The Lakers have lost 4 games in a row — a topic covered extensively in the latest podcast — so I won’t get too much into it now. Just know the team could really use a win, for no other reason than they have a couple of more games at home before going on the road again for 9 of 11 games before the all-star break. Some of those games are winnable, but with the way the team is playing right now and the fact that they’re 5-20 in their last 25 games, the idea that the Lakers should actually be favored to win any of them is becoming more and more of a stretch.
Which brings us to tonight’s game vs. the Nuggets. Denver is currently 16-23 and the 9th seed in the conference. I’ll save my rant about the Lakers playing 6 more games than the Nuggets at this point in the season, and focus instead on the idea that if the Lakers want to make any sort of push towards even contending for a playoff spot (note: this does not mean make the playoffs), games like this are important. The Nuggets are better than the Lakers, but they aren’t so much better that a win in Los Angeles should be out of the question.
Getting it is another story, but the Lakers do have the tools to win.
If they’re to get it, though, it will mostly come down to slowing the Nuggets starting lineup. Now, Gary Harris might not play, which throws things off somewhat since he’s an important part of this group and numbers I’m going to cite include him. But, the Nuggets group of Mudiay, Harris, Gallinari, Chandler, and Jokic have put up an offensive efficiency of 122.6 in 177 minutes played together of their last 15 games (of which, they’ve appreared in 12). Of lineups which have played 150 minutes or more during this same stretch, is ranks 2nd to the Warriors who, you know, are the Warriors. In other words, the Nuggets have been destroying defenses with this group.
You can call this the Mudiay + shooters lineup, but that doesn’t really do all that this group can do justice. All of them can pass, put the ball on the floor to drive, shoot from the perimeter (save Mudiay who continues to be inconsistent from distance), and they’re all just smart offensive players. They cut well, screen well, and understand spacing which allows Mudiay to get into the paint and gives their shooters that extra split second of time to get off looks. They’re just fun. I mean, look at some of the things Jokic is doing now that he’s back in the lineup and getting the chance to handle the ball more:
— Nicholas Sciria (@Nick_Sciria) December 31, 2016
I mean come on, man.
So, the Lakers’ defense is in for some trouble — even if Harris does not play. The combination of Gallo and Chandler at the forward spots means that Randle will need to effective guard the weak side while also being put in P&R situation where he must hedge and then recover to the perimeter for “pop” actions by either of the shooting forwards. This type of action will also put a bigger burden on the wings who will need to sink and slide into help positions earlier and then still recover to their own man quickly enough to not give up open shots but under enough control as to not allow dribble penetration. If that sounds difficult, it’s because it will be.
The good news is even though the Nuggets have been scoring extremely well with their starters, that unit has also been giving up points in bunches with a defensive rating of 119.0 over that same stretch. The Lakers, then, have the opportunity to match the Nuggets basket for basket if they can leverage their own advantages.
I mentioned Randle having a difficult defensive assignment, but whoever guards him has just as tough a time. Randle will have strength advantages against either Gallo or Chandler and should be able to shoot over the top of both should he be able to get into the paint. Randle has struggled from the field lately, but this is a game where he might be able to get back on track.
Further, the Lakers should be able to effectively run the P&R against Jokic and back up big man Nurkic by looking to turn the corner against either soft drops or hard hedges. Should the big man drop and Mudiay struggles getting over the pick, D’Angelo Russell should be able to get into the mid-range and then either attack the basket or shoot the little pull up jumper he was knocking down against the Pistons. Ditto for Lou Williams and Jordan Clarkson when they get matched up against Jameer Nelson, Will Barton, and Jamal Murray.
Overall, I expect a game played with good pace and one that, potentially, turns into a shootout. The Lakers have not fared so great in those games lately, but it seems like they’re due to have their shooters get hot at the right time and pull one out. Maybe it all comes together in this game. We know they certainly could use it.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on Spectrum Sportsnet and nationally on NBA TV.