Archives For Game Preview

I understand you cannot actually see my face right now, but if you could, you would see that I am smiling. While it is only preseason, the Lakers are back, playing actual basketball that (sort of) matters for the first time since last April. It has been a long time. It has felt like a really, really long time.

The wait is over, though. The Lakers tip off tonight at 7pm PST against the Denver Nuggets*. The game should not be taken too seriously — it is the preseason, after all — but it should be viewed intently. The result may not matter in the big picture, but the process of what this team will become on the floor begins in earnest tonight**. And while that comes with countless caveats — from playing time, to rotations, to the presence of players who will not be on this roster in 4 weeks — I’ll take whatever Lakers’ basketball I can get at this point.

In saying all that, here are a few things worth paying special attention to when the ball tips off:

*Does Kobe look as good when not being defended by his own teammates? Like anyone else who has viewed the clips of Kobe practicing, I have been pleasantly surprised by how he’s looked physically and how well he’s been able to the things that Kobe would normally do on the floor. His post game has looked smooth. His jumper seems to be falling with consistently. His movement with and without the ball has not looked significantly different than I remember from when he was healthy. What needs to be said, though, is that all of this has come in short clips and against defenders who, in reality, are not especially tough match ups for him. No offense to Jordan Clarkson or Wayne Ellington or, even, Nick Young. But none of these guys offer the size or defensive acumen to offer much resistance against Kobe.

Tonight, though, he’ll be facing off against another team with better defenders (hello Arron Afflalo) and doing so in an actual game environment. Needless to say, this is a different test than the one Kobe has been, seemingly, passing with flying colors over the past week of training camp. If he can look as good tonight as he has against his own teammates, it will be further confirmation that he is “feeling like himself”.

*Julius Randle’s overall game. On Saturday the Lakers appeared on NBA TV’s “Real Training Camp” and one of the takeaways from that program was that Julius Randle is both really skilled and prone to getting really tired. Randle flashed a nice face up jumper (something he did not do in the Vegas Summer League), his above average handle, and some nice passing (two things he did show in Vegas). He also get extremely winded during head coach Byron Scott’s conditioning heavy practice, more than once looking out of breath and wanting for an extra couple of minutes of rest as the drills rolled on. This is to be somewhat expected — Randle didn’t do much physical activity at all between finishing his freshman season at Kentucky and when he was drafted and was already a player who could stand to get in better shape as camp approached. Beyond that, Scott’s practices have been heavy handed on the running and conditioning and as a rookie coming into his first camp you would expect there to be some culture shock to how things are done at this level.

In saying all that, I am interested in seeing how Randle plays when the bright lights are finally on and when he has that extra burst of adrenaline from being in game action. I also want to see if his full skill set is on display and what positions he is put in on the floor to use those skills.

*What will the big man rotation look like? Nick Young’s injury has thrown the wing rotation for a loop, but that should not be the case for the bigs. Save for Ryan Kelly, every other big is healthy and how Scott divides the minutes will be something to watch — even if it’s on the preseason. We already know that Boozer and Hill will start, but I’ll be interested in seeing how much burn Randle and Davis get, what combinations of those four (plus Sacre) are put on the floor, and how those pairings play together. Again, what we see tonight shouldn’t be forecasted as what will happen a month from now, but tonight’s action will reflect how Scott sees things early in camp. Hints like this can deepen our analysis and give us some insight we did not have before tonight.

*How much does Nash play and, more important, how does he look when he’s out there? When word came out of Saturday’s practice that Nash “tweaked” his ankle, there was a serious sense of “here we go again” when it comes to the veteran guard’s injury issues. But Nash practiced the next day and said he could have easily participated in Saturday’s evening session. As of now Nash is penciled in as the starter and will be run out there with the first group. I do not expect Nash to play more than 10-15 minutes tonight while Lin and Ronnie Price get heavier workloads. In saying that, though, Nash will see the Nuggets’ first team players and that will give him a nice barometer of where he’s at physically and what stage his game is at. Can he create his own shot? Can he be a semblance of the disruptive offensive player he’s been in the past? Can he get his teammates some open, easy shots? I’ll be very interested in seeing how the 40 year old looks.

*Has Wes Johnson really progressed? I was lukewarm on Wes’ return to the Lakers this summer. After watching Wes for a full season my analysis of his game was pretty simple: he’s a much better athlete than he is a basketball player. He often looked like a player who made up his mind on what he wanted to do early in a play and showed little ability to make the mental adjustments, both within a play and over the course of a game, that define how successful basketball players operate on the court. But Wes spent nearly the entire summer working out with Kobe Bryant, picking #24’s brain and getting schooled on the thinking aspects of the game and ideas like “economy of motion” that are meant to further maximize his physical gifts. People have been looking for Wes to break out since the time he entered the league. And while I think that ship has sailed, it’s not beyond his ability to make marginal improvements around the edges of his game to become a more efficient player than he was last year. Much of that will depend on the mental aspect of the game, however, and I am interested in seeing if he has made strides in that area.

Beyond that, there are many other things to watch — from Jordan Clarkson’s play to how the team is doing defensively to whether or not Ellington and Price impress as much in game action as  they have in practices. We’ll have more on all these topics, and more, in the next day or so.

*If you are in the LA market, you can watch the game on TWC Sportsnet. The game can also be viewed in NBA TV if you are not local.

**Practice, of course, is where all the habits of what this team will play like will actually be formed. That said, when the games come, their execution on the floor together will be forged and built in different ways. I am very interested in seeing how this team plays against opponents not wearing Lakers’ practice jerseys.

Game 82.

Normally at this time of year, I’m wondering about the playoffs. I am looking at match ups, dissecting X’s and O’s, and reviewing tape of the opponent. I am looking at X-factors, wondering about strategy, and imagining how a series might unfold based off the relative strengths and weaknesses of the Lakers and their opponent.

This year, none of that is happening. The Lakers season ends after this game, in the middle of April. The draft lottery is a month away. The draft, two months. Free agency another 10 weeks. In other words, get ready for a loooong off-season my friends.

To be completely honest, I have shifting thoughts about this season.

On the one hand, it’s been horrible. The losing has been insufferable. The injuries and the resulting lineup changes, the double digit defeats and awful defense, the 3rd quarter collapses and crunch time lack of execution. It all runs on loop in my mind more often than I’d like to admit. There are times I catch myself zoning out and thinking about a missed rotation and see the players just staring at each other with a look of “who was supposed to be there?”. It really is sad.

On the other hand, there have been some fun moments that have sustained me more than I’d have thought they could. Opening night against the Clippers. Blake’s dagger over Dwight. Pau and Nick Young, soul-mates in swag. Meeks’ 42 against the Thunder. That 3rd quarter against the Knicks. Those 19 three pointers against the Kings. Finishing with 5 eligible players against the Cavs and still winning the game. Not to mention all the other little moments in games that got me out of my seat (like this, for example). These have been the bursts of light in a mostly dark year. For these times I am thankful even if they represent only a drop of water in the drought.

This season hasn’t been what I’d hoped it would be, but that hasn’t always been a bad thing. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been mostly bad. Just not all the way.

It ends in San Antonio, though. The Lakers will play out the string against the Spurs, looking to end the season on a two game winning streak and somewhat of a hight note. This season has been about the little victories and while a win in this game wouldn’t amount to much in the standings — in either direction too, since it wouldn’t affect the lottery — it would give the players a little reward for continuing to go hard even when, beyond personal pride, there wasn’t a lot of reason to do so.

For what it’s worth, after Mike D’Antoni feigned ignorance to the Lakers’ lottery odds after a win over the Jazz, he said his team would win this game. We’ll see if he’s correct, but I like his chutzpah. The embattled coach has had a rough go of it in his near two years coaching the Lakers, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have at least a slight appreciation for his honesty and his want to keep doing things his way — even if that stubbornness could be frustrating.

His fate may yet to be decided, but this year he went about his business the way that he saw fit, even if it wasn’t always popular, even it it wasn’t always what looked to be the best move to outside observers. Whether that works out in his favor when the emperor decides if it is a thumbs up or a thumbs down is unknown, but I imagine the ol’ ball coach will rest easy either way.

As for this game, forget strategy (as if you were even considering the opposite), and just enjoy this game. It’s the last one, after all. This year hasn’t been what many of us wanted when it started last October, but I think we can all pretty much agree now that we’re glad it’s over. Even if we will, though probably reluctantly, miss it when it is gone.

Regardless of whether you support the idea of losing games as a mechanism for long term improvement or not, you have to acknowledge that tonight’s game is relatively important when it comes to the potential slotting of the draft lottery.

Entering tonight’s game, the Lakers have one more win and one less loss than the Jazz. If the Lakers lose against Utah tonight, they become tied. This would leave open the opportunity for the Lakers to end with a worse record than their Western Conference rivals and, thus, leapfrog them into a better position (in terms of odds) for the draft lottery scheduled to happen next month. And while that’s getting ahead of ourselves a little bit – there would still be one game left to play, after all – this game will go a long way towards clarifying the end of the year standings.

For that reason, tonight’s game has a certain value. Not aesthetic value or actual competitive value – at least not in the traditional sense – but value all the same. Tonight’s loser will be in a better position to land a top 5 pick than they were yesterday. For those of you who root for such things, this game is your super bowl. For those of you who just want this season to be over, well, you’ll just have to suffer through another game. Sorry. What’s one more tacked on to the previous 20?

I really don’t have much to say about this contest outside of the two paragraphs above. We’ve seen enough of the Jazz this season to know their strengths and weaknesses and who the key players are. I could sit here and write paragraphs on Gordon Hayward, Trey Burke, or Derrick Favors, but click here or here if you really want that stuff. I could write about the importance of rebounding or how Jordan Hill and Ryan Kelly or Nick Young need to play to help the team win, but honestly those things are sort of secondary to what I’ll be watching tonight.

In all honesty, the thing I’ll be looking out for most is what strategy is employed by both sides in how it relates to losing the game. That sounds harsh, and I won’t be actively rooting for the Lakers to lose, but if you were really looking for a game where either team might “tank” this is the one. There are real stakes at play and the winner of this game is putting themselves in a position where the difference between a top 5 pick and one that is a spot or two below is very real.

Does this mean the coaches or the players will change their approach? I don’t think so – Nick Young said it well when he stated guys won’t try to lose games when all it does is help the team draft their replacement. I think the same is true for coaches who are wired to try and win games and understand that they are judged on results above all else. But, at the same time, just as there is a positive momentum that comes from winning there is a negative one that comes from losing. The Lakers have been riding that downward wave for the better part of a few months now. An occasional win here or there doesn’t obscure the fact that in most games the Lakers can only muster a half of strong play before fading to a double digit loss.

Will the same happen tonight? On the second night of a back to back against a team that, for all of their own warts, has already beaten the Lakers by 20 points this year? We will soon find out.

Where you can watch: 6:00pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.

On Saturday night the Hawks beat the Heat, a win that knocked the Knicks out of the playoffs. That set up a crazy stat: for the first time in league history the Lakers, Celtics, and Knicks all missed the playoffs. That stat doesn’t have much to do with anything, but it really does show how successful the Lakers have been over that time, since that stat really is on the strength of their playoff berths over the years — especially when you consider some of the down stretches the Knicks and Celtics have had.

The Lakers, of course, have known for some time that they wouldn’t be in the playoffs. They’ve become the team that has been trying to play spoiler for almost a month, attempting to drop teams down in the standings or knock them out of the race entirely. With the season almost over, their last chance to really do that is in tonight’s game when they face off with the Grizzlies.

As the Knicks were being eliminated, the Mavs were clinching their spot in the playoffs, leaving the Grizz and the Suns fighting for the final spot in the West field. Those two teams play each other on Monday, but the Lakers can do the Suns a big favor by knocking off the Grizz (or at least wearing them down on the first night of a back to back). As it stands right now, the Grizz have a half game lead on Phoenix, up a single game in the loss column. A Lakers’ win would even that up and give the Suns a chance to write their ticket into the playoffs with that win over the Grizz.

Of course, Memphis also understands this and should come out ready to play for their playoff lives in this game. They’ve won three of their last four games, including a big win over the Heat that has kept them in the race. A loss to the Lakers wouldn’t end their season, but it would put them in a bad spot with the Suns and the Mavs on the docket to close the year. The Grizz know that winning out gets them into the playoffs and gets them to the 7th seed. A let down against the Lakers — their easiest game left on the schedule — is something they cannot afford.

On the other end of the spectrum, and as it’s been lately, the Lakers are in a different kind of standings battle. A loss to the Grizzlies would tie the Lakers with the Celtics for the 5th worst record in the league and only a game behind the Jazz for the 4th worst record. The Celtics close against the 76ers and the Wizards while the Jazz close agains the Lakers and the Timberwolves. While the Lakers can’t control what the Celtics do, if the C’s get one more win while the Lakers lose out, there is a chance that the Lakers not only seal the 5th worst record but get all the way to the 4th spot in the lottery. We’re getting ahead of ourselves, but it will be interesting to see how these final games go and how all three of these teams approach these final games that will determine the lottery odds.

In a way, it’s funny that this is what the season has come down to. Watching the scoreboard and wondering what other teams are doing, not because of how it affects the race for the playoffs or seeding, but how it affects the lottery. A year ago at this time the Lakers were closing the season on a nice run and played a meaningful game on the last night of the year that got them to the 7th seed in the playoffs. This year, on the 2nd to last game of the season we will see them play the Jazz in a game where the winner may negatively impact their draft position. Funny how much can change in 365 days.

As for the game against the Grizzlies, I will be watching two match ups. The first is when Jordan Farmar plays against Mike Conley. Conley is one of the more underrated point guards in the league and has been playing well to close the year as the Grizz have made their push to get into the playoffs. Farmar, when healthy, has actually had a very good year, shooting the ball well and showing he could be a decent creator in the P&R. Watching how he deals with Conley’s quickness offensively and his ability to be a pest defensively will be one of the better games within the game.

The 2nd match up will be watching how Jordan Hill matches up with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol in the middle. I still really enjoy Hill’s game and think he can be a solid contributor on a good team. But what has become more clear as he’s had to man the middle with Pau and Kaman out is that he has a hard time matching up with good, starting big men who aren’t easily out hustled or out muscled by him on the glass. Hill is a very good 3rd big man who can beat up on opposing second units and have some quality good minutes against some starters. But as a full time starter matching up with opposing starters for 30 minutes, he’s not going to be as productive. Against the Grizz he’ll face one of the better big man duos in the league and I will be watching closely to see if he can still make an impact with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph on the other end of the floor.

Where you can watch: 6:00pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.

h/t @cjzero for the screenshot

The Golden State Warriors are taking their hatred for the Los Angeles Lakers a little too seriously. The Lakers have always been one of those teams in sports that only has one true rival, but is the rival to everyone else. Other teams, especially in the division, get up to play the Lakers in a way that they don’t for other teams in the the league, and seems to still be the case even in what is arguably the least successful season in the Lakers franchise history.

With a chance to clinch a playoff berth against the Denver Nuggets on Thursday Night, the Warriors elected to lay the conjectural egg and allowed Timofey Mozgof to go off for a ridiculous 93 (!) points on only 15 (!) shots with 29 (!) rebounds. Mozgof’s night was easily the most efficient of any player who has scored more than 70 points, mainly because the Warriors let him run rampant on the offensive end.

The reason: The Warriors wanted to clinch a playoff spot on the Lakers home court. “Teams tank all the time,” began head coach Mark Jackson after the game. “The Lakers are a team that this organization doesn’t like and they don’t like us. If we have an opportunity to clinch on their floor, in front of their fans — we’re going to take it.”

Woof.

A clinch for the Warriors in Los Angeles isn’t a guarantee, however. They’re heading into a second of a back-to-back and the Lakers are coming off their highest scoring total of the season. The offense was firing on all cylinders as they dropped 130 points on the Houston Rockets. Although they’re only at 25-53, the offense may have finally found a rhythm that can carry them for the remainder of the season, even without Kobe Bryant or Pau Gasol or Chris Kaman or Steve Nash or Jordan Farmar or Xavier Henry or Kent Bazemore. **

———-

Kendall Marshall is going to have to control the tempo and keep his counterpart Stephen Curry in check. If the Warriors are able to get out and run, things can get a little dicey for the Lakers as they just don’t have the depth to continue to rotate players to play 48 minutes of high tempo basketball. Curry is his best in the open court when he’s able to improvise and pick his spots. Klay Thompson is one of the beneficiaries of Curry in the open court as he’s often left open as defenses key in on trying to keep Curry under control.

One of the more interesting things about the Warriors in recent weeks is Jackson’s sudden willingness to play an Andrew Bogut/Draymond Green front court. With Iguodala on the court with those two, the Warriors have one of the best defensive front courts in the NBA. Their ability to get stops and force live ball turnovers has turned into some on-court success in the absence of David Lee.

For the Lakers, they’ll have to counter with the likes of Jordan Hill and Wes Johnson as the starting front court. Injuries were the problem at the beginning of the year and have continued throughout their 2013-14 campaign. The issues started with the backcourt, but with both Gasol and Kaman out, the front court is not the most depleted part of the Lakers roster and it could be very evident on a night that features one of the more unique front courts in the NBA.

A win for the Lakers isn’t necessarily out of the realm of possibilities as this has been a team that has fought extremely hard even in their worst of losses this season. However, what is there to be gained in another win as the season comes to a merciful close? It’s hard to condone even the idea of not playing to win, but any win at this point will be recorded in vain. There is the idea that the Lakers can keep the Warriors from clinching on their home floor, which is a mini-feel good story in an otherwise horrible season.

Where To Watch: 7:30pm start time on TWC SportsNet and NBATV. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.

** Words above the break are likely made up and should not be taken seriously.