Five things to watch in Lakers-Golden State matchup
1. How will the Lakers respond on their first game back from their most recent trip? Lakers Coach Phil Jackson and guard Kobe Bryant maintained last season that one of the biggest challenges of the regular season was responding properly on the first game back after a significant trip.
Bryant said the stresses of travel can catch up to players, including adjusting to time-zone changes. So it will be interesting to see how last week's three-game trip affects the Lakers in their 6:30 p.m. Sunday game at Staples Center against the Golden State Warriors.
Jackson gave the team, which traveled overnight from Minnesota, the day off. Seems a good idea to let the players grab some rest, but their off days may have contributed to their poor effort against Minnesota and Denver.
It wouldn't be surprising if this also factors into their game against the Warriors, but there's plenty of incentive for the Lakers to put this one away early. Golden State has struggled when it has suffered poor starts. This season, the Warriors have lost four out of five games in which they trailed at the end of the first quarter, including the Lakers' 107-83 victory against on Oct. 31.
2. The Lakers have health concerns. There's center Andrew Bynum (knee), who Jackson hopes can return Dec. 10 against Chicago, and the long-term absence of Theo Ratliff, who had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. The Lakers didn't exactly escape the team's three-game trip unscathed, either. Against Minnesota, Lakers forward Pau Gasol sprained his ankle, and Shannon Brown was poked in the right eye. Meanwhile, Ron Artest has had a sore back, and Lamar Odom has nursed a sore right foot and a sprained left thumb.
Because of the Lakers' dwindling frontcourt depth, it's unlikely Gasol and Odom will get much rest, unless, of course, the Lakers enjoy a large lead. Given the Lakers' large backcourt, Brown might get time off, although he returned to the game against Minnesota after having his eye treated. Given the impressive play from Matt Barnes (24 points on seven-of-seven shooting, seven rebounds and six assists against Minnesota), it wouldn't be surprising if Jackson Artest some relief. Artest has averaged 23.75 minutes per game in the last four contests.
3. How will Artest match up with Monta Ellis? Even if Artest is on pace for a career low in offensive numbers (9.8 points per game), the Lakers need him on the defensive end. He should play a big role Sunday night defending Warriors guard Monta Ellis, who's averaging 27.7 points per game, second in the NBA behind Kevin Durant. With the exception of holding a banged-up Brandon Roy without a field goal, Artest has admitted lacking, thus far, the lockdown performance that he's wanted -- Denver's Carmelo Anthony scored 32 points on 14-of-25 shooting in the Lakers' 118-112 loss last week to the Nuggets, and Minnesota's Michael Beasley dropped 25 points on nine-of-22 shooting in the Lakers' 112-95 victory Friday over the Timberwolves. In Artest's defense, he gave Anthony very little room to operate, and Beasley just seemed to be padding his stats.
But the matchup of Artest and Ellis won't hinge solely on whether Artest limits Ellis' numbers. Just limiting Ellis to operating on an island could be crucial, considering that Golden State has lost three of its last four games partly because only four Warriors players have posted double figures. Case in point, Ellis dropped 40 points Friday against the New York Knicks, but the Warriors still lost, 125-119. In the Lakers' first matchup against Golden State, Artest and Kobe Bryant shared duties guarding him. Though Ellis scored 20 points on a nine-of-20 clip, Bryant and Artest forced Ellis to work for his points. It might be more difficult this time around since Stephen Curry will also man the backcourt after missing the last contest because of an ankle injury. But the same approach could yield similar results.
4. Can the Lakers maintain their improved defense? There were plenty of up sides to the Lakers' three-game trip. They came out of it undefeated. They forged stronger bonds on the road. And more importantly, they improved their pace. It's hard to take much away from these three consecutive wins when two of their opponents were sub-.500 teams. But the Lakers played at a much more deliberate pace than their run-and-gun style that's resulted in a league-leading 112.5 points per game.
On paper, it would appear as if the Lakers and Golden State will feature another track meet, considering the Warriors average an eighth-best 102.83 points per contest and are known to be high-tempo. Yet in their previous matchup, the Lakers managed to hold the Warriors to 83 points, they held every Golden State player below a 50% clip, and Lamar Odom limited David Lee to zero points and three shots (Lee will be out tonight after an inadvertent bite from New York's Wilson Chandler resulted in a bacterial infection.). There will be one difference to the second matchup: Warriors guard Stephen Curry will play Sunday night and has averaged 20.4 points on 46.3% shooting, but the Lakers' pacing should be able to offset that.
5. The Lakers' well-oiled offense can easily exploit Golden State. As Minnesota Coach Kurt Rambis told The Times' Mike Bresnahan, the Lakers can "turn your defense into nothing." That was apparent in the Lakers' last meeting with Golden State as four of the Lakers' five starters cracked double digits and shot above 50% from the field. Their 25 assists pointed to effective ball movement. And the team's frontline dominance, with Pau Gasol (29 points on 10-of-19 shooting and 12 rebounds) and Odom (16 points on six-of-nine shooting and 14 rebounds), showed that the Warriors, like most teams, didn't have the size to match up with the Lakers' bigs. An absent Lee will allow the Lakers to exploit that even more.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Kobe Bryant, left, makes a pass in front of Golden State guard Monta Ellis during the Lakers' 107-83 victory Oct. 31 at Staples Center. Credit: Jayne Oncea / US Presswire