Atlanta Hawks vs. Los Angeles Lakers: Preview, Analysis and Predictions

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Atlanta Hawks vs. Los Angeles Lakers: Preview, Analysis and Predictions
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Battles of offense versus defense are always fun to watch, and seeing the Atlanta Hawks' isolation game take on the up-tempo approach of the Los Angeles Lakers will be no exception.

This also happens to be the first time these two teams play each other this season, but there is more to the game than just that.

With a victory, the Lakers will be at .500 for the first time since Christmas Day, when they defeated the New York Knicks at home. The team has also won four-of-five coming into this game, so they definitely have momentum.

However, Atlanta is not to be counted out. All flaws aside, the Hawks still have one of the NBA's most dynamic players in forward Josh Smith. They have won four-of-five, and will be in full spoiler mode.

That's going to be tough with a rowdy Staples Center crowd cheering on Kobe Bryant and Co., so fans should definitely tune in to what could be a great game.

 

Time: Sunday, March 3, 9:30 p.m. ET

TV: SportSouth, Time Warner Cable Sportsnet

Records: Atlanta Hawks (33-24) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (29-30)

Betting Line: Not available as of Saturday, March 2, 11:12 a.m. ET

Injuries: Lou Williams (knee, out), Jeremy Tyler (undisclosed, day-to-day), Jordan Hill (hip, out), Pau Gasol (foot, out), via ESPN

 

Key Storyline: Los Angeles Seeks .500 Record with Win Over Atlanta

It's no secret that the Lakers have been a grand disappointment this season. Despite adding both Steve Nash and Dwight Howard over the summer, the team has not been able to get it together.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Los Angeles finally appears to have come together, and doing so against defensive Atlanta is vitally important

Granted, that can be attributed to injuries, a coaching change and Mike D'Antoni's fast-paced game not exactly being the best fit in Los Angeles, but that does not take away from the fact the Lakers have vastly underperformed. Too often does the team rely on Kobe Bryant to carry them from start to finish, making the offense predictable. Howard's inconsistency is just icing on the cake.

But the Lakers have had a new attitude as of late. Since Jan. 25, they have gone 12-5 and actually seem to be communicating on the court.

This is because Bryant, for the most part, has let his scoring take a back seat, and he is actually using his playmaking skills alongside his usual offensive game. In February, the five-time champion averaged 23.9 points and 6.6 assists per game.

Bryant and the rest of his teammates need to adopt that philosophy against the Hawks, a defensive squad whose mission will be to slow down D'Antoni's offense. All that Los Angeles can do is fight past that and hope the shots fall, for if their team-oriented approach is in full swing, then the Lakers can finally get back at .500 and stay in the thick of the playoff race.

If not, the remainder of the season will continue to be an uphill battle.

 

Key Matchup: Dwight Howard vs. Al Horford

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The key matchup for this game is particularly interesting, as Howard and Horford faced each other often during Howard's days with the Orlando Magic. Thus, each man is in a prime position to have a fine game.

Let's start with Howard.

He has been hot and cold for the Lakers all season long, primarily because he has struggled to become the pick-and-roll big man that D'Antoni's offense requires. Outside the low post, he isn't exactly in his comfort zone.

Just the same, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year has managed to put up respectable numbers this season, averaging 16.2 points, a league-best 11.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. Over his last five games, he has posted 15.6 points, 13.6 boards and 2.4 blocks.

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

On defense, Howard is definitely going to have his hands full when it comes to covering Horford. The former Florida Gator is having a career season, averaging 17.2 points and 10 rebounds per contest, and has been in full beast mode through his last five games.

Over that stretch, Horford is averaging 24.8 points, 12.6 rebounds and 2.6 blocks while shooting 62 percent from the field and showing prowess from long range.

Howard simply has to take Horford out of the game. This means using his strength to box him out and take away any and all opportunities. On offense, he must demand the ball and not let playing out of his comfort zone affect him.

In Horford's case, the plan of attack is simple: Take full advantage of Howard being out of his element.

The stage is set for a battle of the big men, specifically one that could decide the game for either side.

 

X-Factor: Antawn Jamison

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

If there's one thing that the Hawks do not have much of, it's a second unit. The Lakers, on the other hand, do have a solid bench presence, which means that veteran Antawn Jamison needs to be great in order to seal a win.

Jamison is only averaging nine points per game on the season, but his performance over his last five games has been unbelievable for someone 36 years old and in a bench role.

Over that stretch, the former Tar Heel is averaging 15 points and 5.4 rebounds while shooting 52 percent from the field and 57 percent from long range.

That's the Jamison that needs to be present against Atlanta, the one that gets himself open and is not afraid to drive the lane to draw a foul. The key to defeating the Hawks is fighting past the tough defense and not being intimidated, and the Lakers cannot let that happen to them.

This means a solid game from Jamison is critical, as getting back to .500 would be a tremendous confidence booster.

 

Predicted Starting Lineups:

Hawks

PG: Jeff Teague

SG: Devin Harris

SF: Kyle Korver

PF: Josh Smith

C: Al Horford

 

Lakers

PG: Steve Nash

SG: Kobe Bryant

SF: Metta World Peace

PF: Earl Clark

C: Dwight Howard

 

Prediction

If there's one thing that can be said about this game, it's going to be close. It has the makings of a potential blowout on paper, but that's not going to happen in this case.

Rather, the Lakers and Hawks will go toe-to-toe from start to finish, with the Hawks pulling away late in the fourth quarter to seal the deal.

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Los Angeles will put up a great effort from start to finish, but the failure of Dwight Howard to contain a red-hot Al Horford will keep the Lakers at a defensive disadvantage. Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash will both turn in fine performances, but it won't be enough to make up for the damage done on the defensive side.

Antawn Jamison will sink some key shots to help keep the game close, but an excellent game from Josh Smith will swing the pendulum in Atlanta's favor.

This game won't be a reality check for the Lakers, but enough of a bump in the road for everyone to realize that a playoff berth takes more than a hot streak to happen.

Atlanta Hawks 107, Los Angeles Lakers 103

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