Records: Lakers 38-17 (3rd in West), Bobcats 23-31 (9th in East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.9 (2nd in NBA), Bobcats 103.0 (26th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.8 (10th in NVA), Bobcats 106.4 (14th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers:Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Bobcats: Shaun Livingston D.J. Augustin, Stephen Jackson, Gerald Wallace, Edjuardo Najera, Kwame Brown
Injuries: Lakers: Matt Barnes & Theo Ratliff (out); Bobcats: DeSagana Diop & Tyrus Thomas (out), D.J. Augustin (doubtful/game time decision)
UPDATE: Per the twitter feed of Mike Cranston (AP Writer for the ‘Cats), D.J. Augustin will play and will start. Obviously that means that the Lakers are back to dealing with a quick-ish guard that has shooting range. It remains to be seen how effective he is with his bum wrist, but this does give the Bobcats one more threat on offense.
UPDATE #2: It’s looking more and more likely that Kobe will also play through his flu like symptoms. Mike Trudell reported that he was going through is regular pregame routine. I still look for Kobe to play more of distributor role and, as is usual when he plays through an illness, I expect a controlled game from #24 where he really looks to play as efficiently as possible and not expend energy when it’s not needed. Hence, I think we may see more of the facilitator Kobe tonight.
The Lakers Coming in: As the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. After winning 4 straight games to start their Grammy trip, the Lakers fell to Orlando. The defense is still playing well and while the offense could use some long range makes from its “shooters”, it’s tough to argue with the approach the team is taking on that side of the ball. The Magic represented a team that was desperate for a win and the Lakers, a little weary, weren’t up to the challenge. Now they get to attempt to start a new winning streak tonight.
The Bobcats Coming in: Getting a handle on the ‘Cats is a bit difficult. Coming off a playoff berth last season, things were looking up. Larry Brown had them defending and “playing the right way”. But with that success, somewhat hidden was the fact that this was a capped out team that had seemingly peaked with an 8th seed in a top heavy East.
This year, though, things have completely stagnated, if being kind, or completely fallen off, if judging with a more harsh eye. The Cat’s lost Raymond Felton to free agency, traded Tyson Chandler to the Mavs in exchange for Erick Dampier (who they then waived to save money), and didn’t add any other significant pieces to build on last year. Then, as is prone to happen, Larry Brown soured on his roster, jerked guys’ minutes around and ended up resigning with his team floundering. Paul Silas is now in as head man and this team is playing better, but still too up and down to really be counted on to make a playoff push.
Recently, they’ve shown flashes of strong play defeating the Hawks and Celtics in their last 4 games. They’re getting improved play out of Kwame Brown (who cites new assistant coach Charles Oakley with aiding his better performance) while Steven Jackson and Gerald Wallace always give this team a fighting chance on the wing. D.J. Augustin has improved with more consistent minutes and Shaun Livingston has also been playing well of late. Where this team struggles in their lack of depth, depending on journeymen like Eddy Najera and Nazr Mohammed with Ty Thomas out with an injury. They also struggle to put up enough points to keep pace with teams when their defense can’t generate the needed stops. Of course, that tends to happen when your best players are jump shooting wings. All in all, this team will play hard but with the talent available, grabbing the last spot in the playoffs is really all they could hope for.
Keys to game: How much love do the Lakers get on Valentines Day? They get to play their 4th game in 5 nights, that’s how much. Not that I’m complaining – sometimes this is how the schedule breaks and teams just have to adjust. But, the point remains: the Lakers are surely starting to feel the wear and tear of this road trip as the combination of multiple games in a short span and the travel from city to city is taxing.
That said, no one is going to cry for the defending champs and they’re sure to get the Bobcats’ best effort tonight. And that could be a problem considering how well this team has fared against the Lakers in season’s past. Thanks to commenter BlizzardOfOz, we know that the Lakers have only beaten the ‘Cats 3 times in the last 10 match ups, a streak that covers several coaches and different rosters of players. This team just always seems to have the Lakers number, so getting a win isn’t just a given considering the talent disparity.
In order to get the win, then, the Lakers must continue the execution they’ve shown on their current road trip. Attacking inside should be priority number one considering the Bynum/Gasol duo will likely be guarded by Kwame, Najera, Mohammed, and Diaw all night. And while Kwame is a good one on one post defender, Bynum should still be able to establish good post position and work his jump hook from low blocks. As for Gasol, he needs to continue his aggressive play and take the undersized defenders he’ll see down into the post. Neither Najera or Diaw has a realistic chance of slowing a tuned in Gasol, so an attack mindset is needed from the big Spaniard tonight.
This is also a game where I hope for Kobe to lay in the weeds a bit more and play off the ball in order to be most effective. Both Jackson and Wallace offer good size and length and they’re two players that have traditionally given Kobe more issues than other defenders. When Kobe has the ball in his hands above the three point line I’d like to see him pass rather than try to initiate off the dribble, with him then cutting to his favored spots on the floor to either catch the ball on the move or establish position at the elbow or mid post to do his damage. Considering that this is the 4th game in 5 nights and the defenders he’ll be facing, I’d prefer to see less of a perimeter oriented #24.
Defensively, the Lakers are likely to catch a break with D.J. Augustin doubtful for this game. Augustin is the type of quick, good outside shooting, P&R heavy guard that can give the Lakers fits. Instead, they’ll see a heavier dose of Shaun Livingston, who has been playing better, but offers a different type of match up that the Lakers are better equipped to deal with. Livingston will also run the P&R but he’s less a threat as a shooter so the Lakers should be able to go under screens and then bottle off his penetration. Livingston will also try to go to the post more often but Fisher should be able to body him enough that he doesn’t get as comfortable – even though he’s giving up several inches to Shaun.
The other key to slowing the ‘Cats is by pressuring their wings and not giving up open jumpers. Both Wallace and Jackson are true threats and both can find ways to hurt the defense when left open. Jackson has range beyond the three point line and while Wallace has relied more on his jumper this year than in season’s past, he’ll still attack the rim if given the lane. The Lakers must contest jumpers and the bigs must be ready to help if the Lakers successfully run their wings off the three point line.
Ultimately, this is a game that can go either way. The Lakers aren’t rested and the ‘Cats always give them fits. That said, Charlotte shouldn’t push the pace too much and the Lakers advantages inside should give them enough to outlast the home team. Two straight losses really would put a damper on an otherwise stellar road trip, so here’s hoping that LA musters the energy and focus that will be needed.
Where you can watch: 4:00pm start time out West on KCAL. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710am.