Lakers - Hawks Preview: Once more, with feeling

After the most needed All-Star break in the history of All-Star breaks (level of exaggeration unknown), the Los Angeles Lakers return to basketball action tonight to face the Atlanta Hawks.  In case you drank yourself into short term amnesia (and let's face it, the team's play just before the break might have induced just such an event), allow me to remind you of where the Lakers stand.

Just before the break, the Lakers enjoyed their longest road trip of the year.  7 games, with competition ranging from superb to abominable, pretty much in that order.  Early on, they looked to be making a statement, with four wins out of four including a fairly routine victory against the Boston Celtics in Boston.  Then, they ran out of gas and got bit by the 4 games in 5 nights bug, losing two straight games before the opening jump, rounding out their trip with a deleterious loss to the historically bad Cleveland Cavaliers.  Overall, a 4-3 road trip that answered (positively, mind you) a ton of questions about the Lakers' championship pedigree, and answered even more about their mental torpor.  In case you are wondering, yes, I am writing this preview in the margins of a dictionary.

All the talk coming out of Lakers camp is that things are about to change.  They see the finish line.  This is the home stretch.  It's time to start revving up the engine.  The train for Clicheville is leaving the station and everyone's on board.  Maybe its all more than just talk, but I'll believe that when I see them take the Minnesota Timberwolves seriously.  I know better than to read anything out of the Lakers having their longest practice of the year (which they did yesterday).  However, if the regular season is just a rehearsal for the playoffs, we're getting a lot closer towards that opening night, which means its time to tighten the screws, cut out the mistakes, and start getting the performances we expect across the board.  It's dress rehearsal time.

Fun Fact: The Atlanta Hawks are the last team the Lakers have not faced so far in the regular season.  L.A. has faced all 28 of the other teams in the league at least once so far this season, and they've wrapped up season series' against 11 of those teams.  Fun Opinion:  Atlanta is, by far, the worst "good" team in the league.  Fun Story: After the Lakers' recent 20 point loss, I decided to do some research on victory margins, because I presumed that the Lakers' "ability" to lose by large margins might show that they were the worst good team in the league in terms of giving up on games.  Well, I couldn't write the article, because Atlanta completely disproved my thesis.

Nobody's got nothing on the Hawks when it comes to embarrassing defeats.  Just in the past month, they've lost by 41 to the New Orleans Hornets, and 34 to the Philadelphia 76ers ... at home.  And these are not isolated incidents.  The Hawks have lost by double digits in nearly 1/2 of their 21 losses.  Their average margin of defeat is 12.5 points.  No good team in the league (and at 13 games over .500, the Hawks are a good team) gives up on a game like the Hawks do.  Hell, compared to Atlanta, the Lakers are downright plucky. 

And yet, Atlanta is easily capable of coming into Staples Center and raining even further on the Lakers parade.  The Hawks are 5th in the East, just two games worse in the loss column than Los Angeles, and they have a deep and talented roster, even if that roster is admittedly top-light. Numbers wise, this team is as average as they come.  They are middle of the pack both offensively and defensively, and they play really slow.  Offensively, they fail to make the top 10 in any single category save free throw shooting, and that is a complete non-factor because the Hawks are one of the worst teams in the league in getting to the free throw line, and the Lakers are the best team in the league at not sending teams to the stripe.  Theoretically, Atlanta's offense is meant to be a balanced attack.  Joe Johnson is their highest usage player, and he doesn't even top 27%.  Their most efficient player, by far, is Al Horford, and he is lethal from mid-range, so Pau Gasol will need to make sure not to drift too far towards the paint.

Speaking of which, tonight's game has all the makings of a quick contest.  Both the Lakers and Hawks prefer a slower pace, which means less opportunity for fouls and play stoppages.  Both teams excel at keeping their opponents off the free throw line (and as mentioned above, Atlanta doesn't try to get there anyway).  And neither team does a very good job of forcing turnovers.  No turnovers, no free throws, slow pace ... this game could be over by 9:30.  Unless it's close and the last two minutes end up taking 20, of course.

Back to the analysis ... our stats box would indicate that Atlanta should be a better defensive team than they actually are.  They don't give up free throws, their opponents don't take a lot of threes, and they are among the best in the league at preventing those threes from going in.  Their eFG and TS% allowed is higher, but they are ranked higher in every category (except turnover creation) than they are in their overall defensive ranking, and that is a bit of an anomaly.  One thing the Hawks struggle with is field goals allowed within 10 feet.  Only three teams allow a higher percentage of shots that close to the rim, which bodes well for the post games of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.  Lately, the Hawks have been starting Jason Collins at center, allowing Horford to play his more natural power forward spot.  Its a lineup I expect to see tonight, and it allows Atlanta to not be overwhelmed by the Lakers size up front, though I do expect Pau Gasol to have some success against the smaller Horford.

This is what constitutes a relatively easy game for the Lakers during this last portion of their schedule.  The Hawks are a good team, but the Lakers are finally well-rested, playing at home, and theoretically hungry for it.  With a daunting game against a hot Portland Trailblazers team in Portland (which, until recently, was an automatic loss for the Lakers) on the horizon for tomorrow night, this game is vital in displaying the first steps towards proving all the cliches coming out of the Lakers' mouths have some substance. 

Lakers

Hawks

RECORD

38-19 (6)

34-21 (9)

NET POINTS PER GAME

+5.9 (5)

+1.3 (12)

PACE

91.4 (18)

89.9 (26)

OFFENSIVE RATING

111.7 (1)

107.2 (15)

Turnover Rate (Off.)

12.6 (3)

13.3 (15)

FTA/FGA (Off.)

0.231 (11)

0.214 (26)

Free-Throw %

77.8 (10)

78.5 (5)

3PT FGA/FGA (Off.)

0.221 (15)

0.235 (11)

3PT% (Off.)

35.5 (17)

35.6 (15)

Effective FG% (Off.)

50.7 (10)

50.6 (11)

True Shooting% (Off.)

55.1 (10)

54.7 (11)

Off Rebounding Rate

29.7 (5)

23.6 (26)

DEFENSIVE RATING

105.3 (10)

105.8 (13)

Turnover Rate (Def.)

12.9 (21)

12.3 (28)

FTA/FGA (Def.)

0.181 (1)

0.211 (4)

3PT FGA/FGA (Def.)

0.243 (23)

0.209 (9)

3PT% (Def.)

34.1 (7)

33.1 (3)

Effective FG% (Def.)

48.4 (8)

48.9 (11)

True Shooting% (Def.)

52.0 (5)

53.1 (10)

Def Rebounding Rate

72.5 (21)

75.2 (6)

Numbers in parentheses indicate league rank. All table numbers courtesy of Basketball Reference and HoopData.

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