Records: Lakers 23-3, Hawks 6-20
Offensive ratings: Lakers 112.6 (4th), Hawks 104.9 (25th)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.4 (4th-Tied), Hawks 114.3 (28th)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee
Hawks: Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter, Jabari Parker, Damian Jones
Injuries: Lakers: LeBron James (questionable), Kyle Kuzma (out), Rajon Rondo (probable); Hawks: none
The Lakers coming in: In one of the better games of the season, the Lakers beat the Heat 113-110 on Friday night. It was the team’s 6th straight win overall and their 13th straight win on the road. Something of note: after the Lakers 3 losses this season, they’ve rattled off win streaks of at least 6 games after each one. Quite impressive.
On the health front, Kyle Kuzma is out but Rondo is expected to play. I also expect LeBron to play even if he’s listed as questionable with a sore right elbow. Considering that’s on his shooting arm, however, how his jumper is (or is not) affected is something worth watching.
Overall, though, the Lakers are playing as well as they have all year. Dating back to the Denver game and through Friday’s win over Miami, the Lakers have shown a top level that is even hard for really good teams to match and a resiliency within games when things are going against them. The Lakers were down double digits vs. the Heat, but battled back by regaining their focus on both sides of the ball and leveraging their size to dominate the paint.
This is a strategy that will work against most teams in the league and it’s great to see the Lakers forming their identity as a mentally and physically tough team that can turn up their effort and execution level to get wins.
The Hawks coming in: The las time the Lakers faced the Hawks, I wrote this in my game preview:
Coming into this year there were whispers that the Hawks could fight for a playoff team. Trae Young was coming off a wonderful rookie year and a summer of buzz from Team USA’s training camp and when you combined him with John Collins and several other young players who looked like real contributors at the NBA level, they were discussed like a team who could show up as the “year earlier than we expected” team that broke through faster than anticipated…
In the end, though, the Hawks are 4-8 and have lost 2 in a row and 5 of their last 6. This type of skid and early record doesn’t put them out of it in the East, but they’ve dug themselves a bit of a hole they’ll need to climb out of. Trae Young is a dynamic young guard and I think he can help lead them out of it, but some things that have not gone right for them are going to have to…and soon.
That night the Hawks lost to the Lakers by 21 points, dropping them to 4-9. And, since then, they’ve only won 2 more games and lost 11. At 6-20, the Hawks are tied for the worst record in the East and only have one more win than the 5-win Warriors. Yuck.
Trae Young is still playing well and will likely be an All-Star this year. His counting stats are fantastic and he shows an amazing feel for the game as both a scorer and a passer that cannot be taught. His team is not any good, though, and the preseason idea that they’ll arrive a year early seems misguided. This team cannot defend and until they show some semblance of want on that side of the ball, all the Trae highlights in the world aren’t going to save them.
Keys to the game: This could be a trap game. The Hawks are the worst team, record wise, the Lakers will face on this trip. The team just played a really hard fought game in Miami and closes this road trip vs. two playoff teams, including the Bucks on Thursday. It would not surprise me if the Lakers looked ahead some to Indiana on Tuesday and Milwaukee on Thursday, while not focussing as much as they could on the Hawks.
So, if there’s one thing I’m looking for most in this game it’s the Lakers simply coming out ready to play and keeping a baseline level of attentiveness and effort defensively throughout the game. It does not need to be the level it was in Portland or vs. the Jazz, but it needs to be close to that. The Lakers have talent advantages all over the floor and they’ll be able to take advantage of those better with the requisite level of effort backing them.
If there’s one thing I’ll be looking for defensively, it is how aggressive the Lakers are at the point of attack vs. Trae. If the Lakers bigs show up high and looking ready to engage Trae when he comes off ball screens, making him a passer early in possessions, I’ll have a confidence they’re properly into this game mentally. If they sag back and let Trae come off picks ready to shoot or turn the corner off the dribble, things can get ugly and the Hawks will find a rhythm.
I hate to make this game so simple, but sometimes that’s exactly what basketball is. Come out and play smart, hard basketball and let everything else take care of itself. Don’t and this game could be a weird one where we’re wondering how the Lakers lost to the Hawks on a random Sunday in December.
Where you can watch: 3:00pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet.
*All stats via stats.nba.com