Hawks: Cam Reddish; Delon Wright; Danilo Gallinari; Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot; Clint Capela
Lakers: Russell Westbrook, Malik Monk, Avery Bradley, Trevor Ariza, LeBron James
Hawks: Cam Reddish (probable); Trae Young (questionable); John Collins (questionable); Bogdan Bogdanovic (questionable); De’Andre Hunter (out); Solomon Hill (out) Out due to Health & Safety Protocols: Gorgui Dieng; Cameron Oliver
Lakers: LeBron James (probable); Anthony Davis (out); Kendrick Nunn (out); Out due to Health & Safety Protocols: None
Happy belated New Year, everyone!
Since I last ranted on Ye Old Preview Desk on Christmas Day, the Lakers have taken the floor six times. Two maddening losses and four enjoyable wins of varying difficulty later, there are – yeah, I’m gonna do it – reasons for optimism. Sure, the team remains mired in the Western Conference muddle, in sixth place, half a game behind Dallas for the # 5 seed, and three and a half games ahead of Minnesota, who are ninth.
We’ve recently gotten glimpses of what this roster can do offensively – and probably should continue to do going forward. It’s admittedly a bizarre thing to say about a team playing without its All-NBA center. Then again, rare is the team that loses a big man of Anthony Davis’ caliber (even if he’s not been at his best this season) and has the option to simply slide somehow-still-Peak LeBron James into his place.
At this point, we know the numbers. In three games since his 37th birthday, LeBron has put up 100 points, with 26 boards, 14 assists, five bocks and four steals, with three turnovers, in a trio of Laker wins. It’s been well chronicled, but LeBron, two decades in the NBA and nearly four decades on Earth, continues to post number are rivaled only by the likes of Mike, Larry, Kareem, Wilt and Elgin. It’s genuinely ridiculous.
Beyond the astounding numbers, LeBron’s move to the middle has facilitated a super-small-ball (and young) shift that poses some rather awkward questions for opposing defenses. LeBron’s awesome strength and rock solid center of gravity have long been ideally suited to posting up. Nothing’s changed there. What’s different here is that opponents have to consider just how big they’re willing to play against a group with no traditional bigs on the floor. When they go small, LeBron is not at all bashful about battering whatever poor wing or guard is tasked with guarding him. When additional defenders show up to lend a hand, his generational passing is on display. All the while, he’s still wreaking havoc from the outside, as evidenced by a 19-of-43 (44.2%) mark on triples over the past four games.
There’s nothing left to say about this guy beyond “what the hell more is there to say about this guy?It’s really astounding.
The biggest beneficiaries of the move are hardship signing turned defensive ace and Lakerland darling Stanley Johnson (who’s back on the floor after some salary cap machinations), Austin Reaves (he of the 12-2 record when playing with LeBron) and, especially, Malik Monk. Since his five-game absence due to H&SP, Monk has been a confident, active and versatile weapon on offense. In the six games since his return, he scored 20.7 per game – on a LeBron-esque 56.6% from the field and 45.5% from 3 – with an average per-game +/- of +10.7. What’s most encouraging is that, while he’s shooting the ball extremely well, it really does not feel as though he’s playing way over his head. And, given LeBron’s gravitational pull any time he’s on the floor, combined with the attention that Russ – Good or Bad – commands, a steady diet of clean looks and cutting lanes should keep coming Malik’s way.
Tonight, the Atlanta Hawks are in downtown LA for their first meeting of the season with the Lakers. The Hawks rank second in offensive efficiency and are the NBA’s least turnover-prone team, but also the league’s third-worst in defensive efficiency and dead last in forcing turnovers.
Under normal circumstances, the Hawks would pose a massive challenge for the Lakers defensively. And they still might, provided both John Collins (conditioning) and (especially) Trae Young (back), four days removed from an astounding 56 and 14 in Portland, are in the lineup and close enough to 100%. With both – along with Cam Reddish and Bogdan Bogdanovic – listed a game-time decisions, it’s almost impossible to figure out what to make of this team.
As things currently stand, the Hawks’ best case scenario involves their four best offensive players taking the floor at something below – but close to – 100%, tormenting the Lakers on the pick-and-roll. In reality, this may be a game that Atlanta looks to effectively punt. With a rest day in LA before a game against the equally-shorthanded Clippers, before another couple of days off before a home-and-home against the Miami Heat, followed by a stretch of nine of ten games at home, this could very well be a moment for the Hawks to lick some wounds before tackling a portion of the schedule that’s both relatively friendly, but vitally also includes three games against the rival Heat division, and another against the Charlotte Hornets.
I’ve said it before (and before that) and will probably have to frustratedly wade into these waters again in the future, but everything is in place tonight for a comfortable home win and the season’s first four-game win.
Whether this Laker team has a genuinely dominant run it remains an open question, but it’s tough to ignore the sense that is group is turning some manner of corner.
Apologies in advance for that.
Where you can watch: 7:00 pm start time on ESPN and Spectrum SportsNet.