The top team in the West has a sizable lead for the No. 1 seed, but a tough schedule as well.
As part of its logistics towards restarting the season, the NBA finally released the eight-game schedule for all 22 Orlando bubble teams on Friday. With over a month until the Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans take the court to kick off the restart, now is the time for predictions.
The Los Angeles Lakers are an interesting team to make an inference on because of their sizable lead in the West and their difficult schedule. Seven of their eight games are against playoff teams and the lone non-playoff squad they face is the Sacramento Kings, who still present a tough challenge.
But the Lakers didn’t dominate their way to the top through sheer luck. They’ve proven they can beat any of the top teams in the league. Furthermore, the Lakers only need to win two or three games to secure the No. 1 seed (depending on how the Clippers perform) and are free to coast and earn extra rest for the postseason. Here are my predictions for the Lakers’ final eight regular-season games.
July 30 against the Los Angeles Clippers – Win
This game is a toss-up. Both squads are pretty even in terms of matchups, strengths and weaknesses. Two of the three head-to-head contests have been decided by single digits. But the Lakers have a slight edge in chemistry and identity.
The Christmas Day loss helped the Lakers realize that they’re at their best when overwhelming teams with their size. Trying to evenly match the Clippers in terms of matchups cost them down the stretch. Finding their identity translated to nine consecutive victories and much-needed revenge over the Clippers on Mar. 8. In the 112-103 victory, not only did LeBron James take charge in the fourth quarter, but the Lakers exposed the Clippers’ chemistry issues of injuries and incorporating mid-season acquisitions.
A four-month hiatus will benefit both teams, but the Lakers are older and James has always been a beneficiary of long rest. Expect both squads to come out a little rusty and the game to be relatively close until the Lakers pull away in the fourth quarter.
Aug. 1 against the Toronto Raptors – Loss
The Toronto Raptors returned most of their core from last season’s championship roster. Despite losing Kawhi Leonard, the defending champs are the No. 2 seed in the East with 46 wins. They have the experience, excellent defense, elite shooting and are led by an intelligent head coach.
The Lakers’ primary weakness is small-ball lineups because they don’t have the personnel to compete over a full 48 minutes. Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee are essential to the team’s strengths and detrimental to their weaknesses. If the Lakers want to fix their small-ball issues, they should experiment with a lineup of Anthony Davis, Danny Green, James, Kyle Kuzma and Markieff Morris. But until then, the Raptors will exploit it and shoot their way to victory.
Aug. 3 against the Utah Jazz – Win
The Lakers win this in a landslide with their abundance of scoring, size and talent. They’re better than the Jazz in every facet of the game. The Jazz have chemistry issues to sort out and will struggle to score, especially with the loss of Bojan Bogdanovic. Expect the Lakers to roll to an easy victory.
Aug. 5 against the Oklahoma City Thunder – Win
This will either be a fun, back-and-forth game or a Lakers blowout. Both of these squads feature a lot of size and athleticism. On paper, the Lakers have much more talent and weapons, but the Oklahoma City Thunder have been one of the most competitive teams in the league all year long. Even if the Lakers surge to an early lead, the Thunder can easily make a run to get back into the contest.
That’s why I think the former will occur. The Thunder will keep up with the Lakers for most of the game until James and/or Davis exerts his dominance in the fourth quarter.
Aug. 6 against the Houston Rockets – Loss
The Houston Rockets’ win over the Lakers on February 6th was a sign of things to come. Their small ball lineups worked to perfection and Russell Westbrook had one of his best games of the season (41 points on 17-of-28 shooting, eight boards and five assists). Another takeaway from this game was James Harden having an off night (3-of-10 shooting, 1-of-6 from long range).
The Rockets are the antithesis of a lot of the championship contenders and elite teams in the league. They’re small like to run and gun and hoist plenty of three-pointers. Additionally, they’re difficult to beat when both Harden and Westbrook play well. This will be one of those instances. Both players will be well-rested from the hiatus and too much for the Lakers to handle.
Expect both Davis and James to dominate individually since the Rockets don’t have a go-to defender for them besides Robert Covington, but it won’t be enough for the victory.
Aug. 8 against the Indiana Pacers – Win
The Lakers also win this in a landslide. They were shorthanded in their loss at Indiana on December 17th and James was tasked with carrying the scoring load, resulting in one of his worst games of the season (20 points on 8-of-20 shooting, 0-of-6 from distance). Furthermore, the Lakers still hadn’t fully found their identity yet and this was one of the tougher teams they played in the early portion of their favorable schedule.
Now, they’ll be at full strength and steamroll the Pacers. The Pacers are similar to the Jazz in that they’re a good defensive team that will struggle to score. Their only chance is if Victor Oladipo is back in shape and explodes for 30-plus points.
Aug. 10 against the Denver Nuggets – Loss
This is an interesting matchup because the Denver Nuggets aren’t a small ball team but carry an abundance of shooting. Nikola Jokic’s transformation allows him to play more minutes and make them a more dangerous team as well. The key to this game will be if the Lakers can close out on shooters and run them off the three-point line.
The Nuggets win this in a close one. Both teams will trade blows with their respective strengths (the Lakers being their size and the Nuggets being their shooting), but Jokic will play Howard and McGee off the court and force the Lakers to play small, which they’re not accustomed to yet.
Aug. 13 against the Sacramento Kings – Loss
This prediction is under the expectation the Lakers rest their star players. They’ll have the top spot in the conference secured and allow the young guys to showcase their skills against the younger Sacramento Kings. The Kings will most likely play their regular lineup since they’re competing for the play-in tournament and take this game seriously.