LA Lakers' 5 Must-Win Games of the Early Season

Thomas Duffy@@TJDhoopsFeatured ColumnistOctober 20, 2013

LA Lakers' 5 Must-Win Games of the Early Season

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    Despite the fact that they’ve got an extremely difficult schedule to begin the 2013-14 NBA season, the Los Angeles Lakers will be faced with some contests that they absolutely must win.

    After struggling to gain any kind of momentum in the regular season a year ago, Mike D’Antoni will have to fuse a plethora of newcomers into an established core of three players—Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash. Granted, Kobe is sidelined indefinitely with the Achilles injury, but he’ll be back.

    The revamped roster has already seemed to grasp D’Antoni’s offense better than the 2012-13 team, and Los Angeles is going to rely heavily on that quickly developed chemistry in the absence of its best player.

    The games outlined in the following slides will take place over the course of the season’s first two months—with one potential exception—and deal with matchups that the Lakers unquestionably have to come out on top of.

    Although it’s a long season, how Los Angeles handles these big games will play a large part in the fate of its 2013-14 campaign.

5. Opening-Night Battle for the Staples Center

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    The Game: vs. Los Angeles Clippers; Tuesday, October 29, at 10:30 p.m. ET

    With Chris Paul and Blake Griffin headlining the Clippers’ deepest roster in years, and with Doc Rivers taking over the helm, this LAC team is a legitimate contender in the Western Conference.

    On opening night, the Lakers will be given the opportunity to prove that Los Angeles still belongs to the Purple and Gold. In addition, everyone who doubted the Kobe-less Lakers, which were ranked 12th in the West by ESPN, will see that this team is significantly improved from a year ago.

    The Lakers lost every preseason game and started off the regular season with a record of 1-4 last year. Beating the Clippers on opening night will set the tone for the rest of 2013-14 and help the Lakers avoid the regular-season doldrums that plagued them a season ago.

4. Chance to Check Steph Curry, Warriors at Home

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    The Game: vs. Golden State Warriors; Friday, November 22, at 10:30 p.m. ET

    California now has three big-time NBA teams—the Lakers, Clippers and the Golden State Warriors.

    Steph Curry and Co. dropped three of their four meetings with LAL last season, and if the Lakers can pull out a win against Golden State at home in what will be their second meeting of 2013-14, it’ll be a big boost for their standing in the division and confidence throughout the rest of the season.

    Even after seeing them once already—the Lakers will visit the Warriors in their second game of the year—squaring off against Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes will be no easy task.

    But earning a victory over one of the best in the West will do wonders for a team that will most likely be competing without its best player for the beginning of the season.

3. Best Opportunity to Showcase New Roster

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    The Game: vs. San Antonio Spurs; Friday, November 1, at 10:30 p.m. ET

    In the first round of the 2013 playoffs, the Spurs treated the Lakers like a practice squad, defeating them handily in four games. Granted, L.A. was playing sans Bryant and with a ton of injuries, but there was no excuse for such a weak effort in the postseason.

    Los Angeles will have the opportunity to showcase its new and improved roster in a showdown against San Antonio in early November and make it clear that this is a brand-new Lakers team.

    Yes, Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace are gone. But Nick Young, Chris Kaman and Jordan Farmar have already shown the ability to thrive in D’Antoni’s offense, which was something that last year’s team struggled to grasp.

    A victory over last years class of the Western Conference will also establish L.A.’s status as a playoff contender in 2014.

2. The Return of ‘You Know Who‘

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    The Game: @ Houston Rockets; Thursday, November 7, at 9:30 p.m. ET

    This is as big as it gets early on in the season—the first time Dwight Howard will square off against his old team.

    The game will be played in Houston, so D12 won’t have to deal with the venom of the distraught and angry army of Lakers fans who are still upset over his departure over the summer.

    Howard will be out to prove that he’s better off without L.A., while Los Angeles will look to prove just the opposite.

    And don’t forget about the fact that this will be the first time Bryant and Howard meet face to face after the Mamba explicitly told reporters what his feelings were on D12’s departure.

    The stare Howard receives from Kobe—whether hes on the court or on the bench—will be nothing short of legendary.

1. Kobe’s 1st Game Back

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    The Game: TBD

    The night Kobe returns will be the Lakers’ biggest game early in 2013-14.

    Even if Bryant doesn’t score a point—which is unlikely—Los Angeles desperately needs to win the game, regardless of when it is or whom it plays.

    It’ll be a huge night for the team, and pulling out a victory for the first time as a complete unit can go a long way toward emotional unification for the rest of the season.

    The 2012-13 roster lacked chemistry, but the new and improved Lakers must use Vino’s comeback as the defining moment of their season.

    Bryant has defied science and expectations throughout the process of his recovery and needs to be rewarded with a win when he is able to return to the court. His teammates and coaches have to want this one as badly as he does—if thats even humanly possible.

    Giving Bryant that first win will be like a shark tasting a drop of blood in the water. Once he gets that familiar sensation of victory, the Mamba will be back to scowling, scoring and leading his Lakers.