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Lakers vs. Warriors Preview: Gut check time

This time, health isn’t on the Lakers' side as they take on the streaking Warriors, who have emerged as one of the hottest teams in the Western Conference.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Los Angeles Lakers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Lakers will face the Golden State Warriors for the third time in a span of a month and this time, health will be on the side of the defending champions. As if this game isn’t already going to be challenging enough for Los Angeles without LeBron James (and possibly D’Angelo Russell), the Warriors are likely going to have Steph Curry back in their lineup after missing 10 games due to a knee injury.

Golden State has more treaded water in Curry’s absence, as they’ve managed to win six out of their last 10 games without their best player (ironically, two of those losses were handed out by the Lakers). The Lakers, meanwhile, have looked like a flawed team in James’ absence, and are 1-2 in their last three games without him.

Maybe it’s time for the purple and gold to take inspiration from the Warriors, who remarkably avoided falling into play-in territory despite losing Curry in the last month.

Also unlike the Lakers, the Warriors have managed to capitalize on the losses of the teams above and below them in the Western Conference standings. That’s frankly the reason why they're sitting on the fifth seed right now. L.A. had the chance to climb up the ninth seed and sit just a game away from the seventh place on Friday, but they blew that opportunity by losing to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

And because the Lakers dropped another crucial game to the Timberwolves, their next slate of games weighs even more now, and are (once again) all to some degree must-wins. It’s tough because the next few games for the Lakers — against the Warriors, the second-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, the up-and-down Toronto Raptors and soaring New York Knicks — aren’t going to be easy, and it’s up to the purple and gold now to determine their fate before their opponents do it for them.

As the theme has been all season, the Lakers have no choice but to take it one game at a time. For them to compete against the Warriors in their afternoon tilt on Sunday, here’s what we should look out for:

Who is going to help Anthony Davis?

Last Friday, AD (38 points) was the only Laker to score more than 20. The second-best scorer after AD was Malik Beasley, who had 15 points and converted three of his six 3-point attempts, most of which were in the first half. That alone should tell you how shorthanded the Lakers were on the offensive end. While this is partly due to James and Russell’s absences and the fact that they didn’t have a decent ballhandler and playmaker, the Lakers need to find a way to collectively contribute on offense to make up for that.

Take the Warriors as an example. Since Curry’s absence, it has been Jordan Poole, Klay Thompson, Kevon Looney, Donte DiVincenzo and Jonathan Kuminga who have provided consistent contributions. These role players may not have racked up superstar-like numbers, but it’s their team’s offensive system, continuity and identity that have put them in a position to succeed. Poole and Thompson in particular have been hot for the Warriors as of late and have really filled in Curry’s shoes

Nobody can fill James’ shoes for the Lakers but at the very least, Troy Brown Jr., Jared Vanderbilt, Rui Hachimura, Austin Reaves and Dennis Schroder and Lonnie Walker IV are more than capable of scoring more than 15 points each. We’ve seen them individually do it a couple of times this season and now more than ever, they need to step up and give Davis some health.

How are the Lakers going to respond to their coach?

After Friday's loss, Darvin Ham seemed visibly frustrated — and rightfully so — as he called out the Lakers’ lack of effort throughout the game. The normally diplomatic head coach even went as far as saying that the Timberwolves looked like a team who were fighting for their lives while the Lakers didn’t play with the effort, urgency and aggression of a team with hopes of making it past the regular season.

Ham’s sentiments were then backed up by Vanderbilt, who admitted that the Lakers waited until the dying minutes of the game to put their foot on the gas.

If this isn’t a wake-up call for the Lakers then I don’t know what is. The players themselves know they have to be better and have no time to waste, and it’s going to be up to them to respond to Ham. It’s gut-check time for the purple and gold as each game becomes more vital than the last. We’ll see how they come out against the defending champions on Sunday in one of the many crucial games they have ahead of them.

Notes and Updates

  • After losing to the Lakers last week, the Warriors (34-30) have emerged as one of the hottest teams in the Western Conference (oh how quickly things can change in a span of a week) and have won five straight games. Don’t be surprised if they once again start off the game really sluggish like they have in their last four games, but come out firing after the half. With Curry likely back on the lineup, the Lakers not only need to play better than they did last Friday, but bring their A-game to gut this one out.
  • The Lakers are listing Anthony Davis (right foot stress injury) as probable for Sunday.
  • LeBron James (right foot soreness) is out as expected, while D’Angelo Russell (right ankle soreness) will miss his fifth game in a row.
  • Max Christie (G-League assignment), Cole Swider (G-League assignment) and Scotty Pippen Jr. (G-League assignment) will be with the South Bay Lakers.
  • As for the Warriors, Steph Curry (left superior tib sprain) and Andre Iguodala (right hip soreness) are listed as probable, while Patrick Baldwin Jr., (right ankle soreness) is questionable.
  • Andrew Wiggins (personal reasons), Gary Payton II (right adductor soreness) and Ryan Rollins (right foot surgery) are listed as out.
  • For news around the league, the NBA is currently investigating the situation of Memphis Grizzlies superstar Ja Morant for being seen holding a gun at a nightclub on his own Instagram live. Morant was suspended two games by the Grizzlies as a result as troubling allegations of his off-court behavior have piled up over the past couple of months.

Adjust your schedules for this one, because the Lakers and Warriors will tip off earlier than usual on Sunday at 12:30 p.m. PT. The game will be televised nationally on ABC.

You can follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicoleganglani.

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