The Lakers proved that they are a team desperate to find answers to their growing problems as they fell to the Toronto Raptors 108-103 on Sunday afternoon. What progress has been made in the past week in Lakers camp gets lost in embarrassing and frustrating losses, such as yesterday’s game in Canada.
The margin of error that the Lakers are operating with is so thin that excuses can no longer be a crutch to explain such chaotic and disappointing play. The Lakers have lost five consecutive games on the road, which is their longest streak in six years.
Things do not get any easier for Los Angeles this week as the Lakers face four straight very tough opponents with the cloud of any playoffs hopes fading away if they cannot turn it around soon. They start a challenging stretch of games with the Chicago Bulls, who have surprised everyone with their record despite being without their franchise player Derrick Rose. The Lakers have an all-time record of 84-56 against the Bulls with a 37-30 road record against Chicago, with the Bulls winning the last two meetings. Can the Lakers make a statement on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in a nationally televised platform?
Frontcourt: Center Joakim Noah is a type of player that every coach wants on their team and who makes his teammates better. Noah is a source of consistent energy for the Bulls and is unafraid and more than willing to do the “dirty work” to get the job done. The vast majority of his offense comes from pounding the glass to get put-backs and from his teammates using dribble penetration to find him easy opportunities. Dwight Howard must do an excellent job at boxing Noah out and blocking inside shots tonight. Noah is averaging 16.2 points, 2.0 blocks and 10.6 rebounds per game.
Carlos Boozer is having a very solid season so far after seeing his numbers drop last season. In fact, many believe that Boozer will be selected as an Eastern Conference All-Star reserve this year. Boozer’s input to a game is typically very consistent to his overall averages (16.2 points and 10.1 rebounds), but he is still very capable of posting big numbers, like he did last week against Toronto with 36 points. Pau Gasol and Earl Clark must defend Boozer’s mid-range game for all 48 minutes.
Luol Deng is playing great ball right now, leading the team in scoring with 17.4 points and grabbing 6.4 boards per game. However, Deng is listed as questionable with a right hamstring injury. Therefore, sophomore Jimmy Butler will get the start if Deng remains sidelined, which seems likely. Butler scored 18 points and earned eight boards on Saturday against Memphis, starting for Deng. Reserve Taj GIbson remains pretty consistent off the bench for Chicago, but performs much better on the defensive side. Since Gibson is an aggressive defender, it will be beneficial if the Lakers can get him into foul trouble and force him off the court.
Backcourt: Chicago’s backcourt remains without its focal point, Derrick Rose. Rose is in the final stages of the recovery process and should be back in action in the coming weeks. However, Kirk Hinrich has done as good of a job as you can hope for in filling in for Rose. In fact, the whole Bulls team has done a superb job in covering the loss of Rose. Limiting the playmaking skills of Hinrich will be essential for Kobe Bryant and/or Steve Nash.
Longtime veteran Rip Hamilton will continue to see his minutes limited after missing a month of action with plantar fascia. He tends to get 20-25 minutes per game, where he averages 12.0 points and 2.4 assists per game. With his minutes being restricted, reserves Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson are getting extended roles for Chicago. Robinson is a pesky player on both ends of the floor and has the potential of getting hot on offense at anytime. The Lakers must limit Robinson’s inside penetration and force him to shoot outside shots, where he is shooting 41.6 percent. The essential part of Belinelli’s game that the Lakers must limit is his three-point shooting, where he is shooting 38.2 percent.
Keys to Victory:
Shot Selection: While Chicago is ranked 21st in the league for offensive efficiency (100.1), they are fourth in the league for defensive efficiency with 98.0. The Bulls are a defense-first type of team, which can hurt the Lakers who seem to only rely on offense to win a game. Therefore, against Chicago the shot selection of the Lakers will be crucial. The Lakers must use every ounce of Dwight Howard’s inside strength to break down the Bulls’ excellent ability to defend the paint (ranked 1st in this area). If the Lakers are able to break the Bulls’s defense down in the paint by working inside out, their offense will come that much easier.
Chicago’s defense is very evenly spread, which makes it even more crucial to improve their shot selection throughout the game. The Lakers simply cannot rely on the three-ball to generate the offense. While Howard’s ejection on Sunday was a bad call and allowed Gasol to get to his comfort spots on offense, the Lakers should have no excuse to be blown-out with the points in the paint battle. I especially expect Kobe Bryant to make an extra effort to drive to the bucket on a more consistent basis, rather that forcing up ill-advised perimeter shots.
Match Chicago’s Defense: As stated above, Chicago excels in defense in almost every aspect of the game. The Lakers’ defense will remain the focal point and will either win or lose the game for them. While the Lakers failed to wake up on defense for three-plus quarters in yesterday’s loss, the Lakers must come out of the gate in tonight’s game with defensive intensity that matches Chicago’s. Their energy, effort and focus must remain consistent for all 48 minutes. If the Lakers can defend well for all four quarters, then they will have a great chance of winning in Chicago tonight.
Los Angeles Lakers (17-23) vs. Chicago Bulls (23-16)
6:30 PM PST, January 21, 2013
United Center, Chicago, IL
TV: TWC Sports Network, TNT
Radio: 710 ESPN (English) 1330 KWKW (Spanish)
Bulls Projected Starting Line-up
PG: Kirk Hinrich
SG: Richard Hamilton
SF: Jimmy Butler
PF: Carlos Boozer
C: Joakim Noah
Key Reserves: G Nate Robinson, F Taj Gibson, G Marco Belinelli