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Lakers vs. Hawks Preview: Looking to make it four wins in a row

Aside from the Lakers’ small-ball lineup vs. the Hawks’ big-man lineup, this game will depend significantly on defense

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Portland Trail Blazers v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

The Lakers (20-19) have yet to win four games in a row this season, but they have a chance to accomplish that and climb past the Dallas Mavericks (20-18) for fifth place in the Western Conference on Friday when they host on the struggling Atlanta Hawks at The Crypt. And aside from the stylistic clash between the Lakers’ small-ball lineup vs. the Hawks’ big lineup, this game will mostly come down to defense.

The Hawks are a lethal offensive team (second in the league in offensive rating) but horrible on defense (fourth-worst defense in the league). Led by Trae Young (who tallied 55 points and 14 assists last Monday against the Blazers), this Atlanta team can score in multiple ways. The Lakers’ defense will have to prepare for Atlanta scoring threats like De’Andre Hunter, John Collins, Danilo Gallinari, Kevin Huerter and Cam Reddish, who all can heat up in a hurry.

The Hawks’ bread-and-butter is their pick-and-roll game. They run the second-most in the league, and score successfully 41.5 percent of the time out of that set. The Lakers’ pick-and-roll defense (something they haven’t mastered all season) will have to be on point on Friday. The purple and gold have to be prepared for the lobs and 3-point attempts that the Hawks often generate from their pick-and-rolls.

L.A.’s defense also can’t give Young space from both the paint and perimeter to operate. They’ll have to trap him and make sure to close out on every Hawk on the floor. The Lakers need to let the Hawks settle into making isolation baskets instead of scoring from their set plays, because that is where they’ve been mediocre all season.

As for the Lakers’ offense, they have to do everything they can to pick on Atlanta’s poor perimeter defense. The Hawks’ roster was designed to hide Young’s flaws defensively but they have failed to do it so far. Atlanta gives up almost 130 points every game, so it would be nice if the Lakers pressure the Hawks’ poor point of attack defense and make life tough for Clint Capela, who isn’t the same defensive force he was a season ago.

Aside from defense, here are three other x-factors the Lakers will need to beat the Hawks:

Another big game for Dwight Howard

When the Sacramento Kings’ bigs made their presence felt early in Tuesday’s game, Frank Vogel adjusted by substituting Dwight Howard in. Howard rewarded Vogel with 14 points and 14 rebounds performance in 22 minutes. The Lakers might want to utilize Dwight again vs. the Hawks’ frontcourt of Collins, Onyeka Okongwu and Capela.

Howard will have the ability to limit the presence of these bigs and hopefully win the rebound battle. Dwight finds ways to impact the game with his effort and physicality inside, it’s just really a matter of him having fresh legs on that night. Hopefully the two days of rest will have the veteran energized for Friday’s game.

Another opportunity for the James-Monk pairing

If the Lakers want to take advantage of the Hawks’ poor perimeter defense then they already have the recipe to do it: They can utilize the James and Monk two-man game once again.

Both players combined to score 25 points on 10-14 shooting from the field and 5-7 shooting from downtown on the fourth quarter last Tuesday. To pick on Atlanta’s weak point-of-attack defense, Monk and James should beat them by utilizing their inverted pick-and-roll and screen actions.

Not to compare Monk to Kyrie Irving, but the former showed flashes of how he and James can utilize the ball screens to create their own shots and play off each other, just like how Irving and James did it in Cleveland years ago. As our own Alex Regla pointed out, lineups that consist of James (at center) and Monk are +12.6 in net rating, with an impressive offensive rating of 124.7 and eFG% of 59.9%.

If this James-Monk pairing continues to flourish, it might just be a lethal weapon for the Lakers long-term.

Which role player is going to step up?

If the Lakers want to keep up with the Hawks’ potent offense, then someone other than James and Monk (who has been consistent as of late) needs to step up once again. Hopefully Talen Horton-Tucker has another pleasant game after a strong outing against the Kings. Or Westbrook once again plays in the dunker’s spot (to provide more athleticism, physicality and inside scoring) where he has been a huge positive this season.

It will also be nice to see how the returning Stanley Johnson’s athleticism and toughness impacts the Lakers’ defense on Friday. He and Avery Bradley are going to be vital on that end, especially if the Hawks’ game plan is to put on a pick-and-roll clinic. And finally, this is a game in which Carmelo Anthony should once again be able to hit as many threes as possible, because well, who doesn’t love it when he goes on his own mini scoring run every game?

Both the Hawks — whose GM just blasted them publicly on the radio this week — and the Lakers have had disappointing seasons so far. They’re still searching for a team identity, and it hasn’t been easy with the injuries and COVID protocol absences they’ve endured. So Friday is an important game for both teams, just in terms of gaining momentum and finding their groove, and hopefully it’s the Lakers who open the weekend with their longest winning streak of the season and a move up the standings.

Notes and Updates

  • Anthony Davis (MCL sprain) and Kendrick Nunn (bone bruise knee) will be out on Friday. According to Vogel, Nunn is getting close to making his debut for the purple and gold.
  • The Lakers are also listing LeBron James (rectus abdominis strain) as probable, while saying Jay Huff and Mason Jones (two-way contracts) are out, as they’re on assignment with the South Bay Lakers.
  • Atlanta’s Trae Young missed Wednesday’s game vs. the Kings due to back soreness. His status for Friday’s game is worth keeping an eye on.
  • The first batch of the NBA All-Star votes are out, and Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James are the top-four vote getters so far. James, who isn’t too far behind Curry, still has a chance to take the lead and perhaps be this year’s All-Star Game team captain.
  • In addition, Anthony Davis, Carmelo Anthony and Russell Westbrook also made it top 10 at their respective positions. You can continue to vote for these All-Star candidates until Jan. 22.

The Lakers and Hawks will tip-off at 7 p.m. PT. The game will be televised nationally on ESPN, and locally on Spectrum SportsNet.

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.