It’s been nearly 18 days since training camp opened for the Lakers on Sept. 25, and finally the team will go through a routine game day experience, albeit in Las Vegas for a Wednesday evening matchup with the Kings.
After losing their first two preseason games in London and Barcelona, respectively, the Lakers are set for a full team shootaround, regular pregame media and warm up sessions and at 7 p.m. see how a few days of actual practice translates onto the basketball floor.
We identified seven things to watch for in tonight’s contest, which you can view on KCAL or listen to on 710/1330 AM ESPN:
1. KOBE’S PROGRESS: Good news came out of Tuesday’s practice in the Kobe Bryant knee watch, as Phil Jackson said his MVP looked “better than he’s looked so far.” Expect Kobe to play for roughly eight minutes in the first quarter and eight more in the third. If all goes well, Jackson allowed for the possibility of seeing more Kobe in the fourth quarter.
2. COUSINS, EVANS = STAR DUO TO BE? Over the past four seasons, the Kings have won just 33, 38, 17 and 25 games. But the squad’s recent lottery picks have optimism running through the California capitol city, with 2010′s No. 5 overall pick DeMarcus Cousins joining last season’s Rookie of the Year, Tyreke Evans. Through four preseason games, the large yet skilled Cousins has averaged 17 points and 9.5 rebounds in 24.5 minutes, while Evans was one of only three NBA players to average at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists last season. Of course, Evans-Cousins isn’t quite Kobe-Pau as a perimeter-interior package just yet, but there’s certainly reason for Kings optimism.
3. BLAKE/BARNES and the TRIANGLE: From L.A.’s coaching staff to its remaining players from the past two title teams, we’ve heard little but universal praise throughout the first two weeks of camp for the additions of Steve Blake and Matt Barnes in particular. The coaches like their intensity, desire to win and eagerness to fit in, while the players have been enthralled with respective skill sets for the two veterans. What remains to be seen is how far each have come with their understanding of the triangle offense. Jackson has detailed how well Blake has picked things up, but Barnes admitted on Tuesday that he’s still struggling a bit with recognizing variations within the offense. We’ll see how they look against the Kings.
4. PHIL’S ROTATION: While Phil Jackson’s rotation is at least somewhat predictable, there are still plenty of minutes to be assigned particularly as Andrew Bynum recovers from knee surgery. The starters are plugged in – Derek Fisher, Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol – but bench burn is a work in progress. Steve Blake looks to be the leading candidate for big minutes off the pine, but Matt Barnes may not be sitting for long. Then there’s the Shannon Brown/Sasha Vujacic tandem, with PT not just as Kobe’s backup but at the two guard spot available when Bryant plays on the wing. In the meantime, how often will we see Theo Ratliff and Derrick Caracter in the post in relief of Odom/Gasol, or rookie Devin Ebanks on the wing? We’ll see.
5. DEFENSIVE INTENSITY? The Lakers spent the bulk of Monday and Tuesday’s practices in El Segundo going back to the defensive basics of Phil Jackson’s system, and he’ll surely like to see some results even in a preseason game. L.A. turned up the defensive pressure only for a few minutes in Barcelona at the start of the third quarter (producing a big run, naturally), and even fewer in London, but with the season now only 13 days away, the defensive dogs should start to increasingly bark. Sure, the playoffs are far, far away, but a steady ramp-up process starts in the preseason.
6. SACRAMENTO’S PRINCES: While Evans and Cousins will demand the most attention, there are other talented players wearing purple and black for which the Lakers will have to account. Beno Udrih, who starts in the backcourt alongside Evans and handles many of the ball-handling duties, has given the Lakers problems for the past few years; Donte Greene is a matchup problem as a 6-10 forward who loves chucking threes; Carl Landry and Jason Thompson both aggressively attack the backboards and can finish; while Omri Casspi and Francisco Garcia are fiery wing players that relish the chance to battle the likes of Bryant and Artest.
7. THE SPANIARD: As Bryant continues to get himself back to full health, L.A. knows it should run things more often through Gasol, who seems to gain more respect each time his wide array of skills come into view. Phil Jackson’s more than happy to encourage his players to increase the amount of touches afforded to Gasol, as good things seem to happen whenever he gets his hands on the ball. With six games across the next nine days, we should see a great deal of Gasol, and that’s never a bad thing.