Records: Lakers 5-1, Bulls 2-5
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.8 (17th), Bulls 103.1 (23rd)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 96.3 (1st), Bulls 108.1 (18th)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee
Bulls: Tomas Satoransky, Zach LaVine, Otto Porter, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter
Injuries: Lakers: Rajon Rondo (out), Avery Bradley (out); Bulls: Porter and Carter are listed as questionable but I expect them to play.
Lakers coming in: The Lakers just beat the Spurs 103-96 on Sunday — their 5th straight win and the 2nd in a row on the road. This team is playing well overall, even as they have hiccups in most every game that the coaches can still nitpick them on.
This is a formula I’m sure the coaches like. Rack up wins, but don’t do it so comprehensively that there not some teaching still to do and areas to stress improvement on. This is especially true offensively where, as noted in the stats above, the Lakers have dipped to 17th in the league in O-Rating. This is below where this team’s talent should have them and much of it is related to shooting.
The Lakers are currently 25th in the league in 3-point field goal percentage at 31.4% overall. This is…bad. The Lakers stressed shooting in many of their free agent acquisitions, but so far the only player receiving regular playing time who is living up to his reputation is Danny Green.1Green is currently shooting 48.5% on 3’s, making 16 of 33 overall. Of the guys who find themselves in the rotation, only Green and Avery Bradley (35.3%) are even shooting 30% from distance, with known shooters Troy Daniels and Quinn Cook coming in at 26.9% and 21.4% overall respectively.
Said in the blunt way imaginable: this needs to improve. Not just because it will help boost the Lakers offense, but because if neither are going to shoot well, their individual rotation spots may not be safe as players who bring varied skills to the table beyond shooting step to the forefront ready to claim minutes.2Hello, Alex Caruso and, when he returns from injury, Rajon Rondo.
Lastly, as noted above, Avery Bradley has been ruled out of this game. After being “kicked in the leg” vs. the Spurs, Bradley sat out of practice on Monday so him missing this game shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. The Lakers will miss his defense — particularly against new Bulls PG’s Tomas Satoransky and Kobi White. KCP will start in Bradley’s stead and while he’s played really well defensively to start the season, his skill strengths on that end are much different than what Bradley brings to the table. We’ll see how that all translates tonight.
Bulls coming in: On a Zach Lowe podcast last week, Zach was talking to former Bulls PG Jay Williams and the topic of their most disappointing teams came up and Lowe pointed to the Bulls as one of those teams for him. Sitting at 2-5 and in the bottom half of the league in both offense and defense, the Bulls are not yet looking like a team that would challenge for one of those final playoff spots even in the weak east.
Further, losses against the Knicks and the Cavs still show an ability to play under their quality of roster and lose to teams who, on paper, are inferior. To be clear, I’m not trying to imply the Bulls roster is otherworldly, but Zach LaVine is a bonafide scorer in this league, Markkanen is in his 3rd year, Carter is in his 2nd, and with the additions of Satoransky and Thad Young, this team should be better than they are.
Speaking of Markkanen, he’s simply not had a good start to the year. He’s only making 25% of his 3’s on nearly 6 attempts a game and while his 2-point field goal percentage is up, his percentages on shots at the rim and in the 3-10 foot range are both down from last season. Normally, the 3rd season is when most pros start to take a step forward and show more promise of the players they can (and will) become. Markkanen isn’t there yet and while it’d be unwise to sell your stock on him, it would be nice to see these numbers climb in the next month to 6 weeks.
Keys to the game: Normally, against an opponent of the Bulls quality, I’d say “the Lakers should win this game and here’s why” and call it a day. That said, the fact that the Lakers have won 5 straight games, are down a rotation player, are playing an opponent they should beat, and are at the end of a 3 game road trip where they’ve already won the first 2 games gives me a bit of pause.
This is a perfect trap game and I’ll be very interested to see what the team’s motivation level is over the course of the full 48 minutes. I could easily see this game being one where the Lakers go at half or three-quarter speed for most of the game, hoping to deliver a knockout blow by going hard for a single 5-8 minute stretch.
That may very well work, but if that’s how it goes the Lakers could just as easily lose. On Monday night the undefeated 76ers lost to a frisky and competitive Suns team in Phoenix and the Blazers lost to an injury ravaged Warriors team in San Francisco. If you don’t play hard and play well for long enough stretches in this league, any team can beat you. The Lakers would be wise to remember this when trying to close out this road trip in Chicago.
From a matchup standpoint, I’m hopeful the Lakers use their size advantage to pound the Bulls inside. Anthony Davis can score on Markkanen or Carter with his superior size and great skill. If the Bulls go with Carter on AD, I’d like to see LeBron run some P&R’s with JaVale in the hopes of either creating a mismatch on a switch or to get McGee going as a finisher on lobs/pocket/drop-off passes. If the Lakers can start by scoring well in the paint, they can hopefully force help and get their shooters some open shots that they can begin to knock down.
Defensively the Bulls shoot the 5th most 3’s per game, but only connect on the 26th best percentage. The Lakers would be wise to understand the Bulls tendency to fire away, while also understanding that at any time these can simply start to go in. They’ll need to be cognizant of their rotations and ensure they’re acting with the right amount of discipline.
On the individual matchup front, I’ll be watching Danny Green defending LaVine on the perimeter. LaVine shoots a high volume of 3’s per game and connects at a 39.6% rate. Green will need to navigate screens well and contain off the dribble while still being able to contest effectively. And while LaVine has taken way fewer mid-range jumpers this season than year’s past, the paint shots he’s taking have not fallen for him so far this year. The Lakers have the ingredients to keep this trend going, especially if Green can stay attached and force Zach to drive into areas of the court to shoot shots where AD, JaVale, and Dwight Howard are lurking to help.
Where you can watch: 5:00pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet and NBA TV.
*All stats via stats.nba.com