Showtime: 6:30 p.m. PT
Plot: As rough of luck as the Basketball Gods have bestowed upon the Lakers this season, it seems that the Scheduling Gods have scrutinized them even more.
Los Angeles opened up the season with three straight games against three different title contenders, going (a surprising) 1-2. After catching the Clippers off guard on opening night, the Lakers were then blown out by a Golden State Warriors offense firing on all cylinders and then a late close against the San Antonio Spurs on Friday night. The Show finally catches a bit of a break, as they face the Atlanta Hawks Sunday night in STAPLES Center.
The Hawks enter the 2013-2014 season a much different team than years past, but perhaps a much more focused squad than it's previous several incarnations. This past summer saw them allow F Josh Smith to depart via free agency, as well as not re-upping head coach Larry Drew. As those two exited, F Paul Millsap (on a sweetheart free agent deal) and former Spurs assistant coach Mike Budenholzer entered, as the spotlight became re-directed towards incumbent Hawks Al Horford and Jeff Teague moving forward. In his years in Atlanta, Smith was expected to be a more dominant player than perhaps he was capable of. With him gone, the team can focus more around a guard-forward tandem of Horford and Teague, rather than waiting to see if J-Smoove ever develops a jump shot.
It's hard to examine these new Hawks after such a small sample size of just two games. Millsap has fit in well as as high-post compliment to Horford, while Teague (20.5 ppg and 10.5 apg) looks like he may be able to flourish in an expanded offensive role. Defensively, this is an extremely athletic team who has been good but not great in previous seasons, and should no doubt improve with a former San Antonio assistant coach heading up their on-court operations. It hasn't shown thus far, but again--extremely small sample size.
The key for the Lakers after three games, can be summed up in one word: energy. The focus in the offseason was continually the team's defense, or the lack thereof, but it's very clear that the team will not be able to win any night without out-hustling their opponents. Jordan Farmar, Xavier Henry, Jordan Hill and even the much maligned Wesley Johnson have injected LA with a shot of adrenaline every time they hit the court, overcoming a much more talented Clippers squad and nearly defeating the reigning Western Conference champions by simply playing harder.
The Lakers are looking to finish their opening week tonight with 2-2, a fine record considering many thought that they'd easily be 0-3 at this point. Like the Lakers, most prognosticators look at the Hawks like a contender for merely the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff ladder, shooting for anywhere between 6th and 10th place. The toughest matchup for LA will be guards Teague and rookie Dennis Schroeder, who relentlessly attack the basket and create enough chaos for open looks for Horford, Millsap and sharpshooter Kyle Korver. On the flipside, the Lakers front court will have to abuse a relatively undersized Atlanta frontline in order to create an advantage.
Unlike the previous three contests, the pregame outlook appears as if this is eminently winnable for the Lakers. If this team has any hope of making the playoffs, they cannot afford to slip up in matchups like this, even in early November.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino