Hot off the heels of their last-minute heartbreaker against reigning League MVP Derrick Rose and his Chicago Bulls, the Lakers take the road tonight to face the relatively tame Sacramento Kings, Pacific Division neighbours and fringe Playoff contenders. Compared to the Championship-contender Bulls, they should be a cakewalk, but things are rarely so simple in the NBA, let alone Laker-land.
The Lakers are coming off of a home game last night, meaning little time for recuperation or practise, and the fact that it was Christmas doesn't help. Thus, it remains to be seen if the effort they brought against the Bulls in the season opener will continue into their less-anticipated matchup against the Kings; though the answer to this question may provide an interesting insight into the character of this 2011-2012 Laker squad.
The Lakers of old would likely provide a snoozefest tonight, likely still to win, but not prettily, with little effort and execution, simply out-talenting their opposition. However, hopefully the infusion of new blood and youth combined with the extra motivation of their embarrassing playoff sweep last season have been impactful enough to change their character, in which case we should see a blowout.
Considering the tough nature of the Lakers' schedule, being in a back-to-back-to-back as part of an 8-night stretch featuring 6 games, new head coach Mike Brown's management of rotations will be crucial; obviously with Pau Gasol's minutes being of particular concern considering the absence of Bynum (Gasol, for reference's sake, played 38 minutes last night). Some of Brown's choices last night were interesting, such as Morris being listed as inactive in favour of Luke Walton and Barnes not getting off the bench. The Walton inclusion was reportedly a contingency measure in case McRoberts and/or Murphy didn't work out at the four, but after their performance last night it's doubtful such a policy needs to continue - indeed, I hope Murphy eats into a few more of Pau's minutes considering his limited play last night. The Barnes decision is more interesting - will Brown continue trying to build up Artest's confidence and groom him as the focal point of the second unit, or will he go with what works and give Barnes some run?
Considering Goudelock's solid play, it seems the question of Kobe's backup has been solved, though Kapono may see time if Goudelock runs into the standard rookie troubles. At the other end of the guard equation, Derek Fisher was undoubtedly the Lakers' worst player on the floor last night, as to be expected, and I really would like to see Brown give Morris some of his minutes. A combination of Blake's veteran playmaking, showing through in a more conventional offense, and Morris' youth and pure point skills is certainly preferable to whatever it is that Fisher thinks he's doing; particularly if Blake starts hitting his threes more comfortably (interestingly, he seems to only hit them when he has no time to think about them, almost as if he's still nervous). Particularly with Fisher's current lack of playing shape due to his lockout responsibilities, I see no reason for his minutes to exceed the mid-teens.
The big man rotation looks solid, with McRoberts providing what was expected through his athleticism and rebounding; providing solid help defense and a pair of blocks in addition to some crowd-pleasing dunks off of coach-pleasing cuts. Murphy was a pleasant surprise last night, with his effort and rebounding combining with decent offensive production to provide numbers far closer to his peak seasons as opposed to last year, though it seems he's yet to find his range. The frontline will however miss center Andrew Bynum tonight considering the size of Kings' starting 5 DeMarcus Cousins. Cousins is large enough to bruise his way to some baskets, and precisely the type of big man who can take Pau Gasol's head out of the game, though as usual Gasol can use his superior skill and experience to embarrass Cousins if he keeps his head in the game (unlikely).
Unfortunately, that looks unlikely as Gasol's play last night, particularly in the fourth quarter, seemed closer to his performance in last years' Playoffs than his all-NBA peak. Gasol looked unsure of himself in the post (though some of that is simply a credit to Noah, one of the better big man defenders in the League), and his range game often lacked touch - for all the talk of how his range has extended, his two three point attempts were well off. Gasol needs to regain his form, fast, or regardless of how much Bynum improves the Lakers have no chance of a championship run.
Kobe looks to be decent, though his wrist injury is definitely hampering his ball-handling skills and there's no reason for him to be playing de-facto point guard so much with Steve Blake at home in this more conventional offense. Evans is big and athletic, but inexperienced, Salmons is nothing special defensively and Thornton is simply too small for Kobe, so Kobe should have a nice game; though Travis Outlaw might have a hope at defending him with his length and quickness.
On the other end of the field, the Lakers need to watch Thornton, who has a proclivity to get hot from range and/or go on a roll, particularly against the Lakers. Evans is extremely skilled offensively, though a duo of Kobe Bryant and Metta World Peace should hopefully be able to keep him in check, with their experience outweighing his athleticism. John Salmons is a decent offensive player, particularly efficient from the line and deep, but nothing too special. Notably, the Kings also feature highly-touted lottery pick Jimmer Fredette, known for his pure scoring ability, particularly from deep. Normally this would be an issue for the Lakers, but this is the rookie's first NBA game and he's pretty small, so hopefully playing him physical should be able to take him out of his rhythm.
No stats table today, it's too early in the season to be able to draw anything significant from the team averages, but hopefully the Lakers continue their strong defensive performance from last night whilst cutting down the turnovers and hitting some damn free throws.