UPDATE: LeBron James will not play this game due to him being sick. LeBron was not feeling well before the Mavs game, but pushed through. That will not be the case tonight. Danny Green will also sit out with a sore hip. And, lastly, Anthony Davis is still out too. If the Lakers win this game, give Vogel the coach of the year award.
Records: Lakers 31-7, Thunder 22-16
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.9 (4th), Thunder 10.5 (20th)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.2 (3rd), Thunder 106.6 (16th)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Avery Bradley, Danny Green, LeBron James, Kyle Kuzma, JaVale McGee
Thunder: Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Terrance Ferguson, Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams
Injuries: Lakers: Anthony Davis (questionable); Thunder: Nerlens Noel (out), Andre Roberson (out)
The Lakers coming in: The Lakers beat the Mavericks 129-114 on Friday night, bringing their winning streak to 7 straight games — the 4th time this season they’ve had a streak that long (which leads the NBA). The game itself was an entertaining affair, with LeBron James carrying the team as Anthony Davis sat out due to the after effects of his fall vs. the Knicks earlier this week.
LeBron’s game was a masterpiece on aggressive 3-level scoring and setting up teammates for open shots when the defense collapsed on him. He carried the team’s offense for the minutes he was on the floor, finding the right balance between when to seek out his own scoring and when to seek out teammates for open shots. That balance skewed more towards his own offense this game — but that’s where LeBron’s wonderful understanding of the game comes in. Without AD, he knows the team needs more points from him and responded in kind with 25 shot attempts that led to 35 points. That he also grabbed 16 rebounds and dished 7 assists to only 3 turnovers shows the level he played at this game.
Bron didn’t win the game on his own, however. Kyle Kuzma started in place of Davis and while Kuz cannot replicate all AD does on the floor, he did his best as a scorer — particularly in the 1st half. Kuzma scored 21 in the first 24 minutes of the game, showing off all the different ways he can get buckets. Outside shooting, paint scores on wonderful cuts, transition buckets, and even some offensive rebounds and putbacks. Kuzma, along with LeBron, set an early tone of pushing the pace and being assertive as a paint scorer against a Mavericks team missing their best rim protector. It’s no coincidence that the Lakers halftime lead was the same 21 points that Kuzma scored, a symbolic realization of the impact he had in this game.
I couldn’t talk about this game, however, without discussing the key stretch of game from around the 3 minute mark of the 3rd quarter through the first couple of minutes in the 4th. With both Dwight and JaVale on the bench with 5 fouls, the Lakers were losing points off their lead nearly every possession as they were unable to protect the paint without their shot blockers lurking. At the 3:34 mark of the 3rd period, Vogel took about both LeBron and Kumza, leaving a nearly all bench unit of Rondo, KCP, Caruso, Dudley, and Green to try to protect a lead that had shrunk to only 10 points and the Mavs grabbing momentum.
This group did their job and more, not only preserving the lead, but expanding it to 13 by scrambling defensively and on the backboards and doing just enough offensively to stabilize things. Credit goes to the entire group, but I want to highlight the contributions of Rondo and Dudley here because I think they were super important.
Rondo really took control of the offense, drawing a couple of shooting fouls and calmly going to the line sinking all 4 of his FT’s. This stalled out the Mavericks run by giving the Lakers some much needed points, but also by allowing the Lakers to set and organize their defense off of those FT’s. As for Dudley, he played some wonderful back line defense, “protecting” the paint by making early rotations and challenging shots using verticality without fouling. Dudley’s one of the smartest players in the league and his ability leverage his brain in ways that mask his physical limitations is something that more players around the league could learn from.
Simply put, the Lakers don’t win this game without that stretch of play going in their favor. They went into the 4th with a 13 point lead and when the final frame started, LeBron hit a 3 that promptly pushed the lead back up to 16. Crisis averted. The Lakers then battled the rest of the game, using that small-ball lineup the rest of the way, scrambling defensively and relying on the smarts and playmaking of LeBron and Rondo to carry them home offensively.
Just a gutty performance by a team missing a true superstar in AD. Standing ovation.
The Thunder coming in: OKC is one of the hottest teams in the league, winning 8 of their last 10 games, including, in their last game, a demolition of the Rockets in Russell Westbrook’s first game back in OKC since being traded to Houston.
They’ve gotten contributions from so many different players that it’s impossible to highlight them all, but give special credit to Chris Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schroeder. OKC has been running out this 3 point guard lineup to great success, scrambling opposing defenses with three guys who can all hit an outside shot, score from the midrange, attack the paint, and setup teammates for buckets.
OKC is now firmly in the playoffs as the 7th seed, pulling away from the pack of teams battling for the 8th spot. For a team that many around the league thought would be a placeholder roster that looked to sell off players in advance of the trade deadline, the Thunder are looking like one of the most feel-good stories in the league, winning at a rate no one expected and doing it by playing hard and smart basketball — particularly Chris Paul. Dude is just a winner and this team really looks like it’s taken on his personality.
Keys to the game: Look, I won’t be surprised if the Lakers lose this game. Davis may not play, they just had an emotional win vs. a good team last night, and as I noted above OKC is playing really well of late. On the 2nd night of a back to back, the Lakers may not have it in them to play well enough to push their winning streak to 8.
If it’s going to happen, though, the formula is pretty simple.
- LeBron needs to be the master scorer and assist man he was vs. the Mavs.
- Kuzma needs to score 20+ points.
- The Lakers bigs need to rebound and be top flight defensively as help players against OKC’s guards.
- Green, Bradley, KCP, and Caruso need to hit outside shots.
If all 4 things happen, the Lakers can win. They can probably pull things out of they do 3 of them. But if they can only get two of them done, they’re likely going to lose. If AD plays, of course, this changes the calculus, but this is an uphill battle of a game and it will take more than just resiliency and a few key shots to fall. They’re going to need a lot to go right for them and they’ll also need a bit of luck.
This isn’t to say they’re absolutely going to lose, I’m just saying prepare yourself for a performance that might have us all a bit frustrated throughout. I’d love to be wrong.
If there’s one OKC player who could be the swing piece, it’s probably Gallinari. If the Lakers can hold him down and Kuzma plays well, that’s a major point that goes in their favor. I think the Lakers guards have a decent chance of playing well enough defensively to make things somewhat difficult on OKC’s trio of PG’s, but if Gallo goes off it could all be for naught. So, if I could hope for one thing to really go LA’s way, it’s that Kuz outplays Gallo by a significant margin.
Where you can watch: 5:00pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet.
*All stats via stats.nba.com