Since the Lakers’ unexpected thrashing of the Thunder at Staples Center, they have suffered four straight losses, all at the hands of playoff-bound teams. While a win would hurt the Lakers’ chances in the draft lottery, team morale has been plummeting quickly, and a rare victory would do a lot of good for the locker room. Tonight’s game is a great opportunity as the Magic are just one of four teams that have a poorer record than the Lakers.
While the Magic are having a comparably atrocious season, it can largely be blamed on the growing pains of having a young team. The Magic have a wealth of young talent compared to the near-barren Lakers. Accordingly, they get a little bit more of a pass on their season as they are further along the metaphorical rebuilding track and are at least giving their young nucleus the opportunity to share court time, all while picking up an early first round draft pick in the process.
Frontcourt: Starting at center, Nikola Vucevic will be a tough cover for the Lakers’ big men. He is more or less replicating his breakout season from a year ago, comfortably averaging a double-double (14.0 points and 10.8 rebounds) in just 31.4 minutes a game. The Lakers will need to make a concerted effort to put a body on Vucevic every time a shot goes up, as his rebounding prowess will magnify the Lakers’ deficiencies on the glass. That being said, Vucevic will never be mistaken for Dikembe Mutombo or Alonzo Mourning defensively, and the Lakers can and should attack the paint while he is manning the pivot.
Kyle O’Quinn and Mo Harkless will likely start next to Vucevic. Neither of them are major threats offensively, but they are versatile defenders who will be able to match up well with any “stretch four” rotation the Lakers choose to employ. The Magic also have yet another versatile forward in their sixth man, Tobias Harris. Harris will be used early to spell O’Quinn or Harkless as he is a superior offensive player who has the ability to drop 20 or 30 points if left unchecked. Despite dealing with nagging injuries early on, he has enjoyed another strong season, averaging 15.1 points and 7.1 boards.
Backcourt: Arron Afflalo starts at the shooting guard position and paces the Magic in scoring at 19.3 points per game. The former UCLA Bruin is one of the league’s better two-way players and is averaging career highs in every major statistical category. He is shooting a blistering 43.2% from beyond the arc and the Laker guards will need to close out hard and force him off of the three point line.
Jameer Nelson rounds out the starting five and is the one long-time fixture at his position for the Magic. Nelson has been the de facto starter at lead guard for what seems like forever (since the days of Dwight Howard!), but the Magic seem inclined to continue experimenting with Victor Oladipo at the position. Either way, both players figure to get a handful of minutes in tonight’s game. Nelson is a competitor, but he struggles to overcome his lack of size, especially when his shot isn’t falling. He is a solid drive and dish player and the Lakers need to limit his dribble penetration to slow down the Magic offense.
Victor Oladipo will back up both guard spots. Though he is a promising rookie who has had several big games, he is very inconsistent. He has also struggled to adapt to the point guard position, coughing up the basketball at a fairly high rate (3.1 turnovers per game). The Lakers should have one of their athletic wing players mark him whenever he is on the floor. A feisty defender like Kent Bazemore should be able to take him out of his comfort zone.
Keys to Lakers’ Victory:
Get Open Looks: This is something right out of basketball 101, but it’s worth emphasizing because it holds especially true against the Magic. As everyone knows, the Lakers love the three ball. What people don’t know, however, is that the Magic are third to last in three point field goal percentage defense. In other words, the Lakers will likely find themselves open from long range more often than usual and they should not hesitate to shoot (and convert) these looks. That said, there is a difference between taking open shots and getting trigger happy with contested looks. Nikola Vucevic offers little in the way of rim protection and the Lakers need to drive the basketball to bank some easy points as well.
Rebounding: Again, this is another rudimentary basketball principle, but the Lakers struggle mightily with this one. The Lakers are almost certainly going to finish the season dead last in rebounding differential as they are getting out-rebounded by 7.9 boards a game while the next worse team is the Brooklyn Nets at -4.8. Again, the lineups that Coach D’Antoni continues to employ are partially to blame, but the margin by which they are leading the league is just ridiculous. Between Vucevic, O’Quinn, and Andrew Nicholson, the Magic have no shortage of tenacious rebounders and the Lakers will have to match their hustle and grit to have a chance in this one. A healthy Jordan Hill can go a long way in this regard and Mike D’Antoni should not hesitate to bench any Laker showing signs of lethargy or apathy in favor of Hill.
Heading into tonight’s game, the Lakers are favored by four points according to Sportsbook.
Orlando Magic (19-51) at Los Angeles Lakers (22-46)
6:30 PM PST, March 23, 2014
Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
TV: TWC SportsNet
Radio: 710 ESPN (English) / 1330 ESPN (Spanish)
Magic Projected Starting Lineup
PG: Jameer Nelson
SG: Arron Afflalo
SF: Maurice Harkless
PF: Kyle O’Quinn
C: Nikola Vucevic
Key Reserves: PG: E’Twaun Moore, SG: Victor Oladipo, SF: Tobias Harris
Lakers Projected Starting Lineup
PG: Kendall Marshall
SG: Jodie Meeks
SF: Kent Bazemore
PF: Wesley Johnson
C: Pau Gasol
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