10:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Lakers -1.5, Over/Under: 219.5
With the All-Star Break right around the corner, the top two teams in the West meet in a pivotal encounter as the Los Angeles Lakers play host to the Denver Nuggets from STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. As many teams due this time of the season, fatigue may be affecting the Lakers (40-12, 1st in Western Conference), who have dealt with a whirlwind of emotion over the past few weeks, particularly when you consider the tragedy that struck the organization in the horrific passing of franchise legend, Kobe Bryant, who along with his young daughter and seven other passengers died in a helicopter crash just over two weeks ago. Since that unfortunate event, Los Angeles has gone 4-2, and have thus seen their formerly sizable lead in the Standings decrease to four games, with the possibility of falling even further pending the outcome of tonight’s matchup with Denver. Indeed, the All-star Break will serve as a welcomed respite for Frank Vogel’s team, who in addition to dealing with the mental fatigue of Bryant’s passing have also dealt with the recently concluded Trade Deadline, which saw the club make zero changes to their roster. Depending on which pundit you listen to, this is a team that may or may not have needed to make a move in order to solidify their standing as the team to beat out West, with some preferring not to disrupt their excellent chemistry (a complete turnaround from last year), while others have lamented their need for a veteran Point Guard to help alleviate the playmaking responsibilities of one LeBron James (24.8 PTS, 48.8% FG, 35.0% 3FG, 7.7 REB, 10.7 AST, 1.3 STL, 25.2 PER). Of course, the four-time MVP has and will continue to dominate those duties for the foreseeable future, but at the age of thirty-five and leading the NBA at 10.7 Assists per Game (which would be a first for the 16-time All-Star), it’s a viable question as to whether or not it’s really ideal to have him expending so much energy throughout the season in fear of running out of gas in the Playoffs. That’s part of the reason as to why the Lakers explored a number of options on the Trade Market, though ultimately resisted putting young swingman, Kyle Kuzma (12.8 PTS, 43.8% FG, 33.2% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 1.3 AST, 12.3 PER), in any deal. The Buyout Market may provide a solution, but in the meantime we now know that former Point Guard, Darren Collison, will not be coming out of his surprising retirement to aid any club, as the veteran announced as much earlier in the week. So with that said, you can expect to hear that loaded term, Load Management, discussed in regards to James, for it appears that however far Los Angeles advances in the Postseason will be tied directly to how much the seventeenth-year veteran has left to offer. When we last saw them, they snapped a four-game losing streak at home in a 125-100 drubbing of the Phoenix Suns in an affair in which James struggled to put the ball in the basket, leading to more questions of said management of his minutes down the stretch of the Regular Season. No. 23 scored Seventeen Points on just 6-of-16 shooting (37.5%), and despite once again flirting with a Triple-Double (8 REB, 9 AST), he also tied a season-high with Eight Turnovers, a dubious figure that he reached twice in the last seven outings. Maybe there is something to the speculation of his usage, for over the last three games alone he’s averaged a sloppy 7.0 Turnovers, which is simply to much for any single player no matter how great they are. Fortunately, the Supporting Cast had plenty of say in the outcome of Monday Night’s victory, as fellow All-Star, Anthony Davis (26.5 PTS, 51.9% FG, 30.9% 3FG, 9.2 REB, 3.3 AST, 1.6 STL, 2.4 BLK, 8.4 PER), led the way with Twenty-Five Points on 9-of-17 shooting (52.9%), along with Ten Rebounds, Five Assists, a Steal and a Block apiece. The three-time All-NBA Selection was listed as day-to-day with a sore finger on his right hand, but seemed to show no ill-effects of the ailment during the game. The hosts held a slim 31-30 lead at the end of the First Quarter only to break the tilt wide open with an 18-4 run in the following stanza, drilling eight of their first nine shots, with veteran Point Guard, Rajon Rondo (7.9 PTS, 42.8% FG, 35.6% 3FG, 3.4 REB, 5.4 AST, 13.7 PER), accounting for the first Eight Points of the period. One of the few holdovers from last year’s roster, the erstwhile floor general will be counted on heavily down the stretch now that they know that there won’t be any significant reinforcements arriving. The 33-Year Old has been banged up this year and has only started on two occasions, but proved on Monday that he may have returned to full health, scoring Twenty-Three Points off the Bench, knocking down a shocking 4-of-5 Three-Pointers (80.0%), to go along with Four Rebounds, Six Assists, and a Steal. Though he’s been somewhat of a pariah over the latter stages of his career, if this is what Rondo can offer than the Lakers should be just fine if they wish to scale back some of James’ minutes, particularly if the Supporting Cast can continue to produce. Monday’s victory marked the club’s fortieth of the campaign, representing the first time that they’ve reached that mark before the All-Star Break since 2010, which was coincidentally the last time they hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Meanwhile, a team that isn’t showing the effects of fatigue is the Nuggets (38-16, 2nd in Western Conference), who after enduring a litany of injuries over the previous month and some change are finally getting healthier as they head into the All-Star Break. Winners of four straight and twelve of their last sixteen contests, Denver is climbing back up the Standings in the West, a conference in which they spent much of last season lording over. Unlike the Lakers, they were fairly active at the Trade Deadline, partaking in a four-team trade with the Atlanta Hawks, Houston Rockets, and Minnesota Timberwolves, though they did little other than trip salary from their roster, sending away the likes of Reserves, Malik Beasley (7.9 PTS, 38.9% FG, 36.0% 3FG, 1.9 REB, 1.2 AST, 10.5 PER), Juan Hernangomez (3.1 PTS, 34.5% FG, 25.0% 3FG, 2.8 REB, 6.9 PER), and Jarred Vanderbilt (1.1 PTS, 71.4% FG, 7.2 PER), in exchange for veterans, Gerald Green and Shabazz Napier, along with young prospects, Keita Bates-Diop (6.6 PTS, 42.8% FG, 33.0% 3FG, 2.9 REB, 12.7 PER) and Noah Vonleh (4.1 PTS, 51.7% FG, 14.3% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 15.4 PER). The club immediately packaged Napier in another deal with the Washington Wizards for rotational Combo Guard, Jordan McCrae (12.6 PTS, 41.9% FG, 38.2% 3FG, 3.6 REB, 2.8 AST, 15.5 PER), and waived Green. The biggest takeaway from the flurry of moves was acquiring Houston’s 2020 First Round Pick, which again allows them to shed salary while still managing to gain a valuable bargaining chip for the Summer. In the meantime, the deals will likely have little impact on the team’s roster as whole, for the players who were dealt were fringe contributors at best, with those who have been acquired likely rounding out the rotation, nothing more. However, it’s a good sign that they were able to work these transactions without sacrificing much of their depth, which is certainly one of the strengths for Mike Malone’s side, who can go ten, maybe eleven players deep if need be. As stated earlier, the key with this unit will be how quickly they’ll be able to return to full health, for they’ve had to deal with a number of minor ailments throughout the term, which has kept them from reaching their considerable potential. Two-time All-Star Center, Nikola Jokic (20.6 PTS, 51.9% FG, 32.4% 3FG, 10.2 REB, 6.9 AST, 1.1 STL, 25.3 PER), has played in every game this season, following las year’s star turn with a well-rounded campaign in which he’s led the team in scoring (20.6), Rebounding (10.2), Assists (6.9), and PER (25.3). Now that veteran Forward, Paul Millsap (12.2 PTS, 47.7% FG, 43.4% 3FG, 6.0 REB, 1.5 AST, 18.2 PER), has returned from an abdominal injury, one of the league’s more formidable Frontcourts is intact, with the versatile 34-Year Old’s game perfectly complementing that of thee towering Serbian. With Millsap missing twenty games thus far, it’s opened up the door for the likes of Jerami Grant (11.2 PTS, 46.7% FG, 39.8% 3FG, 3.6 REB, 1.1 AST, 14.0 PER) and the tantalizing prospect, Michael Porter Jr. (8.0 PTS, 50.8% FG, 43.2% 3FG, 4.4 REB, 19.9 PER), to receive more playing time, with each playing well when given the opportunity. Indeed, it will be interesting to see how Malone shuffles his Lineups at this point, though versatility is never a bad thing to have, particularly when you get into the Playoffs. What will likely need to pick up if this team is indeed going to make the next leap forward will be the play of their Backcourt, namely Jamal Murray (18.6 PTS, 45.2% FG, 34.3% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 4.6 AST, 1.3 STL, 17.8 PER) and Gary Harris (10.2 PTS, 40.0% FG, 30.0% 3FG, 2.9 REB, 2.2 AST, 1.3 STL, 9.1 PER), who have performed below expectations, particularly the latter this season. The sharpshooting Murray is approaching Free Agency, and the club will have a hard decision to make in regards to how large of investment they make in the 22-Year Old; undersized for a Shooting Guard, Murray hasn’t quite become the facilitator of the Offense that Malone has hoped for, proving to be far better suited for playing off of Jokic’s playmaking expertise out of the High Post. Harris on the other hand, has seen his shooting plummet over the past two years, particularly from distance where he’s knocked down just 30.0% of his Attempts, his lowest mark since his rookie term six years ago. With that said, he remains a tenacious on-ball defender, which is something that Murray lacks. When we last saw the Nuggets, they rallied back for a 127-120 victory at home against the San Antonio Spurs in a rematch of last year’s lengthy First Round Series. Trailing 30-40 after the First Quarter and 53-67 at Halftime, Denver erupted in the Second Half for a season-high Seventy-Four Points, outscoring the visitors twenty-one over the final twenty-four minutes. Murray, who has been slowed by sprained ankle that cost him ten games, came up huge in the final period, scoring Fourteen of Twenty-Six Points, nailing 6-of-10 shots (60.0%), including 2-of-4 from downtown (50.0%). In the end, Malone’s troops shot a blistering 56.3% from the field, including 18-of-35 from beyond the arc (51.4%), assisted on a remarkable Thirty-Four of Forty-Five Field Goals, and outrebounded the visiting side 37-33. The aforementioned Jokic filled up the Stat Sheet with Nineteen Points on 6-of-8 shooting (75.0%), Eight Rebounds and Thirteen Assists, while Millsap added another Twenty-Two Points, Seven Rebounds, Three Assists, Two Steals, and a Block in just 19:19 off the Bench. Now they’ll see how they stack up with the Lakers, whom they handed a 128-104 defeat back on December 22nd, their largest loss of the season. Denver routinely exploited their mistakes, forcing Nineteen Turnovers which created a slew of extra opportunities in transition, while also making them pay from the Charity Stripe, knocking down 27-of-30 Free-Throws, outscoring Los Angeles by eleven in that regard. However, it should be noted that the aforementioned James did not take part in that affair, sitting out due to rest.