In the first game out of the All-Star break, the Atlanta Hawks were the victim of a newly-focused, fully-refreshed Lakers team intent upon beginning a push towards the second season that has led to seven consecutive victories for the only team yet to lose since Kobe Bryant won A.S. MVP honors for the fourth time.
The Lakers held the Hawks to 15 first quarter points and 18 in the second, opening a 54-33 lead at the half that they would hold towards a 104-80 wire-to-wire victory. STAPLES Center has been good to the Lakers against the Hawks, as L.A. has won five straight and nine of 12 all-time in the building.
But at Philips Arena in Atlanta, it’s been a different story for the Purple and Gold. Pau Gasol has yet to win in Georgia since being acquired in February of 2008, L.A.’s last win coming in 2007. Three straight losses, and six in the past 10 games, included a 109-92 drubbing last March.
On Tuesday, the Lakers expect Atlanta to have a bit extra in the tank to avenge the Feb. 22 blowout, but intend to build upon Sunday’s win at San Antonio rather than regressing against a team featuring a new point guard, Kirk Hinrich, acquired from the Wizards for a package including former starter Mike Bibby. Hinrich is a better defensive player, helping the Hawks come from behind to defeat Chicago 83-80 at home before Atlanta dropped consecutive contests at Philips to Oklahoma City and New York.
Josh Smith missed the Bulls and Thunder games with a sore knee, but returned to face the Knicks, giving the Hawks their usual complement of players. He’s usually to be joined by Hinrich, Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams and Al Horford in the starting line up, though Jason Collins will sometimes start at center against larger teams like the Lakers.
On Monday, newly-returned Matt Barnes said the Lakers are focused upon continuing the defensive effort that has kept opponents to an average of 85 points* since the break, an approach anchored by bigs Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.
*Portland scored 14 of its 101 points in overtime, so this figure was calculated based upon the Blazers’ 87 points in regulation.
“To have two seven footers in the middle on a team that’s already long makes it tough on opponents,” said Barnes. “You see our defense really coming into its own now heading down the home stretch, and that’s not to mention that Gasol and Bynum can both put up double figures on offense, so it’s a great one-two punch down there.”
Particularly when Smith and Horford are on the floor, the Lakers will again have a major edge in the paint. To see if L.A. can produce an eighth straight win out of the break and first in Atlanta in four years, tune into KCAL or 710 ESPN at 4 p.m.