Lakers at Wizards: What to watch

As Brian mentioned in Thursday’s Rapid Reaction, math is not on the Lakers’ side at the moment. Even if you believe the eventual return of Pau Gasol and especially Steve Nash can help this team round into quality form (and for what it’s worth, I do), what’s troubling is how that may not even matter come April. With the Lakers now five games below .500, they’re looking at a tough uphill climb just to make the playoffs. The West isn’t getting less competitive anytime soon, and frankly, the Lakers are lucky teams like the Mavericks and Timberwolves have negotiated injuries of their own, while the Nuggets haven’t jelled as quickly as expected. These developments have left the door open for the Lakers, and I still believe they’re going to make the playoffs.

However, they can’t screw around. Any and all legitimate opportunities must be cashed in, which makes tonight’s game against the Wizards “must win” stuff. That’s not hyperbole, by the way. After such a wretched start, the Lakers no longer have the luxury of shrugging off an egg laid against a crappy team. And make no mistake, the Wizards aren’t very good at full strength, much less without John Wall, Trevor Ariza, Nene and Wall’s backup A.J. Price.

Thus, I don’t care if Nash, Gasol and Steve Blake are out. I don’t care if it’s the second leg of a back-to-back, and the backs of Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard are likely ailing. I don’t care if Mike D’Antoni still hasn’t discovered a rotation to his liking. Too bad. Figure it out. Bank a win. It’s really that simple, because the Lakers have no wiggle room for anything else.

For more perspective on the Wizards, I sent some questions to Kyle Weidie, who covers the team for the True Hoop network’s Truth About It blog. Below are his responses.

Andy Kamenetzky: The Wizards have won three of their last seven games, and the losses have been reasonably close. Are there any signs of this team (relatively speaking) turning a corner?

Kyle Weidie: If “turning a corner,” means the young players slowly figuring out how not to blow games down the stretch, then yes. And I’m sure that some of the Wiz Kids will improve as the miserable season so far progresses. But they won’t even be capable of turning the corner until John Wall returns. (Editor’s note: Sound familiar, Lakers fans?) When will that happen? Who knows? The original team release in late September said “approximately eight weeks,” but when that ran out, timetables quickly disappeared. Wall has a crucial doctor check-up today that will determine the fate of his 2012-13 season, and there is a slight chance the team could declare that he will miss significantly more time.

AK: How is Bradley Beal looking 19 games into his rookie season?

KW: Not that great overall, with glimpses of his potential far and few between. But remember, he’s only 19. The most disturbing part is his poor accuracy (36.2 percent from the field). Beal is still a very solid, all-around prospect, but his presumed advanced maturity hasn’t exactly translated to him always doing the little things in games. But, after averaging 11.1 points (33.7 percent FGs), 1.8 assists, and 3.0 rebounds over his first 10 NBA games, Beal has upped his play to average 16 points (41.8 percent FGs), 4.4 assists, and 4.4 rebounds in his last five games. Again, only 19.

AK: Are there things the Wizards do better than one would expect from a 3-16 squad?

KW: Certainly. They play better-than-expected defense, in spite of a sputtering offense that often puts protecting the basket behind the 8-ball. The Wizards have a Defensive Rating of 101.1, which ranks 14th best in the NBA, slightly better than the Lakers’ 102.3. These Wizards also at least share the ball better than Wizards of years’ past with 59.4 percent of their field goals being assisted this season (up from 52.3 percent last year). They still have the NBA’s worst offense, but it’s something.

AK: With John Wall and A.J. Price out, who runs the show for the Wiz and how effective does he/they run the show?

KW: Jordan Crawford has been running the show, and he’s certainly better than the Jordan Crawford most people know. His scoring rates and percentages are about the same from last year (14.9 PPG and 40.7 percent FGs -- heat checks are still present, but less often). What’s noticeable is that Crawford’s assists per 40 minutes has gone from 4.3 last year to 5.9 this year, and his rebounds per 40 minutes from 2.8 to 4.0. Meanwhile, Crawford’s turnovers have slightly decreased.

Still not ideal, but not sure you can ask for much more from the third-year player in Wall’s absence.

AK: What odds do you give the Wizards for pulling off the upset? (And yes, it would still be an upset, as bad as the Lakers are playing right now.)

KW: I give decent odds for an upset. The Wizards have been relatively competitive in all except three games -- blowout losses to the Bobcats, Spurs and Knicks. I also think some of Washington’s defenders match-up well against the Lakers. Thus, this game might be all about what L.A.’s defense does to a Wizards offense that has been searching since the season started. To note: the Wizards did beat the Miami Heat in D.C. about 10 days ago. And last March, the Wizards beat the Lakers in Washington, 106-101. Afterward, the Lakers came into town having lost to the Pistons in Detroit on the previous night, and they proceeded to blow a 21-point second half lead to the Wiz. Now, Kobe & Co. come to D.C. after getting embarrassed by the Knicks last night. Kobe says he wishes the Washington Generals were on the schedule, but I’m not so sure he wants the Wizards.