While the dominant headline is the possibility of Steve Nash’s return against the Golden State Warriors tonight, another thing to discuss is the fact that tonight’s match up pits possibly the league’s most disappointing team thus far (the Lakers) against perhaps the league’s surprise team in the Warriors. Second year head coach Mark Jackson has done an outstanding job and will surely be up for Coach of the Year if his squad continues at its current pace. This has all been done without center Andrew Bogut, who was their huge off-season addition and was expected to mitigate the Warriors’ defensive woes, as well as key bench player Brandon Rush.
The Lakers come in on a three-game win streak, although they come off an extremely shaky win over the Charlotte Bobcats. The Bobcats came in to Staples Center on an eleven game losing streak, and a loss surely would have been the low point of the season had the Lakers not been able to pull out the victory. The Lakers have no choice but to make these next ten to twelve games a turning point for their season, as they are out of excuses with Nash returning either tonight or on Christmas day against the Knicks. Eight of their next ten opponents have records over .500, another reason why this is such a critical stretch. Now, let’s take a look at how the Lakers match up with the Warriors, whom they defeated in a 101-77 blowout victory on November 9th in what was Bernie Bickerstaff’s first game as interim coach.
Frontcourt: Power forward David Lee comes in as the reigning Western Conference Player of the Week and is having an outstanding season. A walking double-double, Lee comes in averaging 19.8 points and 11.2 rebounds per game. While he put up similar numbers last season, Lee is finally getting the recognition he deserves due to the Warriors winning ways. Lee is a highly efficient (53% from the field) player who is comfortable shooting face up jumpers as well as working on the low block. Pau Gasol must be aggressive offensively against Lee and make him work on defense, because defense is not Lee’s strong suit. It will be interesting to see whether Pau’s dinner meeting with Coach Mike D’Antoni Wednesday night helps improve his play.
Rookie Harrison Barnes starts at small forward, and while he is a solid rookie with plenty of upside, he isn’t likely to fill up a big space in the scouting report. Backup forward Carl Landry, however, is the player outside of Lee in the frontcourt who is most likely to hurt the Lakers. Landry was one of the most underrated free agent signings of the summer and he comes in averaging 13 points and 6.8 rebounds a night. He is slightly undersized, but, like Lee, is equally efficient in the mid-range game as he is in the post. With Metta World Peace likely to be serving as the backup four-man again tonight, he needs bring his usual physicality down into the post.
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Backcourt: The Warriors’ backcourt combination in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson form arguably the best shooting backcourt in the NBA. Curry is in his fourth year in the NBA and he is equally adept in a shooting or playmaking role. He has been well above 40% from the three point arc in each of his four seasons and is the Warriors’ leading scorer at 20 points per game. The Lakers’ big men must hedge hard on all on-ball screens set by Warriors big men for Curry, and the Lakers’ guards must avoid going under any of these screens because Curry will knock down these open looks. This will be a tough matchup for the Lakers whether Steve Nash plays or not.
Klay Thompson, son of Lakers radio broadcaster Mychal Thompson, is in his second season and is another player the Lakers can ill-afford to leave open on the perimeter. Though his three-point shooting percentage is hovering around 37% percent, which is good but not great, this can be accredited to an uncharacteristic early season slump from Thompson. He attempts seven threes a night and will likely end the year shooting closer to 40%. Kobe Bryant or whoever is guarding Thompson needs to be sure to stay attached to him when he is coming off screens and to not give him any space on the perimeter.
Keys to Victory:
Contain Thompson and Curry: The Lakers match up well with the Warriors in the frontcourt. The Warriors have no answer for Dwight Howard in the middle, as they start rookie Festus Ezeli at the position. Gasol has the length to contain Lee, who is not overly athletic and plays a similar finesse game to Gasol. The Lakers have to ensure that neither Curry nor Thompson gets too many open looks from the three-point line, and that they do not cheat off of these two defensively. Kobe has been caught sleeping many times off the ball guarding shooters this year, and this is not the night to do so with him being matched up with Thompson. The team must communicate defensively to know where these two shooters are at all times.
Establish Pau and Dwight Down Low: As mentioned earlier, Gasol’s response to his meeting with Coach D’Antoni is something to watch for. Gasol and Howard, if used properly, should be able to dominate the interior against the Warriors. The Warriors are rather undersized inside with the absence of Bogut. There have been too many times this season where Dwight has had low post position and a Laker guard has opted to swing the ball to Kobe on the other side of the floor. Throwing it in to Dwight will likely command a double-team and open it up for Lakers shooters on the perimeter.
Golden State Warriors (17-9) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (12-14)
7:30 PM PST, December 22, 2012
Oracle Arena, Oakland, CA
TV: TWC Sports Network
Radio: 710 ESPN (English) 1330 KWKW (Spanish)
Warriors Projected Starting Line-up
PG: Stephen Curry
SG: Klay Thompson
SF: Harrison Barnes
PF: David Lee
C: Festus Ezeli
Key Reserves: G Jarret Jack, F Carl Landry, F Draymond Green