4:30 p.m. PDT on TWC Sportsnet
Well, this should be....interesting.
LA could be without Kobe Bryant for the first time this season, as the Mamba might out with a sprained ankle he suffered rather dubiously at the feet of Dahntay Jones. An already thin squad will be stretched even further, like a house of cards on the brink of collapse. After all, it's not just Kobe that's hurt; Earl Clark played just 13 minutes on Wednesday in Atlanta, limited himself by a sprained ankle that could affect the springy forward's mobility. Pau Gasol is on track to return next week sometime, but has ruled out playing in Indiana.
Kobe has been upgraded from "out indefinitely" to "day-to-day" overnight, as the NBA's toughest player might yet suit up for tonight's contest. Should Bryant not be able to go, Jodie Meeks will start in Kobe's place, which, needless to say, is a massive downgrade over a top-5 MVP candidate. Unfortunately, the Lakers needed as many explosive scorers as they can get, as they play arguably the league's best defense tonight. The Pacers rank first in defensive efficiency, opponent's three-point percentage and opponent's field goal percentage, while allowing the second fewest attempts in the league. Indiana plays passing lanes extremely well, rarely make mistakes on help defense and have the young, athletic horses to disrupt fast breaks. Even with Kobe, the Lakers would struggle to score tonight--without him, it could get messy. The Pacers have won 9 of their last 12 games and in that stretch have allowed 100 points or more only once. Their opponent that night? The Miami Heat in their 19th straight victory.
Even if Kobe is playing, he'll no doubt have either his minutes limited or be physically hobbled. If the Lakers have any hope against the East's current number two seed, they'll need Dwight Howard to dominate tonight as he did on Wednesday in his Orlando homecoming. Indiana has a strong big man corps, teaming Roy Hibbert, David West and Ian Mahinmi for one of the most physically imposing front courts in the league. With a fully healthy squad, this would already be a test for Howard. His line against the Pacers way back in November had him finish with 17 points and 8 rebounds, but Indy's bruising bigs sent him to the line 12 times for only 3 makes.
Howard will have to prove his worth as a superstar in the former Conseco Fieldhouse by controlling the boards, protecting the interior almost all on his own and deftly passing out of the double teams he'll undoubtedly get all game long. Steve Nash will get his fair share of responsibility as well, seeing as he'll be the most potent scoring threat on the perimeter. Luckily, the small-ish Indy back court tandem of Lance Stephenson and George Hill shouldn't tower over him and either Blake or Meeks. However, both players are strong, physical defenders that should give anyone in purple fits.
Without Kobe, the Lakers will have reach into the tank tonight, perhaps pulling Darius Morris or even exiled swing man Devin Ebanks back into the rotation. As if missing the Mamba didn't hurt enough, playing rarely used second round picks will only press the bruising. Stay tuned to SS&R today for updates on whether or not Kobe will play tonight.
If you couldn't tell, this won't be an easy one. Dwight Howard must be Superman tonight, if the Lakers have any chance of winning. If not, this will be messier than the end of planet Krypton.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino