The Lakers are starting their yearly trek to the east coast while the Grammy’s are being prepared for in Los Angeles. The team will begin its trip in Washington and will conclude in Milwaukee with stops in Boston, New York, and Detroit in between. They will not return home for 8 days when they face the Kings on the 10th of February.
That’s the bad news. The Lakers are nearly .500 at home, posting a 12-13 record for the season. They are, however, only 5-21 on the road. That’s not shocking for a young team who has been bad in recent years. That said, lack of being surprised does not equal it being something that can be lived with. For the long term trajectory of the team, they must find a way to snare some wins in opponents’ buildings.
That will be extra difficult tonight, though. The Wizards have won 15 straight home games and have been the best team in the East, record wise, since January 1st with a 12-4 record. After a so-so start to the year, they have climbed to 4th in the conference and only trail the 3rd place Raptors (who are slumping) by a single game.
The race for 3rd is important, of course, because you avoid the Cavs (who despite their own slump will presumably still end up with the top seed) in the 2nd round of the playoffs. A Cavs, Celtics, Wizards top three seeds would also give us a potential Wizards/Celtics 2nd round which would, based on recent developments, be glorious. We’re getting ahead of ourselves, though.
In terms of tonight’s game, the Wiz offer an interesting challenge. In a way, they are like the Blazers — a dynamic backcourt drives Washington with capable role players filling in the gaps. John Wall is playing tremendous basketball, scoring and assisting at wonderful rates and, maybe most importantly, setting the terms of engagement each night by controlling tempo and defending well. As for his backcourt partner, Bradley Beal is finally starting to live up to his draft status and talent level, by finding a stretch of good health and augmenting his game to include a more diverse attack. He’s getting into the paint more and settling for fewer long two-pointers while still hitting the 3-ball at a high percentage.
Beyond those two, Otto Porter has found his niche as a nice 3&D player. He leads the league in 3-point percentage, shooting 46% on four attempts a night. Marcin Gortat remains a net positive starting C, offering strong finishing ability in the paint and a nice P&R partner for Wall. Then there’s Markieff Morris as a nice stretch big (35% from deep), Kelly Oubre as an emerging back up wing, and several other contributors who have found their roles and are helping the team nightly.
So, yeah, the Lakers will have their hands full tonight. It is not yet clear if Julius Randle will play — he will be “active”, but Walton has said he may not see any run after dealing with pneumonia. Should Randle not play or if he’s limited, I am interested in seeing how Walton handles matchups. With Morris being more of a stretch 4, will Walton stick with Tarik Black at PF? Will he play the more rangy Nance or slide Deng up to PF and insert Ingram into the starting group?
Further, and more important, is how Walton handles his backcourt matchups and whether the Lakers’ depth can off-set the superior front end talent on the Wizards. Russell vs. Wall and Beal vs. Young are both worth watching (especially the battle at PG), but if the Lakers are going to be successful this game they will also need Clarkson to bounce back and Williams to continue his hot shooting.
Of course, if either Russell or Young can play their counterparts even (or win the matchup) the Lakers will be in even better position to win. Which brings us back to Russell. Coming back from injury, he played one of his better all-around games in the win over the Nuggets. He did not shoot the ball great, but he still scored 20+ points, got to good spots on the floor, and wonderfully stewarded the team’s offense.
Russell’s up and down play has been a calling card of his 2nd season and, as a soon to be 21 year old, this shouldn’t really surprise. But if he can play a similarly effective game tonight against Wall (who, no disrespect intended, is a huge step up from Jameer Nelson) as he did on Tuesday, that would be a nice step forward.
Lastly, I am interested in seeing how the minutes distribution and quality of those minutes compares between Mozgov and Zubac. Zubac’s emergence as a rotation player has not only impacted Mozgov’s minutes, but has pushed Timo to play better to hold onto the minutes he is getting. Against the Nuggets, Timo responded with a good shooting/scoring night, solid work on the glass, and about equal minutes to young Zu. Will that happen again tonight? Can the vet outplay his young teammate to snatch back some of those surrendered minutes? Tonight’s match up against Gortat should offer a nice test.
Where you can watch: 4:00pm start time on Spectrum Sportsnet.