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The Bulls and Lakers get together tonight at the United Center for a rare 8:30 p.m. CT start on TNT thanks to Martin Luther King Day. Safe to say not many people predicted the Bulls would be 5.5 games better than the Lakers at this point in the season.
I'll admit it. When the Lakers put together their own "superteam" this offseason by acquiring Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, I almost completely bought into the hype. No, I wasn't going to go the Chris Sheridan route and predict 70 wins, but I just couldn't see how a team with that much talent couldn't dominate most opponents en route to a likely Western Conference Finals showdown with the Oklahoma City Thunder. It seemed inevitable.
And yet here we are, nearly halfway through the season, and the Lakers' season is teetering on the edge. They currently sit at 17-23 and lucky for them, are still only three games out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference because the Houston Rockets have come back down to Earth. What's even more amazing is that the Lakers are struggling so much despite Kobe Bryant getting off to an amazingly efficient (for him) start offensively.
So what in the hell has happened this year?
Well, where to start? First off, the team is old as hell, and injuries have been a killer. Nash, away from the wizardry of the Suns' training staff, got hurt in the second game of the season and missed nearly two months. Pau Gasol has missed time with several different injuries, and hasn't been very good when he has played. Dwight Howard still doesn't appear to be 100 percent as he recovers from back surgery, which has limited his mobility and explosiveness. His raw stats still look pretty darn good, but he's just not the force on the defensive end that most are accustomed him to being. Toss in other injuries to Steve Blake and Jordan Hill, and you have a team sometimes relying on guys like Chris Duhon, Robert Sacre and Earl Clark. Although in Clark's case, he actually has played very well in recent games.
Next, we obviously have the turmoil surrounding the coaching change. After the Lakers stumbled out of the gate, Mike Brown became the scapegoat and got the ax. When the natural flirtation with Phil Jackson went south, in came Mike D'Antoni to right the ship, with the hope that he and Nash could recreate the pick-and-roll magic they had in Phoenix. In theory, it seemed like a great idea. Who wouldn't want to build an offense around Nash/Howard pick-and-rolls with Kobe and Gasol doing their thing as well?
In practice, the offense has been good. The Lakers are fifth in the league in scoring at 103.1 points per game and sixth in offensive efficiency. As mentioned, Kobe is having a great season (although he's stumbled a bit of late), and Howard's averaging 17.3 points on 58.4 percent shooting. Nash is averaging 10.8 points and 8.8 assists while shooting over 51 percent from the field (his three-point shooting is down though). Gasol has really struggled getting acclimated to D'Antoni's system, although he did score 25 points last night in a 108-103 loss to the Raptors. That, however, was likely a product of Howard getting ejected, which allowed Pau to operate more around the basket as opposed to floating the perimeter. Still, it's not like Gasol is washed up.
But the main problem in L.A. isn't offense. Like many of D'Antoni's teams in the past, it's the defense. The Lakers are 26th in the league in points allowed, and while part of that is due to their fast pace, they still are just tied for 18th in defensive efficiency. As good as D'Antoni is at coaching the pick-and-roll offense, his team can't defend the pick-and-roll for shit. Howard's back problems have obviously been a big reason for this, but there are defensive liabilities all over the court for the Lakers. Nash has never been much of a defender, and as good as Kobe has been offensively this year, he has been just as bad defensively. Kobe has been guarding point guards of late and doing a little better job on that end since, but there were plenty of breakdowns in the Raptors loss.
So will the Bulls be able to take advantage of these defensive deficiencies?
This is a game where I would KILL for Derrick Rose to be healthy. It would be hilarious to see Nash or Kobe try and slow Rose, and the pick-and-roll game with Mr. Eastern Conference Player of the Week would be deadly.
Unfortunately, we of course have to deal with the familiar dreck at point guard until Rose returns. Kirk Hinrich has been terrible of late outside of that game-tying shot against the Celtics, and Nate has been Nate. The Bulls have had moments of great offense chock full of beautiful ball movement, but those two guys just don't inspire much confidence. Hopefully we'll see that nice ball movement against the Lakers' pathetic pick-and-roll D.
In other news, Luol Deng didn't participate in shootaround and is a game-time decision with his hamstring injury. It would certainly be nice to have Deng play so he can guard Kobe, but the fact that he would be going against Kobe is probably the perfect reason to sit him. Jimmy Butler did a hell of a job against Rudy Gay on Saturday, so I say just unleash the youngster on Kobe and see what happens.
"We were struggling. We were behind," Thibodeau said. "The group that got in there got us back in the game. It was more the way that unit was rolling. I just felt we were so flat that that group was either going to win the game or lose the game for us. They were the ones that overcame a big deficit. That's usually the case.
"In the first half, I always go back with the starters. In the second half, if we're struggling it's going to be the group that is going well. That's the way it is."
This doesn't exactly explain why Thibs turned to Nazr Mohammed when Taj Gibson fouled out late, but I'm not going to worry about it too much. Thibs also said the whole thing wasn't "a big deal," and that Noah understood what went down. We still haven't heard Jo's side of it because he once again didn't speak to reporters, but Gibson said there didn't appear to be any issues in walkthrough. They could be lying, but whatever. Let's move on.
The Lakers are certainly still a dangerous team, but this is a game the Bulls should win. Of course, there have been plenty of games the Bulls should have won at home this year, but they sit at just 11-11 at the United Center on the season. For reference, the Bulls lost just 12 regular season games at home the past two years combined. So yeah, this year has been pretty weird. But if the Bulls can keep the ball moving and maybe get some things going in transition, this Lakers' defense can certainly be had.
For more on the Lakers, check out Silver Screen and Roll. Those guys do A TON of great work over there, and a bunch of the stuff I linked to above is from SS&R. So if you haven't clicked on those links, do it. You will learn stuff.