With the Lakers’ two stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis missing the game with injury, the Celtics will have a decided advantage before even the opening tip.
As of late, the Celtics and Lakers are traveling on diverging roads. The Celtics occupy the top seed in the Eastern Conference and sit five games clear of the competition, most recently both halves of a back-to-back to respond to an embarrassment at the hands of the Los Angeles Clippers. Even with such a concerning loss, the Celtics boast an absurd 22-2 home record, on pace to win over 60 games for the first time since 2009.
The Lakers, on the other, much less-cool hand, are searching for answers everywhere they turn. Each day brings a new rumor about Head Coach Darvin Ham’s job security spurred by cryptic tweets and comments from up and down the roster. The perennially over-discussed Lakers have found that discussion less than enjoyable recently, currently tied with the Utah Jazz for the final Western Conference play-in spot.
The week hasn’t been without its bright spots—with Los Angeles recently winning one of the best games of the year in double overtime over Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors—but rather without any consistency. Their electric win was followed up by two straight lethargic losses to the Houston Rockets and Atlanta Hawks, two less-than-scary opponents that simply out-hustled and out-worked the exhausted Lakers.
Despite the two’s history, the Celtics stand as colossal favorites with both the betting and analytics community. This is mainly due to both James and Davis missing the contest, both ruled out on around 2:30 pm EST.
On the flip side, the Celtics should be marshalling the full complement of their forces tonight, save for Luke Kornet who is listed as questionable with a hamstring injury. The last time the two teams met was on Christmas Day, resulting in a 126-115 Celtics victory despite poor overall shooting numbers and a 40-point performance from Davis.
Probable Celtics Starters
2 Way Players
Luke Kornet (hamstring) questionable
Probable Lakers Starters
LeBron James (ankle) out
Anthony Davis (bilateral achillies) out
Gabe Vincent (knee) out
Cam Reddish (ankle) out
Keys to the Game
Three-point shooting - The story of the season for both the Celtics and Lakers has been their respective abilities at winning the battle of three-point variance. The Celtics generate the highest proportion of their points from beyond the arc in the league, at just above 40 percent.
This stat has been a contentious point in Celtics circles, with some believing the Celtics are two vulnerable to shooting slumps such as the one that torpedoed their chances against the Clippers on Saturday. However, the Celtics’ league-best record at a pretty substantial sample size shows the effectiveness of this tactic, however difficult it may be to stomach.
Additionally, the Lakers represent the ugly reality of the opposite strategy, generating the smallest proportion of their points from three at 28.3 percent. A team that relies solely on threes can be susceptible to problematic variance, but the Lakers—a team that has seemed incapable of converting enough of them—show why launching enough triples is critical.
Pace of play - My grandfather has been a Lakers fan for 60 years, and he told me this last night: “Every single night the other team has some quick young player the Lakers are incapable of keeping up with!”
It’s true that the Lakers struggle with fast-paced teams when they fail to control the flow of the game. Their biggest strengths are Davis’ overwhelming interior force and James’ physicality and incising playmaking, both requiring a slower game script to properly execute.
For three years, the Celtics have been at their best when they are relentlessly running in transition. With the glorious addition of Kristaps Porzingis, their half-court sets are much more effective than in previous years, but this team is still most effective when they are pushing the pace.
The Celtics possess three transition specialists in Derrick White, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown, all liable to convert a fast break single-handedly with hard-nosed finishes or with quick decisions if the Celtics have numbers.
All transition opportunities are built on the same three things: defense, rebounding, and cardio. If the Celtics can force the Lakers into advantageous on-ball turnovers they should be able to get ahead of the defense without much issue. Managing the offensive glass will too be key to their game plan, as the Lakers’ perimeter defensive effort—particularly in James’ case—has been questionable at best. Should the Celtics maintain their own defensive boards, getting behind the defense should be very doable.
And then there’s the cardio. At the end of the day, you have to get out and run. That’s just about effort, and the Celtics should have no trouble getting up for this one.
Injuries - This one is hardly much fun, but with both James and Davis missing tonight's game, keeping up with the Celtics’ talent is going to be a tall order. Without those two, the Lakers are basically be a really good Euroleague team. Save for divine intervention, the Celtics will have no excuse for losing.
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