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Atlanta Hawks

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Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Photo courtesy of Kevin C. Cox, Getty Images.
Photo courtesy of Kevin C. Cox, Getty Images.

December 16, 2013 — 4:30 PM (PST)
Phillips Arena, Atlanta, GA
TV: TWC SportsNet / TWC SportsNet Deportes
Radio: 710 ESPN (English) / 1330 ESPN (Spanish)

An ugly win? Yes. Does it matter how we win? Not at this moment. After a tumultuous week, which included a 3 game losing streak and a conflict between the head coach and the Lakers main post player, the Los Angeles Lakers (11-12) beat the Charlotte Bobcats to get a win they needed in the most desperate fashion.

In Saturday’s game, G Kobe Bryant resembled the Kobe Bryant prior to his injury. Bryant led the team for their Saturday win, scoring 21 points, having 7 rebounds, and 8 assists as the point guard. However, his true-telling sign that he’s back did not come from that. Bryant got C Pau Gasol’s attention by yelling at him for not handling the ball during the Lakers’ timeout in the 3rd quarter, causing at least half of Bryant’s turnovers. It showed everyone that Kobe’s on-court edge has returned. Although Gasol seems to tune out Head Coach Mike D’Antoni whenever he criticizes Gasol, Bryant knows the right buttons to press to get Gasol’s attention.

That being said, the Lakers face another tough road battle versus the Atlanta Hawks (12-12) tonight. The Hawks are led by the 2 big men C/PF Al Horford and former Utah Jazz F Paul Millsap. Horford has had a great season so far, averaging a career high in scoring at 17.7 PPG while averaging 8.3 RPG, while Millsap has performed well replacing now Pistons F Josh Smith, averaging 16.5 PPG and 8.0 RPG. Outside of Horford and Millsap, the Hawks are a well-balanced team, with each player having a solid role in their team.

Projected Starters

PG - Jeff Teague Kobe Bryant [Advantage: Lakers]

SG - Kyle Korver / Jodie Meeks [Advantage: Even]

SF - DeMarre Carroll Wesley Johnson [Advantage: Hawks]

PF - Paul Millsap / Jordan Hill [Advantage: Hawks]

C - Al Horford / Pau Gasol [Advantage: Even]

Notable Bench Players

Thunder: G Lou Williams, F Cartier MartinG Shelvin Mack

Lakers: G Xavier Henry, G/F Nick YoungF Shawne Williams

Bench Advantage: Lakers

Keys for Lakers Success

  1. Keep Guards Away From Paint: The Lakers have major problems keeping guards away from the paint, letting them get high percentage shots for themselves or an open teammate. Tonight’s matchup will not me easier, as they try to keep PG Jeff Teague, who averages 15.9 PPG and 7.9 APG, outside of the paint. Without a rim protector and a slow Pau Gasol as our center, the guards have to make the offensive players feel more uncomfortable while dribbling the ball and cause turnovers. Despite not having a point guard, guards like Meeks, Johnson, Nick Young, and Xavier Henry are all interchangeable skill-wise, so an excuse to play intense defense and show great communications cannot be plausible for this group.
  2. Continue to Feed Gasol: Despite a poor offensive performance by Gasol on saturday, the Lakers have to continue to feed him the ball. Kobe Bryant knows, D’Antoni knows, the rest of the Lakers know, and the Laker Nation knows that for the Lakers to have any chance at success moving forward, Gasol needs to play close to an all-star level again. Hopefully with Kobe Bryant on the floor at all times with Gasol lately, we will not have to worry about Gasol complaining about not receiving any touches in his sweet spot since Kobe has audibled out of the regular offensive system to force feed Gasol the ball inside.
  3. Stop Kyle Korver: Hawks SG Kyle Korver has always caused the Lakers defense problems, swishing three-pointers at the most inopportune time, including scoring 22 points in the Lakers last meeting vs. Hawks. Korver now owns the NBA’s all time record for the most consecutive games with a 3-point make, which now stands at 92 games. The Lakers have to go above both on-ball and off-ball screens whenever they guard Korver. Furthermore, whoever guards Korver should not worry about helping off of Korver since everyone on the Hawks know to rely on him whenever he has an open 3-pointer. Watch for Korver to make the Lakers pay again if their attention slips again at paying attention to Korver at all times.

Bottom Line

With Bryant getting his mojo back and with positive momentum carrying the Lakers, they have a good shot at beating the Hawks tonight. However, the Lakers have to play with a lot of effort tonight on the defensive end to prevent any easy buckets or a wide open three-point shot from Kyle Korver. While this game will be another low-scoring outing by both teams, the Lakers now have the cleaner in Kobe Bryant, which should propel the Lakers to another nail-biting victory.

Prediction

Lakers: 88-87

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Courtesy: Getty Images
Courtesy: Getty Images

Another week in Laker Land has passed us, and for the first time in a long time it feels like our boys in Purple and Gold are (finally) headed in the right direction. While the Laker schedule was light on games with only three contests this week, there were plenty of things to take from games against Denver, Minnesota and Atlanta.

Here is a look at the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of the Lakers past week in action.

Good: Kobe Bryant circa 2006 is Back.

Really, I could just post a link to this dunk and it would be enough of an explanation.

The Mamba has been on an absolute tear since the All-Star break ended, and the Lakers 5-1 record during that time is tied directly to what Bryant is doing. In the past five games alone Kobe is averaging a whopping 34.8 points per game, on 66-116 shooting, good for a cool 56.9% from the field. Did I mention that Bryant is doing this at 34-years old, in his 17th NBA season, 60 games into a campaign that has seen him average 38.2 minutes per contest? Oh and all while shooting what would be the highest field goal percentage of his career.

Bryant realizes this is a make or break stretch for the Lakers playoff chances, and he looks to be up for the challenge.

I’ve been in attack mode since the break. It’s go time. We’re getting a little bit closer and we’re starting to get in more of a striking distance where you start watching (the playoff race).

It’s absolutely mind-boggling that this guy is not only still going strong, but getting better as the season and his career progress. With the way Kobe’s been playing since the break, would you really want to bet against him getting the Lakers into the playoffs? Me neither. Kobe is aging like a fine wine (or Vino as he’s now apparently calling himself), just in time to save the Laker season.

Ugly: Interior Defense.

One negative that really stood out this week for the Lakers was just how bad their defense is in the paint, especially when Dwight Howard sits. In the loss to Denver, the Lakers gave up an astronomical 78 points in the paint. That’s more than some teams have scored in ENTIRE GAMES recently. The Nuggets were also able to gain a 33-3 edge on the fastbreak, further emphasizing the Lakers inability to not only get in position, but to challenge at the rim at all. This only gets worse when LA’s lone shot blocker has to take a seat. Granted, that Denver game was the second of a road back-to-back in an arena where any team that’s not named the Nuggets is expected to lose, so you can make a bit of an excuse for the Lakers, right?

Wrong. That would be fine and dandy if the Hawks didn’t score almost at will inside at the end of the game last night. While the Lakers were able to escape with a huge win (or avoid a huge collapse, your choice), you simply cannot ignore the fact that Atlanta scored three consecutives times at the basket in the final two minutes. Oh, and all those buckets were basically unguarded lay-ups and dunks. In fact, had Josh Smith been able to handle Devin Harris’ entry pass at the end of the game, we’d probably be lamenting another terrible loss rather than breathing a sigh of relief.

The Lakers should be able to slow down the scoring of other teams inside once Pau returns from his injury right? Wait what do you mean no? Let’s just move on.

Bad: Steve Nash Turnovers.

With the Lakers winning games and Kobe dominating on offense, it’s been difficult to find many things wrong with the Los Angeles offense. One thing that has definitely been off in the six games since the All-Star break has been Steve Nash’s handle. Nash has 20 turnovers (TWENTY!) in those six games, and that number is actually helped by the fact that Nash had none in the blow-out win over Minnesota. It’s hard to pick on anything Nash does because he has done such an incredible job of adjusting to the offense so that his teammates can thrive, basically becoming a spot-up shooter in this system.

But in Denver, those Nash turnovers became very costly. As is often the case with turnovers on the road, Denver was able to turn six Nash turnovers into points on the fast-break that really ignited their offense and helped them kill any Laker hope of winning int he Mile High City.

Courtesy: Getty Images
Courtesy: Getty Images

Good: Dwight Howard.

No, really. This isn’t sarcasm. I’m serious!

I know, it’s been a long time since we had a week free of tearing Dwight down, but the All-Star big man has actually been a force since the All-Star break. Sure he still forces some bad shots in the paint, and yeah his free throws are still terrible. But, hold on let me channel my inner Rock, FINALLY DWIGHT HAS COME BACK, sort of. Howard has really been playing with great energy lately.

Starting with a dominating 24-point, 12-rebound performance against the Celtics and on through the next five games, Howard has shown flashes of the All-Star Laker fans expected to see when he was brought in. In the past six games, Dwight is averaging 17 points and 14 boards per game, while also throwing in two swats a night. His scoring may not be as high as Dwight would like, but he is finally making an impact for the Lakers in a way that translates directly to wins. Boards, defense, and hard screen-and-rolls on offense will help this team win, and Howard seems to have finally figured that out.

Ugly: Opposing Role Players (still) Killing the Lakers.

This has really been a theme of the entire Laker season, but there were a few more instances this week of role guys really hurting the Lakers. In Denver, Wilson Chandler was a late insert into the starting line-up for the Nuggets, and all he did was drop 23 points on the Lakers. And just in case Laker fans forgot what he did to them the last two times these teams met, Corey Brewer chipped in 16 points and plenty of overdone celebrations. These two specifically played a huge role in sparking the Nuggets to a win over the Lakers.

Then, this ugly problem reared its head again against Atlanta. Devin Harris turned into an All-Star for a five-minute stretch spanning the end of the third and beginning of the fourth quarter. By scoring 14 of his 16 points during that span, Harris nearly single-handedly brought the Hawks back from a 16-point deficit. Not to be outdone, Kyle Korver came in and also scored 16 on the Lakers, hitting a few big shots that nearly cost the home team the game.

This is another issue that doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon, but the Lakers are .500 so let’s stop talking about bad stuff!

Bad: Momentum Swings with the Bench.

Okay, so this is still something bad we have to discuss, but I’ll counter it with some good. The Laker bench was great against the T’Wolves this week. Jodie Meeks, Antawn Jamison and Steve Blake all scored in double-digits and helped the Lakers blow Minnesota out of the building.

It was the other two games this week that were cause for alarm, however. After a solid first quarter in Denver, the Laker bench allowed the Nuggets to blow the game open in the second quarter. Denver built a lead the Lakers were never able to recover from. Then against the Hawks, the bench twice blew a double-digit lead they had inherited from the starters. While only Meeks, Jamison and Blake entered the game off the bench, they were a collective -40 against Atlanta.

Simply put, this is not going to get it done most nights. Scoring isn’t a problem for the bench guys, but their inability to stop anyone on the opposing bench from scoring really puts a limitation on what the team can do.

Like most .500 teams, the Lakers have plenty of room for improvement. On the plus side, this is the first time in a roller-coaster of a season where Laker Nation can confidently say that its team is finally on the rise. This time, we just have to hope it’s for the rest of the season. Any more steep drops on this ride will have the Lakers heading straight into the off-season.

Oh and by the way, just in case you forgot what Kobe did yesterday, here you go. You’re welcome.

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