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Lakers vs. Celtics Preview: (Hopefully) the Return of the King

Will LeBron James return against the Celtics? The Lakers are certainly hoping so.

Boston Celtics vs Los Angeles Lakers Set Number: X163511 TK1

The Lakers are 16 games into the season and have looked nowhere close to what many fans anticipated them to be. But while a lot of their early struggles can be blamed on injuries or the fact that they’re a new team full of veterans trying to learn to play with each other, it’s also hard not to be discouraged one month into the regular season. The Lakers have had several unacceptable performances (yes those two losses to OKC is on top of that list) that have left a stain on their 8-8 record thus far.

But the good news is that the Lakers are not the only team that’s off to a shaky start. Their arch-rival, the Boston Celtics, who they play in the TD Garden on Friday, has also also had their fair share of injuries and struggles on the court.

Highlighted by Jayson Tatum’s early shooting slump, the Celtics rank 23rd in offensive rating (just one slot higher than the Lakers) per NBA.com/stats. They’ve been a mediocre team that hasn’t shot the ball particularly well from the 3-point line (they rank 26th in the league) and their bench scoring is at the bottom three, averaging only 30 points per game. This only means that the Lakers’ perimeter defense (which hasn’t been good all season) has to make sure the C’s continue to struggle and don’t break out of their funk against them.

Moreover, the Celtics are also adjusting to a new head coach in Ime Udoka, who has changed the system and culture in Boston. One significant difference the defensive-minded coach has implemented on this team is a switch-heavy defensive scheme that has been effective against certain teams but has also been inconsistent for them.

The Celtics have also relied more on drive-and-kicks on offense, which the Lakers have to heavily prepare for. The key for L.A. will be to goad Boston into playing isolation basketball instead, because while they rank second in the league in running ISOs (11.2% frequency) they are only 19th in ISO scoring (0.84 points per possession) and 14th in ISO FG% (37.8% per game).

In short, the Lakers’ defense will have to be sharper than it has been in their recent games if they want to leave TD Garden with the W. Below are three other storylines to watch out for that can significantly impact Friday’s game.

The return(s) of LeBron James and Jaylen Brown

There’s no sugarcoating it: The Lakers badly need James back in their lineup. And so do the Celtics with Jaylen Brown (who’s been out due to a hamstring injury). L.A. just lacks a certain type of physicality, playmaking, scoring and confidence when their leader isn’t on the court. Brown, meanwhile, has been the Celtics’ top scorer, averaging a career-high 25.6 points per game while shooting 46% from the field and 29% from the 3-point area. The presence of both, one of or neither of these two stars could significantly swing Friday’s game.

Boston Celtics v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

Can Anthony Davis protect the paint?

A stat to look out for ahead of Friday’s game is that the Lakers are currently ranked 27th in points given up on the paint per 100 possessions. There’s a reason why Giannis Antetokounmpo had a season-high 47 points on Thursday: L.A. is having a difficult time protecting the paint, especially when Davis plays the 5, as he constantly finds himself flying around the perimeter and covering up for his teammates’ mistakes, with no one in the uber-small and defensively soft lineups backing him up at the rim.

And with a poor perimeter shooting team like the Celtics, the Lakers have to know that Boston will attempt to score inside the paint, and Boston is ranked 13th in the league in two-pointers made. If the Lakers win the physical battle and force the Celtics to be a jump-shooting team on Friday, then that’s a huge advantage for the purple and gold.

Watch out for Talen Horton-Tucker, Russell Westbrook and Dennis Schröder

If there’s one positive to take away from the Lakers’ current two-game losing streak, it’s how THT has performed so far. The 20-year-old guard has averaged 23.3 points and 7.3 rebounds while shooting 49% from the field. The best part? He’s shown improvement in his 3-point shot (he has converted at least two per game so far) and his ability to keep up on the defensive end.

THT’s presence could be especially huge against a wing-heavy team like the Celtics on Friday.

As for Russell Westbrook, Frank Vogel said he had his best game as a Laker on Wednesday against the Milwaukee Bucks after scoring 19-points and dishing 15 (!) assists. Westbrook has yet to prove that he can carry the team when James sits out, but at least Lakers fans can be satisfied with the fact that he’s lessened his turnovers and is looking more comfortable each game.

Hopefully Westbrook can impact Friday’s game the same way he did against the Bucks, and win the physical battle against a great perimeter defender in Marcus Smart.

And of course, it’s hard not to mention Schröder’s name when talking about this current Celtics roster. Schröder, the Lakers’ ex who ironically hit a clutch basket against the C’s last season, is actually playing really well right now for Boston. He’s been so good for them to the point that he’s already hearing his own MVP chants at the T.D. Garden. The veteran point guard is averaging career-highs of 17.0 points and 5.1 assists per game.

The Lakers have to anticipate a possible revenge game from their former point guard, who now apparently is content with coming off the bench for the Celtics and has successfully filled Brown’s shoes. A Westbrook vs. Schröder battle will also definitely be a fun matchup to look out for.

Notes and Updates

  • Trevor Ariza (right ankle injury recovery), Kendrick Nunn (right knee bone bruise) and Austin Reaves (hamstring injury) are still out.
  • LeBron James (rectus abdominis strain) is listed as questionable instead of out for Friday’s game. ESPN’s Dave McMenamin reported that it’s “50-50” whether James plays on Friday or not. Meanwhile, Anthony Davis (right thigh contusion) is listed as probable.
  • Jaylen Brown (hamstring) and Robert Williams III (knee) are both listed as questionable under the Celtics’ injury report.
  • For some news around the league, Sacramento Kings’ big man and James’ former teammate Tristan Thompson had an inspiring and hilarious rant about why his team shouldn’t be forced to be inspired by a coach. Also, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported on Thursday that NBA General Managers are aiming to form a professional association to support executives around the league.
  • And as a reminder, as this game is on national television, our own Anthony Irwin will be live in “The Pressure Cooker” for the final five minutes of this game. You can find info on how to tune in and watch here.

The Lakers are currently on an East coast road trip which means their games will be earlier than usual for the next couple of days. They will tip-off against the Celtics on Friday at 4:30 p.m PT.

The game will be televised locally on Spectrum SportsNet, and nationally on ESPN.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicoleganglani.