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Thursday, January 21, 2010
Five Things to Watch - Lakers vs. Cavs


We already got some thoughts on tonight's extravaganza from TNT analyst Mike Fratello. I've added two more cents. Five more, really.

Without further ado...

1) The X-Mas Day game saw the Lakers struggle with the Cavs' length and size inside, which led to inevitable talk about the purple and gold not being "able to handle" physical teams. Such jabber strikes me as a mite reactionary, but it's true the Shaq-Big Z-Andy Varejao combination provided fits. If you think back to last season's wins over Cleveland and Boston, victories against the league's vaunted bullies on the block (metaphorically and on the actual low block), the Lakers didn't just take every blow administered. They delivered hits, and in particular, the first punches. If you know a rough and tumble match awaits, you might as well set the tone from the outset. The Lakers are undoubtedly a finesse team by nature and style, but are perfectly capable of getting down and dirty. Let the Cavs react to your punishment, not the other way around.

2) Along these lines, I'd to love to see Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom go right at Cleveland's bigs and work to get them into foul trouble defending. Face these guys up and put them on their heels. Drive on them. Shaq and Z don't have the speed to keep up with the Laker frontcourt, and getting Varejao --who can be overly aggressive at times-- into foul trouble would be a major plus. It's been touched on this season a few times, but Sideshow Bob's +/- is through the roof. Even higher than LeBron's and just behind the NBA leader, some shlub who plays shooting guard for the Lakers. Perhaps easier said than done, as Varejao averages a reasonable 3.3 fouls over 30 minutes and has turned flopping into an art form. But it's certainly worth a try.

3) Losing Mo Williams, Cleveland's true #2 guy, is a big blow to the Cavs. He's their second leading scorer (16.9 ppg), second biggest downtown threat among players regularly launching from distance and second source for dimes behind LeBron. And for good measure, dude TORCHED the Lakers on Christmas. I'd never wish injury on anybody, but it's also part of basketball and the Lakers absolutely must capitalize. Boobie Gibson is in line for more run and it's being reported Delonte West will get the starting nod. Both are capable of hitting a groove, but have also been in and out of the rotation, are playing worse than last year, and West has been dealing with well-publicized off-the-court issues, meaning reliability isn't a given.

I'll be curious to see if the presence of West --more of a natural playmaker than Mo Gotti-- means the ball in LeBron's hands more or less. I'm thinking "less," an instinct seconded in an email exchange with our buddy Matt, a very knowledgeable Cavs die-hard. Brian thinks otherwise. We'll see who's right pretty soon, and in any event, should be interesting. Many an NBA mind, including the Cavs blog's esteemed Krolik, has labeled West the team's X-Factor, which can obviously play out in either direction.

It'll also be interesting to see how the Cavs handle not only Mo's absence, but knowledge he could miss 4-6 weeks. As Krolik noted, the Cavs were the only contender free of major injury this season. That's now changed. Will Cleveland's focus be elsewhere?

4) Composure: In round one, the Lakers came apart at the seams as calls didn't go their way. Were they victims of bad refereeing? At times, sure, particularly as it came to punishment Shaq was allowed to administer protecting the lane. (Although Cleveland was also the more aggressive team and certainly earned a fair degree of officiating love.) But in the end, it doesn't really matter whether the Lakers were victims. "Clueless" refs are part of the game, an element that must be played through. The Lakers (along with their fans) did a terrible job adjusting to this reality. Lots of whining. Odom ejected. Even Derek Fisher, team bedrock of sage and veteran wisdom, lost his cool and picked up a very dumb push foul. Maybe they'll do better in Cleveland with expectations of the enemy receiving home cooking. But without question, they need to consciously avoid a repeat of the day Jesus' birth was commemorated with the tossing of foam fingers.

5) In addition to West, the Cavs will be missing the uber-athletic Jamario Moon. Aside from removing yet another weapon from Cleveland's arsenal, it only reinforces how the Lakers, at long last, have all hands on deck (even if Kobe's hand features a bad finger). Recent wins against Dallas, the Clippers and Orlando (and even elements of a roadie loss in San Antonio) saw the Lakers succeed as a unit, with key contributions coming from starters and reserves alike. The Lakers are at their best when they avoid being (or allow themselves to be) Kobe Bryant's One Man Traveling Band. With even more roadies in waiting and attention being paid to success away from Staples, there would be no better note to hit than a win reminding people this is indeed a championship team.