The Lakers (34-32) head to Indiana to conclude their 3-game road trip possibly without Kobe Bryant in the lineup.
Bryant suffered his worst ankle sprain in 13 years on a very controversial play against the Hawks on Wednesday when Dahntay Jones clearly drove his right leg underneath Kobe, who was taking one of his usual fadeaway shot in an attempt to tie the game at 94 with 5 seconds left in the 4th quarter. Bryant was on the floor writhing in pain for several seconds before his teammates helped him up and walked gingerly towards the sideline.
It didn't look good for Kobe when the injury happened and certainly looked even worse when he twitted a picture of his injured ankle via Twitter. But according to LA Times' Mike Bresnahan, Kobe's availability for tonight's matchup with the Indiana Pacers (40-24) will be a game-time decision.
D'Antoni: Kobe is a game-time decision tonight. Meeks starts in his place if he can't go.— Mike Bresnahan (@Mike_Bresnahan) March 15, 2013
This would be certainly good news for the team and Lakers fans should Kobe play tonight, but the Lakers can't give that sigh of relief and think that they can continue to rely on Bryant to lead them offensively against the 2nd best team in the east.
The Lakers may have won 3 of their last 5 games in Indiana, but that is mostly due to Kobe's 30 points per game average in those games. As much of a die-hard competitor Bryant is, it would be unrealistic to expect another 30-point performance out of him tonight. Of course, Laker fans would love to see the Mamba continue his tear since the All-Star break, but severe ankle sprains limit a player's mobility and verticality so much that it's wishful thinking to anticipate the same old Kobe tonight.
The Pacers are not only the best rebounding team (45.6 RPG) in the NBA, they also have the 2nd-best defense allowing just 89.7 points per contest. The Pacers have size and have guys who are physical on the defensive end. One of those guys is Roy Hibbert.
Hibbert leads his team in rebounding averaging 8 boards a game, but he's 3rd in the league in block shots getting 2.7 swats per game. He only got 8 points, 5 rebounds and 3 blocks against the Lakers at Staples Center back in November. However, he's been getting 16.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.3 blocks a contest in the month of March. No doubt, he's that one player the Lakers need to be mindful of in the paint and around the glass.
It's a bit odd that the Pacers only average 94.2 points per game as a team since they have a lot of weapons offensively. If you're the Lakers defense, you have to start with Paul George.
George leads the Pacers with his 17.6 points per game average, and he is one of the most versatile scorers around. He can put up points from anywhere on the floor and loves to attack the rim since he's also one of the most athletic players in the game.
Then, the Lakers have to worry about David West (who is one of the most proficent mid-range-shooting big), Lance Stephenson (who is emerging as a threat on both ends of the floor), and George Hill. If you remember, Hill's high-bank shot layup over Dwight Howard was the one that got the Pacers their 79-77 victory over the Lakers in the previous meeting.
If the Lakers want to have a shot at returning the favor tonight, every player that steps on the floor will have to elevate their game on both baskets with or without Kobe.
This Lakers are looking to even out their series with Indiana in this final meeting of the regular season. The purple and gold haven't lost on the road against the Pacers since Dec. 2, 2008.
INJURY UPDATE: According to ESPN LA's Dave McMenamin, there's a slight chance that Pau Gasol could make his long-awaited return tonight in Indiana via his Twitter handle:
I asked Pau after shootaround if he was playing Sunday or Monday. He shrugged and said, "Or Friday." Maybe he plays tonight?— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) March 15, 2013
Matchup of the Game
Dwight Howard vs. Roy Hibbert: With Bryant hurt, Howard has to be that guy who has to take over the load for the Lakers. Hibbert may have the size advantage and ability to knock down a decent mid-range shot over him, but Dwight still has the strength, athleticism and foot-speed edge over Roy. Plus, Howard has the experience over Hibbert when it comes to being the go-to guy in the post. But the key in this matchup will be foul trouble. Howard is 2nd in the league in personal fouls averaging 3.8 per game while Hibbert is committing 3.5 fouls a game.
Keys to the Game
> Teamwork: Regardless of Kobe's availability, the Lakers won't win unless they do everything on the floor as a team. Their offense has to be aggressive but make sure ball movement is a priority. Defensively, they have to help out on penetrations and be active. Then, they have to help out Howard on the boards by doing the fundamentals and chasing after those missed shots as well.
> Fast Start: Against the Pacers last time, the Lakers shot 31.6% as a team and scored only 33 points in the opening half. Bad free-throw shooting (23-of-53) probably made more of a difference in the outcome of that game, but another slow start around the perimeter tonight will not bode well for the Lakers.
> Dwight Howard: If Howard dominates the paint, that will open up the perimeter game for the Lakers. The Pacers defense may be tops in the paint (51.7%) and from behind the arc (34.2%), but Howard usually shoots well against them. He had 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting against Indiana in November. Plus, Steve Nash and Steve Blake were out for the Lakers in that game. If Howard comes out aggressive and scoring in the post, the Pacers have no choice but to send in that extra defender or two in the paint.
Watch Out For
LAKERS: Steve Nash: With Bryant injured, it's probably a good bet that Nash will take it upon himself to step-up his game tonight. Even at 39, he has shown that he can still score and make the defense turn their heads one way while he goes the other way. But, he also has to make sure Hill doesn't get to the hoop easy through picks and off the dribble.
PACERS: David West: West had a monster game against the Lakers last time with 16 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists and 2 blocks. If the Lakers continue to let him shoot from outside instead of forcing him to put the ball on the floor, West will continue to be a problem for the Lakers.
@ Indiana Pacers
Tip-off: 4:00 p.m. (PST)
Bankers Life Fieldhouse
TV: TWC SportsNet (Southern California)
Radio: 710 AM ESPN/1330 KWKW
LAKERS: Kobe Bryant (ankle) is game-time decision. Pau Gasol (foot) and Jordan Hill (hip) are out.
PACERS: Danny Granger (knee) is out.