Saturday it was reported that D’Angelo Russell was close to a return, with today’s game against the Knicks being a real possibility. Well, Luke Walton offered some good news after this morning’s shootaround:
Luke Walton says D'Angelo Russell felt good at shootaround:
"If all goes accordingly from now until game time, he'll be out there tonight."
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) December 11, 2016
Assuming nothing goes awry, Russell returning has the chance to offer a real boost to the Lakers’ offense and normalize the team’s rotations. While the former is desperately needed, the latter point cannot be ignored either. After Jose Calderon hurt his hamstring, Luke Walton has turned to Ingram and Clarkson as the “PG” and neither offered a real solution to the team’s woes. Clarkson has not shown to be the passer/playmaker needed at that spot and Ingram, though a fine initiator, is not assertive or threatening enough out of the P&R to really get the defense on its heels.
Russell is likely to be rusty coming back from injury, but his know-how as an offensive creator and as the hub of a productive offense is real. His passing instincts and ability have the defense respect him out to (and above) the 3 point arc helps the team in so many ways that it’s hard to oversell how much the team has missed him.
Against the Knicks, then, it will be great to see Russell back in the fold (should he play). He won’t be the only point guard returning to action, though. Derrick Rose is also scheduled to return tonight after missing time with back issue. Rose has had an up and down year with his new team, but was flashing some of his explosive ability to get to the rim recently (even if he was not finishing at his pre-injury levels).
Against the Lakers, though, that driving ability can be a difference maker as we know. The Lakers continue to have trouble dealing with penetrating guards and the cascading effects of allowing those drives. Kickouts to shooters, offensive rebounding opportunities, and simple drop off passes have killed them recently and if Rose has the right mindset when driving, his ability to get into the lane can be a major key.
Of course, that’s not the only thing the Lakers have to worry about defensively. In Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis, the Knicks have two players of the type who can really hurt the Lakers. Melo’s dynamic scoring ability from the wing will test Luol Deng and the Lakers’ help schemes. Deng and Melo have a long history of battles over the years, but that should not be mistaken as an advantage for the former. I expect Deng to struggle with Melo’s strength in the post and in how he can create in isolation or when working as a deep shooting option in transition or when spotting up.
As for Porzingis, his shooting ability makes for difficult closeouts which will test Julius Randle all night. Expect the Knicks to run a lot of pick and pot, forcing Randle into help positions to contain the dribble and then kicking the ball to Kristaps in space to make Randle closeout on him hard. If Randle doesn’t get there in time, Porzingis can hit the long ball. If Randle runs out at him too hard, Kristaps has the ability to beat a closeout with hard dribbles and then get into the paint where he can finish with power over the top of the defense.
Randle will also have to deal with Porzingis’ length on the other side of the floor, so it’s not as if this matchup eases up when the ball changes ends. Randle should be able to use his strength and short area quickness to get Porzingis off balance, but he’ll also need to show patience and smarts when attacking rather than forcing the action. KP’s long limbs can smother Randle if he tries to take the ball right into him too often.
The other key to this game will be the battle of the benches. The Knicks aren’t incredibly deep, but they do have an interesting back of reserves who can hurt you. Two names to watch for are Brandon Jennings and Lance Thomas, with the former pushing the pace and proving to be a nice playmaker and the latter showing an ability to space the floor if given open looks.
The Lakers, meanwhile, have had one of the best benches in the league. Missing Tarik Black’s ability to roll hard, catch on the move, and finish above the rim will be missed but the hope is that Thomas Robinson can replicate some of that. The bigger onus, though, will be on Lou and Clarkson to continue to be major offensive threats. For his part, Lou has been amazing of late even though the team has been losing. Clarkson has been more up and down, but with this being a home game I am hopeful he can find his range as a shooter to better set up his want to drive.
After losing 5 straight games, it is obvious the Lakers could use a win. But with this game being the final home game before a 7 game road trip, this contest becomes even more important. Yes, the Knicks have been playing better (winning 5 of their last 6) but the Lakers have a chance to get a needed win tonight. Let’s see if they can get it done.
Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time on Spectrum Sportsnet.