The 1-0 Lakers head to the Valley of the Sun tonight to face a drastically different Phoenix squad than the one that took them to six games in last year’s Western Conference Finals (shout out to Ron Artest…that Game 5 winner is still fresh in my mind). That old stalwart with the long hair and perfectly arched three point shot is still around, but the pieces–new and old–surrounding him after Amar’e Stoudemire’s offseason departure remain somewhat of a mystery at this point. That said, here are a few things to look for in tonight’s road opener:
* The Lakers new-and-improved point guard tandem of Derek Fisher and Steve Blake gets its first test of the young season against an elite point guard (apologies to Aaron Brooks) in the aforementioned Steve Nash. Unlike past seasons, though, when Nash had the luxury of dumping the ball down to Stoudemire, his role has been more of a scoring point guard through the Suns’ first two games. In fact, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the pesty guard’s 26 points in Phoenix’s season opening loss to Portland and 18 points in the Suns’ win against Utah last night—both of which either led or tied for the team lead in scoring—is a rather rare feat for Nash, who only accomplished that once in consecutive games during the 2009-2010 season. As Steve goes, so too go the Suns, which makes stopping him priority number one for the Lakers.
* Though Stoudemire has never been known as a prominent rebounder or defender, he still filled the lane in a way that no current Suns player is capable of emulating on a consistent basis. Robin Lopez proved in last year’s playoffs that he has the potential to become a force down low and the offseason band-aid pick-up of Hakim Warrick will undoubtedly help some, but at the end of the day, the Lakers—Bynum or no Bynum—should be able to fully take advantage of the size disparity between the two teams. Pau pulled down a gritty 11 boards in the home opener against Houston and I’d look for him to meet or exceed that number tonight. Despite his efforts, the Lakers found themselves in an unfamiliar position against the Rockets, who badly outrebounded them 53-44. Against a larger Yao Ming-led Houston team, it makes a little more sense; a similar effort against Phoenix would be inexcusable, though.
* The Lakers have won each of their last five road openers, but these types of early season games against a hungry team like the Suns, whose crowd will no doubt be ready to take some vengeance out on the forum blue and gold, are always dangerous. As we all witnessed in the Conference Finals last season, Phoenix’s stellar outside shooting and athleticism were able to mitigate some of the Lakers’ largest strengths. Moreover, the zone defense employed by Alvin Gentry really caught the Lakers off guard and if it weren’t for Artest’s put-back in Game 5, who knows what direction the series could have turned.
* Overall, the Suns roster reminds me a bit of a Thanksgiving dinner without the stuffing and cranberry sauce. Sure, they have some talented pieces—especially with their surplus of small forward types (Grant Hill, Hedo Turkoglu, Jared Dudley and even Josh Childress, though he’s listed as as a two)—but their roster appears unbalanced and incomplete by today’s NBA standards. Against a team like the Lakers, who can throw any combo of Artest, Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom and Kobe on you, one of Phoenix’s most important advantages is taken away. If you’re Phoenix, where is the stuffing needed to fill the lane against the physical rosters of the league’s elite teams?
* The Lakers will have had three days off by tipoff time, which for most teams might be considered a little counterproductive at this time of the year. The Lakers aren’t in that category, though, with several players—most notably, one Kobe Bryant—still recovering from injuries. With Tuesday night’s emotional ring ceremony and last minute victory behind them, tonight’s game should be a good gauge for where this team’s mental state resides early on in this 2010-11 season. Ideally, it would be great to see the Lakers take a focused, business-like approach to tonight’s game, keeping their feet on the pedal and extending their early season momentum.
WHERE YOU CAN WATCH: ESPN and KCAL at 7:30 p.m. PST or 710 AM ESPN Radio.