After a loss to the Mavericks which was both disappointing yet offered some teachable moments, the Lakers are back in action against the Kings tonight. Sacramento, with new coach Dave Joerger, is 4-5 on the year and looking to get their 3rd straight win while also climbing back to .500 for the season.
As with past seasons, the Kings are difficult to wrap your head around. They have beat teams they should, but also went on a 5 game road trip which saw them lose to the Magic, Heat, and Bucks but beat the Raptors in the final game of the trip. They have the supremely talented DeMarcus Cousins but also a ton of front court depth beside him, but also want to play faster and small which means sliding Rudy Gay up to PF for stretches.
Another wrinkle for Sacto is that Darren Collison returned from his 8 game suspension in Tuesday’s win over the Pelicans, scoring 9 points and dishing 4 assists in his season debut. Getting Collison back finally organizes their lineup and helps to normalize their rotation. With everyone now properly slotted and without having to rely on short term answers, we will finally get a look at what the Kings real potential is.
This isn’t to say we should just throw out the team’s early season results or that we cannot draw perspective on what this team is or how it wants to play. For example, the Kings play at the 2nd slowest pace in the league, averaging only a tick over 94 possessions a contest. With an offense featuring Cousins as its anchor, this makes sense. Collison may speed the game up some, but I think we will still see their O flow through Boogie, both in the pivot and when isolating from the top of the key/shallow wing against slower defenders.
Which leads us to the first key of this game, how will the Lakers deal with Cousins? And I mean this from a scheme and a match up perspective. I would imagine when Mozgov is in the game the Lakers are unlikely to double unless Cousins is simply dominating the basket area via post ups. But what about when Mozgov is not in the game? The Lakers’ starting C only averages 21 minutes a game while Cousins plays over 32 a night. Will Walton up Mozgov’s minutes? If not, will Black — who is undersized and is better as a help defender than guarding the post one-on-one — get those extra 11 minutes against DMC? Will Walton turn to Randle who is also undersized, but offers more versatility offensively than Black? I am interested in how this plays out.
One thing which may go into those front court decisions is Larry Nance, Jr.’s status. Per Mark Medina of the LA Daily News, Nance still has one more test to pass in the concussion protocol before he will be cleared to play. It is not yet clear if that will happen before the game, but he is on the court taking some shots so maybe he is progressing to the point he is active tonight. What I do know, however, is that the Lakers sure could use him. As noted, the Kings are deep in the front court and have a lot of size to punish an undersized team. Against the Mavs, Luke Walton turned to Thomas Robinson for a short stretch, but ultimately leaned on Luol Deng and even Brandon Ingram for minutes at PF in the 2nd half. Against the Kings, those latter two might struggle against twin tower lineups which include any two of the Cousins/Koufos/Cauley-Stein trio.
The other major key is which team can determine the rules of engagement when it comes to tempo. As noted earlier the Kings play slow, but the Lakers are at the other end of the spectrum. Playing at the 2nd fastest place in the league, the Lakers want to run, get into early offense, and hurt defenses which are not yet set. While the Kings can also play faster than they have to this point, I think this game tilts in the Lakers’ favor if they can dictate the speed of the game. This will come down to getting defensive stops, rebounding, and forcing some turnovers, however. For what it’s worth, the Kings are an excellent offensive rebounding team but can be turnover prone as well. We will see if these trends hold and, if they do, which ones matter more in helping determine tempo.
Lastly, a game after the Lakers had real struggles defending Harrison Barnes, how the Lakers match up with Rudy Gay concerns me somewhat. When these teams matched up in the preseason for their 2nd game, Gay gave Luol Deng some issues with his length and quickness and Ingram with his superior strength. There is a good chance tonight these issues will continue. Also, when the Kings slide him up to PF, he can create match up issues for Randle or Nance (should he play). Ensuring Gay does not have a big night, then, becomes nearly as much a priority as managing Cousins.
As they say in boxing, styles make fights. Both of these teams can be adaptable to each other’s respective styles, which I think should translate to an interesting push and pull all game. Hopefully the Lakers can get back on track and beat their division foe.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TNT