As the holiday season approaches, the Lakers prepare to face off against the Warriors and Rockets a combined six times. The Lakers will try to shake off the disappointment of last December as they head into their most difficult stretch of the schedule. Adding to the urgency of the situation is the Lakers contention for a possible playoff seed. Even with the daunting task of taking on Houston and Golden State several times during this holiday season, Los Angeles must make it a priority to not lose ground in the playoff race.
Taking on the Champs
After suffering a crushing defeat at the hands of the cross-town rival Clippers, the Lakers "head home" to take on the reigning NBA champion Golden State Warriors on November 29th. This game actually comes at a good time, considering the recent injury news. The Warriors limp into this matchup after stars Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant both sat out last game against the Kings. Adding to the Lakers fortune is the return of forward Larry Nance Jr. who just came back from a broken hand. Upending the Warriors means the Lakers need circumstances like this to fall into place. The combination of these injuries gives L.A. a much more realistic chance of defeating the champs on Wednesday. In four contests last year, Golden State got the better of a young Lakers team three times, including a 149-106 thrashing last November.
Should Durant and Curry miss this game as well, the Lakers can expect to see more minutes from the likes of Omri Casspi, Patrick McCaw and Shaun Livingston among others. It's not right to mention the Warriors bench without a sarcastic shout out to former Laker Nick "Swaggy P" Young. Swaggy P will more than likely come out chucking threes in his return to Staples Center. Fortunately for Los Angeles, Young's departure has led to more responsibility for sixth man Jordan Clarkson. The former Missouri Tiger has responded well, nearly equaling his career high in points per game with 15.1, despite playing the fewest minutes per game of his career. Clarkson poured his heart out in Monday's rivalry game against the Clippers, putting up 17 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists in 26 minutes.
Jordan Clarkson (6) is guarded by Otto Porter (22) of the Wizards. Photo taken by Keith Allison
For the Lakers and Warriors, Wednesday presents the first of three matchups to take place before the new year. After facing the Dubs on Wednesday, the Lakers host them again on December 18th, before traveling to "The Town" on December 22nd, for a nationally televised showdown. That game will mark the Lakers first trip to Oracle Arena since April. In that game, Larry Nance Jr. had a double-double while reserve point guard Tyler Ennis surprisingly led the team in minutes played.
Battling the Beard
The Warriors aren't the only elite Western Conference foe that the Lakers have to face three times in the coming weeks. The Houston Rockets, led by MVP candidate James Harden, bring their talents to Staples Center on Sunday, December 3rd. The Rockets also host the Lakers twice more before month's end, with games on the 20th and the 31st. These games are a huge part of why the Laker's holiday-season schedule seems so difficult. In this series last season, the home team won all three games, with Houston outscoring Los Angeles by a margin of 387-315. If you thought James Harden was scary good last year, take a look at what The Beard is doing this year. The Rockets are currently holding off the Warriors for best record out west, with a 16-4 mark. Playing without all-star addition Chris Paul for 14 games has done little to slow Head Coach Mike D'Antoni's high powered attack. James Harden has wiped away the concerns that arose from last year's playoff meltdown and re-established himself as the front-runner for NBA MVP. The Beard is having an all-world season, setting career highs in points per game (34.1), usage rate (36.0%), and assist to turnover ratio (2.03).
While his defense could still use some improvement, it is impossible to deny the dominant impact that Harden has on each and every game he plays in. Lakers shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will be tasked with defending Harden for the majority of these matchups. Despite averaging career highs in rebounds per game (5.2), assists per game (2.6), and three-point shooting percentage (36.2 %), Caldwell-Pope continues to be best known for his on-ball defense. The Lakers will be relying on exactly that as they try to put a stop the eye-popping box scores that Harden typically offers. KCP will hope for a better result than last year, when his Pistons squad was crushed by Harden and the Rockets. In two games against the Pistons defense last season, James Harden did James Harden things, averaging 30.5 points and 8.5 boards per game, along with 11.5 assists per game to go with. However, during the 2015-16 season, things were quite different. When Harden was isolated on Caldwell-Pope, KCP held The Beard to a paltry 35% shooting. KCP reportedly has Harden listed as his third hardest player to individually guard, so there is a lot of incentive to play well in this matchup for the Lakers guard.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope plays lockdown defense on James Harden during the 2015-16 NBA season
The second December game against the Rockets is part of an absolutely brutal four-game stretch for the Lakers. L.A. wraps up a week-long, four-game road trip in Cleveland, before coming home to host Golden State. After that, it's time to hit the road again as the Lakers travel to Houston and then back to The Bay for round three with the champs.
The post-Thanksgiving stretch of 2017 does the Lakers no favors, with a total of six matchups against Western Conference powerhouses Houston and Golden State. After a miserable stretch this time last year, it is crucial for the Lakers to stay afloat in the playoff race as they navigate their way through a daunting December schedule. The #LakeShow faithful will be amped up for a holiday mini-series against the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Wolves come to town on Christmas Day, as they take on the Lakers in a primetime showdown on TNT. Staples Center will be at capacity as Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler, and Karl-Anthony come to Towns. Fast-forwarding to New Year's night, the Lakers return to the state they used to call home as they again clash with the Wolves. For those who don't know, the Lakers called Minneapolis home from 1947-1960 and have 5 championships to show for their time in The Land of 10,000 Lakes.
The matchup in Minneapolis will be part of a back to back stretch for the Lakers, as they catch a red-eye flight out of Houston following the aforementioned New Year's Eve game with the Rockets. This road trip will be an unofficial reunion tour for Corey Brewer; the veteran has played for both the Rockets and Wolves during his NBA career. Lakers Head Coach Luke Walton seems to be favoring rookie Josh Hart more now, at the expense of Brewer. This is a move long overdue, as Brewer is best suited for the role of solid bench veteran who plays sparingly. The Lakers would be wise to give players like Jordan Clarkson and Josh Hart extended minutes instead of playing Corey Brewer more. It is more beneficial to expedite the growing process for the younger players, rather than have below average veterans clog up the rotation just because they're experienced. With Timofey Mosgov now in Brooklyn, and Luol Deng glued to the bench, Brewer may be the next in line to catch consistent DNP's.
||Notable Matchup vs. Center
||at Nuggets (Nikola Jokic)
||at 76ers (Joel Embiid)
||at Hornets (Dwight Howard)
||at Knicks (Kristaps Porzingis)
||vs. Blazers (Jusuf Nurkic)
||vs. Wolves (Karl-Anthony Towns)
||vs. Grizzlies (Marc Gasol)
|New Year's Eve
||vs. Clippers (DeAndre Jordan)
One player I am going to be watching closely during the holidays is starting center Brook Lopez. December brings a plethora of tough individual matchups for the 7-footer, with the Lakers squaring off against several elite centers. Lopez has been inconsistent so far this year, so it will be important for him to elevate his game with the Lakers counting on him to guard so many of these talented big men. Luke Walton may be forced to extend Lopez's minutes due to all the size mismatches the Lakers would likely encounter without him. If Lopez begins to struggle throughout the next month or two, it wouldn't be totally out of the question for the Lakers to entertain trade offers for him. While it doesn't appear likely at this point, a potential silver lining would be second-year center Ivica Zubac receiving more playing time. Whether Zubac cracks the rotation or not, the Lakers will need play quality interior defense if they want to remain in the playoff hunt. When this season is in the books, fans will look back on December as a defining stretch for this young team. A winning month to close out 2017 would be a welcome Christmas present to all of Lakers Nation.