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Lakers - Hawks Preview: Prepare for letdown

Basketball is a funny sport sometimes.  Take tonight's Los Angeles Lakers game for example.  Pretend for a second that you know nothing about basketball.  If I told you that Team A and team B were going to play a professionally competitive basketball game, what would you think if you were presented with the following information:

  • Team A has won 45 games and lost 19, while Team B has won 37 games and lost 26
  • Team A has won seven straight games, the most recent a 16 point victory over Team C (who just happens to have the best record in the league), while Team B is on a two game losing streak, and is only 3-5 in their last eight games.
  • Team A and Team B played against each other just two weeks ago, and Team A crushed Team B, winning by 24 points

If you knew nothing of basketball, and were presented with this information and asked to predict a winner, the clear choice would be Team A.  Now remove those basketball ignorance goggles.  You know which team is Team A, and you know which team is Team B.  You know, in addition to the items listed above, that the Los Angeles Lakers have a penchant for letting off the gas when they feel like they've accomplished something.  You know the Lakers are in the midst of a four game road trip against high quality teams, and every game on the trip besides tonight's is a bit of a statement game.  Knowing what you do, as both a fan of basketball and of the Lakers, doesn't that array of data just scream letdown to you?

It screams to me, which is why I'm throwing down the bold (and potentially reverse-jinxing) prediction that the Lakers get torched tonight, straight run out of the building.  The Lakers are in exactly the kind of good place that most often causes them to put us in a bad place with a poor effort.  They will likely have one eye on Thursday's game against the Miami Heat, and another eye on Saturday's game against the Dallas Mavericks, and in case you didn't drink your coffee this morning, that means both eyes are accounted for, and none are pointing at tonight.  Meanwhile, the Hawks are desperate for a good win so that they can start portraying the Kirk Hinrich era in a positive light, and, perhaps most importantly, tonight's contest has heavy revenge game tones, as Atlanta will be sure to remember the trouncing the Lakers gave them a fortnight ago.

Obviously, I hope that I'm wrong, and there are plenty of facts that would support the idea.  Hell, as my earlier exercise demonstrated, any even keel analysis of the two teams, devoid of any attempts to analyze the emotional factors in play, spits out the Lakers as probably victors.  Take the Lakers size, for example.  Just like many of the teams in the league, the Hawks don't have the horses to deal with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, and it leaves Atlanta in a tricky situation.  Atlanta prefers to have Al Horford, the Hawks' best player, start at center, but he is woefully undersized for the position.  So, when faced with a team like L.A., Atlanta has taken to starting Jason Collins to combat the other team's size.  Yes, that Jason Collins, the guy you were pretty sure was an undead corpse two years ago.  Collins is actually a decently effective post position defender, with enough size to keep from getting rooted out of the paint.  When the other team uses a big dude as the focal point of their offense, Collins isn't a bad guy to throw out there.  That's great and all, but the Lakers offense hardly runs through Andrew Bynum these days (the last time these two teams met, AB managed just three field goal attempts).  No, Andrew's offense usually consists of feeds from Pau Gasol or Kobe Bryant when doubled, or else it comes from going and getting the ball when his teammates miss a shot.  Did I mention that Jason Collins is a terrible rebounder?  That his defensive rebounding rate is only a fraction higher than Andrew Bynum's offensive rebounding rate, which means that, theoretically speaking, any rebound of a Laker miss that ends up in the general vicinity of these two trees has a 50% chance of coming back to L.A.?  The Collins strategy just isn't effective for the Hawks against L.A.'s deep front court, even if it is the best chance they have.  Oh, and while we're at it, that still leaves Al Horford guarding Pau Gasol, against whom he is still woefully undersized. 

It bears mentioning that Atlanta is a slightly different team than the one the Lakers beat just two weeks ago.  Gone is Mike Bibby, replaced by Kirk Hinrich, in what might be a trade of the two most opposite players ever.  That should end up being a pretty clear upgrade, because, while Bibby is a better shooter and offensive player, Hinrich more than makes up for this because he doesn't coat the soles of his shoes in molasses.  Sadly for Atlanta, even this upgrade serves little to no purpose in helping them come up aces against the Lakers.  Point guard defense plays an important role in facing 29 teams in this league.  The Lakers just so happen to be the 30th.  Hinrich doesn't have the size to body up Kobe Bryant (and save Joe Johnson the trouble), so his defensive merits are wasted on L.A., which means his relative offensive shortcomings make it a net loss against our Lakers.

I went over the statistical breakdown of what Atlanta does and does not do well recently, and not much has changed except that Atlanta is trending down in fairly important categories, which is what you might expect of a team that has an average point differential of -4.5 over their last 8 games (which would place them in the league's bottom 20% on the season).  They've slipped in shooting percentage, both offensively and defensively, and they've really slipped in terms of collecting defensive rebounds (ranked 6th two weeks ago and 11th now), but hey its not like the Lakers punish their foes on the offensive glass or anything, right?

So, all the physical and statistical factors point towards one likely result, while all the emotional factors point towards the opposite.  If the Lakers play focused, this is a team against which they have tremendous advantages and should win with relative ease.  But I've known this team for too long not to be able to spot a trap game and this one was spotted the second L.A.'s 24 point win was sealed against the Hawks two weeks ago.  I could be wrong, I want to be wrong, but just in case, please stow all items in your overhead bin, place all chairs and tables in their upright and locked position, fasten your seatbelts and prepare for letdown.  It looks like it might be a rocky landing.

Lakers

Hawks

RECORD

45-19 (5)

37-26 (9)

NET POINTS PER GAME

+6.5 (4)

+0.6 (16)

PACE

91.0 (21)

89.7 (27)

OFFENSIVE RATING

111.6 (2)

106.5 (18)

Turnover Rate (Off.)

12.6 (3)

13.5 (18)

FTA/FGA (Off.)

0.229 (13)

0.212 (27)

Free-Throw %

78.5 (7)

78.6 (5)

3PT FGA/FGA (Off.)

0.222 (15)

0.232 (11)

3PT% (Off.)

35.7 (14)

34.9 (19)

Effective FG% (Off.)

50.6 (10)

50.1 (12)

True Shooting% (Off.)

55.0 (11)

54.2 (14)

Off Rebounding Rate

29.7 (3)

24.3 (24)

DEFENSIVE RATING

104.5 (8)

105.9 (13)

Turnover Rate (Def.)

12.8 (23)

12.5 (28)

FTA/FGA (Def.)

0.181 (1)

0.212 (10)

3PT FGA/FGA (Def.)

0.240 (21)

0.209 (9)

3PT% (Def.)

33.7 (4)

33.3 (3)

Effective FG% (Def.)

47.9 (5)

49.0 (11)

True Shooting% (Def.)

51.6 (3)

53.2 (11)

Def Rebounding Rate

72.7 (20)

74.6 (11)

Numbers in parentheses indicate league rank. All table numbers courtesy of Basketball Reference and HoopData.