The pressure has been on Los Angeles Lakers sophomore forward Brandon Ingram in every matchup he’s had with the Golden State Warriors because of a frequent predraft player-comp with Kevin Durant.
So far Ingram has been up to the challenge, setting a new career-high of 32 points in one matchup and posting averages of 25.5 points on 54.5 percent shooting to go with four assists, 5.5 rebounds and two steals in the Lakers’ two games against the defending champions and their superstar wing.
But as good as Ingram has been, Durant has been better. He’s averaged 32.5 points, nine rebounds and 6.5 assists against the Lakers this year while canning 38.9 percent of his threes to get the better of Ingram in their two duels so far.
Still, Ingram even keeping pace with Durant is a far cry from the difficulties of his rookie season. And the Lakers will need him to repeat the feat if they want a chance even against an injury-riddled and Stephen Curry-less version of the Warriors.
The Lakers have a few absences of their own, although they will be getting Kentavious Caldwell-Pope back since this road game is in California, which he is still allowed to travel within as part of his work release program.
Caldwell-Pope’s return will likely move Josh Hart back into a bench role and increase the Lakers’ depth on the wing, which will allow them to play more small ball.
Going small might be something the Lakers have to do more often given their other big absence, starting center Brook Lopez. Lakers head coach Luke Walton opted to start Andrew Bogut in Lopez’s absence and likely will again.
But the Warriors go small a lot and will likely necessitate the Lakers doing so as well. That’s actually good news for the Lakers in some ways, even if the Warriors figure to be even better at it with the presumed return of All-Star Draymond Green to their lineup.
That’s because L.A. has its own versatile, defensively strong and playmaking big man that its at its best with at center too in Julius Randle.
The comparisons of Randle to Green seemed ill-advised for the first two years of Randle’s actual career (not counting the rookie season he missed all of with a broken leg), but this season he’s started to live up to them, and the Lakers are never better than when he’s on the floor at center.
Randle has the best net rating (0) on the team among rotation players, as the Lakers play their opponents exactly even during his minutes. L.A. is also never worse than when Randle sits, getting outscored by 4.2 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the bench.
Additionally, according to Cleaning the Glass, the Lakers’ best high usage lineup is the one featuring Randle at center with Ingram, Caldwell-Pope Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball, which has outscored opponents by 15.8 points per 100 possessions and ranks in the 83rd percentile of all five-man units in the entire NBA.
Randle only played eight minutes against the Rockets, but this would figure to be a matchup where he and Green can go head-to-head.
Even if that lineup plays well and even with the Warriors being as injured as they are, the Lakers are in for a tough task in taking on the best team in the NBA on the road.
Should all of the above go well for the Lakers, the team would still need another huge night from Kyle Kuzma, who exploded for a career-high 38 points against Houston. A stellar performance from Ball and the Lakers’ bench would also go a long way.
But even if they manage to get all of those things, they still may not win. The Warriors, who are outscoring their opponents by a league-high 12.5 points per 100 possessions on the season behind the NBA’s second-most efficient offense and third-best defense, are just that good.
Still, that’s what people said about the Rockets, and the Lakers upset them, too. This team has shown it can compete with anyone, including the defending champs, on any night, so maybe this is the one they finally break through against the Warriors.
Or maybe it’s the one where Golden State stops playing with its food and wins by 40. There’s only one way to find out.
Los Angeles Lakers (11-18) Vs. Houston Rockets (25-6):
7:30 P.M. PST, December 22, 2017
Oracle Arena, Oakland, California
TV: ESPN, Spectrum Sportsnet
Radio: 710 AM (ESPN)/1330 KWKW (Spanish)
Projected Lakers Starting Lineup:
PG: Lonzo Ball
SG: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
SF: Brandon Ingram
PF: Kyle Kuzma
C: Andrew Bogut
Key Reserves: Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., Corey Brewer, Josh Hart
Projected Warriors Starting Lineup:
PG: Quinn Cook
SG: Klay Thompson
SF: Kevin Durant
PF: Draymond Green
C: Zaza Pachulia (questionable) or Jordan Bell
Key Reserves: Nick Young, Andre Iguodala Patrick McCaw, Kevon Looney, David West, JaVale McGee, Jordan Bell
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