4:30 p.m. PST on TWC Sportsnet
Just a month ago, this Lakers team (and their fans) certainly wouldn't be brimming with confidence going into the second night of a back-to-back road situation. In fact, this exact type of game would be worst case scenario.
Not for the 2013 Los Angeles Lakers, Version 6.0.
LA rolls into Atlanta tonight winning 9 of their past 11 and could tie a season-high with ::gasp:: three straight road wins. Powered by two dominating Dwight Howard performances, the Lakers limited the Chicago Bulls and Orlando Magic to under 40% shooting, blowing up pick and rolls and forcing both squads into difficult three-point shots. D12's infectious defensive presence has energized his team, helping to give Kobe Bryant a break after the Mamba almost single-handedly saved the Lakers three times in a four game stretch last week.
Of course, one of those impressive performances came against this very Hawks team in a nail-biting 99-98 victory that very well could have--and perhaps should have--ended in defeat. Bryant scored 11 of his 34 points in the final frame, including the go-ahead dunk with just seconds on the clock. On the final possession, the Hawks ran the very same play that had gotten them an easy Al Horford lay-in moments earlier. In a twist befitting all the breaks the Lakers have gotten in the past week, Josh Smith couldn't handle the pass and subsequently threw a game-ending interception to Steve Blake.
The Hawks bungled a clearly winnable game, but none of that could be put on Al Horford. The forward feasted on the Lakers bigs that night, with Earl Clark and Metta World Peace finding themselves helpless before the former Florida product's offensive barrage. His performance last week--24 points on 12 for 20 shooting-- shouldn't come as a surprise. Since the All-Star break, Horford is scoring 23 a night on 61% shooting with 12 boards, each MVP-caliber numbers. He'll once again be a huge factor in this game, no matter if he's primarily defended by Dwight Howard or any other defensively inferior Lakers forward.
However, even in a difficult back-to-back situation, the Lakers look readily equipped to handle the Hawks, both in how they're playing and personnel-wise. Atlanta could possibly be missing point guard Jeff Teague (sprained ankle) and will definitely miss starting center Zaza Pachulia (achilles). This will most likely leave Johan Petro and Devin Harris as starters, the former being a tasty match-up for Howard. Both squads are coming off late night games in Florida--the Hawks being the latest victim of the Miami
Juggernauts Heat--perhaps negating any advantage either team could have in regards to exhaustion. Moreover, Atlanta is playing terrible ball right now, having lost six out of their last seven games, albeit to five playoff teams, so perhaps a home letdown is ripe for the picking. With four consecutive wins, the Lakers haven't just squeaked into the playoff picture--they've got the opportunity to move up the ladder. LA sits just 1/2 game behind the Houston Rockets for the 7th seed in the conference with one head-to-head match up left and 2 games behind the Golden State Warriors for the 6th seed with a home and away series yet to come.
It may have come three months later than expected, but the Los Angeles Lakers are beginning to resemble the team everyone thought they could be. After a season of unfortunate circumstances, the Lakers are starting to hit a bit of good luck; beating up on a hapless Orlando team, pulverizing a hobbled Bulls squad and now against an injured Hawks crew that's playing arguably it's worst ball of the season. Things are looking up for the Lakers. Right up the playoff bracket.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino