The Lakers return home tonight, after splitting a pair of games on a quick road trip through the upper Midwest, and face a Charlotte Bobcats team that has historically proven to be a feisty competitor. The Lakers are only 3-8 in their last eleven meetings against the Bobcats. This is somewhat surprising since only once have the Bobcats made the playoffs (2009-10 when they went 44-38), while the Lakers have won two championships and been a perennial contender during much of that span. The Bobcats have consistently punched well above their weight when facing the Lakers, even in Staples Center, and have successfully knocked out the heavyweight Lakers more times than not. Tonight the 3-16 Bobcats will try to pull off that feat again against the 12-9 Lakers.
The Bobcats enter tonight’s contest having lost eight straight. They have been riddled with injuries recently, including missing five players in their recent loss to the Washington Wizards. Two of the players out with injuries were their leading scorers, Gerald Henderson and D.J. Augustin. Despite being shorthanded, the Bobcats fought hard and, led by rookie Kemba Walker’s triple-double, nearly pulled out the victory. Henderson is expected to return tonight, along with D.J. White and Reggie Williams, giving the Bobcats some much needed help with which to take on the Lakers.
The Bobcats team has struggled on both sides of the ball this season. They are ranked 29th in offensive efficiency and 27th in defensive efficiency. They don’t shoot the ball well (27th in eFG%), get to the free throw line (25th in FT/FGA), or crash the offensive glass (24th in ORB%). The absence of Augustin, their best three-point shooter and distributor this season, will make things even more difficult for the Bobcats, but Walker seems ready to pick up the burden. Walker is the type of point guard that has posed problems for the Lakers in the past. He is quick and explosive with the ball in his hands. Most of the offensive sets for the Bobcats revolve around pick and rolls for the point guards or isolations on the perimeter. While they are only 18th in the league in points generated per pick and roll play, they are 5th in isolations. Given the lack of a good defender for the Lakers at the point guard position, Walker could use his speed in one-on-one isolations to get into the lane and create opportunities for himself and his teammates.
The Lakers on the other hand focus heavily on running the offense from the inside out. They are one of the league leaders in post-up attempts and do so efficiently. The Lakers are the 3rd most efficient post-up team in the league and tonight they face the 5th worst team at defending the post up. The Lakers should continue where they left off in Minnesota and look to pound the ball inside through the big three of Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, and Kobe Bryant.
Andrew Bynum will face a bigger front line tonight than he has in recent games as Charlotte possesses two seven footers, DeSagana Diop and Byron Mullens. Pau Gasol meanwhile will continue to have a size advantage as the Bobcats play the combination of DJ White (6’9") and Boris Diaw (6’8") at the power forward position. While this may work to Pau’s advantage offensively, defensively look for the smaller Bobcats to play away from the basket, pulling Gasol with them and making him cover more ground than he’d like. This may be especially true when Diaw is on the floor as the Bobcats can run the offense through the very versatile forward and Pau may struggle to stay with him.
Bryant will see Henderson on him most of the game. While Henderson is undersized at 6’4", he is a very good defender who will make Kobe work. In their three previous meetings, Henderson limited Kobe to 40.9% shooting while forcing nearly 4 turnovers per game. Henderson’s quickness will make it difficult for Kobe to beat him off the dribble. Therefore, Bryant should look to generate shots from posting up the smaller player or running off of screens to catch and shoot, similar to the offense exhibited down the stretch in the recent win against Minnesota.
Tonight may also be a night for Mike Brown to test out a few new line-ups. The Bobcats prefer to keep Henderson on Bryant all night, even if it means playing him at the small forward position (which they have before). With little production coming from the small forward position currently, Brown could look to slide Kobe down to the three spot and run two point guards on the perimeter to space the floor. Any combination of Derek Fisher, Andrew Goudelock, and Darius Morris would work. The combination of Fisher and Goudelock would be the weakest defensively but would certainly pose a threat to shoot the three. Goudelock would have his hands full with Walker’s speed but Fisher’s defensive shortcomings could be masked by having him guard Matt Carroll, an unathletic three-point specialist. Any combination including Morris would have the rookie guarding Walker as Morris has shown more potential defensively with his speed and size. Bringing on additional shooters could help free the Lakers' offense, which grinds to a halt when the opposition packs the paint.
Like most games, the Lakers' biggest advantage is their size, particularly on the glass. They began the year as one of the best rebounding teams in the league; however, they have faltered recently, allowing the opposition to grab 40% of their misses in two of the last three games. The Bobcats are a poor rebounding team. They rank 23rd in defensive rebounding and 24th in offensive rebounding. The Lakers' front line should focus on getting back to the basics and crash the glass on both ends like they are capable of doing.
If the Lakers can dominate the boards, particularly on the defensive end, the Bobcats may find they simply can’t punch that high above their weight. The Lakers have not won back-to-back games since their five-game winning streak to start the month of January. Tonight would be as good an opportunity as any to change that. But never count the underweight out. It was a pesky Bobcats team that beat the eventual NBA Champions in a great double-overtime game in Staples Center only a couple seasons ago.