A historical footnote is in the making, as tonight marks the first meeting between the Los Angeles Lakers and the newly face-lifted Brooklyn Nets. These ain't your daddy's Nets anymore, with the presence of Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov and rap icon/multi-hyphenate Jay-Z, the Barclays Center and a hipster locale to call home. Oh, and the roster isn't half bad, either. Maybe not worth the price tag, but certainly formidable, and definitive proof of the commitment to make the Knicks paranoid about a sea change in New York.
It remains to be seen who'll be on the sideline coaching the Lakers tonight, but whether its Mike D'Antoni or Bernie Bickerstaff, the Lakers will look to maintain their momentum and tighten up the execution on both sides of the ball. Here are three things to be mindful of once the ball is jumped.
1. Will the Lakers' high-octane offense continue to explode?
Take a cursory glance at the numbers and you'll see 92.5 points a night surrendered by Brooklyn, the sixth-lowest in the NBA. On the surface, they would appear quite the defensive juggernaut. However, a little more digging shows an opponent field goal percentage of 45.3 percent, tumbling the Nets well into the bottom third of the league when it comes to protecting the basket. How are these intertwined, yet polar opposite findings possible? Well, tonight's visitors play like their offense is being quarterbacked by a snail. The NBA's fourth-slowest pace means fewer possessions, which means fewer opportunities for the enemy to score. In other words, the Nets are plodding their way to smaller point totals for the opposition, rather than achieving through maximum lockdown.
Looking at the Nets' roster, this isn't surprising. Save Gerald Wallace, no member of the starting five will likely gun for any Defensive Player of the Year votes. Joe Johnson's best days sticking a wing scorer are behind him. Deron Williams and Kris Humphries are somewhere between "average" and "decent enough not to kill you." And Brook Lopez has been a train wreck defensively his entire career. Off the bench, rebounding savant Reggie Evans is more of an energetic defender than a truly effective one, MarShon Brooks is inexperienced and Andray Blatche's indifference to lockdown is in part what prompted the Wizards' decision to use the amnesty clause on him.
Thus, the Nets' best approach for keeping points low is manufacturing a crawl, and for the first time in eons, the Lakers won't play along. During this D'Bickerstaff era, the Lakers haven't necessarily become a fast-break factory, but they're no longer the methodically slow squad Brooklyn would prefer to face. Removed from a comfort zone, I don't expect the Nets to keep an opponent in the low 90s. For that matter, it'll be interesting to see if they can simply remain effective at keeping the Lakers off the line, a spot where Kobe and Company have taken frequent residence this season.
2. Who defends Deron Williams?
By his standards, the Nets' franchise face is off to a slow start. Whether gauged through points, field goal percentages from the field or the arc, assists or rebounds, D-Will is putting up numbers below his career clips, figures that aren't necessarily indicative of playing for a team with more talent and more statistical wealth spread about. However, he's still Deron Freakin' Williams, meaning the odds favor him remaining a handful even if he's still in the process of feeling out a new roster. With that in mind, it'll be interesting to see who spends the majority of minutes checking the three-time All-Star.
As I noted in Sunday's Rapid Reaction, Darius Morris' rapid improvement hasn't just been notable while running the offense. The kid's demonstrating fine defensive instincts, in particular his understanding of how to use his big body. But Williams is the rare point guard who doesn't surrender size to Morris and has a vast edge in veteran smarts. If Morris struggles, could Chris Duhon, who's played solid-if-unspectacular minutes with the Steves out, handle extended minutes against D-Will? And can the Lakers handle Duhon in extended minutes? He may be a credible enough defender, but his presence limits the overall dynamism of the offense. Does the answer perhaps lie within the starting lineup? Metta World Peace can certainly bully Williams physically, and those vice-grip hands can induce turnovers from even the most elite point guards. But will his feet cooperate? If he's not fast enough to stay with Williams, the challenge could fall on Kobe.
In the past, the Lakers have looked to avoid extended periods latching Kobe to such a difficult assignment, given the scoring burden additionally shouldered. But given how judiciously Kobe's letting shots fly this season, that energy may not require as much preservation. Maybe we'll see the Mamba go at Williams throughout the closing minutes, which would obviously be fun.
3. Dwight Howard vs. Brook Lopez
Yeah, that Brook Lopez. The one Shaquille O'Neal famously/ridiculously presented as better than Howard. The Diesel's analysis clearly wasn't appreciated by Dwight, but he responded by reminding Shaq that he's currently out to pasture, rather than taking any shots at Lopez. No need to drag the twin any further into this mess. Still, Howard's willingness to take the verbal high road needn't necessarily bleed onto the hardwood. I wouldn't be surprised if Howard looks to prove the inanity of O'Neal's comments by launching a full-blown assault at Lopez's expense.