The Los Angeles Lakers are on a four-game winning streak, and may finally get a break tonight. The team will face the Washington Wizards, a young and inexperienced squad that has managed just three wins on the season.
Despite that, Los Angeles should not be cocky entering this game. Not only are the Lakers on a four-game losing streak, but the Wizards pulled off a win against the defending champion Miami Heat on December 4. As inexperienced as they are, they have proven this season that they can play giant-slayer.
Los Angeles has also been weak on the road this season, going just 2-8, and that could come back to bite them even though they are a far superior team than the lowly Wizards.
Both teams have their fair share of struggles and could really use a win entering tonight's game. The Lakers need to break their losing streak, and the Wizards just need a win period. By the final buzzer, the losing team will feel one of two things: they'll either know they were just in a hard-fought game and need to get back to the drawing board, or they'll be suffering the agony of an absolute blowout.
Time: Friday, December 14th, 7:00 p.m. EST
TV: CSN HD, Time Warner Cable Sportsnet
Records: Los Angeles Lakers (9-14) vs. Washington Wizards (3-16)
Betting Lines: Los Angeles (-5 1/2), Washington (+5 1/2)
Injuries: Steve Nash (leg, out), Pau Gasol (knee, doubtful), Steve Blake (abdomen, out), John Wall (knee, out), Trevor Booker (knee, doubtful), Trevor Ariza (calf, out), A.J. Price (hand, out)
Key Storyline: Can Lakers Break Streak Against Washington?
The Lakers are on a four-game losing streak, and there is really no reason that they should not break it against the Wizards.
Much like their opponents tonight, Washington is depleted by injuries and in particular the one suffered by star point guard and team leader John Wall. The former No. 1 pick has yet to play this season due to a stress reaction in his knee, and there is no timetable for his return.
Similarly, Los Angeles has been without point guard Steve Nash, who is considered to be the anchor of head coach Mike D'Antoni's run-and-gun offense. The future Hall of Famer is recovering from a small fracture in his leg and is not expected back for at least a couple of weeks.
The Lakers still cannot use that as an excuse to not play well tonight. They have won games without Nash before, against arguably better teams, and this one should be no exception.
The team can break its losing streak tonight, and all it has to do is take advantage of Washington's collective inexperience. They can work the run-and-gun, play some isolation ball like they did against the New York Knicks, or just use their superior experience to give the Wizards a lesson in how the game is played.
Tonight's game is Los Angeles' to lose, and veteran leader Kobe Bryant probably does not want to see his team's streak hit five games against a lottery team.
Key Matchup: Kobe Bryant vs. Bradley Beal
The Black Mamba is still playing some great basketball despite that, and currently leads the NBA with 29.3 points per game. Bryant's defense has also been top-notch, at 5.2 rebounds and 1.6 steals per contest.
His experience should thus be a great matchup against the Wizards' youth, particularly rookie guard Bradley Beal.
Beal was taken with the third overall pick out of Florida and is slowly learning how to overcome his lack of size at 6'3" in order to become an effective shooting guard. He has shot just 36 percent from the field, but has averaged 12.3 points per game.
Over his last five games, however, Beal has looked much better. Not only is he averaging 16 points and 4.4 assists, but he is shooting 42 percent from the field. He still has a lot to learn, but Beal's slow improvement is starting to show.
Bryant must thus be in full Mamba mode and do all he can to shut Beal down. The rookie is slowly becoming the Wizards' spark in Wall's absence, and the Lakers cannot afford to let him get hot.
On Bryant's offensive end, he is in a prime position to have an epic scoring night in Washington. All experience aside, he also has a great size advantage against Beal at 6'6". Beal is also weak on defense, which should allow Bryant to drive past him at will and also fake him out for long-range shots too.
So long as Beal can be taken out of the game to a certain degree, then the Lakers' chances of breaking their losing streak will greatly increase.
X-Factor: Metta World Peace
Under normal circumstances, this would probably be a tough game for World Peace. Fortunately for him, pest extraordinaire Trevor Ariza is injured, which gives the former St. John's star an advantage against weaker defenders in Martell Webster and Cartier Martin.
World Peace's game has been rejuvenated in D'Antoni's offense, as he is now a deadly shooter on top of being a fine defensive presence. He is averaging 13.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game, and has also made 39 percent of his threes.
The man needs to have a great game in Washington, as Los Angeles cannot become overly reliant on Kobe Bryant nor Dwight Howard. World Peace gives the team the ability to stretch the floor on offense, and his defense ranges anywhere from on his man to in the paint.
This is a game the Lakers can turn into a blowout, but they won't be able to do it if World Peace is off his game tonight. He just scored a season-high 23 points against the New York Knicks and should ride that momentum into tonight's game.
That isn't to say that the Lakers need Metta World Peace to win the game. They are still a talented team without him, and should not have a problem against the Wizards as such.
However, World Peace gives the Lakers' offense that extra push against Washington. Every extra push helps.
At long last, the Lakers will get back in the win column. This game against Washington is just what the team needs before returning home, and the end result will be a weight off the shoulders of Bryant, Howard and even Mike D'Antoni.
Yes, the Lakers are struggling, but they are still a much better team than the Wizards. They will thus control the game from start to finish, with young Washington left at a loss as to how to slow them down.
Who will win?
Bryant will take control on offense and score upwards of 30 points, while also playing some incredible defense against Beal. Howard will dominate the pick-and-roll, taking advantage of Washington's lack of size.
Even Metta World Peace will have a solid game. He won't score as many points as he did against the Knicks, but will sink enough key three-pointers and play good enough defense to be considered a difference-maker long after the final buzzer.
Washington may go on a run at some point, but any leads will be few and far between. Without Wall, this team is lost, and the Lakers will run rampant at the Verizon Center as a result.
Los Angeles Lakers 115, Washington Wizards 89