After a rough month of December, the Los Angeles Lakers seemed to have turned a new leaf to start 2017, winning three of their first five games in January.
The last three games have not been kind to the Lakers though, as they all have been double-digit losses to Western Conference playoff teams, beginning with a 21-point loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, then to the San Antonio Spurs (40 points) and finally to the Los Angeles Clippers (16 points).
Despite those losses, Los Angeles is still just four games out of the final Western Conference playoff spot. Beginning Sunday night against the Detroit Pistons, the Lakers play three straight home games before playing 10 of the next 12 games on the road, so the Lakers play in the next few weeks could be really telling of which direction their season is headed in.
Luol Deng returns Sunday night after missing Saturday’s game to get some rest, so the Lakers will be with everyone minus Larry Nance Jr. who continues to recover from a knee injury.
The Pistons will likely be without their starting shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, as he is dealing with a Grade-2 rotator cuff strain, so their normal starting small forward Tobias Harris should move to shooting guard as he has in the last few games.
Harris is having one of his best seasons as a pro, leading his team in scoring at 16.5 points per game to go along with 5.6 rebounds while shooting a career-high 48.0 percent from the field.
He is joined in the backcourt by point guard Reggie Jackson, who seems to be the glue of this Pistons team since returning from injury. The floor general has averaged 16.3 points and 5.3 assists in 21 games this season.
Jackson vs. Lakers point guard D’Angelo Russell may be the matchup to watch for in this game, as Russell has struggled defensively this season when guarding quick point guards like Jackson.
Russell has struggled offensively in the last three games, shooting a combined 9-of-34 during the skid. Before that he had a six-game stretch in which he averaged 19.8 points per game though, so he will look to return to that form.
In addition to Jackson, Detroit has one of the better backup point guards in the league in Ish Smith, who started in Jackson’s place to begin the season. Smith is averaging 8.2 points, 5.1 assists and 2.7 rebounds on the season.
Like the Orlando Magic, who the Lakers recently beat, the Pistons have on of the bigger front lines in the league in Marcus Morris, Aron Baynes, and Andre Drummond.
Drummond has developed into an All-Star caliber center at both ends of the floor, as he ranked third in the league at 13.4 rebounds per game to go along with 14.5 points.
In their loss to the Clippers, the Lakers elected not to foul one of the worst foul shooters, center DeAndre Jordan, to send him to the free-throw line. Drummond is statistically the worst free throw shooter in the league at just 44.5 percent, so we will see if the Lakers intend to exploit that.
Morris is possibly the team’s most underrated scorer, as he has the ability to create his own shot, something that many of the other Pistons struggle with. At 13.2 points per game, Morris is one of six Pistons averaging double figures in scoring.
With the slow-footed Baynes likely getting the start at power forward, Julius Randle will likely look to attack off the dribble. Randle has the Lakers only two triple-doubles on the season, as he has developed into a complete offensive threat in his second full season.
Three Keys To Victory:
Play 48 Minutes: A lot of the Lakers struggles in recent weeks have come in the season half of games. There’s no rhyme or reason to the second half struggles, other than maybe their youth, but if the Lakers want to win games, then they need to play all 48 minutes.
Contain Andre Drummond: On Saturday Clippers center DeAndre Jordan had 24 points and 21 rebounds on 12-of-13 shooting. The game before that Pau Gasol had 22 points and nine rebounds on 9-of-9 shooting, so it is clear that the Lakers need to put more focus on containing centers. Whether it be fouling Drummond, or double teaming him, the Lakers cannot continue to give up easy dunks to centers.
Don’t Get Lazy On Defense: The Lakers are one of the worst defensive teams in the league, and that isn’t necessarily because of a lack of talent. Many time the Lakers get lazy on defense, taking possessions off, and that simply isn’t good enough to win games.
Los Angeles Lakers (15-29) Vs. Detroit Pistons (18-24)
6:30 P.M. PST, January 15th, 2017
Staples Center, Los Angeles, California
TV: Spectrum SportsNet
Radio: 710 AM (ESPN)/1330 KWKW (Spanish)
Projected Pistons Starting Lineup:
PG: Reggie Jackson
SG: Tobias Harris
SF: Marcus Morris
PF: Aron Baynes
C: Andre Drummond
Key Reserves: Ish Smith, Stanley Johnson, Jon Leuer, Boban Marjanovic, Reggie Bullock
Projected Lakers Starting Lineup:
PG: D’Angelo Russell
SG: Nick Young
SF: Luol Deng
PF: Julius Randle
C: Timofey Mozgov
Key Reserves: Lou Williams, Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Ingram, Tarik Black, Thomas Robinson