After losing to the Warriors in back to back games, the Lakers are now 8-9 and under .500 for the first time since they were 2-3 on November 2nd. That day they played the Hawks on the final game of a 4 game road trip and surprisingly won even though they played without Timofey Mozgov to anchor against Dwight Howard.
That game served as a bit of a turnaround for these Lakers, not only rewarding them for their hard play, but because it served as the 1st game of the team’s new rotation which saw them scrap playing a traditional backup PG in favor of giving Brandon Ingram more ball-handling duties and riding a Clarkson/Williams tandem in the back court.
It’s a bit ironic, then, that the Lakers get the Hawks again tonight, though under vastly different circumstances. Tonight the Lakers are playing their final game at home before going out on a 4 game road trip, are now featuring Jose Calderon as a rotation mainstay due to D’Angelo Russell’s sore knee which will keep him out another week and a half, and have lost 3 of 4 before facing this team. Wait. Sorry, that last part is exactly the same as the match up in Atlanta almost a month ago.
The Lakers are still banged up, but there’s hope reinforcements are on their way. After sitting out against the Warriors on Friday, Nick Young is expected to play tonight. Julius Randle wants to play and his coaches do too, but he will not be rushed back into the lineup while dealing with his hip pointer. My guess is that he does play tonight, but it would not surprise me if they gave him another day off with the intent of him returning on Tuesday against the Pelicans.
If Randle and Young do return, they’ll be a welcome sight against the Hawks team who has some talent at those spots. Paul Millsap is one of the better two-way PF’s in the game and offers the type of skill set versatility coaches love. Meanwhile, on the wing. Young will be matched up against Kent Bazemore — a player who will look to attack offensively and get downhill in the open court to create chances at the rim. He’s also capable of hitting the 3 ball (though he’s struggled in that area this season).
Beyond those two, though, the Lakers face other challenges at PG and C. Dennis Shroeder and Dwight Howard are the team’s 2nd and 3rd leading scorers and will both threaten the paint consistently. Shroeder is a fine playmaker and killer penetrator, so Calderon (and Lou Williams) will need to try and keep him in front and shaded towards help so he is not getting up the types of shots which are either high percentage or force bigs to rotate and surrender crucial offensive rebounding positioning.
That last point is key, especially when Dwight is in the game. Lakers’ fans have their opinions about Dwight, but he’s doing well this season — shooting nearly 60% from the floor on lobs, easy finishes from quick entries, and, yes, offensive putbacks. Dwight grabs nearly 5 offensive rebounds a game and he must be accounted for consistently on the backboards. If for some reason Mozgov (or Tarik Black) are forced to help off Dwight consistently, the Hawks big man will flourish with easy dunks.
Offensively, this is a game where the Lakers will really miss Russell. In their first match up, Russell scored a team high 23 points by using his post game and mid-range shooting coming off the P&R against the Hawks’ soft hedge/drop coverage. Calderon is a different type of player and can be effective as a spot up shooter or by hitting pull up jumpers if his defender goes under screens, but it will be on the other Lakers’ to create good shots and get the Hawks into help situations where easier shots can be generated.
This is where Lou, Randle (should he play), Clarkson, and Young come into play. These are the Lakers who can not only create their own shots, but can threaten the defense in a way which leads to the Hawks needing to get into their defensive rotations. If the Lakers can get Dwight, Millsap, etc into situations where they are worried about help, it can open up the types of passing opportunities which stretch out the defense and lead to open shots.
Lastly, the Hawks are a good team — likely better than the Lakers at this point considering personnel availability and how banged up the Laker are in general — but they are not playing their best ball right now. They have lost 4 of 5 and this is their 3rd game of a 5 game road trip. They also play the Warriors on Monday, offering them a chance to look ahead a bit going into Oakland on the 2nd night of a back to back. The Hawks are a veteran team, so I don’t expect them to take the Lakers lightly (after all, they did lose to them just a few weeks ago), but I do think the Lakers have a better chance in this game than they are likely being given by most.
We’ll see how this game plays out, but I think we could be in for a good game.
Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time on Spectrum Sportsnet.