Records: Lakers 24-11 (3rd in West), Suns 14-18 (11th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.2 (3rd in NBA), Suns 111.1 (4th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.6 (10th in NBA), Suns 113.2 (30th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers:Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Suns: Steve Nash, Vince Carter, Grant Hill, Your Guess is as good as mine, Robin Lopez
Injuries: Lakers: Theo Ratliff (out); Suns: none (they have an excellent training staff!)
The Lakers Coming in: It was only one game – and one against a pretty bad team – but the Lakers are coming off a strong showing at a time when those are few and far between. All of their ills aren’t cured, but yesterday’s performance at least showed that they can play to a high level and that’s something that was questionable (outside of the Hornets game) for several games – and that’s being kind. Now is the time to build on that however. Momentum has been fleeting of late so the Lakers must try to carry that over tonight.
Now, a note on the Artest/Phil Jackson story that seemingly won’t go away. I honestly think this is nothing to bat an eyelash at. No one can convince me that players and coaches don’t have disagreements pretty frequently in this league and no one can convince me that what occurred between Phil and Ron is any different than what happens on other teams in those instances. This is a story because 1). It’s the Lakers and everything is a story when it comes to this team. When Kobe curses too much in an interview it gets press. That’s the level of coverage this team gets and how much the media will look to the Lakers for their next lead. And 2). The Lakers are a struggling team right now and that’s when the buzzards really start to circle. If the Lakerswere playing great ball this likely gets some coverage but would ultimately die down. However with the Lakers playing well below potential, this story feeds into the meme of general discontent and the unraveling of the team. It’s easy to use this as one more reason for the Lakersstruggles, when in fact it’s not (in my opinion). What this really was – to these eyes, at least – was some of the pent up frustration coming out from both sides. None of these guys like losing or playing poorly and when it’s prolonged the way it’s been for the Lakers, tempers are going to be hot and more disagreements are going to occur. As Kobe said, there’s no dysfunction here (at least compared to past Lakers teams) so in the end it’s just time to move on.
The Suns Coming in: This group has lost 5 of 6 and their lone win was against the Pistons (you know that team from last night). Granted, two of those losses came against the Spurs and the Heat, but the other three were the Clippers, 76ers, and Kings. The Sacramento game was the kicker as the Suns’ late game execution went down the tubes and Sacramento went on a 19-2 run to close the game and pull out the win.
Even worse is that the fact that this most recent streak of bad play came after the team tried to shake up the roster through a trade. Gone are Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu and in are Vince Carter, Mikael Pietrus, and Marcin Gortat. These guys were supposed to help shore up the Suns defense while helping to diversify their offense with more post play while not losing much on the perimeter. But so far, nothing has worked as the team just continues to drop games. Now you’ve got Gortat criticizing his new team about their lack of defense and Steve Nash getting so frustrated that he’s saying things about referees that aren’t quite family friendly.
And now there are reports that Nash might be available in a trade. Who knows if that actually happens (I’m thinking fans would storm Robert Sarver’s house if Nash got dealt) but at this point I’m not sure where this team is really going to turn to improve. If Nash sticks around anything is possible with this group because he’s one guy (along withKobe and a few others) that I never can truly count out due to his competitiveness and ability to lift the play of teammates. But if he’s out, who knows. In the end, it’s looking more and more like it may be time to bury the Suns.
Suns Blogs: Valley of the Suns is a great site with good insight on what’s going on in Phoenix. Seriously, go check them out for a ton of great info.
Keys to game: If you scroll back up to the top of this post, you’ll see that I have no idea who the Suns are going to start at power forward. In recent games the man that’s filled that position has been Grant Hill as he’s played as part of a small line up with Vince Carter playing SF and Pietrus playing SG. Tonight, though, it looks like Gentry is going to go witha bigger player to match up with the Bynum/Gasol combo. The only question is which big will it be? Will it be Gortat? Channing Frye? No one really knows but over at Valley of the Suns they’ve got a good post talking up Gortat as the ideal candidate. Either way we’ll know at some point and we’ll update in the comments what we find out.
Whoever starts, though, it doesn’t change the fact that the Lakers need to continue to attack inside. They can do this in a variety of ways and I encourage that diversity. I’d love to see straight post ups for Gasol and Bynum, obviously. If Frye is in the lineup he’s a natural target to attack on the block, but even if Gortat/Lopez start, I’d love to go into Bynum and let him work against guys that have size but not enough to really fight him for position for long stretches. Outside of the Lakers’ bigs posting up, I’d also like to see Kobe continue his attacking ways off the dribble to try and get into the lane and finish in the paint (or at least draw some fouls). This can be accomplished in early offense off drag P&R’s or in slow-down half court sets, but an attacking off the dribble Kobe will really help the Lakers offense.
On the other side of the ball, the Lakersare all too familiar withthe Suns attack and how it can compromise a defense. Expect a heavy dosage of P&R with Nash at the tip of the spear attacking from all angles. He’s a master of reading what the defense is doing and will keep his dribble alive as long as needed before making the play that he thinks will best help his team. So, the Lakerswill need to rotate well behind the P&R to take away both the dive man and the shooters that will space the floor behind the arc. Easier said than done, I know, but this is the challenge that every team faces when they play the Suns.
Obviously the other big key to this game is the controlling the pace and not getting caught up in a helter-skelter game. The Lakers would like to run and can feast in early offense under the right circumstances. But, what they can’t do is get caught up playing the Suns’ game of pushing the ball indiscriminately and just jacking up the first open shot that becomes available. The Lakers aren’t built for that type of game, but the Suns are and they’ll look to speed up the game in order to suck teams into that style of play. So, it’s imperative that the Lakers play under control even as the tempo to the game speeds up and that they pull back on the reins when needed so as to not let the pace of the game get out of control.
Tonight is a night where the Lakers can build up some momentum but it won’t be easy. Despite the Suns recent struggles, they’re an excellent offensive team that is fully capable of knocking down shots (as we know from earlier this year when they went crazy in Staples). So the Lakers will need to bring a disciplined game plan on bothsides of the ball and exploit the advantages they have in the post and with Kobe (who normally does well against Pietrus, Carter, and Hill). If the Lakerscontinue to focus on doing the little things well they’ll walk out of the arena tonight with a two game winning streak. If they don’t it’ll be back to the drawing board again. Here’s hoping for the former.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on KCAL and nationally on ESPN. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710am.