Thursday’s showdown between the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets has long been touted as the preview of a potential NBA Finals matchup.
Such claims have only intensified since James Harden teamed up with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn, showing the franchise — just like L.A. — aims for one thing only this season: winning a championship.
But the clash at Staple Center won’t accurately measure the potential of a Lakers-Nets series due to the absences of Durant, ruled out with a hamstring injury, and Anthony Davis, sidelined by a setback with his Achilles injury and additional calf strain.
Nevertheless, the game is promising to be a fascinating duel between very different basketball philosophies.
The Nets boast the NBA’s deadliest firepower. Brooklyn is scoring a league-best 121.7 points per game, yielding only to the Milwaukee Bucks in the offensive rating stats. The Nets shoot with lethal precision, averaging 50.2% from the field (highest in the NBA) and 40.7% from behind the 3-point line (second-highest).
Unsurprisingly, those figures have been even higher since Harden’s debut with the Nets on Jan. 16. The 2018 MVP quickly provided an answer to the many questions over how good a fit he was for Brooklyn. Harden has been thriving at the point guard position, averaging a career-high 11.3 assists per game.
Even without Durant, the Thursday showdown could possibly be the greatest test for the Lakers’ defense this season. Irving dropped 40 points against the Sacramento Kings recently and Harden scored 38 against the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday.
L.A. has struggled at times on the defensive end, but usually against teams spearheaded by crafty centers and power forwards. The Lakers still lead the NBA with a 105.2 defensive rating.
Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will play a major role in ensuring Brooklyn’s backcourt has little space to spread the wings and launch a barrage of 3s. Alongside LeBron James, they will have to crank up the pressure and harass Nets guards through the game — just as they successfully did to Harden’s Houston Rockets in last year’s playoffs.
At the same time, Brooklyn potentially is the NBA’s most lopsided team and tends to negate their offensive success with subpar play on the defensive end. Brooklyn gives up 117.9 points per game (28th in the NBA), and allow the most field goal attempts, second-chance points and points in the paint.
The Lakers, preaching a defense-first mentality, and shooting with the third-best field goal accuracy (48.7%) in the league, seem well-suited to exploit the Nets’ inability to make stops. Montrezl Harrell has been scoring 14.4 points per game on a 71% shooting in February; L.A. should make sure the team keeps the 27-year-forward involved throughout the game.
Similarly, Harrell and Kyle Kuzma should also have plenty of opportunities to attack the glass and secure second-chance points for the Lakers. The latter has been feeling particularly comfortable in the opponent’s paint over the last few weeks and has a chance to continue showcasing his progress in that area.
But most importantly, Harrell, Kuzma and ever Laker not named LeBron James will have to step up and collectively make up for Davis’ absence against Brooklyn and in the weeks to follow. L.A.’s role players often emerged as the team’s third star last season.
Now, they will have to become the Robin to James’ Batman. It’s hard to think of a better time to prove their ability to do so than in a potential NBA Finals preview.
Lakers (22-7) vs. Nets (18-12)
7:00 p.m. PT, Feb. 18, 2021
Staples Center, Los Angeles, California
Radio: 710 AM ESPN LA
Projected Lakers starting lineup:
PG: LeBron James
SG: Dennis Schroder
SF: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
PF: Kyle Kuzma
C: Marc Gasol
Key Reserves: Montrezl Harrell, Wesley Matthews, Alex Caruso, Talen Horton-Tucker, Markieff Morris
Projected Nets starting lineup:
PG: James Harden
SG: Kyrie Irving
SF: Joe Harris
PF: Jeff Green
C: DeAndre Jordan
Key Reserves: Bruce Brown, Landry Shamet, Tyler Johnson, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot
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