After ‘hitting a wall’ on Monday in Phoenix, the Los Angeles Lakers are looking to not only return to their (recent) winning ways, but also look forward to the reported returns of both Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant. Given the difficulties this team has endured, the phrase “winning ways” may sound somewhat humorous at first glance, but I want to remind all of Lakers Nation of the fact that this team still has yet to lose consecutive games since their January 23rd loss at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies. That, by the way, was the start of the 21-8 run that has pulled the Lakers into the playoff hunt.
As the team heads into the final 13-game stretch of the season, Bryant and Gasol couldn’t return at a better time. Don’t allow the Wizards’ 24-43 record fool you. Following their 4-28 start to the season, largely due to PG John Wall’s injury, they’ve played above .500 basketball (20-15) over their past three months. Over that period, the Wizards have conquered the Thunder, Heat, Nuggets (in Denver), and Clippers just to name a few. Point is, with Wall on the court, this is a much more formidable team than their record might indicate.
Regardless of the opponent, the Lakers will welcome back their original core group for the first time in what seems like ages. According to Lakers’ Reporter Mike Trudell, Bryant-Howard-Nash-Gasol-MWP have only played a total of 173 minutes together this season, or the equivalent of about 3.5 games. Unlike at the start of the year, this will be the first stretch of games where that core group and (recent standout) Steve Blake are all ‘relatively’ healthy.
Lakers Nation can only hope this can lead to some of the lofty aspirations everyone came into the season with. One step at a time, of course. That first step would be in finding a way to continue playing the type of team defense it will take to limit Wall’s effectiveness, whether in the open court or even with his speed in the halfcourt offense. Gasol’s return to relative health, regardless of whether he starts (initially) should help clog the middle on defense when Howard rotates to help or block a shot, and when Howard is not in the game.
Frontcourt: While Nenê (Hilario) hasn’t been quite the player of impact Washington may have had in mind when they acquired him from Denver, he is still a more-than-serviceable big man with an active body. If history has shown us anything, it’s that certain players tend to give an extra or ‘motivated’ effort when facing the Purple and Gold. Nenê would certainly fit that description, so it will interesting to see if Coach D’Antoni decides to match an undersized Earl Clark or even Metta World Peace against him, or if he decides to insert Gasol directly into the lineup from the start.
Emeka Okafor is another active player around the key, and will present Howard with another challenge. The key to that match-up will be in Howard imposing his ‘will’ without getting into foul trouble, as I believe he should. Martell Webster is definitely someone the Lakers cannot afford to lose sight of, as the 8th-year SF is currently in the midst of his best stretch of the season. Over his last five games, Webster is averaging just over 19 points per game while knocking down 51 percent of his 7.8 three-point attempts a game. Even outside of this string of games, Webster is ranked 3rd in 3pt percentage (45.3 percent) in the league. Clearly, this is not a player you can afford to lose around the perimeter. Regardless of what his statistics look like, we can never put it past ex-Laker Trevor Ariza (Los Angeles native) to produce an inspired performance in his return home as well.
Backcourt: As mentioned, John Wall is the motor that drives this vehicle. His shot tends to be ‘feast or famine’, but Wall is able to get into the teeth of the defense and out in transition with the best of them. Fortunately, for the Lakers (showered in sarcasm), he is also on a bit of a hot-streak. The 3rd-year guard is averaging about 23 points, nine assists, and four rebounds per game over his last five outings. The dangerous part of that is the fact that he’s also swiping 2.4 steals per game, and shooting 59 percent for that run.
Bradley Beal and Garrett Temple have recently been splitting time at the SG position, following Beal’s sprained ankle a few games back. Beal has been in and out of the lineup throughout his rookie campaign, but tends to be a major contributor when he healthy. His .377 percent from beyond the arc ranks 6th among rookies this season.
Keys To Victory:
Stop, Or At Least Slow Down Penetration On The Perimeter- With guards as shifty as Wall and Beal can be, this is a tough challenge for any team, especially one lacking foot-speed on the perimeter. Bryant and Nash will have to stay in front of their men, as you cannot afford to get Howard/Gasol into early foul trouble due to rampant guard/wing penetration.
Play Team Defense, One Cohesive Unit- Along with the luxury of finally having your core unit in place comes the responsibility to grow familiar (yet again) with tendencies and reactions. One way to ease this transition would be to simply communicate and stick to the same, basic principles we tend to learn at a young age when playing the game of basketball: help the ‘helper’, communicate on screens and switches, contest all shots and find a man to put a body on whenever a shot goes up.
Play As Together, For One Another- Prior to the year, without the obvious benefit of perfect hindsight, there were some that were concerned with the notion of this team having “too much talent” or “too many individual talents” to create a collective unit. Much like Dwight Howard said during a recent interview, this is a team that has endured so much over the course of this season, but has truly developed a chemistry and “All in, all for one another” mentality. It is time to fully place this on display, and show the league (and themselves) just how strong this core can actually be at (near) full strength.
Washington Wizards (24-43) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (36-33)
7:30 PM PST, March 22, 2013
Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
TV: TWC Sportsnet
Radio: 710 ESPN (English) / 1330 ESPN (Spanish)
Wizards’ Projected Starting Lineup:
PG: John Wall
SG: Bradley Beal
SF: Martell Webster
C: Emeka Okafor
Key Reserves: G: Garrett Temple, F: Trevor Ariza, PF/C: Kevin Seraphin