The Los Angeles Lakers nearly pulled off a miraculous fourth-quarter comeback against the Philadelphia 76ers Thursday night, but Danny Green’s red-hot shooting night foiled their plans. But the chance to end the four-game skid continues on Friday as the Cleveland Cavaliers come into town.
The Lakers and Cavaliers faced off in late January, as L.A. beat Cleveland 115-108 behind LeBron James’ 46 points. But the circumstances behind that game differ from this contest.
Both teams are dealing with injuries to prominent players. The Lakers are without LeBron James (ankle) and Anthony Davis (calf), while the Cavaliers are without Kevin Love (calf), Taurean Prince (shoulder) and Matthew Dellavedova (abdomen). Collin Sexton and Isaiah Hartenstein are listed as day-to-day.
In that game, Andre Drummond dropped 25 points and 17 rebounds, but his time with Cleveland has come to an end as the two sides completed a buyout. The Lakers are already focused on his signature, leaving Cleveland short of centers.
Speaking of centers, the Lakers welcomed back Marc Gasol to the starting lineup following multiple weeks missed because of health and safety protocols. Gasol opened up about his battle with coronavirus (COVID-19) after the game, but he supplied Los Angeles with an imperative ball-moving presence, including the 3-and-D ability L.A. saw in him in the offseason, which led to his signing.
Gasol played the last game on a minutes restriction, so if that loosens up, he’ll have an essential role in stretching Cleveland’s defense to remove Jarrett Allen from the paint, who is ninth in the league in blocked shots per game (1.7).
Dennis Schroder, who scored 20 points to go with 11 assists against Philadelphia, could be in for another strong performance tonight. Darius Garland, his presumed matchup, is not equipped with the defensive abilities to limit Schroder’s production. Garland has a defensive field goal difference percentage of 8.3%, meaning he allows players to shoot eight percent better than their averages; it’s also the worst rate on the team. If Schroder can be careful with the ball, he can be in for a big night.
The same goes for Talen Horton-Tucker. He’s struggled to score during the last few games as defenses have figured out that all he wants to do is drive and shoot a layup. Against bad individual defenders, this is an opportunity for Horton-Tucker to expand his game and recoup the rhythm he possessed not too long ago.
Kyle Kuzma, who is coming off a 25-point, 9-rebound game, also has some matchup advantages tonight. Cedi Osman and Dylan Windler are two likely candidates tasked with defending Kuzma, and neither have the prowess of minimizing his impact. If Kuzma can knock down his 3-pointers at a better rate, while also scoring at the rim, the Lakers will be in a good position.
For Montrezl Harrell, he’s arguably been the most consistent player for the Lakers while James and Davis are out. Philadelphia negated his impact in the first half of that matchup, but Harrell bounced back in the fourth quarter to help spark the comeback. The defensive suffocation he faced against the 76ers will ease against the Cavaliers, as Cleveland allows 49.0 points in the paint per game, 22nd in the league. If L.A. can take advantage of minutes when Allen is on the bench, Harrell has an open opportunity to seize control of the interior.
Defensively, the Lakers have a perspicuous advantage. Cleveland is dead last in points per game (104.0), 23rd in field goal percentage (45.2%), 29th in 3-point percentage (34.2%) and 30th in free throw percentage (72.9%). It’s a league that highly values shooting, and the Cavaliers are dreadful at it. They lack go-to scoring options, and if Sexton is out, that problem is further amplified.
However, Cleveland does average 11.2 offensive rebounds per game, good for third in the league. Allen brings down three of those, but Drummond grabbed four, and he’s no longer with the team. The Lakers must contain Allen down low or risk giving up easy second-chance points.
Cleveland is also tied for fifth place in steals per game, snagging 8.3 a contest. Larry Nance Jr. is at the heart of that, averaging 1.9 steals a game, good for third among all players; they’re a dangerous unit if teams aren’t careful with the ball. The Lakers turned it over 22 times against Philadelphia, and they cannot afford to replicate that.
The Cavaliers don’t have many positive things going smooth for them after a hot start, and injuries to rotational players exacerbate their struggles. The Lakers don’t have many easy games on their schedule — none are easy without James and Davis — but this is one of their best chances to garner a win to stay buoyant in a tough Western Conference.
Lakers (28-17) vs. Cavaliers (17-27)
7:30 p.m. PT, March 26, 2021
Staples Center, Los Angeles, California
TV: Spectrum Sportsnet
Radio: 710 AM ESPN LA
Projected Lakers starting lineup:
PG: Dennis Schroder
SG: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
SF: Kyle Kuzma
PF: Markieff Morris
C: Marc Gasol
Key Reserves: Montrezl Harrell, Alex Caruso, Talen Horton-Tucker, Wesley Matthews
Projected Cavaliers starting lineup:
PG: Darius Garland
SG: Isaac Okoro
SF: Cedi Osman
PF: Larry Nance Jr.
C: Jarrett Allen
Key Reserves: Dean Wade, Damyean Dotson, Dylan Windler, Quinn Cook
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