For the first time this season, the Lakers won back-to-back games on the road beating Washington and Philadelphia over the weekend. And that was also the first time in a long time Laker fans saw their team put together consistent quarters in a span of 96 minutes.
While the Lakers is still far from becoming a team we can all fully assess, gathering wins is as important as progressing as a team so far this season. Part of the team's struggles is not having Steve Nash and Pau Gasol at their disposal. That could change a bit starting tonight against the reeling Charlotte Bobcats (7-16) at Staples Center.
After practicing with his teammates for the first time in 2 weeks, Gasol is officially listed as a game-time decision. A lot of that has to do with the lack of pain in both of his knees. If there's no setback after today's shootaround, there's a good chance we'll see Pau back on the court.
Nash, also, is making a lot of progress and joined Gasol as a practice attendee working on strengthening drills, 1-on-1 and some running. After tonight's game, the Lakers will be off until Saturday when they go back on the road against the Warriors. Those 3 off days is going to be key for Nash, especially, since his targeted return on Christmas day will depend upon how his leg reacts to going through a full scrimmage in practice.
Although the Bobcats have lost their last 11 games, the Lakers haven't exactly dominated this team since their inception in 2004. Charlotte has taken 8 of the last 12 meetings against the purple and gold simply because the Lakers often get caught overlooking them. Seeing the unpredictability of how the Lakers approach each game this season, this matchup shouldn't be counted as a "W" for them until the final buzzer sounds.
Charlotte gets the bulk of their points from their 2 point guards. Former Laker Ramon Sessions is averaging 14.4 points in 26.7 minutes this season. He isn't shooting well (38.7%/27.3% 3-points), so he earns a lot of his points by attacking the rim. Sessions leads his team in free-throw attempts at 5.8 per game.
But the one guy the Lakers need to concentrate on is Kemba Walker. The former UCONN standout is tops in team points (18.1 PPG), assists (6.1 APG) and steals (2.0 SPG). He may not be that much better than Sessions from distance (30.4%), but he's definitely a more dangerous scorer anywhere inside the arc averaging 42.8% from the field. If the Lakers can control Walker for much of the game, they should be fine. That means they will have to continue playing together on the defensive end.
The Lakers forced a combined 37 turnovers from their opponents in their last 2 games. A lot of that has to do with being aggressive in their team defense and reading the passing lanes quickly. Of course, Metta World Peace and Dwight Howard had a ton of influence in their recent defensive improvements, but it's always been about how the Lakers, as a unit, help one another on that end of the floor.
If we see that again tonight regardless of the opposition, that would mean that the Lakers are finally finding their nitch as a defensive team. That's going to be key for them when they welcome Nash back since the offense will continue to be a work in progress for Mike D'Antoni to figure out how he can best incorporate all of his pieces without sacrificing too much of his up-tempo style.
Matchup of the Game
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist vs. Kobe Bryant: Gilchrist will most likely move into the shooting guard position tonight since he's Charlotte's best answer for Kobe. That's because Bryant, not only is he the NBA's leading scorer (29.2 PPG) and has a career point average of 29.5 against the Bobcats, has only scored below 30 once in the month of December. But Bryant will need to keep Gilchrist away from the hoop while making sure he's sharp with his ball-handling against a solid defender.
Keys to the Game
> Contain Kemba: The first step to defeating a team is doing something about their best player. Kemba is the heart and soul of the Bobcats and has the ability to take over the scoring load for his team as evident in his 32-point performance in their last game against Orlando. Chris Duhon will have to make sure Kemba doesn't get a lot of open looks and will need to funnel him towards Dwight Howard on the drive. But the entire Lakers team need to help by crowding Walker in the paint and taking away passing outlets.
> Balanced Attack: Regardless of Charlotte being the worst defensive team in the league (103.9 PPG), there's absolutely no need for Kobe to continue to put up 30+ points tonight. If the Lakers want to seemlessly transition over to Nash taking over control of the offense, they will have to start involving everyone much like they did against Philadelphia.
> Consistency: There it is again. Yeah, they've done a good job the past 2 games in maintaining their focus and energy but that doesn't mean they can take the night off against the Bobcats. The goal this season hasn't changed for the Lakers. They can't accomplish that if they refuse to keep working at getting better and developing an identity.
Watch Out For
BOBCATS: Ben Gordon: Veteran players who can shoot coming off the bench have always given the Lakers fits historically. Despite being undersized at the 2 position, Gordon is still in the NBA because of his perimeter game. He's averaging 13.1 points on 43.4% shooting from the field and 43.9% from behind the arc for the Bobcats this year. That's some serious competition for Jodie Meeks to try to defend.
LAKERS: Metta World Peace: MWP has flown under the radar a bit during all of the team's struggles and Kobe's offensive barrage of late. But in the last 5 games, Metta is averaging 16 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2 steals while shooting 51% from the field and 40% from distance. Not to mention that he's been their lone consistent force on both ends of the floor the entire season. Look for him to be a major thorn for the Bobcats again.
Tonight vs. Charlotte Bobcats
Tip-off: 7:30 p.m. (PST)
TV: TWC SportsNet
Radio: 710 AM ESPN/1330 KWKW
LAKERS: Jordan Hill (back – listed as Day-to-Day), Steve Nash (leg – out until possibly next week), Steve Blake (abdomen – out until January) and Pau Gasol (knees – game-time decision)