8 games to define a season ... a regular season at least

Everyone knows that an NBA season cannot be defined in 82 games.  The playoffs is where a season is truly defined.  If your team's season IS defined before the playoffs, the definition is that your team is not very good.  No team's fans should know this better than the Los Angeles Lakers, because no franchise has had fewer teams be defined in 82 games than the Lakers.  However, the definition of the regular season itself can be an important sign of things to come.  Take last year's Lakers squad.  They had plenty of ups and downs over the course of the season, their effort waxed and waned quite a bit depending on who they were playing and when.  But, there is no question about the defining moment of their regular season:  The six game road trip in which the Lakers lost Andrew Bynum to another knee injury, and responded with a 6-0 trip included back to back wins over the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers (For acuracy's sake, the wins were not a back-to-back, there was a day off in between).  The trip unequivocally announced for all the world to see that the Lakers had championship potential.

The Lakers now stand on the brink of another road trip with the potential to define a season.  The only question is what definition will it bring.

There are a couple of similiarities between this year's trip and last year's trip.  The Lakers will once again play both of their main rivals, Boston and Cleveland, on the same trip.  Of the 6 teams they played on the trip last year, 5 will be on this 8 game trip.  But this trip is much more formidable than last year's, even if the opponents are basically the same.

If this isn't the most grueling trip an NBA team will take this season, I'd be surprised.  The level of competition, outside of Boston and Cleveland, is not what you would call high (only one other team is over .500 at the time of this writing), but the amount of games played and the travel involved is staggering.  The Lakers will play 8 games in 12 days.  That's three back-to-backs, each separated by one game with a day off before and after.  There are 82 games and 171 days in the regular season, so a team will average a little bit more than one day off for every game.  Over the next 8 games, the Lakers will get half that.  And the travel in between back-to-backs is pretty brutal too.  Cleveland to New York is more than 400 miles.  Washington to Indiana is closer to 500 miles.  And the last leg of the trip, after the Lakers have already travelled and played so much?  Boston to Memphis - 1100 miles.

8-0 is pretty unfathomable.  No NBA team has ever gone undefeated on such a lengthy roadtrip.  However, with a mark of 7-1 or 6-2, the Lakers could send a clear message that they are still the team to beat in this year's race to the finish, especially if they win the first game.  A 4-4 or worse trip would see the haters climb out of the woodworks and start talking about the Lakers favorable early season schedule all over again, and possibly scuttle the Lakers hopes of home court throughout the playoffs.  But it may not even take that long to figure out.  When you consider the rest of the competition on the trip, including the Celtics who are looking old and mortal at the moment, you could make a strong case that tonight's game against Cleveland is the defining game of the roadtrip.  One game to define a roadtrip, one roadtrip to define a season. 

In other words, tonight might be more than just another game.

Since that fateful Christmas Day game, both teams have had ups and downs.  LA is 9-4 since then, Cleveland is 9-3.  Both teams have impressive wins and embarassing losses.  The Lakers won both at home and away against Dallas (including a 35 point beat down at Staples) and Cleveland won both legs of a back-to-back against the Hawks.  The Lakers lost to the Clippers.  The Cavs lost to the Bobcats in Cleveland.  The Lakers still enjoy a two game lead in the loss column, and would still hold the best record in the NBA even with a loss.  But the Cavs are generally considered the better team (mostly due to health) in "unbiased" circles, and a season sweep of the series would cement that view in place until it matters unless Cleveland did something to screw it up along the way.

In terms of matchups, not much has changed from the last game.  Pau Gasol missed time in the interim, but he's back now and has played without much rust.  Ron Artest still isn't quite the same since his fall after the Christmas game, but he should be up for attempting to stop LeBron.  It's why he was brought here, and he knows it.  So, with those elements out of play, I think tonight's game hinges on three factors.

Which Shaq shows up, and can Bynum handle the one that does?

Shaq dipped into what has to be a nearly empty well to bring out a vintage performance against the Lakers in the last game.  He was extremely solid, a load to deal with.  It's the type of game you forget he might be capable of, because the rest of the time he goes back to looking old, slow, and fat.  Only Shaq knows if he'll get up for round 2 like he got up for round 1. 

Even more disappointing than Shaq's strong performance was the pitiful one offered up by our own 7 foot behemoth.  Andrew Bynum looked like a wimp against Shaq, like a bully who ran into somebody bigger than he is and got scared.  4 pts and 6 rebounds in 26 minutes, he was routinely outmuscled on both sides of the ball.  If it happens again, the Lakers will be in trouble.

How well will Kobe Bryant shoot the ball?

In the last meeting, Kobe did not shoot well.  In the past few games, Kobe has not shot well.  And, as is his way, when he's not shooting well, he tends to shoot more in the hopes of shooting himself out of the slump.  If his stroke is still off tonight, and he continues to try to rehabilitate it during the game, that would be another bad sign for the Lakers.

How badly will Mo Williams torch Derek Fisher/can the guards off the bench continue their strong play?

I put these questions together because they are somewhat related.  If Farmar and/or Brown can produce at a high level (a very big if), it won't matter how badly Mo Williams is torching Fisher because Fisher won't play that much.  The reserve guards have been getting increased minutes this month, mostly at Fisher's expense.  So, if Williams is beating Fisher badly early on, look for PJ to give the backups some run.  If they perform well, the Lakers will be in good shape.  If not, the challenge will fall back to Fisher to step it up on defense.

[Update] Apparently Mo Williams is out for tonight's game, which sort of invalidates the first question.  The Cavs will still have somebody (Delonte West?) in his spot who will be capable of beating Fisher up, because let's face it, nearly all teams do.  But no Williams definitely improves L.A.'s chances of victory.  The bench performance is still important.

If you know the answers to those three questions, you probably know who wins this game.

Oh we're previewing the Knicks too ...

Apparently this was supposed to be a double preview.  Whoops, my bad.  The game against the Knicks is currently an afterthought in all our minds, but it will be played and it must be previewed.  I actually thought about skipping the Knicks altogether, but there's a strange development afoot that you must all be made aware of.

The Knicks are only marginally better than they were last year, and they've still got plenty of time to tank their way to a high draft pick.  But they have played relatively well of late, going 6-5 in their last 11.  And the crazy thing is how they've done it, by slowing the game down and trying to play defense. 

Look, I'm not telling you they play slow and have good D.  Neither is true.  But, compared to last year's Knicks team, this year's squad is playing at a much slower pace, and their defense is improved.  Last season, the Knicks were 2nd behind only Golden State's Nellie-induced hysteria with 96.7 posesssions per game.  This year, the number is down 93.8, which barely puts them in the top 10.  Their defensive rating is down from 110.8 to 107.5.  For a Mike D'antoni coached team, these developments come straight out of the twilight zone.  

I don't know if Coach D (Can I call you Coach D, Mike?) is trying to fulfill some sort of NBA coaching bredth requirement, if he's trying to convince some superstar that his teams can play both sides of the ball (since defense is key to championships), or if he feels so helpless with his roster of overevaluated talent that he just wants to give them the least possible number of chances to suck.  Regardless, the Knicks are starting to play basketball a whole new way, and its freaking me out a bit.

Matchups for this one need not be evaluated.  Why?  Because the Knicks might be the only team in the league who sports a starting 5 that could be considered worse than the Lakers at every position.  4/5 of the Lakers starting lineup is as good as it gets, but Derek Fisher might be the worst starting point guard in the NBA.  Well, ladies and gentlemen, Chris Duhon is the reason that might isn't a definitely.  So, if the Knicks can't even outperform L.A. in the one area where the Lakers are super-weak, what hope do they have?

Here's your numbers.

Lakers

Cavs

New York

RECORD

32-9

32-11

17-24

NET POINTS PER GAME

+7.0 (1)

+6.4 (2)

-1.3 (17)

PACE

94.2 (7)

91.1 (27)

93.8 (9)

OFFENSIVE RATING

108.5 (10)

110.4 (6)

106.1 (20)

Turnover Rate (Off.)

12.4% (5)

14.2% (23)

13.7% (16)

FTA/FGA (Off.)

0.217 (22)

0.246 (8)

0.194 (28)

Free-Throw %

77.7 (7)

74.2 (19)

77.1 (10)

Effective FG% (Off.)

49.7 (17)

53.2 (2)

50.7 (10)

True Shooting% (Off.)

53.9 (17)

57.1 (3)

54.4 (12)

Off Rebounding Rate

 27.2% (12)

25.4% (20)

23.2% (28)

DEFENSIVE RATING

101.1 (2)

103.4 (5)

107.5 (18)

Turnover Rate (Def.)

13.6% (15) 

12.8% (23)

13.8% (13)

FTA/FGA (Def.)

0.196 (1) 

0.242 (20)

0.219 (12)

Effective FG% (Def.)

47.0 (1) 

47.6 (3)

50.4 (21)

True Shooting% (Def.)

50.9 (1)

52.5 (7)

54.5 (21)

Def Rebounding Rate

74.2% (11) 

77.9% (1)

73.0% (18)

All statistical terms defined here. Parentheses indicate league rankings. Numbers are courtesy of Basketball Reference and HoopData and, except for record and net points per game, are through Wednesday night's action.

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