The Lakers are 5-5 after beating the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday night. That win continued a trend of an offense on the upswing and a defense which has remained surprisingly stout.
There have been hiccups and breakdowns along the way, but overall this team has performed above preseason expectations by playing with a profile and style (good defense, mediocre/below average offense) no one predicted coming into the year.
In saying that, things will now get a bit more interesting. The team embarks on the road for a 4-game road trip starting, tonight, in Boston. The Celtics come in as the best team in the east, record wise, boasting a 9-2 record. After losing Gordon Hayward to a horrific leg injury on the first night of the season, the C’s have rallied behind Al Horford, newly acquired Kyrie Irving, and several young players — including rookie Jason Tatum and 2nd year guard Jaylen Brown — while receiving expert coaching from Brad Stevens.
So, the Celtics are good — maybe very good. They have the league’s top rated defense, the 12 ranked offense, and the 2nd best efficiency differential in the league. If you’re looking for a comp, this type of profile mirrors some of the very successful Spurs teams over the last decade — a team that gets all the stops it needs and is consistently good and sometimes explosive offensively. Meaning, don’t sleep on the C’s. They’re quite good.
Coming into tonight, however, they will be down a major piece. After taking a hit to the head in Monday’s win over the Hawks, Al Horford has been placed into the NBA’s concussion protocol and will now need to clear several levels of evaluation before being cleared to return to game action. That’s bad for the Celtics and Horford, of course, and could be quite impactful this game.
Horford has, in many ways, been the C’s best player to start the year. He’s been excellent on defense and tremendous on offense, shooting the ball incredibly well from range while also handing out assists and, in general, being a key fulcrum in the team’s motion and ball movement based attack. Horford is likely to be replaced by Aron Baynes, who is a fine player in his own right, but not nearly the all-around guy Big Al is.
The question is, then, can the C’s overcome missing Horford through the play of their perimeter guys, namely the aforementioned trio of Irving, Brown, and Tatum. I also think Terry Rozier and Semi Ojeleye, will play huge roles in this one — especially when the team goes small to counter the Lakers unit(s) which have Randle manning the middle.
Which brings me to the Lakers. The team’s recent success has been mostly linked to excellent play from Brook Lopez and Brandon Ingram showing more consistent flashes of who he can be offensively — especially when getting to the rim on drives. Add Kyle Kuzma to this mix — first as a reserve, now as a starter — and you have the right type of PF for the offense Luke Wants to run while offering more switchability defensively.
Combine all this with good, productive play from the bench units and it’s a formula for success. The Lakers have been coming at teams in waves, offering a variety of styles that all have the ability to put teams on their heels. Sometimes it’s more effective than others, but in most every game since the Lakers laid an egg on opening night vs. the Clippers, this team has found ways to seize control for stretches of a game even if the end result was still a loss.
Getting back to the matchup with Boston, then, I don’t expect the Lakers to win even with Horford out. Boston has depth, is well coached, and in any given game Kyrie can simply explode offensively. That said, I do expect the Lakers to compete hard and, for stretches, to show they can play with the C’s. I think a lot of this success will come down to how well the Lakers, as 5-man lineups, can score against an active Celtics defense while containing the individual brilliance of Irving and how that triggers their ball movement and motion sets.
That said, individual play will matter here. Can Lopez keep up his scoring efficiency from recent games? Can Ingram continue to get to the rim against the likes of Brown, Tatum, and Marcus Smart? Can Lonzo maintain aggressiveness? Can he knock down a few shots to keep the defense honest? Can Randle effectively guard on switches? Can Kuzma keep up his scoring?
Answer most of these with a yes and the Lakers will be in business. If they’re no’s…well, this could get ugly.
Lastly, this is a Celtics game. While this hasn’t been a “rivalry” since earlier this decade, this matchup always matters a bit more. The history of these teams make it so. So, if for no other reason than it being the Celtics, I want to see a great effort today and an upset win would go a long way towards making my day better. Let’s go.
Where you can watch: 5pm start time on Spectrum Sportsnet and ESPN.