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Cleveland Cavaliers at Los Angeles Lakers Preview

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David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Showtime: 7:30pm PT

Plot: A week ago, this game was supposed to Pau Gasol's triumphant return to STAPLES Center after six seasons, three Western Conference titles and two championships. He was supposed to have been dealt to the Cleveland Cavaliers, in mostly a cost-cutting move for the Lakers. This game was supposed to be more about the past than the future, an appreciation of a man who has probably been owed a little more respect than the organization has given him over the past three years.

Instead, none of what was supposed to have happened actually happened. Luol Deng was traded to the Cavs by the Chicago Bulls, ending rumors of Gasol's purple and gold demise...for the time being anyway.

Tonight's game has morphed into something entirely different--a tale of two teams going in completely separate directions. On one side are the Cavaliers, who with Deng in tow are looking towards their first postseason berth in four seasons. On the other are the Lakers, losers of ten of the last eleven and headed towards their first draft lottery in nine seasons, not to mention licking their wounds from their worst defeat ever to the crosstown rival Clippers. It's such an extreme dichotomy of narratives that these two franchises are surely not used to.

In the case of the Lakers, it's very clear that no amount of effort, energy or underdog attitude can substitute for sheer talent. The team is so extraordinarily shorthanded right now, playing guys like Ryan Kelly, Robert Sacre and Jodie Meeks for far more minutes and in different roles than they're truly capable of. There is no second point guard on the team and the first, Kendall Marshall, is still getting the hang of his new teammates. The Lakers can't stop turning the ball over, but again, not for lack of effort-they're just not good enough to stop doing it. But this of course, if just on the offense. LA's defense has been abhorrent the past several weeks, including allowing over 40 in the first quarter against the Clips on Friday. They're just a second late on reactions, frequently forget to cover the roll man and routinely get beat on simply penetration plays. All in all, it's been a disaster.

The good news is that this is a Cavaliers team that's still trying to regroup after their trade for Deng last week. They will be playing in just their third game with their new small forward tonight, which means that they'll surely be still adjusting to his game--although he's more of a difference maker defensively and is the team's third offensive option. The Cavs have played only two games with Deng in the fold, going 1-1 with a win over the hapless Utah Jazz and getting blown out in Sacramento by the Kings. It's repetitive to write game after game, but the script is the same: the Lakers have to find a way to contain Cleveland's trio of guards, Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and C.J. Miles. I doubt they'll be able to, as they couldn't do so with the likes of Darren Collison and Nate Robinson, and as such, I doubt that they'll be able to win this game.

The Cavs are decent defensively, which may be enough to drop a Lakers scoring attack that hasn't been very good of late. However, on the other side of the floor, if the Lakers have a problem stopping the Cavaliers's offense, it will be a truly horrific sign. Giving up over 110 to the Denver Nuggets, Clippers and Rockets is almost expected. Doing the same to one of the NBA's weakest offenses? At home? Before a gigantic road trip that could all but end their playoff hopes? That shouldn't happen, no matter how bad this team is playing.

The Lakers must take this one tonight, if for no other reason than to establish a little momentum going into their seven game Grammy road trip. If they can't win this game, I have very legitimate concerns that they'll have just one victory this entire month.

--MAMBINO

--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino