Records: Lakers 19-7 (3rd in West), 76ers 10-15 (9th in East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 113.6 (1st in NBA), 76ers 105.6 (18th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.7 (11th in NBA),76ers 104.4 (10th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
76ers: Jrue Holiday, Jodie Meeks, Andre Iguodala, Elton Brand, Spencer Hawes
Injuries: Lakers: Theo Ratliff (out); 76ers: none
The Lakers Coming in: With the return of Andrew Bynum, consistently better play has also come back to the Lakers. This is not a coincidence. Bynum has made it so Gasol is playing less minutes and doing so with a renewed physical and mental energy. Big Drew has also shored up the Lakers’ interior D and provided that sorely needed extra big body that had been absent since Theo Ratliff went under the knife.
Bynum’s return has also meant that the Lakers finally have their full 9 man rotation back and contributing. Any coach will tell you that in order to compete in the expected manner, a full arsenal of players is needed. They won’t use missing bodies as excuses – coaches always look to the next player in line to step up, but any casual observer will see what a coach thinks of his team by the rotation deployed on any given night. And before Bynum was back, Phil stretched his big men as thin as he could in order to stay competitive in the front court. Now that he no longer has to manage the minutes and fatigue of his bigs in the same way, you’re seeing the results.
Understand that this team still has a ways to go before they’re firing on all cylinders, but they’re getting there.
The 76ers Coming in: Another team that’s finding their stride is the team from Philly. They’re winners of 3 in a row and 7 of their last 10 games. They’re playing good defense and have started to find players that match up well together to form rotations that can make an impact over the course of a game.
One player that’s really playing well of late is Jodie Meeks. Over at HoopsWorld, Eric Pincus breaks down how Meekshas found his groove as a three point shooter to really help the 76ers offense spread the floor while their wings and post players attack the paint.
On the flip side of the strong play of Meeks, though, is the disappointing play of #2 overall pick Evan Turner. The rookie out of OSU just hasn’t been able to find a rhythm in his first campaign. Doug Collins has tried him as a starter, as a reserve, and as a specialist guard that plays with the ball in his hands and none of it has really worked thus far. Needless to say, the Sixers would really like to start getting some steady contributions from such a high pick, especially one whose skill set could serve as a nice complement to Iguodala and Holiday on the wing.
Keys to game: Despite the Sixers sub-.500 record, tonight’s game is a test for the Lakers. Philly plays very well at home and will look for a good showing in LA’s lone trip to their arena.
Offensively, Philly does pose some problems for the Lakers’ D. While the match up of Artest and Iguodala is the one many will key on, I’m actually looking more closely at how the Lakers defend Philly’s 2nd year back court duo. Holiday and Meeks are the exact types of players that usually give the Lakers fits. Holiday is an attack guard that uses very good quickness and above average strength to get into the paint and finish at the basket. He takes nearly 4 shots per game right at the rim and converts at a strong 64% clip. Containing him off the dribble in isolation and off the P&R will be something the Lakers need to really focus on. As for Meeks, he’s a low profile spot up player and we all know that’s the profile of a guy that Kobe can take lightly and end up getting burned for it. He does a good job of finding ways to get his shot off as Holiday, Iggy, and Brand do damage in the paint and if Kobe goes to much into free safety mode, he will end up allowing a 45% three point shooter open looks.
So tonight, the Lakers defense will really need to focus on slowing the penetration of Philly’s wings and marking Meeks. They’ll also need to deal with the bench duo of Lou Williams and Thad Young, two players that will also attack relentlessly and can quickly get hot to change the complexion of the game. The Laker reserves – especially Blake and Barnes (and Odom when he’s matched up with Young) – will need to do a good job of marking these players in the open court to ensure that they don’t get too many quality looks without hands in their faces.
On offense, the Lakers need to continue to work inside and take advantage of their quickness and athleticism advantages in the front court. Both Pau and Lamar have the ability drive by their counterparts and should have an attack mindset wherever they catch the ball on the floor. I’d love to see Pau attack Hawes every time he touches the ball and do so from both the low and mid-block. We’re all familiar with Hawes from his days with the Kings, so Pau should have a ready made plan to go at him by turning and facing when at the elbow and mid-post and then using the threat of his jump shot to drive by the slow-footed 76er Center. As for Odom, he should relish the chance to push the ball at a retreating Brand in the open court and attack him from the top of the circle in isolations and when running dribble hand-offs at the elbow in the half court. Brand is still a decent shot blocker when he can put you in his cross-hairs, but Odom’s quickness should prove too much for the aging former Clipper.
Another key to offensive success will be the Lakers ability to avoid getting bogged down in too many isolation sets. While it’s easy to look at some of the matchup advantages I’ve previously mentioned and come to the conclusion that throwing the ball to one guy and letting him work is the answer, the Lakers still need to execute the cuts and screens off the ball to help initiate offensive flow. Philly is 10th in defensive efficiency and with Iguodala and Holiday and decent shot blocking bigs, driving mindlessly into crowds or jacking up shots after one pass isn’t the route to offensive success. The Lakers need to work their advantages within the context of their sets by helping each other get open and being patient enough to let plays develop.
Again, tonight’s contest is a very winnable game but shouldn’t be thought of as a cupcake match up. Against the Pacers, the Lakers had a fire in them to avenge an earlier loss and took it to their opponent. While there isn’t that same history at play tonight, the Lakers need to carry over that determination against a young and feisty group that would like nothing better than to beat the champs on their only visit of the year.
Where you can watch: 4pm start time out west on KCAL. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710am.