Preview & Chat: The Phoenix Suns

Darius Soriano —  January 10, 2012

Records: Lakers 6-4 (6th in West), Suns 4-4 (8th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 103.2 (14th in NBA), Suns 104.3 (12th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 99.0 (6th in NBA), Suns 100.6 (12th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Matt Barnes, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Suns: Steve Nash, Jared Dudley, Grant Hill, Channing Frye, Marcin Gortat
Injuries: Lakers: Josh McRoberts (out), Derrick Caracter (out); Suns: Michael Redd (out)

The Lakers Coming in: I’ve been waiting for this team to get on a roll and with two straight wins, the momentum is building. It helps when Kobe is playing like it’s a combination of 2009 (all around great play) and 2006 (effective gunning) with Pau and Bynum controlling the paint (and the glass) on defense and taking turns either bullying the block (Bynum) or burying mid-range jumpers (Pau) on alternating possessions. As Kobe said, he’d put the Lakers’ Big 3 up against any other team’s and when all three have it going, the Lakers will be in that ball game.

What helps more, though, is when one or more role players step up and give the Lakers that 4th (or 5th) guy that pours in some points and sparks the offense, giving the big three a reprieve. In the past two contests that’s been Matt Barnes, who scored 31 points and grabbed 16 rebounds (combined) against the Warriors and Grizzlies. That type of production, while not expected nightly, goes a long way in helping the Lakers find some needed balance on offense, while also making the defense pay for devoting so much attention to the Lakers’ main weapons. If Barnes (or Blake or Murphy) can chip in a bit every night, this team is very dangerous. Maybe that’s too much to ask, but it’s certainly what’s needed.

The Suns Coming in: Most of the parts look the same (Nash, Hill, Frye, Dudley, Lopez) but these aren’t the same Suns. They’re playing at a slower pace (down to 20th in the NBA) and defending much better (they’ve shaved 10 points off their defensive efficiency from last season), and it’s led to them winning 3 of their last 4. Whether or not this is an episode of small sample size theatre remains to be seen, but with good size up front (Gortat, Lopez, and Frye) and aggressive wing defenders in Hill and Dudley, this team has a shot to keep it going on that side of the ball.

And with Nash finally back healthy (he’d been bothered by a rib injury) the offense looks like it can get back on track as well. I’m not sure they’ll ever be the breakneck SSOL team again, but Nash is still capable pushing the ball and the shooters still have the green light to fire away. Where the team’s a bit different is in Gortat’s presence and how his ability to score in the paint off P&R’s and some post-ups has given this team a more balanced attack. Marcin leads them in scoring and is shooting 63% from the floor, so his presence alone has changed the dynamic from years past (especially since he’s a much different player than Amar’e).

The Suns are still a team that will have to battle to make the playoffs, but if they continue to offer balanced scoring and stay healthy, crazier things could happen than this team making one more postseason push.

Suns Blogs: Check out Valley of the Suns for great insight into this team.

Keys to game: The same trends that go into every Laker win will be important tonight. Kobe’s jumper will need to fall and he’ll need to work well off the ball against both Hill and Dudley to free himself up to the point that he can attack from his preferred spots. Kobe has a history of lighting up the Suns (the 2010 playoffs come to mind) but in those days he did a lot of work in wing isolations with his jumper falling consistently. And while that’s been a recipe for success in the last two games as well, he’s also done a lot of work in the post and at the elbow and getting him to those spots will be just as key tonight as they were against the Dubs and the Grizz.

As for the Laker bigs, something to watch will be how much Gasol works the post tonight against Frye vs how much he’s providing spacing for Bynum to work the block against Gortat. Bynum’s had a rough go of it the past couple of games but Gortat offers a bit less girth than Kwame and Marc Gasol, so he should be able to get better position in this game. However, the better post option tonight just might be Pau against Frye and it would be nice if Pau got a few more left block touches this evening than he has in recent contests. Maybe Coach Brown will utilize Pau more with the 2nd unit in this game if Bynum shows he’s not quite yet ready to score at the clip he was when he first returned from suspension. Either way, I’d like to see a few more jump hooks from Pau, rather than the silky 16-foot jump shot he’s been knocking down lately.

Defensively, the Lakers know the formula for slowing this team effectively, but as mentioned above, Gortat’s presence changes things up a bit. For the first time since Amar’e left for NY, the Suns have a viable roll man threat in the P&R with Gortat diving hard to the rim. This action has the ability to draw defenders to the rim (especially with the Lakers’ hedge/recover scheme), which then opens up passing angles to shooters spacing the floor.

The Lakers will need to cover this action well and a key rotation will be to Channing Frye, who Gasol will need to sag off of in order to cover the paint while Andrew is up high trying to deny Nash’s driving angle. Other Lakers will need to help cover Frye, whose ability to knock down the three pointer is key to the Sun’s space-based attack. If the Lakers don’t recover to Frye quickly and he knocks down some jumpers, this game could quickly be tilted in Phoenix’s favor, as the Lakers don’t have the outside shooting to match the Suns long jumper for long jumper. So, make the initial rotation and then rotate again to the corner to contest jumpers and make the Suns put the ball on the ground and attack the paint. If the Lakers are doing their job on D, by the time the ball is put on the ground, the bigs will be back in position to contest shots at the rim.

The other key I’ll be looking at is bench play. The Lakers don’t really have a true scorer for the second unit and have instead relied on one (or more) of their big three to provide the scoring punch that’s needed when the reserves come into the game. Tonight, though, Blake or MWP or Murphy will need to hit a few shots to make the starter’s lives easier. This is especially true since the Suns bring some scoring punch off their bench with two players (Hakim Warrick and rookie Markief Morris) scoring around 10 points each and Shannon Brown adding another 8 a game. Add to them Ronnie Price (who always seems to get up to play the Lakers) and the potential for Robin Lopez to get some put backs and some scores on the P&R and their bench could easily have a huge impact tonight.

In the end, this is a home game for the Lakers and their record at Staples is only blemished by the loss to the Bulls. If they can play to their strengths tonight, the Suns shouldn’t add to that total.

Where you can watch: 7:30 start time on Fox Sports West and nationally on NBA TV. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.

Darius Soriano

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