Showtime: 12:30 pm PT
Plot: As unfathomable as this is, I have to ask the question: are the Los Angeles Lakers...turning the corner?
The Show is coming off of a very successful three game road trip, finishing it up with two wins in Cleveland and Philadelphia. LA played with anywhere from nine to five players those two nights, courageously defeating the Cavaliers despite the fifth man Robert Sacre fouling out (mid-game) and two nights later soundly beating the 76ers. Any way you cut it, for a team with just 18 wins on the season, two victories in a row is an impressive feat. Unless of course, you're a Lakers fan looking for the team to lose.
It's quite apparent at this point that Mike D'Antoni, Steve Nash and company have no designs on intentionally losing. The Lakers have performed quite crisply on the offensive end the previous two games, putting up points with a much more fluid offensive flow. There's no doubt that three returning point guards shoulders a large portion of this improvement, with Nash, Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar (at times) serving as the cohesive glue that was missing for such a long stretch that featured Kendall Marshall as the lone PG on the active roster. Blake and Nash turned back the clock Friday, punishing the hapless 76ers with their ball handling in the paint. For as many players as are missing from the team, it's quite obvious that in a Mike D'Antoni system that no single personnel member matters more than a point guard. They'll need every bit of that excellence Sunday afternoon when the Bulls come to town.
Just like the Lakers, it seems that no amount of injury or seemingly foolproof designs handed down from the front office can stop this team from competing to the fullest extent every single night. The Bulls are of course infamously without MVP guard Derrick Rose, missing in action yet again with a knee injury. But along the way, they've seen nearly every single one of their key players sitting with injury, including absences from All-Star Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler, Carlos Boozer, Kirk Hinrich and Taj Gibson. To add to their on-court misery, the front office dealt longtime Bull Luol Deng one month ago, subtracting a key piece from a team that looked doomed to the Draft lottery.
However, coach Tom Thibodeau--like D'Antoni--has his guys playing the same full-bore effort defense as we've seen the previous three seasons. The Bulls are an insane 24-25 despite all their roster shifts, trades and injuries, almost entirely due to their defensive excellence. Chicago ranks second in both defensive efficiency and points allowed per game, mucking up any offense that comes their way. They're yielding the second least amount of three-point attempts per game and the fourth least makes, which doesn't particularly bode well for a team like the Lakers who are very dependent on the three-ball. There's no use in writing more--if you've watched the Bulls at any point in the last four years, they're still the same team on defense that will make any team work as hard as possible to put up buckets.
The Lakers may have as many as eleven players available by tip-off, a relative boon for a squad that's seen as little as four qualified men on the court at the same time. Jodie Meeks, who has essentially been out the past three games, is day-to-day with a sprain ankle, while Jordan Farmar should be available after skipping Friday's slate against Philly. If these two players return, the Lakers could welcome a five guard rotation that will have to lead LA past a very physical Chicago defense. It's hard to say if LA has any particular advantage against the Bulls, but they're best chance to score will have to be to fight for rebounds much harder than on Friday night and hope for a ton of fast break points.
For those that are pro-tanking and those that just want to see the Lakers play well, let's not get it twisted here: they are on a two game winning streak, but have beaten up on two of the worst teams in the NBA. The Cavaliers are imploding at every angle and Philadelphia's defense ranks as one of the league's leakiest. While the improvements they've shown on the offensive end have helped to two wins, let's see how the returning point guards fare against a team that doesn't cede points as easily as the last teams they've faced.
Regardless of whether the Lakers win or lose--or your desire to see them win or lose--rejoice, everyone. NBA Sunday is back in all its wonderment, a great development that all of us can agree on.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino