Records: Lakers 33-31 (9th in the West), Magic 18-46 (14th in the East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.7 (8th in the NBA), Magic 99.7 (T 24th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.7 (18th in the NBA), Magic 106.5 (26th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Earl Clark, Dwight Howard
Magic: Jameer Nelson, Arron Afflalo, Tobias Harris, Maurice Harkless, Nikola Vucevic
Injuries: Lakers: Pau Gasol (out), Jordan Hill (out for the season); Magic: Glen Davis (out), Hedo Turkoglu (suspended)
The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers are 8-2 in their last 10 but are still fighting hard to make the playoffs. Their position as the 8th seed lasted all of one day with the Jazz (and their tiebreaker) reclaiming the spot after a win over the Pistons last night. This only reinforces the reality that for the Lakers, every game matters a great deal. Yes, they’re playing better and racking up the wins, but in order to get to the post season they must continue their winning ways. This means continuing to refine their schemes and finding a way to bring the needed effort and focus each night.
Sunday’s win over the Bulls was the perfect template for this team moving forward — the Lakers came out ready to compete, were sharp on defense, and controlled the tempo offensively with solid execution even when the Bulls clamped down on that end. Every game will require an adherence to that model or they can just as easily find themselves in the type of game they had against the Raptors and the Hornets. It should be noted that even if the Lakers do play well, sometimes they’ll find themselves in that type of game anyway simply because other teams get up to play the Lakers and often bring their best effort. But by finding a way to match or exceed that energy is what this team needs moving forward.
The Magic Coming in: Orlando has had the type of season many would have predicted for them after trading their franchise anchor last summer. They have the 2nd worst record in the league and have seen enormous dips in production on both sides of the ball. Their efficiency differentials are a minus-7 and that pretty much tells you the quality of their team this season.
That said, in trading Howard the Magic also did a very good job of netting the types of players who can develop into very good players. Nikola Vucevic is a nice big man prospect who has an emerging offensive game and very good instincts on the glass. Mo Harkless is a developing combo forward who can do a little bit of everything on the floor. Add to them E’Twaun Moore and Andrew Nicholson and there’s a nice crop of in house talent that can hopefully sprout into every game contributors. Besides trading Howard for prospects and draft picks, the Magic also traded J.J. Redick at the deadline and snatched up another fine young player in Tobias Harris to go along with veteran PG Beno Udrih. And when you add Udrih to Jameer Nelson, Afflalo, and Al Harrington, that’s a nice mix of veterans to go with their young players.
What’s resulted is a professional team that plays hard even if the wins are scarce. Head coach Jaque Vaughn comes from the Popovich tree of coaching that emphasizes process as much as results and we’re seeing that in Orlando. Down the line with some good development of current youngsters and some lottery luck, the Magic can be a very good team again. This season, despite the results, is a step in the right direction.
Keys to game: This is Dwight’s first game back to Orlando since the trade and with his return there will be a palpable buzz in the building. Dwight handled his exit about as poorly as a player could have left a team and the negativity spawned from his departure will be on full display tonight. Fans will boo him lustily in introductions and every time he has the ball. He is now public enemy number one in that city.
For the Lakers, then, meeting that level of energy is important and maybe more so than executing well. Solid picks and rotating well are always important of course, but so is making the extra effort on every single play. The Magic are likely to be flying all over the court in this game and matching what they bring to the floor can mean the difference between winning and losing this game.
From an execution standpoint, the Lakers must simply play the game they’ve been playing for weeks. Kobe will have another tough match up with Afflalo guarding him, but even the former Nugget can be beaten with solid screening and quick decisive moves from #24. Let Kobe operate in the P&R, get him moving into the post and off picks for quick jumpers and he should be okay. As should Nash and Dwight if they continue to work well in the P&R. Nelson isn’t the best defensive guard and he doesn’t offer the type of size or length that can bother Nash in pressure situations. If Dwight can set good screens for Nash, it should set him free to shoot his mid-range jumper which should then open up passing chances to Dwight and shooters on the wing to get good shots.
Defensively the Lakers must concern themselves with tempo and making smart choices in the half court. The Magic aren’t a very good offensive team when slowed down, but they have enough athletes on the win to push the pace even if that’s not their typical style of play. Afflalo, Harris, Moore, and Harckless can all get up and down the floor when they want to and with Nelson and Udrih manning the point, there’s enough experience and savvy to utilize those athletes when they do get out in the open court.
In the half court, expect a heavy diet of P&R’s from both Nelson and Udrih. Both have the ability to hit jumpers from deep and the mid-range and that necessitates fighting over screens well and having the hedge man play high enough to contest that shot. That said, either player can also get into the lane to create for others so the back line help behind Howard must be ready to help on the dive man while still recovering out to shooters planted around the arc. Afflalo and Al Harrington are both capable shooters and if they start to knock down the three ball this game will remain close.
As for other variables, look out for Vucevic on the offensive glass when Howard is helping away from him. The big man averages over 3 offensive rebounds a game and has good instincts when chasing down loose balls. He must be bodied up and forced to go over the top of a wing (potentially fouling in the process) to get that board. Also look out for the hack-a-Dwight strategy in this game. When the Magic beat the Lakers in L.A., Coach Vaughn used the tactic down the stretch and it completely threw off the Lakers’ offensive attack and allowed Orlando to seize the game. If this contest is close down the stretch, expect to see Dwight at the line with a cascade of boos raining down on him while he tries to overcome the weakest part of his game.
If the Lakers are to avoid that situation, they must do what’s needed early and carry it over through the rest of the game. Even with a tough contest tomorrow night, the Lakers must leave it all on the floor tonight to get this much needed win.
Where you can watch: 4:00pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.