Since starting the season with a feel good win over Houston, the Lakers are now 1-3. The road has not been kind to the team, with each L offering a certain hopeful quality only to still end up being an L. As I wrote before the Pacers’ game, there is some solace to be taken from moral victories, but I also think frustration starts to set in when a team fights so hard to keep games close only to lose out in the end the way this team has been.
Tuesday’s loss was particularly rough when you consider the irony in the Lakers losing in the exact way they had beaten so many teams over the years. As commenter mindcrime so succinctly put it, “Sometimes the other team’s best player is better than anything you have. George just made his shots, period. I’m sure fans of other teams similarly lamented times when Kobe did the same thing to them.”
With George cooking down the stretch, maybe the Lakers could have made some defensive substitutions, but considering the Pacers basically just started running 1-3 P&Rs to get George isolated against D’Angelo Russell, I’m not sure if bringing in Deng or Ingram for more size would have really helped. Luke Walton chose to go with three guards and their offensive abilities instead. It didn’t work out, but I’m not sure if second guessing really gets us anywhere — at least not yet. There will be a time to do a deep dive into lineup examination, but after 4 games I think we’re a bit early for that. It is coming, though.
Moving onto tonight, the Lakers close out their 4 game roadie against the remade Hawks. Much like the Pacers, the Hawks have changed up their roster in an attempt to freshen up their look and, hopefully, compete deeper into the post-season. This team is only a couple of years removed from making a run at the league’s best record and having 4 all-stars named to the mid-season exhibition, but those teams never got over the hump.
So, the team signed Dwight Howard in the off-season, traded Jeff Teague to the Pacers, and lost Al Horford to the Celtics. Some of this was by design (Teague, Dwight) and some of it was not (losing Horford for nothing is not a great look). Still the team may have started to get stale and they decided change was necessary.
So far, you cannot argue with the results. The Hawks are 3-0 and have a point differential of over 19 points a game, though against a soft early schedule. That said, you can only play the teams in front of you and if the schedule makers toss you the Sixers, Kings, and Wizards you go out and stomp them as a team who hopes to compete for a deep playoff run is supposed to.
Expect the Lakers to struggle tonight, then. One, as mentioned, the Hawks look like they are again a good team. Two, it is the last game of a four game road trip and the 2nd night of a back to back. And, three, the Lakers are going to be without Timofey Mozgov after he ended up getting raked in the face and looking like a Sith Lord after the Pacers game.
Losing Mozgov against a team with Dwight Howard and a penetrating guard like Dennis Schröder will be problematic. Howard may not be the post threat he was pre-back injury, but he can still be a terror on the offensive glass and a strong finisher in the P&R. As for Schröder, his ability to get into the lane and finish at the rim would have been a problem regardless, but that only increases without Mozgov’s verticality deterring those shots.
As it stands, then, Tarik Black will have to carry a bigger load. As to will either Julius Randle and/or Larry Nance who will likely get more minutes at Center. We might also see Thomas Robinson or Ivica Zubac get some burn, though that might be a stretch. Still, though, those last two might be worth call on, especially if they can help rebound the ball better than the Lakers have to this point in the year.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, dealing with Dwight and Dennis aren’t their only obstacles. That’s because Paul Millsap exists. The do-it-all PF has long been a thorn in the Lakers’ side since his days with the Jazz. Now that he’s in Atlanta, expanded his shooting range to beyond the arc, and been unleashed as a passer in their motion system, he is even more of a problem. Julius Randle will have his hands full trying to defend Millsap and may find his sledding even tougher on the other end when trying to score on him. Millsap is that good.
If the Lakers are to find a way to win, then, it will likely come on the backs of their guards and wings. Against Indy, D’Angelo Russell started the game aggressively but got in early foul trouble and had his rhythm disrupted. Against Schröder, he will again have a size advantage and would do well to try to exploit that in the post. Schröder is a good defensive player and will chase Russell all over the floor, but Russell needs to find a way to be effective and I think he needs to be aggressive in looking to score in order to (hopefully) make that happen.
Outside of DAR, this can also be a game where Clarkson, Lou, Young, Deng, and Ingram can make an offensive impact. Thabo Sefalosha and Kent Bazemore are good defenders, but they cannot play the entire game and cannot guard every wing threat on every possession. When Kyle Korver and Tim Hardaway Jr. are in the game, they can and should be attacked to make them defend in space and against the team’s motion actions. Make them chase off screens, defend in the P&R, and make key rotations against ball movement. Neither are strong on that end of the floor and can be exploited if targeted effectively.
While I do not expect, it would be nice for the Lakers to get a win tonight. They have been working and playing hard, but have not been able to get over the hump in any of these recent games. It seems a defensive miscue or a few missed shots seem to do them in right when the game is in the balance. The Hawks have more experience and the better players, but the Lakers have some talent too and it would be great to have that shine through — especially in a game like tonight’s.
Where you can watch: 4:30pm start time on Spectrum Sportsnet.