The Lakers return to Staples Center tonight after their four-game road trip, where they dropped two but finished strong with wins in Washington and Philadelphia. The last two victories have of course been important to the Lakers’ record, but have had more value in building confidence around the team. With the news that Pau Gasol and Steve Nash’s return is approaching, the Lakers may have made that crucial turnaround to get on track with their expectations.
Tonight the Lakers face the Charlotte Bobcats, who are struggling in their own right. Although the Lakers should absolutely win this game, I think this season has taught us that “easy wins” are not so easy for this team. In addition, Charlotte has given the Lakers more than enough headaches over the years during their match-ups both at home and on the road. The Lakers have an all-time record of 7-8 against the Bobcats with a 5-3 record against Charlotte at Staples Center. Will the Lakers carry the momentum from the last two wins on the road to their home court?
Frontcourt: There should be no reason for Dwight Howard to be outplayed by Byron Mullens tonight. Mullens, who had been bothered with an ankle injury earlier in the month, is pretty consistent about posting double digits in scoring (11.8 points per game), but often gets out-rebounded by opponents (7.3 boards per game).
Bismack Biyombo isn’t a threat offensively as he struggles to reach the double digit mark in scoring. However, he is consistently active on the glass. Therefore, boxing Biyombo will be important to limit second chance opportunities that can drain the Lakers’ momentum and energy. Biyombo is averaging 4.6 points and 6.4 rebounds in 24.6 minutes per game.
Rookie Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is having a very solid rookie campaign. In fact, his performance thus far is better than expected for most. MKG plays with a lot of energy and intensity on both ends of the floor. He is posting 10.5 points and 6.3 rebounds per game on 47.9 percent shooting.
Backcourt: It is kind of hard to imagine that an NBA sophomore, Kemba Walker, is the leader and best player on the Bobcats. Walker’s averages have improved since his rookie year, as his contribution holds the most impact to the Bobcats’ performance. Walker is averaging 18.1 points and 6.1 assists per game in 35.3 minutes (leads the team in each of those categories). Chris Duhon and Darius Morris must step up their defense on Walker to limit his offense tonight.
Gerald Henderson is in his fourth year in the league out of Duke. His offensive numbers are improving, which is one of the reasons he has slid into Jeffery Taylor’s starting gig for the post couple of games. Henderson is averaging 13.2 points and 3.0 rebounds per game on 43.7 percent shooting from the field.
Former Laker Ramon Sessions and Ben Gordon come off the bench for the wing-heavy Bobcats roster. Sessions is posting 14.2 points and 4.2 assists in 26.7 minutes per game, but is struggling with his shot (38.7 percent). Ben Gordon is adding 13.1 points per game off the bench and is shooting 43.9 percent from the three-point line.
Keys to Victory:
Push the Ball Inside: Dwight Howard has a big advantage in the paint tonight. Good things happen when the Lakers work inside out on offense. It will also be important to get Pau Gasol, who is making his return tonight, involved and active lower in the post. When the ball is pushed inside, it draws the defense in. This allows perimeter players to have more space and get opportunities for wide-open looks.
Control the Pace With Defense: The most effective way for the Lakers to control the pace of the game is to control the boards and limit Charlotte’s fast break game. First, rebounds need to be a focus point for the entire Lakers roster. The Lakers are currently ranked second in the league with 45.9 rebounds per game. On the other hand, the Bobcats are ranked 21st with 41 boards per game. The Lakers need to show energy on defense against the very young Bobcats team, and their ability to control the glass often is a determining factor of the level of energy they play with.
Second, the Lakers need to continue their process of improving their defense, in particular their transition defense. The Lakers need to force the Bobcats’ offense to a consistent half-court game. As stated before, the Bobcats are very young and athletic. In fact, the most NBA experience that a player has on their starting lineup is three years. Therefore, the Lakers’ defense must limit their ability to get out on the break and force them to not use their speed against them.
Take Care of the Ball: A continued key for the Lakers this season is to reduce the amount of turnovers they commit per game. I’ll keep this short and simple. The Lakers should aim to limit their turnovers to 12 or less. This will be essential to minimize Charlotte’s speed and athleticism advantage, especially in transition.
Charlotte Bobcats (7-16) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (11-14)
7:30 PM PST, December 18, 2012
Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
TV: TWC Sports Network
Radio: 710 ESPN (English) 1330 KWKW (Spanish)
Bobcats Projected Starting Line-up
PG: Kemba Walker
SG: Gerald Henderson
SF: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
PF: Bismack Biyombo
C: Byron Mullens
Key Reserves: G Ramon Sessions, C Brendan Haywood, G Ben Gordon