Things to watch in Lakers-Cleveland matchup
1. Put the game away early. There's no use analyzing what the Cavaliers (8-29) might bring to the Lakers (27-11) when they square up Tuesday night at Staples Center (nothing). There's no use assessing what LeBron James' decision to take his talents to South Beach has done to the Cleveland franchise (drove it into the ground). And there's no use dissecting what Anderson Varejao's season-ending ankle injury will do to the Cavaliers (they've already lost 10 consecutive games at this point and have lost 20 of their last 21; does any setback to their star player really mean much at this point?).
So a Lakers victory should be inevitable and anything other outcome would be unacceptable, considering they have won six of their last seven games, are on a four-game winning streak and pledged they have learned their lesson after losing four games to Milwaukee, Miami, San Antonio and Memphis by double-digit margins. Still, the Lakers have lost four games to sub. 500 opponents this season, Cleveland Coach and former Laker Byron Scott knows the team pretty well and mostly every opponent treats a meeting with L.A. as the most important game of the season.
The key to avoid making this game harder than it should be doesn't just entail having a fast start. The Lakers have done well in that category, outscoring opponents in the first quarter by a combined score of 1,022-870. The Lakers' complacency usually takes place in later stretches in the game as indicated with the closer margin of victory in the second and third quarters, respectively (990-916, 983-962) and in losing the fourth quarter (942-932). The latter statistic reveals less about the Lakers' ability to close out games and more to do with them allowing teams to creep back after building comfortable leads.
With the Lakers visiting Golden State (15-22) on a back-to-back Wednesday, there's no use to keep tonight's result in question and require a substantial effort from the starters to secure the victory. There are two specific things the Lakers can improve on that would provide true meaning to an otherwise meaningless game.
2. Continue to sharpen on defense. What the Lakers demonstrate statistically against the Cavaliers will reveal very little. Cleveland ranks 26th in total offense (94.24 points per game), 29th in field-goal percentage (42.8%), and 23rd in total defense (103.68 points per game) and field-goal percentage defense (47.6%). Beyond one-time All-Star Mo Williams, the Cavaliers feature a nondescript roster in Anthony Parker, Daniel Gibson, J.J. Hickson, Ramon Sessions, Christian Eyenga and Alonzo Gee. But hey, at least the Cavs won't commit too many turnovers (they are are ranked second overall with 13.49 per contest).
What will be revealing for the Lakers, however, entails how many good tangible habits the team demonstrates that can provide practical results in future games. The most important one points to their new defensive scheme, which emphasizes guarding players on the perimeter, forcing opponents to drive baseline instead of the middle of the lane and front-line players staying close to the basket. As much as the Lakers have credited this new scheme in their past four victories, both Coach Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant concede that the team is still working out the kinks. The point totals and field-goal percentage may very well be more of a reflective of how poorly Cleveland plays than anything else. But the Lakers can at least solidify more of their foundation.
3. Iron out roles for Matt Barnes' absence. With Barnes expected to be sidelined for eight weeks following surgery Tuesday on a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee, Jackson floated several different options to fill his void. That ranged anywhere between playing Kobe Bryant playing more at small forward while giving Shannon Brown more run at shooting guard, an increased starter's role for Ron Artest and more playing time for Luke Walton and Devin Ebanks.
The Lakers' victory over the Knicks showed Bryant strictly playing at shooting guard, Brown scoring 16 points in 18 minutes (around his season average), Artest playing pesky defense (sometimes too much) in 34 minutes, Walton playing a nondescript seven minutes and Ebanks remaining on the bench. Jackson has said the lineup combinations will vary depending on matchup, but a game such as tonight gives him a great opportunity to truly assess which options work best. Assuming the Lakers create a large enough cushion, Jackson will have the luxury of giving everyone an equal chance without having too short of a leash.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Miami forward LeBron James hugs former teammate Jawad Williams following the Heat's 118-90 victory over the Cavaliers in early December. Credit: Aaron Josefczyk / Reuters