Preview and Chat: The Phoenix Suns

Jeff Skibiski —  November 14, 2010

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Records: Lakers 8-1, Suns 4-4
Offensive ratings: Lakers 116.1 (1st), Suns 111.5 (2nd)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 105.3 (10th), Suns 110.9 (28th)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Suns: Steve Nash, Jason Richardson, Grant Hill, Hedo Turkoglu and Robin Lopez.
Injuries: Lakers: Andrew Bynum (out)

The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers are looking to rebound big after their first loss of the season to the Nuggets on Thursday. With a few days off between games, the Lakers should be well-rested against Phoenix, which is probably a good thing since Phoenix will look to use their smaller lineup to spread the court and turn tonight’s matchup into a running game. It’s no secret that L.A. didn’t play well down the stretch against Denver, but the loss hopefully served as a reminder that talent alone isn’t going to help the Lakers execute down the stretch of close games.

The Lakers hit the road for three games after tonight, beginning with Milwaukee on Tuesday. Looking ahead to the month of December when they’ll play a majority of road games, I expect L.A. to come out with a focused business-like effort tonight.

The Suns Coming in: At 4-4, Phoenix is just about where most insiders expected them to be this season — a borderline playoff team, capable of beating a strong team on a good night, but equally susceptible to losing to the league’s lesser half as well. In their defense, they’ve had an extremely difficult schedule so far, already playing against L.A., San Antonio, Portland, Utah and Atlanta.

The seemingly ageless wonder Steve Nash is doing more than ever for the Suns, absent another marquee superstar a la Amar’e Stoudemire. On the season, the Canadian is averaging 20 points and 10 assists in just 34 minutes per game, with a PER of 24. In fact, in the Suns most recent win against the Grizzlies on Friday night, Nash came within three rebounds of notching his fourth career triple double, scoring a season-high 28 points to go along with 14 assists and seven rebounds. Jason Richardson has also emerged as a more consistent scorer for the Suns this season, averaging 21 points and scoring at least 15 in Phoenix’s first seven games of the season. While Hakim Warrick’s 13 points have helped ease the burden some inside, the Suns are still a team woefully lacking in that department. That and the fact that they give up just about the same amount of points as they score (107) has resulted in a mediocre start to the season.

Suns Blogs: Be sure to check our Valley of the Suns for the latest updates from the desert.

Keys to the game:

The Lakers will want to avoid the track meet they got into the last time these two teams met on Oct. 29 — a 114-106 win for the forum blue and gold. In that game, Grant Hill went off for 21 points on 10-17 shooting and Robin Lopez had one of his better games of the season with 18 points and 14 rebounds — numbers well above his season averages.

The Lakers need to control the battle of the boards against a much smaller Suns squad. I’d especially look for Pau Gasol to take it upon himself to dominate inside tonight after his largely lifeless second half against the Nuggets on Thursday. Lamar Odom always seems to play well against Phoenix and I’m sure the coaching staff wouldn’t mind a repeat of his 18 point, 17 rebound performance when L.A. beat the Suns earlier this season.

I’d also look for Kobe to have a strong rebound effort after shooting just 11-32 from the field against Denver and seemingly choosing to revert to 2006 Kobe in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. The Lakers have an enormous size advantage against the Suns and Bryant would be wise take advantage of that and play more of a facilitator role, at least early on in the game.

The Suns are a deep, but ultimately imbalanced team who rely too much on outside shooting and not enough on defense and rebounding. In seasons past, their bench has caused problems for the Lakers, but thanks to the Killer B’s, L.A. has hardly missed a beat when resting its starters through nine games. Phoenix’s energy has also been an issue for L.A. in past seasons, but Steve Blake, Matt Barnes and Shannon Brown have injected new juice of their own into the Lakers lineup. Perhaps most surprising on that front for Phoenix this season has been the aforementioned Nash’s resurgence. As he goes, so go the Suns, so the impetus must be placed early on stopping Steve from going on one of his signature hot streaks. As is always the case anytime L.A. plays Phoenix, they’ll need to control the flow of the game from the outset. For that reason, I’d look for the Lakers to come out of the gates with a strong first quarter, quickly establishing control of the game and ensuring that it is played on their terms.

Even without Stoudemire, the Suns play L.A. with confidence and have enough pieces leftover from their Western Conference Finals run to give the Lakers a strong challenge before they head out on the road for their first mini-trip of the season.

Where you can watch: Fox Sports West at 6:30 p.m. or listen live on 710 ESPN Radio.

Jeff Skibiski