Records: Lakers 20-3, Magic 10-11
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.8 (5th), Magic 107.4 (19th)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 102.8 (3rd), Magic 108.7 (16th)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee
Markelle Fultz DJ Augustin, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, Khem Birch
Injuries: Lakers: Kyle Kuzma (out), Rajon Rondo (questionable); Magic: Nikola Vucevic (out), Al-Farouq Aminu (out), Markelle Fultz (out)
Lakers coming in: At 21-3, the Lakers are beyond the burden of proof for being a really good team. They’re a contender right now and look to be very much for real.
The Lakers have won 11 straight road games and 4 straight games overall, so things are good and there’s no complaints. After a stretch of so-so play that saw them still put together a double digit game win streak, they’ve ramped back up their commitment, focus, and execution. They’re playing harder for longer stretches and it’s showing with double digit wins and significant portions of games where they look head and shoulders above their opponents.
On the injury front, there’s good and bad news. On the good side, Avery Bradley is expected to return this game after being cleared for full contact work a few days ago. Expect a minutes restriction, but getting him back is a good sign. On the other side, Kyle Kuzma has been ruled out — the residual effects of a sprained ankle suffered vs. the Wizards lingering longer than the medical staff would like. Rajon Rondo is questionable and I could see him sitting out again, the Lakers practicing caution with a player who has become a key member of the rotation.
Magic coming in: The Magic are coming off a loss to the Bucks, but had won 4 straight before Giannis took them down. At 11-12 on the season, the Magic are currently the 8th seed, but have been dealing with meaningful injuries – most notably to big man Nikola Vucevic. Big Vuc is Orlando’s best player and their C rotation can be dodgy behind him, so he can’t get healthy fast enough for a team that has aspirations to climb the standings.
Even with Vucevic sidelined, the Magic remain an intriguing team that has players a lot of folks around the league like even if it’s unclear how they fit on this roster as a group. In Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac, Orlando has two combo-ish forwards who can impact the game defensively and fill in the margins on a good team. Evan Fournier is a really nice scorer who can shoot from range, get to the rim some, and run some P&R. These three could be a nice group, but both Gordon and Isaac are PF’s in today’s NBA and Fournier is more of a “3rd best scorer on a good team” type of player than your best perimeter threat. So, guys are being asked to do a bit too much and it hurts their overall effectiveness.
And then you have Markelle Fultz. The former #1 overall pick has found his footing with the Magic, playing consistent minutes as the starting PG after injury and whatever the hell it was happened in Philly earned him the bust label. Him finding his way back to NBA level play is a feel good story all its own and I’m just happy for him. The fact that he can still conjure some of skill + smooth athleticism that earned him his draft positioning makes the story even better. He may never fulfill the promise he showed coming out of UW, but seeing him get a second lease on an NBA life is wonderful. (UPDATE: Markelle Fultz has been ruled out this game with a stomach virus.)
Keys to the game: With Orlando shorthanded, it might be easy to dismiss them as a serious opponent tonight. That would be a mistake. They’re serious underdogs for sure, but they have interesting matchups for the Lakers to consider and being to lax on those could lead to problems this game.
Defensively, the Magic have versatile, switch-y forwards who compete on that end of the floor. Isaac is averaging 4.3 combined steals and blocks for the year and Gordon is a big an strong athlete who can run and jump with anyone in the league. AD and LeBron can still leverage their individual strengths against both, but this will not be like going up against Rodney Hood and Carmelo in Portland. The Magic’s guys are going to get after you and make things hard.
On the other end of the floor, Fournier is a 20 point per game scorer who hits 45% of his attempts from 3 a game. Danny Green will have to mark Fournier all over the floor and the Lakers bigs are going to have to show help on all variety of screen types to ensure he doesn’t shake free when Green is getting clobbered on picks by the likes of Khem Birch and the Magic’s forwards.
In terms of an overall game plan, I think the Lakers should really just be looking to wear the Magic down with their superior depth anchored by their top end talent. Even if Orlando’s starters can play the Lakers starters relatively even, lineups with one of LeBron/AD on the bench but supplemented by a mix Dwight, KCP, Caruso, Cook, Dudley, etc, etc should be able to win the minutes vs. similarly mixed up Magic lineups.
The Lakers should be able to lean on their stars, but with a few role players hitting shots, they should be able to win this game by pulling ahead in the final 8-10 minutes with a strong push. That would be ideal, at least. I do expect the Magic to play hard, though, and if the Lakers show some of the bad habits they exhibited during their 11 game win streak, things could get dicey. Here’s hoping we see the Utah/Portland versions of the Lakers rather than the OKC/Memphis game versions.
Where you can watch: 4:00pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet.
*All stats via stats.nba.com