Records: Lakers 47-18 (1st in West), Suns 40-25 (6th in West, 7 games behind Lakers)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 108.8 (11th in NBA), Suns 114.4 (1st in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 102.4 (2nd in NBA), Suns 110.9 (29th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Suns: Steve Nash, Jason Richardson, Grant Hill, Amar’e Stoudemire, Robin Lopez
The Lakers Coming in: Commenter Gr8 Scott had a nice take in comments earlier today and states what I too believe:
What a great time for this quick 3 game roadie. After the (gasp) 3 game losing streak and (gasp) last second shot by Kobe to stave off those pesky Raptors, our team finds itself at a true regular season crossroads. We have just over a month to go in the regular season and with several significant road games/trips left, this is where our Lakers will either bloom or wilt. I think we bloom. Confidence is like the first few specs of snow that band together on the side of a mountain. If the right shakeup occurs or if more snow bands together and they start rolling, watch out – you have an avelanche on your hand. Denver and Dallas are on our heals, but that shouldn’t matter. Winning tonight keeps the winning streak going and we can continue to build on the confidence. Winning on the road starts with not making a lot of mental mistakes (turnovers, poor shots, bad fouls). If we play the way we did in Orlando, we’ll be fine.
The only thing I have to add to that is that there has been a lot of talking and explaining coming out of the Lakers players in the past week. Kobe, Fisher, and Lamar – all leaders of this team – have all come out this week and made some sort of statement about the mindset of this team, where they are, and where they hope to go. However, talking is what you do with the media. It’s how you perform on the court that affects the standings and whether or not you reach your goals at the end of the season. Tonight they have a shot to execute the things they’ve discussed and put out there to the press.
The Suns Coming in: The Suns are doing what Lakers’ fans wish their team was doing – playing very well coming down the home stretch of the season. Phoenix has won eight of their last ten games and are showing a real sense of urgency as they push for a good seeding in the playoffs. They currently sit in 6th place, but have the same record as OKC and are only 2.5 games back of Utah for the 4th seed. If Phoenix can get to 4th and secure home court advantage in the first round, they could prove to be a tough out against any opponent. Essentially, the Suns are showing a lot of fight recently as these last games of the regular season take on more importance. And when I say showing fight, I mean that litterally. In their last game, against the Pacers, tempers flared as Channing Frye and Danny Granger had a bit of a scuffle, which has resulted in Frye being suspended for tonight’s game.
Staying with this theme of tougher play from Phoenix, what’s probably most interesting for fans is how Phoenix has been winning these games. Yes, their top ranked offense remains potent and will consitently be referenced as the foundation for their success. But Phoenix has also been playing better defense lately and rebounding the ball much better. And while he’s only one player, and his minutes per game and overall stats don’t jump out at you, a lot of credit for this improvement should go to Robin Lopez. He’s not as good as his brother, but Robin has found his game at this level and has made a real impact for the Suns since he became a starter back in mid January. Late last month he even had a 30 point 12 rebound game against the Clippers. Another reason for the Suns success has been the development of another young player – Goran Dragic. Two years ago, I thought this kid looked like a European Sun Yue (which is, not good), and now he’s giving the Suns solid minutes as Nash’s back up and contributing to wins. When Nash missed a game two weeks ago against the Thunder, Dragic filled in with a double-double of 16 points and 10 assists in 40 minutes of playing against Russ Westbrook. Not too shabby for a guy that many thought wouldn’t amount to much when he came over from Europe.
Suns Blogs: Valley of the Suns is a great site to find all kinds of good info on the team from Phoenix. Give ‘em a visit and check out their preview for tonight’s game. Update: I can’t believe I forgot the boys over at Bright Side of the Sun. I blame the bad gyro I had as a morning snack.
Keys to game: When you look at Phoenix and their offensive and defensive stats, they look very similar to the Lakers last opponent – the Toronto Raptors. Phoenix is an offensive juggernaut with suspect (though improved) defense and beating them will take discipline on both sides of the ball.
That discipline starts on defense. And that means priority number one is defending Steve Nash and, by default, the high P&R. At this site, a defensive strategy we’ve often talked about when we face dynamic point guards is “the Steve Nash treatment”. And since we actually face Nash tonight, I expect to see this approach taken. What this entails is making Nash a scorer and limiting his opportunities to generate easy baskets for his teammates. I’d prefer to live with a hight point total and low assists for Nash rather than him getting his 15-18 points but with double digit dimes that get his teammates feeling good on offense. The only way to accomplish this is to cut off passing angles by covering up perimeter players that are spaced out along the three point line while also showing consistent help on the screen man when he either rolls to the basket or pops out for an open jumper. If the Lakers can effectively help and recover while also making Nash look for his own shot, it will go a long way in slowing down the NBA’s top ranked offense. This is all easier said than done, but it is possible and the Lakers need to show the defensive focus necessary to execute the plan.
The other key players to slow down on offense are Amar’e and Jason Richardson. Amar’e is a tough cover for any big man as he’s got a versatile game. He’s a hammer when finishing as a roll man in the P&R and the range on his jumper is good all the way out to twenty feet. So, just like with Nash you want to start by taking away his pet moves and make him go to the less effective parts of his game. This means helping early in the paint when he rolls to the cup and make him finish over the top of the extended arms of our seven footers. Pau and Bynum will have to show good teamwork on these plays and really help eachother when Amar’e slips screens and dives hard after setting picks. Also, show Amar’e respect on his jumper, but not too much. Make him beat you with his J and always be cognizant of his want to put the ball on the floor. Bynum and Gasol have typically done well against STAT, but they’ll need to bring it again tonight since Stoudemire has been playing very well of late. As for Richardson, use the plan that’s worked on him since he entered the league – run him off the three point line while showing help in the paint to force him into taking mid range jumpers. Richadson shoots 65% at the rim with EFG of 57% from 3 point range, but only makes 34% of his shots from 16-23 feet. So, close out hard in the half court and mark him in transition when he runs to the three point line. Richardson hasn’t played very well against us in our last two matchups, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve respect.
On offense the Lakers must start inside and continue to pound away with some sort of consistency. Against Toronto, the Lakers went inside early to great success and then went away from that advantage for the entire middle part of the game. Tonight, I’d like to see a more concerted effort to stay with the inside game and see where that gets us. As much as Lopez helps their interior D, he’s still not a match for Bynum’s size. And Amar’e isn’t exactly a defensive minded player. Plus, with Frye out, the Suns don’t have much depth in their front court so getting these guys in foul trouble or wearing them by attacking them over the course of the game will serve the Lakers well in the 4th quarter. Also understand that in order to slow down a running team, you have to dictate pace to them. Phil Jackson understands this better than most coaches as he used this exact game plan to push Phoenix to the limit in the playoffs several seasons ago. So, go inside to Gasol and ‘Drew and make Phoenix defend the paint. Move the ball from strong to weak side and exploit their interior defense.
Another key will be having our players work well off the ball. After the Toronto game, both Phil and Kobe acknowledged that Kobe played much more off the ball in the second half against the Raptors. This moving of Kobe out of facilitator role was a key factor in getting him shots within the offense rather than the isolation and P&R heavy initiations that we’ve seen from Kobe a lot this year. Morer of that tonight will go a long way in making our offensive attack more efficient and more diverse. Also, as mentioned above, pace will be a key factor against this team. The Lakers play at a pretty fast pace (9th in the NBA), but the Suns play at a pace that is a full two possessions faster than the Lakers. They are going to look to push the ball and the Lakers must not succumb to this and start to play Phoenix’s game. Keep the game deliberate and make this team defend deep into the shot clock and we’ll find openings to exploit. Again, discipline is the key to tonight’s contest and if the Lakers have it, they should be able to take this game. If they don’t and we see blown defensive assignments, multiple one-pass-then-shoot offensive possessions, multiple offensive possessions where the ball doesn’t go into the post, etc, etc, this will be a long night and another close one in the closing minutes.
Where you can watch: 6:00pm start in the West on KCAL, also on ESPN Radio 710am.