There's nothing that can change the entire attitude of a team better than winning. The Lakers (29-30) have won 9 of their 13 games in the month of February, including 7 straight games at Staples Center. They'll look for their 8th-straight tonight against the Atlanta Hawks (33-24).
Much of the attention in Atlanta has been focused on Josh Smith and his impending free-agency this coming summer. Trade talks were rampant leading to the trade deadline. Part of those rumors involved Pau Gasol getting dealt for the younger, more athletic forward. But as we all saw, it was much ado about nothing.
Smith leads the Hawks in scoring and in blocks averaging 17.2 points and 2 blocks a game this season. While his quickness and athleticism are going to be reasons for concerns for the Lakers, they can't focus their defensive effort solely on Smith.
The underrated Al Horford has flown under the radar a bit amidst all of the hype regarding his teammate. Horford is quietly putting up 17.2 points, 10 rebounds and 1.2 per game for the season. But in the last 10 games, he's gotten even better with 22.7 points, 11.1 boards and 1.8 blocks. Horford may be undersized at 6' 10" and 250 pounds, but his ability to knock down that mid-range and energy on the boards often challenge what guys like Dwight Howard bring to the table.
Then, there's also Jeff Teague. The 4-year point guard has steadily improved his game since his rookie year from 3.2 points and 1.7 assists an outing to 14.4 points and 7.1 respectively this season. Teague is a lot like most of the starting point guards in the league. He can penetrate, shoot the 3 and be a real problem for a team like the Lakers.
But the Lakers have improved themselves even without Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill. Time together on the floor has made it possible for them to get to know one another on both sides of the court and patch a lot of the holes in their game. Not a lot of people are giving enough credit to Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Dwight Howard for their perseverance, patience and belief that this team can still turn it around to make the playoffs.
Although a win tonight will bring them back to the .500 mark for the first time in 2 months, it will also get them to within 2 games back of the Rockets for the 8th spot and start to put some pressure on both Houston, Utah and Golden State to win games.
This is the first of 2 meetings between the Hawks and the Lakers for the next couple of weeks. They'll round up their season series in Atlanta on March 13. The Lakers swept last season's series at 2-0 and have not dropped a game against the Hawks at Staples Center since Feb. 15, 2006.
Matchup of the Game
Al Horford vs. Dwight Howard: Even with Howard's superior strength and athleticism against Horford, the edge doesn't automatically go to him. For one, Howard has had trouble avoiding silly fouls against those who are aggressive on defense and on the boards. Horford's respectable touch from 15 feet away can force Dwight to leave the paint if he makes his first 2 or 3 shots from outside. Howard is quick enough to challenge perimeter shots and help out inside, but the key for him tonight is to avoid early foul trouble.
Keys to the Game
> Turnovers: The Hawks are the 8th-best team in forcing turnovers from their opponent (15.2 per game). It's extremely important for the Lakers to value their possession tonight or this game could turn out to be another disappointing loss at home.
> Defense: The Hawks may only be scoring 97.6 points a game, but they are 2nd in the league in assists (24.3 APG) and 4th in 3-point efficiency at 38.2% per contest. The Lakers are the 7th-worst team in giving up shots from distance at nearly 36% per game, so they can't be too late in their defensive rotation tonight.
> Inside-Out Attack: Atlanta is one of the better defensive teams in the NBA allowing just 96.6 points a game (11th). They make up for their lack of size in the paint defensively with foot speed and athleticism, but that doesn't mean it will be tough scoring against them. If the Lakers start their offense from the post early and often, it will keep the pressure on the Hawks to prevent Howard from scoring and getting guys like Horford and Smith in foul trouble early as well as keep having someone on Kobe, Nash, Antawn Jamison, Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks at all times.
Watch Out For
HAWKS: Kyle Korver: Shooters have long given the Lakers a lot of headaches, and Korver could spell trouble for them tonight. Korver is hitting 46.5% of his 3-pointers this season for his 11.4 points a game average. Out of all the players on the floor for Atlanta, this guy is definitely the one to pay attention to if you're the Lakers.
LAKERS: Metta World Peace: He'll probably get the first crack at Smith tonight, so he might end up having a night in terms of steals. Metta is so good at forcing his man to put the ball on the floor so he can have his deadly left hand knock it loose. If gets enough of those from Smith, MWP will probably frustrate him enough to take those ill-advised 3-pointers he's been known for. That or a technical foul or 2.
vs. Atlanta Hawks
Tip-off: 6:30 p.m. (PST)
TV: TWC SportsNet (Southern California)
Radio: 710 AM ESPN/1330 KWKW
HAWKS: Louis Wiliiams (ACL) is out.
LAKERS: Pau Gasol (foot) and Jordan Hill (hip) are out.