Records: Lakers 17-12 (5th in West), Suns 12-18 (13th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 102.9 (16th in NBA), Suns 101.9 (20th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 100.6 (10th in NBA), Suns 105.5 (23rd in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Suns: Steve Nash, Jared Dudley, Grant Hill, Channing Frye, Marcin Gortat
Injuries: Lakers: Derek Fisher (probable); Suns: none
The Lakers Coming in: While I take my role in looking at the Lakers objectively very seriously, writing about where they are from game to game is becoming more and more difficult. The reasons for this vary, but mostly it’s because this team doesn’t give you a good read from game to game on where they actually are. They’re simply too inconsistent.
I could tell you this team is finding its stride, having won 3 of their last 4 games and beating a decent Hawks team in the type of game that typically gives any team trouble (the first game back from a long road trip). I could point out the “gut it out” win in Boston, the rocking 1st half against the Raptors (and the fortitude to pull out that win even though they stumbled horribly for most of the final three quarters), and say that this team is starting to find its stride.
I could tell you that despite his struggles all yea,r Ron Artest (yeah, I’m calling him that right now) has started to play better on offense, and his defense is picking up as well. I could point out that Mike Brown is finally settling on his lineups, promoting Steve Blake to de facto lead PG (despite Fisher starting) and giving Goudelock steadier minutes, and that Brown has also settled on a big man rotation, with an assertive Pau and a beasting Bynum appearing more often than not over the past several games.
All in all, I could be happier about in-game things – the play to play effort and execution, the reliance on Kobe in crunch time, etc – but I’ve been mostly happy with the overall effort even though I can nitpick faults. Things have been relatively steady of late. And that’s good. I could also point out that I’ve no idea if any of this will last. Such is the way of these Lakers this year and to bring it back full circle, getting a beat on this team is hard.
The Suns Coming in: If you go on twitter during a Suns game and follow any general group of basketball writers or fans, you’re likely to see the hashtag #freestevenash on your screen multiple times. That’s because, for all intents and purposes, fans want better for one of the more enjoyable players of his era than the team he plays for right now. This isn’t to knock Nash’s teammates, really. But, the Suns are 6 games under .500 and simply aren’t a good team anymore. Their statistical profile shows a team in the bottom third of the league in both offensive and defensive rating and a roster that has some solid players, but not enough quality depth or top-end talent to be a contender. There was a time when the Suns were nearly guaranteed to be a playoff team, and when there, to be a tough out. Those days are long gone.
Meanwhile, Nash is an all-star again this season. He’s posting his highest PER since his MVP seasons, has a true shooting percentage of 64.5%, and an assist percentage (an estimate of the field goals assisted while on the floor) of nearly 59% (that last number is mind boggling, by the way). Simply put, Nash has been an offensive monster this season and he’s doing it all at 37 years of age. Despite it all, though, the Suns can’t win. Maybe that’s an indictment of Nash but I don’t really see it that way. What I see is a team that’s desperate for another playmaker but doesn’t have one. A team that needs a ton of pieces to be competitive each night, but hasn’t got the resources to get them. In a way, it’s sad. Then again, I remember that the Suns kicked the Lakers’ tail when they were in a similar situation (with Kobe at his apex), and my heart grows cold. I find myself not feeling any sympathy for this team. I wish nothing but the best for Nash and with this being his walk year, he can choose a new team to play for next year.
Keys to game: In the one game these two teams played this year (a Lakers win), the formula was quite simple: give the ball to Kobe and let him work. Kobe was in the midst of a hot shooting streak and his 48 points against the Suns triggered a four-pack of consecutive 40 point contests. The output was classic Bean and if you read the quotes before the game, you could see it coming (Kobe talked about how he’s not forgotten the playoff losses the Suns put on him during the Smush/Kwame days).
Today, however, the formula will likely need to be different. Not because Kobe isn’t capable of putting up another such game, but because the style in which the Lakers have been playing lately says more balance is in order. Pau and Drew have been coming on of late and are flashing the ability to not only get their own, but to work off each other to make their lives easier. Against the Suns, the Lakers will be best served allowing that to continue by getting Pau the ball at the elbow and the left low block to attack Channing Frye, while getting Drew the ball early in possessions to force the Suns to either double quickly or let Gortat try to play him one on one. Both matchups present an advantage for the Lakers, and both should be exploited early or at least tested out to see if they can be.
Kobe, though, should still play a prominent role in the offense. Lately Kobe’s jumper has been off, but he’s still been key in facilitating the show because the Lakers have been able to get him into more actions that force the defense to make hard choices. Mike Brown is putting Kobe into more P&R actions with Gasol and camping Bynum on the weakside. This action allows Kobe to string out his dribble and either force a hard double team or stretch out the defense to force rotations that are difficult to execute. This has left Pau wide open for mid-range jumpers or has set up Bynum for quick duck ins that result in lobs or easy putbacks if the shot goes up and misses. Tonight, Kobe can do the same thing against a Suns team that will have trouble covering the entire court, making it easier for Kobe to either come off the screens looking for his own shot or to pick out Pau for the easy passes that make the Lakers’ offense hum.
Defensively, the Lakers will see a steady diet of Nash in the P&R and they’ll need to find a way to cover the big man who pops out after he sets the screen. In the last game, Channing Frye shot 7-9 from the field (including 3-5 from three point range) and kept the Suns in the game before Kobe went nova. The Lakers’ secondary rotations will need to be tighter tonight or they’ll cede the same open jumpers that the Suns thrive on to generate efficient offense. As usual, I hope to see the Lakers force Nash into a scoring mode rather than a distributing one because even though he’ll hurt you scoring, his ability to get his mates involved is what makes this team dangerous. Nash will always be able to hurt you by scoring himself; he’s one of the great shooters in the league and can turn it on in an instant. But allowing him to get his mates going AND get himself going is how this team beats you.
Lastly, I’m looking for good bench play tonight. The Lakers have been an elite home team and one of the reasons is that their role players step up at home and provide that needed spark at Staples. If they can continue that trend tonight, the Laker starters could get some rest in the 4th quarter and even though it’s been a slow week for games, some extra time on the bench for Kobe and company is never a bad thing.
Where you can watch: 7:30 start time locally on Fox Sports West and nationally on ESPN. Also listen live at ESPN Radio 710AM.