Showtime: 4:30 pm PT
Plot: If ever there were a test of the Lakers' mediocrity, tonight would be it. In facing the 12-12 Atlanta Hawks, LA will do battle against their mirror image in the Eastern Conference: a middling team with talented players and a whole bunch of flaws.
The two teams met over a month ago at STAPLES Center, as the Lakers nearly blew a 21 point lead en route to a narrow 105-103 win. The Hawks roared back in the second half on the back of Kyle Korver, whose 8 for 10 shooting night netted him 22 points, though one of those two missed shots was a tying attempt at the buzzer that was blocked by Pau Gasol. Like they have all season, Al Horford and Paul Millsap chipped in with a combined 26 points and 23 rebounds, a total they're sure to surpass tonight if the Lakers interior defense as of late is any indication.
The Lakers finally showed some defensive fortitude Saturday night in Charlotte, keeping an opponent under 100 points for the first time in over two weeks. They also found a way to batten down the hatches on the interior, giving up just 46 points in the paint, a landmark number for a team that regularly sees an easy 50+ points coming from around the rim. Perhaps at the prodding of his coach, teammates and just about everyone on the internet, Pau Gasol showed a much stronger effort on both ends of the floor, though his shooting line might not support that theory (6 for 18). Offensively, the team started to show signs of what they might be going forward, which is a much slower paced team that heavily features Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol operating in the post. The two combined for 33 of the team's 77 FGA, an extremely high usage of possessions for a Lakers squad that's been spreading around shots like a joint at a Phish concert.
For LA, tonight will be a true test to see just how effective their slowly coalescing new offense and defense can really be. The Hawks' starting five is one of the most solid in the league top to bottom, which includes gritty defender and clean-up guy DeMarre Carroll. With two big bruisers in Horford and Millsap, as well as the half court execution of Jeff Teague and Korver, the Lakers will have to really hustle to stop their opponents. Gasol, Jordan Hill and Robert Sacre figure to be very active on defense tonight, as the Hawks boast a duo of quick, penetrating guards that includes Teague and a recovering Lou Williams off the bench. Kobe will also be instrumental in Atlanta, as he'll be assigned to either Teague or Korver on D. Hopefully Bryant can leave Phillips Arena unscathed tonight, unlike last year's extraordinarily painful looking sprained ankle at the foot of the dastardly Dahntay Jones.
A game against the Hawks might be just what the doctor ordered for the Lakers to start to establish a rhythm with Kobe in the lineup. Atlanta has a solid team, but one that can be defeated with simply sound execution.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino