Preview & Chat: The Phoenix Suns

Kurt —  November 20, 2008

Records: Lakers 8-1 Suns 8-4
Offensive ratings: Lakers 108.9 Suns 108.7
Defensive ratings: Lakers 94.8 Suns 105.7
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Vladimir Radmanovic, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Suns : Steve Nash, Raja Bell, Matt Barnes, Amare Stoudemire, Shaq Daddy

Note to the mainstream media covering the game tonight: The vast majority of Lakers fans have moved on from the Shaq/Kobe feud. Stop trying to fan the flames, a fire needs fuel and nobody here cares enough anymore to provide it. Please join us in 2008.

Lakers notes: We’ve talked a little in the comments about the lack of explosiveness from Andrew Bynum the last few games, plays that used to be thundering dunks are soft-little lay-ups. Part of the reason appears to be health — after practice yesterday Bynum had his knee wrapped in ice and limped toward the team huddle, according to Mike Breshnahan at the LA Times (and he’s good). Normally I’d say this would be a good night to try to cut Bynum’s minutes so he can rest that knee, but he needs to play minutes matched up on Shaq (Mbenga or Mihm may get a little run too, even if it is just to foul Shaq).

A valid question is, do the Lakers keep Radmanovic in the starting lineup, and if so for how long? I’m not on the “make the change” bandwagon yet, as the team is 8-1 and Radman is not getting key minutes late so the rotations are working well. Plus his defense has been better than expected. But it’s a question worth asking.

The Suns Coming In: It’s early, but the 8-4 Suns are tied for the second best record in the West.

He may not be getting the media headlines, but any discussion of the Suns this season has to start with Amare Stoudemire, who is putting up MVP like numbers at the four. He leads the team with 23 points per game and is doing so with a crazy-good 66.9% True Shooting Percentage. The Suns are +17.5 per 48 minutes when he is on the floor. He’s been big on the glass, getting blocks and steals, just being the force he was pre-injury. And it’s not a huge leap to figure out why — what other four in the league can hang with him athletically. Gasol is a great player, but this is a brutal defensive task for him.

Shaq has come into the season in shape and playing some of his best basketball in years. He is averaging 15 and 8, with a 61% TS% (Shaq, for all the things that would occasionally drive us nuts as Lakers fans, always shot a high percentage). The fact is, he is not the 2000 Shaq, but for a night (or a half) he can be pretty close. And even the 2008 Shaq is a force on the block.

The guy suffering, at least in terms of numbers, is Steve Nash. I’ll let the blog Bright Side of the Sun explain from a recent post:

We haven’t seen Nash distribute the rock on the fastbreak like we are accustomed to seeing. We haven’t seen as many jaw-dropping passes and marveled at his vision as much as we used to. In fact, he’s had only one game this year of 10+ assists.

Let’s start by looking at Nash’s numbers before the Shaq trade (November 2007 – January 2008):

17. 3 points per game, 11.8 assists per game, 3.5 turnovers per game

Then, Nash’s numbers after the trade (February 2008 – April 2008):

15.7 points per game, 10.3 assists per game, 3.6 turnovers per game

Sure, there was a small decline in scoring and 1 less assist averaged per game but there is no significant evidence that Shaq affected those numbers. More than likely, it was due to fatigue and playing the third highest minutes total of his career….

Nash’s numbers to date for the 2008-2009 season thus far:

13.7 points per game, 7.5 assists per game, 3.27 turnovers per game

These stats lead me to conclude that new coach Terry Porter and the new style of play, not Shaquille O’Neal, has had the biggest influence on the decline of Nash’s stats thus far. This isn’t necessarily unexpected, but I didn’t think it would be as noticeable as early in the season.

This also got me thinking of how much I miss the old Nash. Sure, our team is built to make a long run in the playoffs. We have more depth, a better defense, and more scorers. But, selfishly, how much more fun was it to watch Nash create instead of dumping it into the post to Shaq?

By the way, the same site has a great post about the all time NBA tandems.

Keys To The Game: First thing to remember, these are not the run-and-gun Suns, they are actually in the middle of the league in terms of tempo (5 possessions per game behind the Lakers pace so far). They can still get out and run, Nash is still Nash in the open court, but that is not the team MO any more.

The Suns offense starts (particularly early in games) by getting the ball to Shaq on the block. That puts pressure on Bynum, but Shaq is a vet and the Lakers cannot give him one defensive look all game. Trap him sometimes, play him straight man others, bring help when he puts the ball on the floor another time, double him with a small trying to swat at the ball. Variety, the spice of life.

But when the game is tight the Suns halfcourt offense looks pretty familiar — Steve Nash running the pick and roll. With Amare setting the pick it is very hard to defend. The Lakers will need to play some of their best P&R defense of the season (I’m looking at you, Gasol). Also, you have to close out on their three point shooters — Bell, Nash, Diaw can all drain it.

I think this game will be won in the paint — the Suns get 35% of their shots right at the rim but hold other teams to 27% of their shots in close. The Lakers have been getting 39% of their shots in close. Can they do that with Shaq and Amare in the paint? If so, they get the win, but if the Suns dominate the paint and turns the Lakers into a perimeter team, it could be a long night.

Where you can watch:National broadcast on TNT, so expect to miss the first 5 minutes of the game when the first half of the double header runs long. Again. 570 radio locally.