With the Lakers now north of the .500 mark, the early-season chaos has increasingly given way to an atmosphere of normalcy. However, the skeptic would note how, Tuesday's win over Brooklyn the noted exception, each win has come at the expense of nobody terribly impressive. However, the Lakers' early schedule ease is an element they can't control. They can only control the results, and an opponent like Sacramento is a gift horse than can't be looked in the mouth, especially given how the team is still playing catch up from a 1-4 start. It's important the Lakers capitalize on this momentum, because games will soon consistently offer more legitimate challenges.
With that in mind, here are a few items to be mindful of once the ball is jumped.
1) The DeMarcus effect
In the first meeting of these teams, the Lakers controlled what eventually became a 13-point victory from start to finish. However, the Kings were also competing without the services of DeMarcus Cousins, who'd been suspended for a post-game confrontation with Spurs analyst Sean Elliott. (Is it even possible for an infraction to feel more "DeMarcus?") That's not to say Sacto would have won with Cousins available, but he certainly changes the complexion of the game. Easily the best player on the Kings, he's their most reliable source of inside scoring, not to mention the most intimidating interior defender. (As our friend James Ham noted in our first preview, Cousins is still prone to lapses, but his effort and effectiveness have notably picked up this season.)
With Cousins on hand, the lives of Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard, who combined for 41, instantly turn more difficult. That's hardly the same thing as insurmountable, of course. Both represent quite a handful for Cousins as well, and over the many battles between he and Gasol, the Spaniard has typically come out on top. (On a side note, a seemingly mutual disdain between Gasol and Cousins creates a fun battle within the battle. I'll set the over-under for the amount of times they get tangled up, exchange dirty looks, and generally tussle at "10," then bet the over.) The Kings lose more often than not with Cousins against anybody, much less a squad with the Lakers' absurdly talented frontline.
Still, the task at hand for Gasol and Howard is considerably loftier when Cousins, rather than James Johnson, flanks Jason Thompson.
2) How sticky can the Lakers make their hands?
As one would logically deduce, the Kings, at 2-8, don't do a whole lot well. However, they do take care of the ball better than one might expect, given their lack of quality play-makers or even just passers. With a turnover rate seventh-best in the league, Sacto is surprisingly good at not handing away possessions, a must for any team trying to survive while struggling to put up points. And in theory, this relative asset won't be tested against the Lakers, among the least prolific teams in the NBA at inducing turnovers. The Lakers are capable of beating the Kings even if the hosts play a clean game, but by mucking up the works, they pretty much cut off one of the relatively few oxygen sources for their Pacific Division rivals. The more discombobulated the Kings grow, the more separation the Lakers can quickly create. Given how this is only the second back-to-back of the season and the Lakers are already down two key players (Steves Nash and Blake), it would be beneficial to see the starters with ice on their knees as quickly as possible.
Which brings us to the next point.
3) Don't screw around.
Look, I love an ABA throwback game as much as the next guy, which means I was quite entertained by the previous weekend's point-a-palooza games against Phoenix and Houston. I mean, what's more fun than watching scores pile up at a pace closer resembling pinball than basketball? But as the saying goes, it's all fun and games until someone gets hurt. The more minutes pile up unnecessarily, the more players become susceptible to (at worst) injury or (at best) fatigue catching up come April and beyond. Similar to the Rockets and Suns, Sacto represents an early TKO opportunity. Unfortunately, they also spark temptation to coast for three quarters, then gradually clamp down during the final frame. That the Lakers can likely pull it off is beside the point. It's a waste of energy and a potentially dangerous game to play, with very little payoff for the process.
If the Lakers were smart, they'd demonstrate the same focus exercised against Brooklyn, and cash in on an opportunity at hand. Bury these guys by halftime, then spend a huge chunk of the fourth quarter watching guys like Robert Sacre and Earl Clark ball out. That's a scenario we can all be thankful for during this holiday season.