Lakers Game Preview: The Atlanta Hawks
Records: Lakers 10-2, Hawks 4-8
Offensive ratings: Lakers 108.2 (13th), Hawks 103.1 (27th)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 99.8 (1st), Hawks 111.1 (24th-Tied)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Alex Caruso, Danny Green, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee
Hawks: Trae Young, Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter, Jabari Parker, Damian Jones
Injuries: Lakers: Avery Bradley (out); Hawks: Kevin Huerter (out), Vince Carter (day to day)
The Lakers coming in: The Lakers have won 3 games in a row and just scratched out a win vs. the Kings on Friday. That game was not pretty, but the Lakers were able to hold on because LeBron James is good at offense, Anthony Davis is good at defense, Kyle Kuzma was really good scoring the ball early, and KCP came up huge in the 4th quarter with multiple big shots.
We’ve talked about this a lot this year, but the Lakers role players have been playing just well enough to be a difference maker collectively. It’s not the same player every night, but guys are starting to fit into roles nicely and are seemingly becoming comfortable with the fact that they’ll get at least one shift a night to show what they have. Then, if they play well and if the matchups go their way, they could end up getting more time later that could, literally, turn into a chance to close out a game.
In saying that, credit to Vogel here. He really seems to be managing this roster well and laying out roles for the complementary players that they’ve been able to buy into so far. He’s also pulling the right levers on most nights and putting guys in positions to be successful.
Don’t get me wrong this team is where it is because they have LeBron and Davis, but Vogel is getting a lot out of players 3 through 10 on this team even if it’s not the same players doing well each night. This takes a good feel for how a game is not only developing, but where it can go. This wasn’t something I’d thought was a strength of Vogel’s when he was hired, but he’s doing really well in this area so far and it’s not an overstatement to say there’s wins on the ledger because of it.
The Hawks coming in: Coming into this year there were whispers that the Hawks could fight for a playoff team. Trae Young was coming off a wonderful rookie year and a summer of buzz from Team USA’s training camp and when you combined him with John Collins and several other young players who looked like real contributors at the NBA level, they were discussed like a team who could show up as the “year earlier than we expected” team that broke through faster than anticipated.
The counter against that was this team’s defense would stink and it’s really hard to win consistently in the NBA with a bad defense. Sure, you can be exciting on offense, but if you can’t get stops, you’re going to lose a lot.
I think it’s too early to say which side of this argument will end up being right, but the latter is in the lead. The Hawks are (basically) a bottom 5 defense and just gave up a 150 point night to the Clippers on Saturday. It’s really hard to depend on young players defensively night to night and Lloyd Pierce is finding this out with his team.
It’d be unfair to throw the Hawks lack of success this season at the feet of the defense, though. Trae Young missed time earlier this year with an ankle injury and without a viable backup on the team, they struggled with him out. Forward John Collins has also been out after suspended 25 games for taking a banned substance. Losing Collins, a versatile young forward who can be a 20 and 10 player in this league, is a major blow and has the Hawks depending on Jabari Parker and rookie De’Andre Hunter more offensively than I think they’d like to.
In the end, though, the Hawks are 4-8 and have lost 2 in a row and 5 of their last 6. This type of skid and early record doesn’t put them out of it in the East, but they’ve dug themselves a bit of a hole they’ll need to climb out of. Trae Young is a dynamic young guard and I think he can help lead them out of it, but some things that have not gone right for them are going to have to…and soon.
Keys to the game: There’s a lot to consider about how this game can go that could influence the final result. This is the final game of a 5 game road trip for Atlanta, so can they muster up the energy to play hard? Related to this, will the Hawks be weary or ready to compete harder when playing on the 2nd night of a back to back and after giving up 150 points? Will the Lakers have a sense of urgency and readiness after playing a hard fought game vs. a lower quality team or will they see another team with a bad record and think they can float through this one and still get a win?
The answers to these questions will matter to the outcome, I just cannot tell you how 3 hours before tipoff. They are certainly variables to watch for at the outset and as the game unfolds.
In terms of individual matchups, Trae Young concerns me. Our guy Pete Zayas wrote a great piece on Young for the Athletic, and some of things he highlighted in his article are things that the Lakers are not well equipped to deal with — particularly with Avery Bradley out. Young is going to run a ton of P&R and his aggressiveness as a shooter coming off those picks is one of the key ways to beat the Lakers’ drop coverage against this action. The Lakers are not likely to change how they cover this play at the outset, but if Young starts bombing away and hitting deep 3’s while the Lakers bigs sit well below the level of the screen, things might have to be changed up. And, if they do start to change, will the rest of the defense behind the bigs be ready to help and recover in ways they have not had to very often this season?
On the other side of the ball, the Hawks are overmatched and this would be a good game for Anthony Davis to go off. Davis only got up 12 shot attempts vs. the Kings (though he did take 9 FT’s) and I’d like to see that FGA number be closer to 20 vs. Atlanta. The Hawks do not have a PF who can bother Davis and while I think they may respond with double teams, if the Lakers can run some P&R’s — particularly on the 2nd unit when Rondo and/or Caruso/Cook are in the game, the Hawks will likely switch less and that could lead to lobs and quick hitting passes to Davis who can go to work on the move before double teams arrive.
In the end, this is a game where I think the Lakers superior top end talent should lead them to a win. That said, the questions in the first part of this section remain and if the Lakers don’t take this game seriously while the Hawks play hard and with a hunger to steal a win before returning home, they could steal this game. I’m not a betting man, but I hope the Lakers come out ready to take control and put Atlanta on its heels early, step on their necks in the 3rd quarter, and give LeBron and AD some rest in the 4th.
Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet.
*All stats via stats.nba.com