation.

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After over a week off, All-Star weekend, a front office shakeup which captivated the league, and two separate trades with the Rockets (Lou Williams for Corey Brewer + a 1st round pick and, later, Marcelo Huertas for Tyler Ennis), the Lakers are back playing actual basketball tonight when they suit up against the Thunder.

 

The Thunder, too, have a different look after trading Cameron Payne, Anthony Morrow, and Joffery Lauvergne to the Bulls for Doug McDermott and Taj Gibson. In the short term, this deal likely helps the Thunder more than the Bulls as Gibson is the best player traded. In the long term, this trade likely comes down to who becomes the better pro — Payne or McBuckets, which is something we just can’t know at this point.

In any event, this is a match up of two teams who will look different than the versions which entered the All-Star break, which means adjustments to new/tweaked roles and incorporation of new guys. Having practiced yesterday helps, but there’s still some things to work out — something which applies more to the Thunder (adding guys who should be in the rotation) than the Lakers.

Beyond accounting for those adjustments and some potential rust due to the long layoff, I am hopeful for a good game which puts the focus back on the court and what the players can do. It’s easy to be caught up and distracted by the events of the last few days, but I think it’s fair to say those moves were (mostly) made to correct course and establish the long term plan which best fits this organization.

That means further empowering the young players and letting them sink or swim. Which is something I will be watching for tonight. Will the young guards get longer stints? Will they close the game? This isn’t to say that you can’t coach them hard or pull them for making mistakes or do whatever else is needed to establish good habits. That said, the focus should shift even more in their direction now and there’s at least one fewer excuse/impediment to them on the roster now.

With that, I hope to see a good game where the team competes hard. They should be refreshed and looking to make their mark in the last 20+ games of the year. Let’s see what they’ve got.

Where you can watch: 5:00pm start time on Spectrum Sportsnet.