The Lakers are stuck right now. After improvements made to the team that resulted in wins and jumping into playoff contention, the team is in jeopardy of losing control. The team lacks any sort of identity, offensively or defensively. A lot of their old, bad habits that lingered around the team during the first half of the season, is showing its face again. After questioning whether the Lakers can move up to the sixth seed, we are back to questioning whether they will hold on to the eighth seed. I won’t settle on too much negativity because the Lakers have 11 games left to prove they can be a better team, but to do so, performances like their last three cannot happen again.
Tonight the Lakers will be facing the Minnesota Timberwolves in Minneapolis. It will be important for the Lakers to play with urgency and complete effort, especially on the defensive end, in order to create momentum since this is their first stop on a back-to-back. On the other side, the T-Wolves will be ending a back-to-back as they beat the Pistons last night in Detroit. The Lakers have an all-time record of 69-21 against the T-Wolves, with a 30-15 road record against Minnesota. The Lakers have won 21 consecutive games against the Timberwolves, including twice this season already (both by double-digits).
Frontcourt: Center Nikola Pekovic injured himself during the last game between the T-Wolves and the Lakers, but is slowly starting to play like himself again. Pekovic is one of the strongest centers in the league as he is unafraid to be physical in the low post. He is great at finding cracks in opponents’ defense to get easy layups and is a very solid offensive rebounder. Dwight Howard must match Pekovic’s physicality in the post. If and when Pau Gasol is matched up with Pekovic, he must be able to body up on defense, which will be a challenge. On offense Pau should try to draw Pekovic out of the paint with the threat of his mid-range jumper.
Sophomore Derrick Williams has a myriad of skills, but hasn’t quite lived up to his potential and expectations put on him when he was drafted. Williams can create a shot in mid-range or out on the perimeter. While he is nowhere as effective as Kevin Love, especially on the glass, Williams has put together some huge games lately. Overall, he is averaging nearly 12 points and six rebounds per game. Williams has been hot in March so far, so limiting his contribution will be essential. Andrei Kirilenko has had a cool month so far, but can still have a 20-point night as he did recently against Phoenix. Kirilenko is a stretch forward that has a lot of skills in his tool belt. The main thing for the Lakers to remember when guarding Kirilenko is to not leave him open.
Backcourt: Ricky Rubio is without a doubt one of the most entertaining players to watch in the game today. The plays he can create with dribble penetration are quite spectacular. Rubio, who averages about 10 points and seven assists per game, shouldn’t be a threat shooting the ball in the mid-range or out on the perimeter as he struggles with his outside shot (36.3 percent). Where Rubio is a threat on offense, besides his playmaking skills, is his ability to drive the lane to the bucket. Rubio’s backcourt companion is a threat from the outside. Luke Ridnour won’t shoot too many threes, but it will be imperative to keep him from getting an open look. Ridnour can move nicely off the ball, which Kobe Bryant must pay attention to. He is averaging about 12 points and four assists per game.
The Lakers have built a trend of letting backup point guard have their best games of the season playing against LA. J.J. Barea must be kept in check by the Lakers because when he gets hot, it’s hard to stop him. He is a pesky guard who also uses dribble penetration to open up opportunities either for himself or his teammates. Otherwise, Barea is a very consistent offensive source for the T-Wolves’ bench, averaging about 11 points and four assists per game. Alexey Shved is very inconsistent with his contribution and his shot percentages reflect that (36.7 percent FG, 29.0 percent 3PT). The key for the Lakers will be to render Shved ineffective tonight.
Keys to Victory:
It’s All About Consistency: I feel as if I talked about this issue non-stop this season. Am I blue in the face yet? While many would say that the Lakers’ offense was much better in the second half of Monday’s game than the first half, I believe they would be only partially right. The Lakers will find a way to score at the end of the day, but it’s how its’ done that truly matters to me, and I know I’m not alone. I will go into detail with this topic in the next key. What I think is most important with these Lakers is their ability to consistently defend.
The help defense, off-ball defense, on-ball defense, etc. needs to be visible on the court not when they decide to make a comeback, but during every minute of the 48 minutes of the game. When the Lakers deal with younger, transition teams, they can’t let the team’s age be an excuse. Their defense can make stops, slow down the game, limit it to a half court game and go to work. It can be done. We have all seen it happen this season. Every single player needs to be held accountable on defense. It just needs to become consistent. I would like to see Kobe Bryant, whose defense has been lacking, lead by example on the defensive end.
Don’t Revert to Old Habits: Now that we’ve covered defense, I want to talk about the Lakers’ offense. Let’s be honest, the team does better when they share the ball. Energy sustains, the offense becomes more fluid and everyone becomes more involved. I’m not talking about taking away Kobe-isos because to not use that asset would not be wise. Rather, don’t rely on isos as your one and only option. Work inside-out; it works. Keep the defense working and guessing by mixing up the offense; don’t make it predictable.
Los Angeles Lakers (36-35) vs. Minnesota Timberwolves (25-44)
5:00 PM PST, March 27, 2013
Target Center, Minneapolis, MN
TV: TWC SportsNet
Radio: 710 ESPN (English) 1330 KWKW (Spanish)
Timberwolves Projected Starting Line-up
PG: Ricky Rubio
SG: Luke Ridnour
SF: Andrei Kirilenko
PF: Derrick Williams
C: Nikola Pekovic
Key Reserves: G J.J. Barea, G Alexey Shved
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