10:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Lakers -2.5, Over/Under: 231.5
All-Stars, MVPs, NBA Champions and former teammates turned rivals cross paths in this star-studded affair from the City of Angels, as the reigning NBA Champion, Los Angeles Lakers, battle the NBA’s newest super-team, the Brooklyn Nets, tonight from STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. As we’ve stated over and over again in this column, if the past decade has taught us anything about the National Basketball Association, it’s that the most successful way of building a championship team is by amassing multiple stars, with the Nets (18-12, 2nd in Eastern Conference) proving to be the latest advocate of that method. A year after signing not one, but two, All-NBA talents in the form of (2013-2014 MVP) Kevin Durant (29.0 PTS, 54.0% FG, 43.4% 3FG, 7.3 REB, 5.3 AST, 0.7 STL, 1.4 BLK, 25.1 PER) and (2016 NBA Champion) Kyrie Irving (28.3 PTS, 53.4% FG, 44.2% 3FG, 4.6 REB, 5.7 AST, 1.1 STL, 0.8 BLK, 25.3 PER) in Free Agency, Brooklyn proved even more ambitious in engineering a blockbuster four-team trade with the Houston Rockets, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Indiana Pacers in exchange for (2017-2018 MVP) James Harden (24.3 PTS, 50.2% FG, 40.7% 3FG, 8.4 REB, 11.8 AST, 1.1 STL, 0.8 BLK, 24.9 PER). Of course, Brooklyn paid a HEAVY price for the services of the three-time reigning scoring champion; Houston alone recouped a whopping four First Round Picks and four pick swaps from the Nets, who also shipped away much of their supporting cast, including (young Swingman) Caris LeVert and (promising Center) Jarrett Allen, along with the likes of (reserves) Taurean Prince and Rodions Kurucs. Did the franchise gut it’s roster to get Harden? Absolutely. But did they pair him with Durant and Irving in an effort to create arguably the most prolific attack in the NBA? You bet your ass they did. Since the trade (Head Coach) Steve Nash’s charges have exploded on the offensive end of the court, averaging a league-high 124.0 points per game on 51.3% shooting from the field, including 41.8% from beyond the arc, along with 27.9 assists in comparison to just 14.1 turnovers, while netting 18.8 free-throws on 22.2 attempts (84.6%). Furthermore, they’ve managed to top 120 points on ELEVEN occasions, including in each their last three outings. What’s been remarkable though is that this eruption has occurred with the league’s latest Big Three all on the hardwood at the same time for just eight of the last seventeen games. Irving went MIA for nearly a week before missing their latest outing with a sore back, while Durant was pulled at Halftime of an encounter with the Toronto Raptors two weeks ago as subject of the NBA’s Health/Safety Protocols causing him to miss the following three games before briefly returning to face his former teammates in Golden State, only to miss the last two contests with a tender hamstring. Fortunately, Harden has acclimated himself to his new surroundings quicker than anyone could have predicted, carrying the load while his teammates get healthier; during their latest stretch of four consecutive wins, the three-time reigning Scoring Champion has averaged 26.3 points on an efficient 53.1% shooting, including a ridiculous 48.6% from downtown, along with 9.8 rebounds, 11.5 assists, and 1.0 steal per game, highlighted by a triple-double (29 PTS, 13 REB, 14 AST) in Monday night’s victory in Sacramento. However, if there is one flaw that remains after putting together such a prolific attack, it’s the Defense which has and continues to be a major sticking point when discussing the legitimacy of this side a championship contender. Since the Harden deal, the Nets have relinquished an NBA-high 121.8 points per game on 48.4% shooting from the field, including 36.0% from downtown, along with 25.2 assists in comparison to committing a scant 10.4 turnovers. Their biggest weakness is their inability to keep opponents out of the paint, where they’ve allowed a staggering 53.4 points, yielding at least sixty points in that particular area on six occasions over the last seventeen contests. And this is where parting ways with so many members of the rotation has hurt them; as prolific as they are offensively, neither Harden or Irving have ever been confused with being defensive stoppers on the perimeter, while the departure of the aforementioned Allen, who was averaging a career-high 1.6 blocks, has left (veteran Center) DeAndre Jordan (7.2 PTS, 78.8% FG, 7.0 REB, 1.9 AST, 1.4 BLK, 16.7 PER) as the only true big man available. At this point of his career, the 32-year old is more of a name than a difference-maker and with that said is just one player who has appeared overwhelmed more often than not, particularly with Durant out of the lineup, whose length has been invaluable as a help defender. Speaking of Durant, the ten-time All-Star will be held out of tonight’s battle with the reigning champs, as he continues to rest that sore left hamstring.
“All vibes in (the locker room) right now. Guys are rightfully excited, it’s great for morale. Missing Kevin and Kyrie and finding a way to make up a 24-point deficit. They showed a lot of heart.”Steve Nash on the Nets’ performance in Tuesday night’s thrilling 128-124 comeback win over the Suns without Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving
When we last saw the Nets, they won their fourth consecutive game and did so in thrilling fashion, rallying back from the largest deficit in franchise history en route to besting the red-hot Phoenix Suns in a 128-124 triumph. Of their latest string of performances, this may very well have been the most impressive, particularly when you consider that both Durant (hamstring) and Irving (back) were sidelined due to injury. Midway through the affair it certainly looked like they were on their way towards getting ran out of the state of Arizona, as Phoenix utterly TORCHED them in the First Half, shooting a blistering 64.4% from the field, including 8-of-16 from beyond the arc (50.0%), with eighteen assists in comparison to just three turnovers. Even without Durant and Irving, the visitors had no issues at all in putting the basketball through the net, shooting 52.4% overall themselves, including 8-of-18 from downtown (44.4%). This performance was all about their defense, and in the Second Half it was instrumental in turning things around. Over the final twenty-four minutes of play, Brooklyn limited the home side to a much more respectable 44.2% from the floor, including 8-of-21 from three (38.1%), while putting their proverbial foot on the gas themselves, netting 62.5% shooting overall and 12-of-22 from deep (54.5%), along with 12-of-12 from the free-throw line (100.0%) en route to pouring in forty points in the Fourth Quarter alone. (Sharpshooting Forward) Joe Harris (14.9 PTS, 52.9% FG, 49.5% 3FG, 3.5 REB, 1.9 AST, 0.5 STL, 14.9 PER) and (veteran journeyman) Jeff Green (9.7 PTS, 50.5% FG, 42.7% 3FG, 3.7 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.7 STL, 12.2 PER) were instrumental in the comeback, accounting for half of their team’s point total in the period on 7-of-10 shooting (70.0%), including 4-of-6 from the perimeter (66.7%). This of course, set Harden up to play the role of closer, as his go-ahead three-pointer with thirty-one seconds left proved to be the game-winner. In the end, the eight-time All-Star totaled thirty-eight points on 14-of-22 shooting (63.6%), including 5-of-11 from long-range (45.5%), along with seven rebounds and eleven assists, while the Bench accounted for forty points, led by Green, now on his ninth team in the last seven seasons, with eighteen points on 7-of-14 shooting (50.0%), eight rebounds and three assists. Harris was excellent as well, dropping twenty-two points in the win, with fifteen coming in the Second Half alone. Nash must have been pleased to see the resilience of his troops without two of their biggest guns, particularly given that Tuesday’s trip to Phoenix marked his first as a Head Coach, returning (alongside lead assistant and mentor, Mike D’Antoni) to the franchise where he enjoyed the greatest success of his Hall of Fame career, earning back-to-back MVP awards from 2004-2006. And speaking of reunions, it remains to be seen if Irving will suit up to face his former teammate, LeBron James, who in three years together with the Cleveland Cavaliers advanced to three consecutive NBA Finals, winning the club’s first and only NBA Championship in 2016 where the duo led the charge in upsetting the 73-win Warriors.
Meanwhile, the Lakers (22-7, 2nd in Western Conference) have also defied the odds in the face adversity, as they continue to find ways to win even without one of the biggest guns in their armory. After missing back-to-back games due to what has been labeled as tendonosis in his right Achilles tendon, (All-NBA Forward) Anthony Davis (22.5 PTS, 53.3% FG, 29.3% 3FG, 8.4 REB, 3.0 AST, 1.3 STL, 1.8 BLK, 24.7 PER) reaggravated that region of his body on an awkward drive to the rim as he banged knees with Nuggets’ Center, Nikola Jokic, in Sunday night’s 122-105 defeat, limping to the locker room shortly before Halftime of the affair. After undergoing tests, the seven-time All-Star will miss two to three weeks time before being reevaluated, with a more likely timetable for return being after the All-Star Break (March 5th). Needless to say, this is a BIG loss for Los Angeles, who after last year’s run to the franchise’s record-tying seventeenth NBA Championship, handed the 27-year old a massive five-year/$189.9 million max contract to remain with the club for the foreseeable future. Of course, no team in the Western Conference enjoyed a shorter offseason, having hoisted their latest Larry O’Brien trophy back on October 11th, meaning that only seventy-two days passed before their 2020-2021 season opener on December 22nd. With that said, (General Manager) Rob Pelinka and (Head Coach) Frank Vogel made the most of that truncated offseason, as they were rather busy in reinvigorating a largely veteran-laden rotation with some youth and athleticism. In a matter of weeks they parted ways with a bevy of veterans including (Centers) Dwight Howard and JaVale MaGee along with (Point Guards) Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley, along with (Swingman) Danny Green, each of which played key roles in their run to glory. Incoming were veterans Marc Gasol (4.2 PTS, 40.0% FG, 35.1% 3FG, 4.2 REB, 1.8 AST, 1.2 BLK, 10.3 PER) and Wesley Matthews (5.1 PTS, 40.0% FG, 38.4% 3FG, 1.4 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.5 STL, 8.2 PER), while both Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (8.5 PTS, 44.6% FG, 42.4% 3FG, 2.2 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.8 STL, 9.8 PER) and Kyle Kuzma (10.8 PTS, 45.3% FG, 36.1% 3FG, 6.0 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.7 BLK, 13.1 PER) were retained on team-friendly deals, but the biggest additions came in the form of (Point Guard) Dennis Schroder (14.2 PTS, 44.1% FG, 31.1% 3FG, 3.6 REB, 4.3 AST, 0.9 STL, 12.6 PER) and (Forward) Montrezl Harrell (13.3 PTS, 64.6% FG, 6.3 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.7 BLK, 21.4 PER). At 27-years old apiece, Harrell and Schroder finished one and two in the voting for Sixth Man of the Year honors last season, with the added benefit of poaching the former from their city rivals, the Clippers. Coming into this campaign, the plan was always to alleviate some pressure from Davis and (four-time MVP) LeBron James (25.7 PTS, 50.4% FG, 37.8% 3FG, 8.2 REB, 7.9 AST, 1.0 STL, 0.5 BLK, 24.2 PER), with the offense in particular oftentimes looking lost when the latter was taking a breather. Speaking of James, how is it that in his eighteenth season in the Association he is the frontrunner for MVP? The 36-year old continues to age like a fine wine, averaging 25.7 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 7.9 assists, all the while knocking down a career-high 37.8% of his threes. Before this latest run without Davis in the lineup, the four-time Finals MVP was logging a career-low 33.6 minutes a night, but since then has ramped it up with 27.7 points on 52.9% shooting, with 9.5 rebounds, and nine assists in 38.8 minutes of action, with the team going 5-1 in that stretch, which featured a total of four overtimes in three consecutive games. And in case you may be wondering, Vogel’s charges have handled themselves quite well without the big fella on the hardwood, going 5-1 in six games without him thus far, and by the looks of things there shouldn’t be much of a problem keeping it up without him until the All-Star Break; of their next eight games, only two of them are on the road, with their opponents owning a modest cumulative win percentage of .553.
“We’re going to attack this stretch of games and be confident in what we have on this roster, embrace the challenge of playing without A.D. Every guy has got to step up.”Frank Vogel on the Lakers’ approach moving forward without Anthony Davis, who will miss the next 2-3 weeks with a strained Achilles tendon
When we last saw the Lakers, they managed to bounce back from that aforementioned defeat against the Nuggets as they fended off the struggling Minnesota Timberwolves on the road in a 112-104 affair. This one was all about two things, folks: James continuing to dominate in what should be the twilight of his career, and the new additions mentioned earlier, with Schroder and Harrell paying immediate dividends in the absence of Davis. Though he started off slowly in committing four of his five total turnovers in the First Quarter, James remained ruthlessly efficient en route to dropping thirteen points on 5-of-6 shooting (83.3%) in the first stanza as the visitors outscored the hosts 30-27. With Los Angeles clinging to a narrow 86-84 lead heading into the Fourth Quarter, Vogel’s troops put their foot on the gas with a torrid 17-5 run to begin the period, but Minnesota would trim the deficit to five points inside of three minutes to play, but would get no closer as James drew a crucial charging foul on (2020 No. One Overall Pick) Anthony Edwards, negating a layup that would have made it a one-possession game. In the end, the visiting side would shoot an efficient 54.5% from the field, including 11-of-26 from beyond the arc (42.3%), and 17-of-21 from the free-throw line (81.0%), though committed nearly as many turnovers (18) as assists (20). However, they dominated them in the paint (Plus-12), and relegated the Wolves to just 42.4% shooting from the floor and forced fifteen turnovers themselves. James was as advertised, totaling a game-high thirty points on 13-of-20 shooting (65.0%), with thirteen rebounds and seven assists, but it was the performance of the supporting cast that ultimately made the difference. Schroder finished with twenty-four points on 9-of-15 shooting (60.0%), along with three assists and four steals, with Harrell adding seventeen points off the bench on 5-of-7 shooting (71.4%), with six rebounds and three assists, all the while playing staunch defense on Minnesota’s Karl Anthony-Towns who could muster only a quiet fifteen points and six rebounds in the contest. The 36-year old Gasol, who figures to see plenty of action with Davis on the mend, played a season-high 29:43, and responded well with eleven points on 4-of-7 shooting (57.1%), including 3-of-4 from downtown (75.0%), five rebounds, an assist, and a pair of blocks. Now they’ll begin a brief three-game homestand beginning with the new-look Nets in what could very well be a potential Finals preview, which of course sets up a reunion between James and former teammate, Kyrie Irving. We touched upon the success that the two enjoyed together in Cleveland, but after the latter talked his way out of Northern Ohio, James has enjoyed taking it to his little brother; in six career head-to-head meetings, the sixteen-time All-Star has won four of them en route to averaging 26.2 points on 54.7% shooting with 10.7 rebounds and 9.8 assists, registering a triple-double in each of their last three encounters. Needless to say, tonight should be fun…