Before we discuss tonight's contest against the Atlanta Hawks, a word on the Western Conference: It's packed up tighter than an elephant in a cocktail dress. The Oklahoma City Thunder are very good. The New Orleans Hornets are very bad (congratulations, Mr. Stern). Everyone else is indiscriminately bunched up. How bunched up? The Lakers are currently tied for 5th place in the Western Conference, and they are the same distance in record to the 14th place Sacramento Kings (5.5 games) as they are to the 1st place OKC Thunder. As we near the halfway point of the season, it's pretty clear indication that this year's Western Conference playoff race is going to be one of the closest in memory. If today's snapshot is any indication, one or two games might make the difference between the home-court advantage in the 1st round and the home-couch viewing of the playoffs. The WC is just that close.
What that means is that, despite the general malaise surrounding the Los Angeles Lakers' performance so far this season, L.A. is actually right where they want to be in terms of record. One little five game win streak might catapult them into a strong 2nd or 3rd place finish within the conference, and allow them a path of least resistance from which they won't have to kill themselves to get into the playoffs, and still have prime position in the second season to kick it up a notch for another run at glory.
Which isn't to say we should expect any of that to happen. There's plenty of legitimate reason for pessimism about the state of the Lakers. All this means is that the Lakers are still in great position to pull the rope-a-dope strategy and end up a force come playoff time.
With that in mind, games like tonight become all the more important. The Atlanta Hawks are the perfect litmus test for determining whether the Lakers can keep pace or, even better, emerge from the pack of WC teams that surrounds them. Atlanta is good (currently 4th in the EC), but not that good. There's nobody they can't beat, but they aren't a guarantee to beat anybody. They have a lot of athleticism, something which normally causes the Lakers problems, but due to injuries, they lack size, something which the Lakers should be able to take advantage. The bottom line is that this is a game the Lakers should win. They are at home against an equivalent opponent, and their recent play is hardly the type that would justify resting on their laurels. If the Lakers want to maximize playoff position while minimizing effort and regular season pain, this is a must win game.
This is also a must-post game. The Hawks are missing All-Star pseudo center Al Horford, and and All-Sloth real center Jason Collins, leaving them with Zaza Pachulia and Erick Dampier (who couldn't even get minutes with the Miami Heat at center in 2011) to man the pivot. Andrew Bynum should be licking his chops. It's no coincidence that the only position the Hawks allow to perform (barely) above average, according to 82games.com, is the center position. They've got strong, athletic defenders at every other position. The Hawks sport the 7th ranked defense in the league (a metric by which the Lakers were performing well until recently), and that's with the missed time of all their bigs, so in order for the Lakers to score points, they have to stick to the script.
On the other side of the ball, the Lakers biggest challenge will be to control jitterbug guard Jeff Teague. Teague has finally been given the reins as the team's starting point guard after looking explosive in last year's playoff series against the Chicago Bulls, but his play has been inconsistent so far this year. Still, one has to expect tonight will be one of his "up" performances, as so often happens when a quick guard laces up the sneaks opposite Derek Fisher and Steve Blake. Jose Calederon destroyed the Lakers in the last game, nearly leading his team to victory single handedly, so containing Teague has to be the Lakers' primary focus. Other than that, the Lakers have to hope the Hawks stars don't pick tonight to be one of the dominant performances the likes of Joe Johnson and Josh Smith seem to put up every 1 out of 10 contests.
There's been a lot of talk over the last couple days about the Lakers roster, about playing time, and about the comfort (or lack thereof) the Lakers have with the coaching staff's strategies and decisions. The Lakers were afforded a rare day of being able to practice in their own practice facility yesterday, and while Rome wasn't fixed in a day (it's the analogy that keeps on giving), we can only hope to be able to see that the day was well spent.