In the midst of a sour three-game losing skid, the Los Angeles Lakers return home to begin a three-game homestand, commencing with a battle against Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers, the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
The two heavyweights faced off in late January in which the 76ers came out on top, 107-106, but unlike that contest — which supplied a sneak peek at a potential finals series — both teams are entering tonight’s game missing key players.
The Lakers are without LeBron James (ankle) and Anthony Davis (calf) while the 76ers are without star center Joel Embiid (knee). Seth Curry (ankle) and Danny Green (hip) are also both questionable.
However, the Lakers are receiving a boost to their rotation as starting center Marc Gasol is slated to return following several weeks missed because of health and safety protocols.
Gasol, who hasn’t produced consistently throughout the season, started to find a groove in the last seven games before leaving the rotation, especially from 3-point range. In those games, Gasol shot 14-of-32 from deep, good for 43.7%, one of his best stretches of the season.
With Embiid out, the Lakers won’t need Gasol to guard him, but as evidence against the New Orleans Pelicans Tuesday, Los Angeles could benefit from all the interior help available. That game saw two-player Devontae Cacok receive his first career start, but against a team that sees Ben Simmons constantly attacking the rim, Gasol should be useful, though head coach Frank Vogel expects him to be on a minutes restriction of around 15 minutes.
Two players the Lakers need to have produce efficiently are Kyle Kuzma and Talen Horton-Tucker. The 76ers are notorious for their length on defense, as Simmons, Tobias Harris and Matisse Thybulle are all resilient defenders and extremely strenuous to make moves against. The list expands with Green when he’s healthy.
Kuzma is coming off a game where he made 4-of-8 3-pointers so that momentum needs to extend to tonight to have a chance. Horton-Tucker is coming off a five-point game, and because Philadelphia’s length could cause troubles for Dennis Schroder and Alex Caruso, Horton-Tucker needs to slice the defense open and either score around the rim or find shooters on drive-and-kicks.
Montrezl Harrell is a player the Lakers have counted on for innumerable pick-and-rolls to find some points down low, but the 76ers are likely preparing to remove that option from the Lakers’ gameplan, making 3-point shooting even more imperative for Los Angeles. That’s where Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who scored just three points last time out, and Wesley Matthews, who hit four threes in the last game, need to chip in.
Defensively, the Lakers must attempt to minimize Simmons’ impact. What makes Simmons so dangerous is his ability to attack the rim whenever he chooses, but he also possesses the passing chops to hit open shooters on the perimeter. Forcing Simmons into tough decisions with crisp switches and rotations with good contests can help L.A. stay afloat on that end of the floor. L.A. saw what can happen against the Pelicans when they don’t supply resistance down low.
Shake Milton is another player to keep an eye out for. In a bigger role, Milton is putting up career-high averages in points and assists, but the shooting has been inconsistent. He’s a streaky player, especially when it comes to knocking down threes, so Schroder and Caruso — who have the size matchup — must force him into contested looks.
The 76ers are also short-handed in the frontcourt themselves. Aside from missing Embiid, centers Tony Bradley and Vincent Poirier were dealt in trades, so Dwight Howard and Mike Scott have to perform well in the paint.
Philadelphia has withstood several injuries and setbacks because of health and safety protocols, so despite the uncertainty of pivotal rotational players, their reserves are more than capable of stepping up into larger roles. The Lakers haven’t adjusted too well to life recently without James, but if they’re able to maintain a solid 3-point clip while converting on free throws and shots around the rim — two areas they failed in against New Orleans — they have an opportunity to end the losing streak.
Lakers (28-16) vs. 76ers (31-13)
7:00 p.m. PT, March 25, 2021
Staples Center, Los Angeles, California
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, Talen Horton-Tucker, Alex Caruso, Wesley Matthews, Devontae Cacok
Projected 76ers starting lineup:
PG: Ben Simmons
SG: Furkan Korkmaz
SF: Matisse Thybulle
PF: Tobias Harris
C: Dwight Howard
Key Reserves: Shake Milton, Mike Scott, Tyrese Maxey, Isaiah Joe
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