The Lakers play the Mavericks tonight in the first of a 2-game set in Dallas. There are standings implications here that cannot be ignored, with the Lakers 3.5 games ahead of Dallas in the standings there’s a real chance for them to make up ground in the chase to get out of the play-in game. These next two games, then, matter a fair amount for both teams, though the Lakers are clearly working more from a position of strength simply by having a bit more of a cushion than I thought they might when looking at the schedule a few weeks ago.
That position of strength is about to get stronger, too. Anthony Davis is set to make his return from injury in tonight’s game, playing for the first time in, and this is no exaggeration, months. AD left a game vs. the Nuggets on Valentine’s Day with what was then called a calf strain and hasn’t played a minute since. The Lakers have treaded water in that time, but with AD returning amid claims that he feels great and is “100% healthy” the Lakers are about to get a top flight player back in their lineup and someone who, as we saw last season, can tilt the balance of power towards his team when playing at his peak level.
Which brings me back to tonight. There is no expectation AD will be at that peak level anytime soon. In this first game he will be on a minutes restriction of (around) 15 minutes — which could also carry over to Saturday’s contest. Beyond that, it could be a couple of weeks before he’s back in game shape, particularly because the team rarely practices. There’s a certain amount of patience we’re going to need to have with Davis, not looking for high impact play, but instead looking for signs that he’s simply moving well and looking like his timing is getting closer.
For tonight’s game, then, what I’m mostly looking for is a fairly uneventful evening where AD is able to simply get some reps in. Yes, how his pairing with Drummond looks will interest me. As will how quickly any residual chemistry with Dennis manifests in their minutes together. There’s real X’s and O’s stuff to monitor and with the noted import of these games, there’s surely going to be a certain sense of urgency all of us will carry when watching AD’s minutes.
That said, he must walk the line of wanting to get up to speed as soon as he can and not over extending himself pretty carefully. The rest of the team must also continue to push as hard as they were in recent weeks, looking to stay as sharp as they can be and continue their ramp up to the playoffs. There can be no letdown in their effort or attentiveness because one of their big dogs are back. AD will need to meet them where they are, not the opposite.
When diving into the specifics of this matchup, there’s much to dissect and many critical tactical items to stay on top of. That begins with Luka Doncic and trying to limit his brilliant offensive output. Over his last 5 games he’s averaging 30 points, 9 assists, and 7 rebounds a night, though on shooting splits not up to his normal standards (only 30% from 3 and 66% from the foul line). If the Lakers can hold him down from behind the arc and limit his trips to the foul line, they’ll make some positive strides towards winning this game.
The other key will be limiting Porzingis and not allowing him to get a good offensive rhythm going. Porzingis has scored 25 points or more only 10 times this season, but in those games the Mavs are 7-3. I get that the sample is small and there are many other factors that would have gone into those wins besides how well he’s scoring the ball.
That said, his general floor spacing and offensive gravity positively impact the Mavs offense just by being on the floor. If you also allow him to rack up the points, the Mavs are going to be incredibly difficult to beat. Holding him down, particularly when he’s the lone big man on the floor will be a challenge, but it’s one the Lakers need to overcome.
Lastly, the Mavs are a team that both does not commit a lot of turnovers nor force a lot of them. If you’re looking for a way that this game can go wildly in one direction or the other, look here. The Lakers have been much better taking care of the ball of late, but with AD just coming back and some expected rust to be there, they need to be careful to not fall back on bad habits of giving the ball away. If they can’t, they’ll give a very potent Mavs offense even more chances. On the other side, if the Lakers can force some miscues and generate some easy baskets, it would go a long way in helping them compete on the scoreboard while also allowing them to get their defense set after more made baskets.
I’d be lying if I said that, on top of all the “be patient” stuff I wrote above that I wasn’t super interested in the outcome here. I want the Lakers to win this game. For one, the help in the standings would be great. But, on top of everything else, getting AD back is a nice boost, but getting him back and winning his first game in two months — THAT would be a great night. Here’s to playing a strong game.
Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet and TNT.